High drama in Italian parliament as Berlusconi changes mind and backs government

Split in PDL party as 40 parliamentarians refuse to vote to collapse coalition

People of Freedom leader Silvio Berlusconi rubs his eyes after delivering his speech at the Senate in Rome yesterday, in which he acknowledged defeat and said he would support the government. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP

People of Freedom leader Silvio Berlusconi rubs his eyes after delivering his speech at the Senate in Rome yesterday, in which he acknowledged defeat and said he would support the government. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP


As cliffhangers go, the Senate confidence vote won yesterday 235-70 by the Enrico Letta coalition government was in a class of its own. Just as the house was preparing to vote, up stepped centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi to say that he had changed his mind and that, after all, his party would vote in favour of the government.

Even by the often histrionic standards of the Italian parliament, there has rarely been quite such a topsy-turvy day as this, a day when Mr Berlusconi did a reasonable imitation of the Grand Old Duke of York, marching them (PDL senators) up to the top of the hill and then marching them down again.

One could only conclude that Italian political life is indeed a grave business, but not remotely serious. After all, Mr Berlusconi (77) was the man who had provoked this most recent government crisis with his decision last Saturday to withdraw the five People of Freedom (PDL) ministers from the PD- PDL coalition government.

This crisis really began on August 1st last, the day when the supreme court upheld Mr Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud in relation to his Mediaset TV company.

Faced with impending expulsion from parliament as a result of that court sentence, he has waged a two-month campaign in which he has looked for some sort of pardon or amnesty that would guarantee him both his senatorial seat and consequent parliamentary immunity as well as a safe exit strategy.

The problem yesterday for Mr Berlusconi, however, was that, for once, not all his PDL party was on board.

Current climate
In particular, the five PDL ministers in the Letta government made it clear that, in the current climate of economic recession, the last thing Italy needed was a government collapse.

When former minister Carlo Giovanardi broke the ice yesterday, saying that up to 40 PDL parliamentarians would defy the party line, then Mr Berlusconi had a split on his hands.

That split plunged him into uncharacteristic indecision which saw him change his mind at least half a dozen times in the 24 hours before yesterday’s vote, as he struggled to avoid the disintegration of his party.

When he arrived in parliament yesterday, Mr Berlusconi told reporters that he would listen to Mr Letta’s address to the house and then decide on his vote. One hour later, his PDL party held a tempestuous meeting at which it was decided to vote against the government.

Following that, a senior PDL figure, former arts minister Sandro Bondi, announced the party’s No vote in a polemical speech in which he accused the Democratic Party (PD) of failing to support the PDL in its battle against the “overweening” power of the judiciary.

At that point, we seemed headed for a desperately close, uncertain vote.

Then half an hour later came the Kafkaesque moment as Mr Berlusconi stood up to say that, given his continuing belief in a climate of “pacification” between the coalition partners, he had instructed his PDL party to vote in favour of the Letta government.

He might as well have said, “Ah lads, I was only joking”.

Many will be tempted to conclude that this story has a clear winner, Mr Letta, and a clear loser, Mr Berlusconi. Certainly, Mr Letta has emerged much the stronger, given that he called Mr Berlusconi’s bluff by bringing the crisis into parliament.

Furthermore, Mr Berlusconi seems to have definitively lost the ability to rattle the Letta cage by threatening to bring down the government. He can puff and puff but he cannot blow the house down, after all.

In his opening speech yesterday morning, too, the prime minister had offered no possible exit strategy to Mr Berlusconi, saying that “in a democratic state, court sentences have to be respected and enforced”.

Shame on you”
Those remarks prompted angry shouts of “shame on you” from PDL ranks, suggesting that this was not the last throw of the dice for Mr Berlusconi.

For a start, tomorrow, on the very day that a parliamentary committee will consider his possible expulsion from the Senate, Mr Berlusconi is scheduled to hold a rally to protest against the magistrature.

The final chapter in the Berlusconi story may be still to come.