by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Oct. 9 (Xinhua) -- The Enrico Letta-led government in Italy has skillfully dodged some significant obstacles lately, ranging from a confidence vote that could have forced Letta to step down to a prickly vote that took the Senate seat of controversial former Premiere Silvio Berlusconi without incident.
Now comes the hard part, according to experts.
"It would be tempting for Letta and his government to say that now is time to relax because of what they've just been through." Said Antonio Basso, a political analyst, editor, and author. "But making it through recent events just means they will now have to focus on the country's endemic economic and political problems."
The Letta government may be stronger now than at any point since it took control in April: national approval levels for the government as well as consumer confidence are on the rise, the off-again-on-again support from Berlusconi's political party is for the moment seen as reliable as it adapts to life without its leader in parliament, and last week's confidence vote victory gives the government a mandate it lacked up until now.
But Italy's chronic economic problems remain: the economy is contracting (though it is forecast to grow next year), tax revenue is inadequate, debt levels are high, debt ratings agencies have a mostly negative outlook toward the country, and despite relative stability over the last two years investors are still easily spooked when it comes to Italy. The banking sector needs reform in order to make credit more available to small businesses and individuals.
Furthermore, the country's political system is in serious need of reform. For years, political analysts have called for a system that guarantees a parliamentary majority to the party that earns the most votes in national elections, avoiding the kind of political stalemate that left the country without a government for two months this year before Letta cobbled together the unstable coalition he leads today.
"The challenges ahead are greater than the challenges overcome so far," Basso said.
Maria Rossi from Opinioni agreed: "Letta will have to prioritize where he most wishes to spend the political capital he gained," she said.
Berlusconi remains a wild card. He will soon face a ban from politics from a regional court (the Italian Supreme court in August upheld the lower court's conviction of Berlusconi for tax fraud and false accounting, but told the lower court to reconsider the ban on politics that came along with the ruling). Even before that, he is weakened as he faces a year of house arrest and possible legal issues going forward without the immunities he enjoyed as a senator.
But it would still be wrong to count the 77-year-old billionaire out of the game. With an almost limitless supply of cash and the country's largest private television network at his disposal, Berlusconi has the resources to be a force even if he never returns to politics.
Berlusconi's first order of business will be to consolidate support within his political movement, which was split ahead of the Letta confidence vote. If he does that, he will have a voice in government even if he lacks a seat in parliament.