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Lawyer-cum-writer challenges Berlusconi

April 30, 2009

By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti

Published: April 30 2009

Dario Franceschini – a Catholic lawyer and fiction writer unexpectedly thrust into leading Italy’s opposition Democratic party – has a long hill to climb to challenge Silvio Berlusconi’s still popular yet increasingly authoritarian government.

In common with other centre-left parties across Europe, Italy’s Democrats have struggled to find a coherent response to the economic crisis. With Mr Berlusconi’s sway over television through the powers of office and his own media empire, Mr Franceschini has a particular problem in making his voice heard.

Defeat in local elections after a string of provincial corruption scandals led Walter Veltroni to quit abruptly as party leader in February, leaving the Democrats at their lowest point since losing power in national elections a year ago.

Mr Franceschini, his deputy, was seen as a stop-gap leader, rather strait-laced and, as a former old-order Christian Democrat, unlikely to unite a fractious party born in 2007 out of a merger of progressive Catholics and a larger core of former communists.

Yet by exploiting Mr Berlusconi’s vulnerability to accusations of complacency as Italy enters a second year of recession, Mr Franceschini, 50, is trying to turn the tide.

“Berlusconi has a unique attitude. Other governments have explained and tackled the crisis but ours has chosen to hide and deny,” he says in an interview.

“Berlusconi says everyone should save themselves,” he adds. “The tragic error is to pit everyone against everyone. Our party will certainly not make this mistake. Our priority is to protect the weaker and restore a national identity to overcome the crisis.”

Mr Berlusconi’s popularity rating fell to 52 per cent in March from 62 per cent last October, according to an Ipsos poll, but rebounded somewhat after the Abruzzo earthquake of April 6.

Polls show the Democrats heading for a resounding defeat in June’s European and local Italian elections. The loss of two electoral allies who have decided to run alone – the Radicals and Italy of Values – could cost the Democrats dearly and once again expose splits within the opposition that have benefited Mr Berlusconi.

Giorgio Napolitano, head of state and guardian of the constitution, is said by aides to be extremely concerned about the weakness of the opposition while Mr Berlusconi seeks to increase the powers of the executive and diminish the role of parliament.

Growing ranks of unemployed workers, joined by students, see themselves as politically disenfranchised, raising the risk of social unrest.

‘There have been too many quarrels. The problems within the party must now be solved among us’
Dario Franceschini

This is the legacy of Mr Veltroni’s decision to lead the Democrats into last year’s general elections alone, ditching a rocky alliance with parties of the radical left that had destabilised the previous centre-left coalition government.

As Italy shifted to the right, the splintered radical left failed to win a single parliamentary seat. The Democrats put up such a broad list of candidates – notably including the head of the Confindustria business lobby’s youth wing – that it lost its own identity in the eyes of many left-wing voters.

Mr Franceschini nonetheless rejects a return to the old days of multiple alliances. He insists the party will remain all embracing with “laymen and Catholics, moderates and more left-wing currents, unions and entrepreneurial organisations”.

Internal divisions that undermined his predecessor must stop, he says. “There have been too many quarrels. The problems within the party must now be solved among us, behind closed doors.”

Mr Franceschini and the centre-right do share one vision however – Italy as a “normal” European country with a two-party system. In this context he welcomed the recent merger of Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia with the right-wing National Alliance to form the new People of Liberty.

“Italy needs simpler and clearer politics,” he says.

Mr Franceschini, struggling to make an impact on public debate, has made a mark however in challenging Mr Berlusconi’s low-key response to the economic crisis.

The Democrats are proposing an extra 2 per cent tax on incomes over €120,000 ($159,000); welfare benefits for laid-off short-term workers; and reversal of cuts in anti-poverty funding for local councils.

Accusations that the government has reversed measures to combat tax evasion also strike a chord.

Mr Berlusconi’s substantial parliamentary majority could see him through a full term until 2013. But in a sign he perceives his opponent might be stronger than expected, the billionaire premier has resorted to time-honoured smear tactics. Mr Franceschini, he says unconvincingly, is a “Catholic Communist”.

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