A game of smoke and mirrors: this is how Italy's current electoral campaign appears - both to Italians and the wider world. Of course, there is nothing new in this: Italy's political dynamics have always baffled participants and observers alike. That a small centrist party may now get the courts to postpone the election merely adds to the usual confusion.
But one thing that seems certain this time is the likely result. Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the right-wing alliance, will win his third election (he has also lost twice), while the vote for the Senate is expected to produce a draw. In this case, Berlusconi's forces could ally themselves with Pier Ferdinando Casini's centrist Catholic party, or work to form a coalition with their center-left adversary, the Democratic Party, led by Walter Veltroni.
The latter option, once unthinkable, is possible because Berlusconi is not running the type of inflammatory electoral campaign that he has in the past. The sharp tone and fierce partisanship of the past 13 years have been cast aside. Berlusconi seems to be fully aware of the difficulty of governing Italy.
He needs to be. With public debt expected to stand at 102% of GDP in 2009, rising inflation, and growth of just 0.2%, it will be difficult to keep electoral promises. Sagging public infrastructure and an inability to attract foreign capital have made the economic outlook even worse.
In addition, while the state-owned companies Telecom, Autostrade, and Alitalia were subject to an extremely interventionist policy by Romano Prodi's outgoing government, they have little to show for it. Plans to build a high-speed train connecting Italy with northern Europe continue to experience delays. The garbage crisis in Naples remains unresolved putting the international reputation of one of Italy's most famous products, mozzarella, at risk.
With global financial markets in crisis and Europe's economy softening, the challenges for the new Italian government will only become greater. Foreign policy, too, may prove difficult to manage. New activism on the part of France and the United Kingdom, along with Germany's emergence as a central player in EU affairs, risk marginalizing Italy's influence even more.
If Berlusconi returns to office, he will again seek strong cooperation with the United States, the path now being followed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. If he succeeds, something like a six-nation "contact group" (France, the UK, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Italy) will have formed to determine EU relations with the US. This leadership will be needed, because, regardless of who wins the US presidential election, the next American administration is bound to ask for greater EU participation in addressing international conflicts.
But Italy, unlike France, is in no position to substitute the beauty of Carla Bruni, Sarkozy's new wife, for real prestige. To achieve that, the country must promote itself as a motor of serious European reform, without neglecting the debate on the member states' role in the EU's economic choices. Here Italy could join the more nationally minded economic policies now being pursued by France and the UK, to the detriment of EU technocrats in Brussels.
The one thing that seems certain from the upcoming vote is that - barring any last-minute surprises - the billionaire Berlusconi will re-assert his hold over Italian politics. In fact, he has been Italy's true ruler for the past 13 years. Born as a "plastic party" to unite a gamut of political forces following the implosion of the Christian Democrats in 1994, Berlusconi's Forza Italia showed itself to be a very cunningly structured movement, with a strong and stable consensus among its members on core doctrine.
In this election, Berlusconi decided to open the door to Gianfranco Fini's right-wing National Alliance, with which he founded a new group, People of Freedom - the only party allied with Umberto Bossi's Northern League - in an effort to ensure that the government is backed by an even stronger and more cohesive core party. The Catholics of the Union of Christian and Center Democrats and the post-fascist right of Francesco Storace have left the coalition.
A similar choice was made on the left by Veltroni, whose Democratic Party is now allied with Antonio Di Pietro's Italy of Values Party. The Communist Party and the Socialists have left the coalition that Prodi forged to gain his parliamentary majority.
The purpose of this realignment was to create more stable large parties, but further changes are likely. Strong pan-European center-right and center-left political parties are likely to contest the European Parliament elections in the spring of 2009. As Europe presses ahead with reform, the question for Italy is whether smoke and mirrors is all its politics have to offer.
Paolo Messa, a former spokesman of the Union of Christian and Center Democrats and communications advisor for Italy's prime minister, is founder of the magazine Formiche (www.formiche.net).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.