For a few days last month it seemed likely that the Italian centre-left would by now be looking back wistfully on two-and-a-half years in power, amid recriminations over the events that led to the fall of Romano Prodi’s ‘Olive Tree’ coalition government.
Prodi had resigned after his defeat in a parliamentary confidence vote which followed the decision of the hard-line Marxists of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), led by Fausto Bertinotti, not to back the government’s budget.
After that, it appeared probable that the next step would be the formation of a technocratic government to see Italy through the start of the European single currency at the beginning of next year, with a general election in spring or summer.
Instead, Massimo D’Alema, the leader of the centre-left Democrats of the Left (DS), the main partner in Prodi’s Olive Tree coalition, managed to put together a new centre-left coalition with himself at its head. Ten years ago, when the DS was the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and D’Alema one of its apparatchiks, the very prospect of his becoming prime minister would have caused panic in the stock markets and in Washington. But the western establishment welcomed the appointment of the first Italian prime minister from a party that was once communist with a sigh of relief that chaos had been averted. D’Alema’s new coalition shows every sign of being able to survive until 2001.
The reason for the rapid turnaround in the centre-left’s prospects last month is simple. Twenty-one of Rifondazione’s 34 deputies abandoned Bertinotti to his own devices to set up a new parliamentary fraction, under the label Comunisti Italiani (Italian Communists), offering support for a coalition led by D’Alema. That gave the DS leader the easiest of tasks in constructing a new and stable majority.
The defection from Rifondazione is not surprising. Most of Bertinotti’s parliamentary comrades had had enough of his populist posturing – he tried the same gambit last year, but was eventually forced to back down – and were not prepared to accept a vote of party activists in favour of withdrawing support for the government.
What is extraordinary, however, is the remarkable speed with which the Rifondazione renegades found a berth in government with D’Alema and his colleagues. They had until recently accused them of betraying the legacy of the PCI, to which they all at one time belonged.
The result of last month’s events is a government that is slightly to the left of Prodi’s. D’Alema has brought on board various centrists, but he has also given one of the Rifondazione rebels, Oliviero Diliberto, the crucial job of minister of justice. Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the main party of the right in parliament, Forza Italia, is not pleased: he faces corruption charges and was hoping for lenience, which Diliberto is unlikely to give.
Nevertheless, on economic policy – of particular importance in the run-up to monetary union – D’Alema has pledged continuity. He has kept the cautious technocrat Carlo Azeglio Ciampi as treasury minister and has promised to keep to the Prodi government’s strict controls on public spending.
How the new government will relate to the rest of Europe remains to be seen. There is no change in foreign minister, the centrist Lamberto Dini, but the replacement of Prodi by D’Alema will probably make a small difference. Prodi was the European leader closest to Tony Blair; D’Alema is much more interested in developing a closer relationship with French president Lionel Jospin and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And with EMU in the offing, Rome has a better chance of entering into a menage a trois with Paris and Bonn than London has. Watch this space.