|1 February, 2008
||Italy: Time for fresh blood
As Italy braves another leadership crisis, media keenly mention the next
government will be the 62nd in as many years, not noting that only 24
different men have led those governments.
Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (1/02/08)
As Italy's protracted government leadership crisis begins to show the country's age,
the time has never been better to make room for new blood.
The ruling class in Italy has always been slow to relinquish power. The country's last
full-time king, Victor Emanuel III, only stepped down in 1946, at the age of 77, because
his collaboration with the Fascists during World War II made continuing impossible.
But since then, the problem has become endemic, creating a kind of stagnation that has
prevented the development of a well-prepared group of political understudies, has
resulted in laws and regulations more suited for the past and created stalemates like
the current one as old timers jockey to stay in control at all costs.
Media coverage of the current government crisis usually points out that the next Italian
government will be the country's 62nd in as many years. But what is mentioned less
often is that only 24 different men have led those 62 governments. One man - Giulio
Andreotti - led seven governments. Two other men have led four each.
The last time an Italian prime minister was elected for the first time was in 1996, when
Romano Prodi defeated Silvio Berlusconi at the polls. The pool of potential candidates in
Italy is so shallow that the same two men - Prodi and Berlusconi - faced each other 10
years later, with the same result. Prodi managed to hold onto power for a tumultuous
20 months that ended on 24 January when defections from his coalition forced him to
The cast of characters that brought things to the current point does not include a single
figure born after Victor Emanuel III's abdication.
To wit: The last election in Italy took place under the auspices of then-president Carlo
Azeglio Ciampi (born in 1920), who retired afterward. The leading candidate to replace
him was Andreotti (born in 1919), the seven-time prime minister, who could not muster
enough support and who eventually stepped aside. That opened the door to Giorgio
Napolitano (born in 1925), who was approved by the parliament for a term that will last
After the resignation of Prodi (born in 1939), Napolitano asked the president of the
Italian Senate, Franco Marini (born in 1933), to form an interim government that would
reform the electoral process to make government more stable before new elections
would be called.
But so far Marini has been unable to make any progress on that point because of
opposition from three-time prime minister and billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi
(born in 1936), who wants immediate elections.
As they have been for the last dozen years, Prodi and Berlusconi are the two main
protagonists in the drama.
After a sputtering 20 months in power, his resignation probably means the beleaguered
Prodi is more or less finished as a political force, though he could be a natural fit for the
mostly ceremonial presidential position after Napolitano.
But Berlusconi's call for immediate elections is solid proof that the controversial Milan
native does not wish to exit gracefully, convinced that he still has one good fight left in
Marini's battle to push through reform legislation is technically aimed at reshaping the
electoral laws to give ruling coalitions enough of a majority to insulate them from threats
for minor parties in their coalition, like the situation that forced Prodi's resignation. But
on another level it is about whether Italy will continue with business as usual, or
whether change is in the air.
If the reform goes through, it is becoming increasingly likely that the next round will
feature at least a few fresh new faces.
Prodi's resignation sets the stage for Walter Veltroni (born in 1955), the popular and
savvy mayor of Rome, to take the reins of Italy's left.
Berlusconi's desire for one more curtain call muddles the picture on the right, but the
leading candidates to succeed him - if and when he returns to the private sector full
time - are Pier Ferdinando Casini (born in 1955), the former president of the lower
house of parliament, and Gianfranco Fini (born in 1952), Berlusconi's former deputy
prime minister and the head of the second largest opposition party.
If the next elections pit Veltroni and his allies against either Casini or Fini and theirs, it
will represent the first generational change in Italian politics since the so-called "clean
hands" corruption scandal of the early 1990s that sent dozens of political power
brokers to prison or scurrying for cover, setting the stage for Prodi, Berlusconi, and
And though it will not be a miracle cure, it will represent new talent and ideas behind
Italy's age-old efforts to boost its lethargic economy, tackle chronic corruption, battle
organized crime and improve the country's eroding international prestige.
Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).