How Berlusconi could yet pull off the unimaginable

di Roberto D’Alimonte

Articolo pubblicato sul Financial Times il 14 febbraio 2013

Can Silvio Berlusconi do it? A few weeks ago the prospect that  Italy’s  former prime minister  would stage a comeback was laughable.  Now, with less than two weeks to go before polling day, it may be the media magnate  and playboy former premier  who has the last  laugh.  The last  opinion polls published  before an official blackout period point to a closer race than many expected: the gap between Pier Luigi Bersani’s  left-of-centre coalition  and Mr Berlusconi’s  right­ of-centre alliance  has  narrowed  to 5-6 percentage  points. In most western  countries,  such a lead in the last  stretch  of a campaign would be considered  safe.

Not in Italy. To start  with, there  are lingering  doubts  that  the polls are a proper reflection  of public opinion. For many  people, voting for Mr Berlusconi  is a guilty  secret  not to be shared  with a pesky pollster. There  are ways to correct  for this bias but there  is no way to know if they  really  work.

The real uncertainty, however, is Mr Berlusconi  himself. The man is stili  by far the best campaigner around.  He is not a statesman – he is a showman.  The media is his natural habitat  (and the source of much  of his wealth). In spite of everything – the scandals,  judicial indictments, poor performance  in office – Sm voters are stili  willing to vote for him and his illusory promises  of tax  paybacks  and  job creation.  Combined with his allies’ supporters, they could be enough  for a victory. Were this  to happen,  all the credibility  Mario Monti’s technocratic government  has painfully  won for Italy in the past 14 months  would disappear  instantly.

As Europe slowly sorts  out its financial  crisis,  this  would be a very serious  setback.

But the magic and  tricks  of the consummate  performer are  unlikely to work as they  used to. Many are comparing  this  campaign  to that  of 2006, when Romano Prodi wasted a lead of 6 percentage  points and ended up winning  in the lower house with a margin  of 0.1 per cent. Today the picture  is different. Then it was a two-way race. Now there  are four competitors:  running alongside  the two main ones are Mr Monti and Beppe Grillo, an anti-establishment comedian.

It is true  that  Mr Berlusconi  has been able to win back some of his lost supporters  since his return  to the scene after  he was forced to resign in  November 2011 in the midst of a dramatic  financial  crisis. But the easy gains  are over; in a crowded field the extra,  decisive votes are more elusive.

For this  reason  it is likely – though  by no means  certain  – that Mr Bersani and  his allies  will win one vote more than  anybody  else in the lower house, which is all it takes to win a majority  of the seats.

The senate  is a different story. Here  the majoritarian bonus is assigned  region by region, creating  a sort  of US-style electoral  college, where each region has a certain weight. To gain a solid majority,  it is necessary  to win the bonus in most of these  regions and  particularly in the big ones. Lombardy, in the north, is crucial.  It is a combination of Ohio and California.  Like Ohio, it is up for grabs  by either  coalition but  it carries  a weighting  similar  to that  of California. If Mr Bersani  loses here, it is highly  unlikely  he can win an absolute  majority.  This scenario will open the door for Mr Monti’s participation in the next government. The paradox is that  this  will happen only if Mr Berlusconi  wins Lombardy,  since Mr Monti himself cannot.

A Bersani-Monti cabinet  is the most likely outcome. Yet one cannot entirely  discard  the most disturbing possibility of all. Mr Berlusconi’s chance of increasing  his share  of the vote are limited – but Mr Bersani’s chances  of decreasing  his are  not. If polls do not lie, the present  leads should  be safe. But, as I have said, polls may lie to some extent.  What matters  more now, however, is that in recent  weeks the  trend  for Mr Bersani  has been downwards.

A lacklustre campaign,  Mr Berlusconi’s  bravado and  the derivatives  scandal  surrounding Monte dei Paschi  di Siena, the Tuscan  bank,  have all contributed to this  trend.  Mr Grillo has been the main  beneficiary.  His Five Star Movement will be the surprise success of this election  but it will not change  the outcome. If the slide of Mr Bersani’s  coalition  continues, what  was unimaginable  just a few weeks ago could become possible: a victory  by default  for Mr Berlusconi in the lower house.

Even so, Mr Berlusconi will not win in the senate.  Electoral arithmetic makes  this a fact, not a guess. The outcome then would be a house-senate  split. The government needs a confidence vote in both. Where would Mr Berlusconi  find the extra  seats  he would need?

For Italy – and Europe – the answer  to that  question  is no laughing  matter.  The reappearance of Mr Berlusconi  is bad enough.  The prospect of Italy plunging  once more into  chronic instability is worse.

Roberto D’Alimonte (1947) è professore ordinario nella Facoltà di Scienze Politiche della LUISS Guido Carli dove insegna Sistema Politico Italiano. Dal 1974 fino al 2009 ha insegnato presso la Facoltà di Scienze Politiche “Cesare Alfieri” della Università degli Studi di Firenze. Ha insegnato come visiting professor nelle Università di Yale e Stanford. Collabora con il centro della New York University a Firenze. I suoi interessi di ricerca più recenti riguardano i sistemi elettorali, elezioni e comportamento di voto in Italia. A partire dal 1993 ha coordinato con Stefano Bartolini e Alessandro Chiaramonte un gruppo di ricerca su elezioni e trasformazione del sistema partitico italiano. I risultati sono stati pubblicati in una collana di volumi editi da Il Mulino: Maggioritario ma non troppo. Le elezioni del 1994; Maggioritario per caso. Le elezioni del 1996; Maggioritario finalmente? Le elezioni del 2001; Proporzionale ma non solo. Le elezioni del 2006; Proporzionale se vi pare. Le elezioni del 2008. Tra le sue pubblicazioni ci sono articoli apparsi su West European Politics, Party Politics, oltre che sulle principali riviste scientifiche italiane. E’ membro di ITANES (Italian National Election Studies). E’ editorialista de IlSole24Ore. Clicca qui per accedere al profilo su IRIS.