Silvio back? Monti out? Italy is back to doing what it does best

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been flexing his political muscle ahead of elections Photo: REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

Which, if you were wondering, is toppling Governments.

The technocrat administration of Mario Monti is already remarkable for its longevity, having survived 13 months in office. But it now looks far from certain that it will make it to the scheduled end of its term in April. A general election in January or February may be a real possibility.

At the centre of the intrigue is - you guessed it - Silvio Berlusconi, apparently withdrawing the support of his PDL party from the Monti government and talking openly about running again to be Prime Minister.

“I am snowed under by requests from my people to announce that I am taking the field again at the head of the PDL,” he claimed last night. And then in a very obvious flexing of political muscle, most of his senators abstained in a confidence vote over key labour reforms on Thursday.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti Credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Monti still won the vote because Berlusconi’s troops didn’t vote against him. He then went on to win another confidence vote in the lower house as well, but his position is weakened, and as of Thursday evening he is in talks with the country’s president Georgio Napolitano about whether he can soldier on.

But how has it come to this, just as Italy seemed to be weathering the Eurocrisis that so nearly brought it down a year ago?

The key point is that when Berlusconi left office a year ago, he did so voluntarily and not as a result of an election defeat. His party still held an absolute majority in parliament and the new man, Monti, could only rule with their consent. Some important reforms have been driven through in the last 13 months, but the economic situation has been brutal.

Silvio Berlusconi said in a televised address in October that he would not run for Prime Minister again Credit: EBU

It is amid this economic discontent that ‘Il Cavaliero’ clearly sees a chance for a comeback. In a long statement on Wednesday night, he declared:

Today, Italy stands on a cliff edge. The economy is on its last legs, there are a million more unemployed, the debt is rising, purchasing power is plummeting and tax pressure is no longer bearable …

It is no longer possible to go on like this. These painful observations will determine the decisions we will all take together in the next few days.

– silvio berlusconi, former prime minister of italy
Silvio Berlusconi pictured leaving his home in Rome soon after resigning as Prime Minister in November 2011 Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Can he do it? Probably not. It is not at all clear that his party is behind him (let alone the electorate), with some senior figures already choosing to stick with Monti rather than Berlusconi. The outcome of this ‘crisis’ is just as likely to be the final break-up of the PDL as the collapse of the Monti administration.

Added to which, the Italian parliament is in the process of passing a law to prevent anyone convicted of crimes from standing for elected office. If you remember, Berlusconi was convicted just a few short weeks ago of tax fraud.

But then this is Italy, and just because something is banned by law certainly does not mean it cannot happen.

A year of severe economic contraction is testing the political consensus behind the Monti government. Elections are imminent whatever happens, and all parties have begun positioning for them. The run-up to Christmas in Rome could be very interesting indeed.