- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009



Just when Italy’s center-left appeared demoralized beyond repair, it has found a new leader who has managed to put Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the defensive over his restrained response to the recession.

The Democratic Party (PD), which fell from power amid infighting a year ago and was then thrashed by the center-right in national and local elections, has leapt back into the political debate since choosing Dario Franceschini as interim leader on Feb. 21.

“The opposition had disappeared for the past year and is now giving the first signs of life after a flat ECG,” said politics professor Franco Pavoncello, ascribing this to Mr. Franceschini’s “more dynamic, fresher personality.”

With proposals on how to respond to Italy’s recession such as a monthly check for the unemployed and a so-called “one-off,” or one-time, tax on the rich, the Democratic Party has, for the first time since its election defeat, seized the political initiative from the center-right.

Critics call Mr. Franceschini’s proposals “populist” and his ideas on how to finance them “simplistic.” But the debate has forced Mr. Berlusconi to tone down his optimism about the crisis and to confront demands for more action to be taken.

Having wasted little breath on the opposition party since he won a third term last year, 72-year-old center-right leader Mr. Berlusconi has now turned his attention to the 50-year-old former Christian Democrat, calling him a “Catho-communist.”

But Mr. Franceschini has so far succeeded where his predecessor, Walter Veltroni, failed - using criticism of what he portrays as government complacency to unite the moderate left.

Under Mr. Franceschini, “we are no longer doomed to argue all the time,” said former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, referring to infighting that brought down Romano Prodi’s government a year ago.

The left’s resurgence has also coincided with quarrels in government ranks ahead of the formal merger of Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the conservative National Alliance, headed by Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the lower house, later this month.

Another Berlusconi ally, Umberto Bossi of the anti-immigrant Northern League, said Mr. Franceschini’s dole check proposal “might work” almost in the same breath as he rejected a Berlusconi proposal on parliamentary reform.

Mr. Franceschini, like his predecessor Mr. Veltroni a bookish figure with a sideline as a novelist, says he has no ambition of leading the Democratic Party beyond its autumn party congress, but wants “six months to show that Berlusconi and his agenda can be beaten.”

That is a tall order for a party that, in a poll by IPR for La Repubblica daily, fell to 22 percent of support from its 33 percent in last year’s elections. Mr. Berlusconi’s new People of Freedom party had 36 percent and its Northern League partner 9.5 percent.

The Democrats desperately need to recover votes before European parliamentary elections in June and seem to have found fertile ground in attacking Italy’s response to the economic crisis.

“Berlusconi’s aim is to prevent the crisis being felt - in fact, to deny its existence,” Mr. Franceschini said.

Mr. Berlusconi chides the media for calling the crisis “tragic,” even though the economy may shrink 3 percent this year and post two consecutive years of negative growth for the first time since World War II.

Fittingly perhaps for a country with the third-highest debt in the world, Italy has spent less on the crisis than its peers. Business daily Il Sole 24 Ore has estimated that the United States has invested 5 percent of gross domestic product, Japan 2 percent and Germany 3.8 percent, but Italy has spent just 0.2 percent.

The revived Democratic Party has proposed sending monthly dole checks to workers laid off by the crisis, in a country where there is no long-term unemployment benefit. The party would fund this by cracking down on tax evasion, an area where Mr. Prodi scored some successes.

The government, rejecting the proposal, says it would cost 1 percent of Italy’s GDP or 16 billion euros. The Democratic Party says it would cost only 5 billion to 6 billion euros.

The Democrats also propose a one-off tax on people earning more than 120,000 euros a year, likening it to President Obama’s proposals for funding U.S. health care reforms. Critics say the party’s proposal would apply to 0.5 percent of taxpayers and would raise little cash.

“The chances of these measures actually helping the poor seem unlikely,” wrote columnist Massimo Franco in Corriere della Sera newspaper, adding that it was possible that “fears about the crisis could push the opposition and some sectors of the ruling coalition to support any ‘popular’ solution.”

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