Berlusconi's Party May Help Form a Government—Without Berlusconi

Bersani speaks in Catania, Italy Photograph by Alessio Mamo/Redux

Imagine a government in which some of the most powerful leaders lurk in the shadows, and lawmakers agree ahead of time to abstain from voting on key legislation. That may be where Italy is heading.

Pier Luigi Bersani, whose center-left party was the top vote getter in inconclusive national elections last month, is meeting today with representatives of the center-right People of Liberty (PDL) party and its ally, the Northern League, in hopes of cobbling together an ad hoc parliamentary majority. President Giorgio Napolitano has given Bersani until March 28 to show he can muster a majority.

Bersani’s dilemma: how to draw the rightist parties into a new government without including Italy’s dominant rightist political figure, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi? There’s so much bad blood behind the two men—not to mention Berlusconi’s ongoing legal troubles—that the former premier “could never participate in this government,” says Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist who is president of John Cabot University in Rome.

Still, Bersani has no choice but to negotiate with Berlusconi’s forces. Beppe Grillo, whose populist Five Star movement drew enough voters to deny Bersani a majority in both houses of parliament, has refused to take part in a coalition government. Even if Bersani could lure some pro-Grillo deputies into a coalition, such a move would be vetoed by supporters of Premier Mario Monti, whose backing Bersani needs.

That means Bersani will have to broker a deal. For example, he might offer some ministerial positions to center-right politicians. In a sop to Berlusconi, he might agree to slow down his promised effort to pass conflict-of-interest legislation that would bar the former premier from holding office because of his extensive Italian media holdings. In exchange for such concessions, rightist lawmakers might agree to abstain from voting on legislation at odds with their parties’ platforms. Berlusconi, Pavoncello says, would be the “kingmaker in the shade.”

Could that kind of arrangement really work? “Even if it starts, it will not last long,” predicts Nicola Marinelli, a portfolio manager at Glendevon King Asset Management in London. “They’ve been fighting for so long, and the people behind them really hate each other.” The likely outcome: yet another round of elections within the next few months.

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