Italy's sandwich snafu

ROME, Italy — Italy’s biggest party, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “People of Freedoms” (PdL), might be left out of Rome's upcoming regional elections because of one fatal mistake.

It was 11.40 a.m. on Feb. 27, the last day to formally enlist candidates for the regional elections at the end of this month. PdL delegate Alfredo Milioni, a 50-year-old low-ranking politician who has served 15 years under Berlusconi’s party, had been entrusted with a thick red folder. Inside were the names of 41 local candidates for Rome and 121 neighboring towns — a list that would have provided more than 4 million voters with a pro-Berlusconi choice.

Milioni entered the Rome's courthouse only to walk out minutes later with the list still in his hands. By the time he returned to finish his job, Rome’s courthouse had closed for business and Milioni had missed the noon deadline to register the candidates.

The news hit Berlusconi and his party like a bucket of cold water. Their highly financed candidate Renata Polverini was a shoe-in for victory as governor of Latium, the region Rome is a part of. She now was a baffled politician left off the ballot.

The Milioni disaster set the tone for a new kind of political arena. PdL organized press conferences, marches and rallies to protest the rules. Politicians met with lawyers behind closed doors hoping to find a solution, including a suggestion to use government-mandated powers to edit election rules.

Berlusconi went on television to defend his party’s right to compete. In the meantime, the press attacked Milioni, who even earned a Facebook page mocking his misadventure.

But a mystery remains. Why would someone like Milioni postpone his important task at the courthouse 20 minutes from the final deadline?

Milioni told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had stepped out for a quick sandwich. Later, he was quoted saying that he had gone to check on his sick daughter, who was waiting for him in his car. In the end, he said he was reshuffling some documents.

According to the newspaper La Repubblica, Milioni left the courthouse to change some of the names in his list, a last-minute task passed down from high-ranking party members. In the same article, Berlusconi called Milioni and his superiors a bunch of “amateur politicians.” A furious Berlusconi was also reported saying: “I had asked them to improve the list, not boycott it.”

Last week, Berlusconi met with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to ask him to approve a government decree that would change regional election rules. Napolitano compromised by signing an “interpretative decree.” It would give party delegates a 24-hour extension beginning with the passage of the law to turn in their list, if they had entered the courthouse in time but weren’t able to accomplish the task — a perfect fit in Milioni’s case.

But when the Italian President left the final decision to Rome judges, they rejected the decree as “inapplicable.”

With this last accident, the PdL’s voter base has questioned the party’s efficacy in bringing candidates to power. The pro-Berlusconi newspaper Il Giornale blamed it on the incompatibility between two clashing perspectives inside PdL.

The party was created to unify Italy’s two main conservative forces, Berlusconi’s former “Forza Italia” (Go Italy) and Gianfranco Fini’s “Alleanza Nazionale” (National Alliance). Through the partnership, Berlusconi and Fini granted themselves a permanent majority. But it came with a price.

Since its founding in March 2009, the party has confronted multiple shockwaves that have left deep rifts. On one hand, the constant attempts by Milan judges to bring Berlusconi to trial for bribing and fiscal fraud; on the other, the bold attacks on Berlusconi by his most strategic de facto ally — Gianfranco Fini himself, who is now President of the Italian Parliament.

If the PdL isn’t going to compete in Latium this year, Italians will be left wondering whether election rules blocked democracy — or the exact opposite.