Why PDL is “fit” to be in Government

03.08.13 Publication:

Ever since 2001, when we at The Economist wrote on our notorious cover that Silvio Berlusconi was “unfit” to lead Italy, I have been told that there is not really a term in Italian with an equivalent meaning. Maybe not, but even so, since the Court of Cassation’s decision, I keep being asked whether a party led by him is now “unfit” to be part of the Letta government. My answer is that they are fit to stay, paradoxical though it might sound. But not necessarily for very long.

The meanings of “unfit”, whether or not it is translated as “inadatto” are different in each case. There was never any doubt in our minds that Berlusconi was “unfit” to be prime minister, because of his conflict of interest. But then he proved himself also incapable, in another way, through his failure to reform and revive Italy while in Palazzo Chigi. But the PDL’s presence in the Letta government raises different questions about a different sort of fitness.

What, after all, is the purpose of the Letta government? It was conceived as a solution to nearly three months of deadlock after the February elections. It was not conceived as a revolutionary reformer of the country. It was conceived as a provider of immediate stability in an unstable situation, but then as a producer of political reforms.

So the questions, right now, should be of whether the PDL’s presence serves or obstructs the process of political reform that was demanded of this government by President Napolitano when it was formed in April. The confirmation of Berlusconi’s criminal conviction does not change the answer to those questions, unless the PDL now decides to change its own behaviour.

Only if the PDL decides to change, somehow fighting against its leader’s conviction, challenging the judiciary, blocking political reforms, making new demands, would it become clearly “unfit” for purposes required of the current government. If it does, then although an attempt could be made to form a different government, the most likely, and desirable, outcome would be new elections.

The political establishment, which in Italy’s case tends to include the mainstream media, always dislikes the idea of new elections. They would bring new uncertainties, would risk new disruptions, and might again show surprising support for outsiders like Beppe Grillo. Settled power structures are preferred. Those are not good reasons to oppose new elections, however, if the alternative is political paralysis.

The best reason to oppose new elections is that they would have to be held under the old electoral law, with all its familiar flaws, the biggest of which is its potential thanks to the big majority premium of producing a shocking, and perhaps shockingly anti-democratic, outcome. So my vote, as a foreign observer who is certainly not part of the Italian political establishment, would be to continue the Letta government until a new electoral law has been passed.

Is the PDL capable of supporting such a reform, of making the necessary compromises, following the Cassazione decision? No one yet knows. But the only way to find out is to try.

Some members of the Partito Democratico will no doubt disagree, believing that there is an electoral advantage to be gained by running against a party led by a convicted criminal, or perhaps some electoral shame for the PD in being seen to have worked with the PDL in coalition. If the government achieves nothing, then that last worry could be fair. But the idea of seizing electoral advantage is just to make the same old mistake made by his opponents throughout the past 20 years: of underestimating Silvio Berlusconi.

The great reforming American president of the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson, had a good, if rather vulgar, phrase about this sort of situation. “It is better,” he said, “to have them inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in.” For a while, at least