Letta Channels Machiavelli in Struggle to Check Berlusconi

When Silvio Berlusconi surrendered in his failed bid to topple the Italian government, Prime Minister Enrico Letta grinned, knowing others had struck the fatal blow for him.

As the 77-year-old ex-premier told the Senate on Oct. 2 he’d support the ruling coalition in a confidence vote that he himself had forced, Letta’s expression broadened into a smile. “What a great man,” the victor said in a stage whisper to Deputy Premier Angelino Alfano, who had led the mutiny against Berlusconi, and was sitting beside him in the chamber.

That moment in Rome capped Letta’s five-day fight for survival against the billionaire who has dominated the country’s politics for the past 20 years and was now capitulating to a career politician three decades his junior. It marked a triumph of the old-school methods Berlusconi had challenged when he emerged attacking insiders and using his media empire to support his political ambitions.

“Letta is a master tactician,” Francesco Galietti founder of Rome-based research firm Policy Sonar said in an interview. “His teachers were the grand masters of Italy’s corridor politics.”

Letta, 47, had already been in politics as head of the youth section of the European People’s Party since 1991, when Berlusconi launched his first campaign in 1994. While the tycoon publicly berated the governing coalition last week fighting for his political life in the wake of a tax-fraud conviction, Letta quietly countered. He built alliances aimed at draining his opponent’s power and support.

His weapon was Alfano, 42.

Young Leaders

Their relationship dates to the early 1990s when they were rising stars in the Christian Democrats. The party ruled the post-World War II political landscape, even amid an everchaging series of coalitions, until a corruption scandal blew it up.

The two parted ways after Berlusconi’s entry into politics when Alfano joined the media mogul’s newly formed Forza Italia. Some links remained. They crossed paths at meetings of Vedro, the bipartisan think tank founded by Letta in 2005 that gathered Italy’s new generation of political, social, business and opinion leaders at annual meetings that included team-building soccer and ping-pong, political debates, and a final evening of dancing to the beat of ’80s music.

Behind the ball-playing, Letta was weaving alliances with people from all sides of the political spectrum. These links would bolster him last week.

Closing Ranks

As Berlusconi sat in his study surrounded by loyalists reviewing his options, calls poured in from moderates in his party, business leaders and Catholic Church officials appealing for him to support the government, said a Berlusconi adviser who was at the meetings and asked not to be named because the conversations were private. Part of the pressure came from those with personal links to Letta, the person said.

“This is the return of politics after years of theatrics,” Federico Niglia, an international history professor at Rome’s Luiss University, said in an interview. “Italians invented this, the renaissance courts, Machiavelli. It’s pure politics in its highest form and Berlusconi who initially won the game by opposing this style is now succumbing to what is simply superior technical ability.”

Once the dust settles, Italy’s slumping economy and debt levels remain to be confronted. Letta may also have to pass a new election law to reduce the probability of political stalemates like the one that led to his coalition government.

Italy, whose economy has contracted since the second half of 2011, needs stability to maintain the budget and economic targets agreed upon with the EU. The country has Europe’s second-biggest debt after Greece, at about 130 percent of gross domestic product, and its unemployment rate is 12.2 percent.

Declining Yields

Italian 10-year notes yielded a record 7.48 percent in November 2011 at the height of the euro region’s financial crisis, underscoring the lack of confidence in Berlusconi that forced a premature end to his third stint as premier. The debt now yields about 4.3 percent.

The son of a mathematics professor and holder of a PhD in law from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Letta calls himself “post-ideological.” He has defied critics by explaining that there is no shame in compromise.

“Politics is made of possible options,” Letta said in an interview on Italian state television the eve of the confidence vote, when asked why he had formed an alliance with Berlusconi, his party’s traditional archenemy.

Relevance Sought

“We are in a parliamentary democracy, in which, if there is no majority you have to govern and give people answers,” he said. He dismissed those who don’t negotiate as people who relegate themselves into “a role of political irrelevance.”

His uncle, Gianni Letta, remains a Berlusconi adviser known for his discretion, which earned him the right to liaise with the highly complex world of the Vatican Curia.

Seven-time former Premier Giulio Andreotti was among the “iconic figures” of his childhood, Letta said during a 2005 book presentation, defending the political style of the Christian Democratic Andreotti, who embodied the byzantine world of Italian post-war politics until the corruption scandals of the 1990s decimated his party.

Letta also named Jacques Delors, Nelson Mandela and Helmut Kohl among his heroes in an interview with La Stampa, all bridge builders between countries, races, and ideologies.

An adamant supporter of the euro and the European Union, Letta speaks English and is fluent in French having grown up in Strasbourg. His attention to European affairs was evidenced by his decision to travel to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician, 24 hours after his inauguration April 28.

Breaking Deadlock

Letta was a compromise choice as premier after February’s inconclusive elections. Pier Luigi Bersani, the Democratic Party candidate, failed to win a majority in the Senate, requiring a coalition with Berlusconi. The price included the installation of Berlusconi’s ally Alfano as deputy premier.

The uneasy truce was rattled within three months after Berlusconi’s tax-fraud conviction and the fight between his loyalists and the Democratic Party over whether that required his expulsion from the Senate.

The drama began to climax Sept. 28 when Berlusconi ordered Alfano and his allies to quit Letta’s Cabinet. Three days later, Alfano turned on his political patron. Letta had persuaded him not to bring down the government, preserving his coalition and leaving Alfano with the dominant influence in the People of Liberty party that Berlusconi had founded.

He exercised that position today, telling Letta to keep out of his party’s internal affairs, according to Italian newswire Ansa. Letta yesterday declared Berlusconi’s political career over in a television interview on Italian all-news channel SkyTG24.

Letta and Alfano represent a generation of “old-young men,” journalist Filippo Ceccarelli wrote in the newspaper La Repubblica. They come from “a world of courteous cynicism and narcotic shamelessness.”