Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Berlusca's Back

Lest anyone think that the fight for the (so-called) "Catholic vote" ceases at the water's edge, think again.

With a much-more-compressed calendar than here in the States, it's election season in Italy....

Yes, again.

Following last month's collapse of the center-left government of Romano Prodi, parliamentary elections are on for mid-April, with the twice-married, twice ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi helming a resurgent Italian Right -- and taking on Rome's departing Cardinal-Vicar, the influential Camillo Ruini, in the process:
[Berlusconi] is launching a "shock" electoral campaign that yesterday involved reaching out for the Roman Catholic vote over the issue of abortion, in response to a rebuff by powerful church figures.

The billionaire opposition leader said he backed an initiative for a United Nations "moratorium on abortion" similar to the death penalty moratorium passed in a non-binding resolution by the UN general assembly.

By entering such highly charged territory - polls show Italians strongly in favour of keeping the 1978 law that legalised abortion - aides said Mr Berlusconi was not just seeking to re-establish his Catholic credentials following an implicit attack by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of Rome.

Mr Berlusconi's controversial statement, aides said, was part of an overall "shock" campaign strategy that would soon also include strong statements on crime and immigration....

Mr Berlusconi's new centre-right Party of Freedom has negotiated important electoral pacts with two long-standing but not always co-operative allies - Gianfranco Fini, leader of the conservative National Alliance, and the separatist Northern League's Umberto Bossi.

By agreeing later this year or next to merge his National Alliance into the Party of Freedom, Mr Fini is lining himself up as the natural successor to the 71-year-old Mr Berlusconi should he win the elections, as opinion polls indicate, and leave the post of prime minister in mid-term.

But Mr Berlusconi has failed so far to reach a deal with another important ally, Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of a small centrist Catholic party and rival to Mr Fini over future leadership of the centre-right.

Mr Casini's refusal to relinquish his party's symbols and enter the polls within the Party of Freedom was given unexpected public support from Avvenire, a Catholic newspaper whose director, Dino Boffo, is close to Cardinal Ruini.

[The official house organ of the Italian bishops] Avvenire yesterday reiterated its fear that, as both the left and right of Italian politics sought a return to a bipolar system, Catholic voices would be "condemned . . . to semi-irrelevancy, assimilated and silent".

Supporters of Romano Prodi, the prime minister whose centre-left government collapsed last month, say he was seriously undermined by a growing intrusion into Italian politics by certain church leaders over social and ethical issues.
In the 2006 elections, Berlusconi's most memorable platform plank was a "chastity pledge" for the duration of the campaign. He narrowly lost to Prodi's bloc.

To date, no encore has been announced. He's courting Catholics, after all... not fundamentalists.

PHOTO: AP/Andrew Medichini