Bertinotti’s war of words revives memories of Prodi’s downfall in 1998

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Bertinotti’s war of words revives memories of Prodi’s downfall in 1998

06 Dicembre 2007

An unusually bitter row has erupted between
Fausto Bertinotti, president of the Chamber of Deputies and prime minister
Romano Prodi. Bertinotti has called Prodi’s government a failure and declared
that the center-left has been unable to reach its aims. The crisis that his
remarks have caused revive memories of 1998 when he brought down Prodi as prime
minister for the first time.

In autumn 1998, Bertinotti was leader of
Italy’s biggest communist party (PRC). In a critical budget vote that Prodi had
linked to a vote of confidence, Bertinotti withdrew his support leading to
Prodi’s downfall as prime minister. The situation may easily repeat itself
since the center-left’s majority today is even smaller than it was nine years
ago. It is also clear that tensions between the PRC and Prodi’s executive
continuously plague the functioning of the government. The heterogeneity of the
coalition is one of its central weaknesses and when trying to appease Lamberto
Dini’s centrist Liberal Democrats, Prodi always risks alienating the forces of
the far-left. In the last couple of weeks this has again become apparent as
Dini threatened to vote against an important piece of welfare legislation if
the communists got their wish of making amendments to the original draft. Prodi
sided with Dini and the far-left expressed its anger by demanding a major
overhaul of social and economic policy in January.

While these internal disputes have almost
become routine, the fact which has shocked government insiders is that
Bertinotti has spoken out against Prodi in his capacity as president of the
Chamber of Deputies. This move was unexpected since his institutional role
normally binds him to stay away from partisan controversies. In an interview
with La Repubblica newspaper Bertinotti accused Prodi of not being able to
connect with society as a whole and with movements on the political left in
particular. He explicitly said that this center-left coalition is a failure and
that the current government has caused tensions and alienation among the forces
that support it. Bertinotti hinted that the deterioration in his relationship
with the Prodi executive occurred during the recent debates on the budget and
welfare legislation: “In the last two months everything has changed. A
political era has come to an end”.

In the days following the publication of
the interview, the government has hardly been able to hide its irritation.
Enrico Micheli, under-secretary at Prodi’s office, lashed out at Bertinotti in
a manner that further inflamed the controversy. He noted sarcastically that he
did not know of any precedent in any Western country in which the speaker of a
branch of parliament has entered a current political conflict and attacked the
prime minister. According to Micheli, this reflects a pervasive lack of sense
of responsibility toward the state. Micheli’s comment in turn enraged the
leadership of the PRC. Gennaro Migliore, head of the party’s group in the
Chamber of Deputies,   accused Prodi’s
under-secretary of “barbarizing” the political debate and Franco Giordano, PRC
chief, announced that “by now a political dialectic has been opened in which
the prime minister can no longer guarantee for the coalition”.

It had been known from the beginning that
this government would have an extremely difficult (if not impossible) job in
overcoming internal dissent. For a time it seemed that while not bridging their
differences in substance, Prodi and the far-left had found a modus vivendi of rhetorical restraint
and non-aggression. The significance of Bertinotti’s outburst is that the
internal cohesion of the government has deteriorated to such an extent that it
can no longer prevent mutual distrust from spilling over into enormous public
rows.