Berlusconi Rattles the Cage Again

It's unclear what he stands to gain from government collapse

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The news broke as Italians were sitting down for their Saturday dinner: Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-plagued media mogul, had ordered the ministers from his party to withdraw from Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s government, effectively causing it collapse after five months of shaky coalition rule.

The news didn’t come as a complete surprise. The government — born from compromise after a hung parliament exhausted all other possibilities — has been unstable and ineffective since its formation. It came under further stress in August, when Italy’s supreme court confirmed a lower court’s decision to slap Berlusconi with a one-year sentence for tax fraud and a ban on holding political office for a yet-to-be determined period.

Since then, the fate of the government has hung in the balance as Berlusconi struggled to find a way to escape his fate. For nearly two months, he has flipped back and forth between statements of support for the government and threats to bring it down. “Berlusconi doesn’t want to accept defeat,” said Giovanni Orsina, an expert in European politics at Rome’s LUISS University and the author of The Republic after Berlusconi. “He’s still looking for some way to keep the game open and try to overturn the final result.”

On Oct. 4, a senate committee was expected to vote to strip him of his senate seat. On Thursday, nearly all of Berlusconi’s senators threatened to resign if it did so. In response, Letta flew back from a visit to New York and called for a vote of confidence early next week. The following day, Berlusconi pulled the plug. Nominally, the motive was over Letta’s failure to stop a rise in Italy’s value added tax. “The decision taken yesterday by Prime Minister Enrico Letta to freeze government activities… is a serious violation of the pacts on which this government was formed,” Berlusconi said in a statement.

What’s less clear is what Berlusconi, who turns 77 on Sunday, stands to gain from the maneuver, which only increases the likelihood that the senate will eject him. His denunciation of taxes seems to herald the beginning of a campaign, but there’s no guarantee there will be anything to campaign for. “I really can’t see any strategy, only frustration and anger,” Orsina said. “He left a rough path for one that is even rougher.”

Elections seem to be unlikely. In the upcoming days, Letta, who comes from the centrist wing of his center-left party, will seek to form a new coalition from the existing parliament, trying perhaps to peel away dissidents from Berlusconi’s party. An alternative is a coalition between the left wing of Letta’s party and senators that have left Beppe Grillo’s radical Five Star Movement. Either result could prove worse for Berlusconi than if he had kept his place at the table.

“Today is the first day of the last act of an Italian tragedy,” said Guglielmo Vaccaro, a center-left parliamentarian who is close to Letta. “But it’s more comic than sad.”