da Economist - The Italian prime minister is rebuffed by voters, again
Another setback for Silvio
The Italian prime minister is rebuffed by voters, againJun 16th 2011 | ROME | from the print edition
HAS Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, become wholly out of touch with his country? Or does he just not give a damn? He is on trial, charged with sex offences. His poll ratings are falling relentlessly, largely because of Italy’s economic stagnation. On June 12th-13th he suffered his third and most significant political defeat in less than a month, when he lost a clutch of referendums. And what was he doing when the results emerged? Shopping for women’s jewellery. The four referendums, called for by the opposition, were about his government’s legislative centrepieces: a law to revive nuclear energy; a pair to usher in water privatisation; and a fourth giving Mr Berlusconi and his ministers a way to slow trials in which they are defendants. For the results to be binding, the turnout had to be over 50%, something not achieved since 1995 in a legislative referendum. But, after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the chance of a quorum in the nuclear vote rose. Mr Berlusconi opted not to fight on the issues, but instead to appeal to the courts to stop the referendums happening. When that did not work, he tried to keep down the turnout instead. The effect was to create a new trial of strength with his opponents, rather like the local elections in May when his party lost control of Milan, the prime minister’s home town. Mr Berlusconi said he would boycott the referendums. Italian television, largely under his sway, mostly ignored them until shortly before polling. Yet it was the modestly funded opposition that won the day. Related topicsIn the nuclear ballot, the turnout was 55%. The majority against Mr Berlusconi’s proposed “nuclear renaissance” was an overwhelming 94%. Matching results in the other three referendums suggested that they had turned into a big vote of no confidence in the prime minister. The centre-left was exultant. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (PD), said Mr Berlusconi should “step down and return his mandate to the president”. As government supporters quickly noted, that was not a call for an early election. The PD has good reasons to avoid one. It is wary of going to the country under an electoral law introduced by Mr Berlusconi’s previous government. And Mr Bersani and his party have done less than other opposition groups to bring about the sudden anti-Berlusconi mood that has gripped Italians. The referendums were the brainchild of Antonio Di Pietro’s Italy of Principles party. Milan was lost to a candidate sponsored by the radical left. All the signs now are that Mr Berlusconi’s long ascendancy over Italian politics is drawing to an end. But what remains unclear is how his opponents (or his allies) can winkle him from office. His coalition partners in the Northern League are alarmed. But theirs is a right-wing (arguably far-right) movement that would find it difficult to ally with any opposition party. Were the League to bring down the government, it might condemn itself to irrelevance for years to come. With the prime minister widely seen as the cause of the government’s unpopularity, the League’s leader, Umberto Bossi, could make his support conditional on Mr Berlusconi giving up the premiership. Until recently, the finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, would have been the obvious replacement: he is close to the League and internationally respected for keeping the budget deficit down during the euro crisis. But he and Mr Bossi are now on opposite sides of another confrontation. The Northern League wants tax cuts to restore the government’s popularity. Mr Tremonti is chary. On June 14th, however, he appeared to cede ground when he said that “the lowest possible rates” of income tax could help curb tax evasion. The markets will be watching closely to see if this remark heralds a return to fiscal indiscipline in the country with the biggest public debt in the euro zone.