The Prodi government survived a crucial budget vote on Thursday night. However, it has become clear that by now it no longer has a solid center-left majority in the Senate. While former prime minister Lamberto Dini voted for the budget, he told the rest of the coalition that he does not feel bound to support it in the future.
The budget vote passed by a majority of 161 to 157 votes. Currently, the center-left has a majority of only seat in the Senate and of the non-elected life-time members of the upper house four voted in favour of the budget, one abstained and one voted against it. This means that on this occasion the non-elected members were not decisive in passing the budget as the whole of the center-left voted in favor. However, this constellation is likely to change in the near future.
Judging by Dini’s Senate speech and comments made to journalists, he believes that the government is unable to address the problems of the country and that Prodi should be replaced as prime minister. He noted that on the grounds of “ethical principles” he would have objected to the budget but that his sense of political responsibility made him vote for it. He is also of the opinion that “it is necessary to overcome the current political framework” and “that the government will not weather the crisis”. Dini even said that the country is in a process of breakdown and that it needs “another executive and another majority”. It has become apparent that Dini is not the only center-left senator to regard the government as a spent force. He has announced the formation of a new political group, the Liberal Democrats which, according to him, will be comprised of five members. Two of his allies, Willer Bordon and Roberto Manzione, have confirmed that they feel free to vote as they please on any upcoming proposal regardless of the consequences for the center-left majority. Bordon added that there no longer exists a center-left majority in the Senate.
In a television interview a day after the Senate vote, Dini explained in more detail what developments he expects in the near future. He stressed again that he does not see a future for the Prodi executive and that it would not be enough to merely reshuffle some cabinet posts to revive the force of the government. He also excluded to enter the government if he were offered a seat at the cabinet table. Instead, he promoted the idea that the country needs an “institutional”, i.e. non-partisan, government to work on the central challenges facing Italy at the moment. Dini himself briefly headed an “institutional” government in 1995-1996 but he does not claim the premiership this time and suggested Franco Marini, the current president of the Senate as a possible head of government. Such an outcome does not look likely at the moment since support for a non-partisan government is weak in both houses of parliament.
Nonetheless, Dini’s comments have shaken the political landscape. For Romano Prodi, the budget vote was a bitter-sweet victory. His coalition marches on for now but has definitely lost its unity in the Senate. His comments on Dini’s manoeuvre display a profound concern: “this outlook increases the complexity of the political setting, it aggravates the problems of the center-left and risks forcing the Communist Refoundation Party to leave the government”. Without Dini and his Liberal Democrats, Prodi would be left without a majority of elected senators and it would be highly controversial and embarrassing to constantly rely on the life-time senators to keep the government alive. At the same time, the prospect of a breakup of the center-left has given the opposition the opportunity to draw some unexpected benefit from the senate budget vote. Silvio Berlusconi has spoken with delight of an “implosion” of the majority and sees the possibility of a definite breakdown of the Prodi coalition still this year.