Thursday, 18 April 2013

ITALY: Electing new President: A litmus test

Today the Italian Parliament and a number of representatives from the regional governments elect a president. Right now, all the most obvious candidates are pretending they don’t want the job. The early frontrunner, experience teaches, is almost always bruciato, or burned, when the voting starts.

Of course, they may not be pretending. Whoever is elected will inherit the task of resolving one of the most tangled political crises that even Italians can remember. Fifty days have gone by since Italians voted on February 24, but the formation of a government seems as far away as ever. The new president, whoever he or she is, will have to find a candidate to lead the government or else call new elections.

The length of the government crisis can be blamed upon the Five Stars Movement’s (M5S) sectarian purity. The M5S’s parliamentarians are ordinary citizens, mostly young and in thrall to the movement’s guru, the comedian Beppe Grillo. Before the election, the movement’s candidates pledged not to cooperate with any of the traditional parties. But this was a promise made when they thought they would be a minority voice in parliament. It was one that ought never to have been kept once they held the balance of power. The M5S’s leadership has rebuffed all overtures from the leader of the Democrat (PD) party, Pierluigi Bersani, to govern together on the basis of an eight-point program of reforms. By doing so, they have “thrown to the nettles,” to translate an Italian idiom, the best chance to achieve genuine reform in Italy since the early 1990s.Only a handful of M5S parliamentarians have broken ranks and hinted that they would support a Bersani-led government.

The choice is now between the devil and the deep blue sea. The devil is a government of “broad agreement” (larghe intese) between the PD and the opposition coalition (the “People of Liberty”) led by the controversial Silvio Berlusconi. Outgoing president Giorgio Napolitano pushed hard in the last days of his mandate for this solution. First, he commissioned a group of “wise men” (they were all men, which gave rise to much negative comment) to draw up a program of reforms that such a government might implement. Second, he openly evoked the “historic compromise” made in 1976 between the Christian Democrats (DC) and the Communist Party (PCI) as a model for the solution of the present crisis.

By doing so, Napolitano merely showed that advanced age and long experience can lead one to make badly mistaken historical analogies. The two cases are not remotely similar. Between 1976 and 1979, at a tense moment in the Cold War, the PCI, which was led by a man of outstanding personal integrity, Enrico Berlinguer, gave unstinting parliamentary support to a DC government and helped the country overcome the profound social crisis (terrorism, industrial upheaval) that afflicted it. Showing great discipline, the PCI backed measures hurt its own supporters’ interests and advocated greater moral and economic austerity.

The notion that Berlusconi and the motley crew that surrounds him would act with similar responsibility is ridiculous. Berlusconi has already made clear that the People of Liberty will only cooperate with a government that is prepared to slash taxes, especially on first homes, and rein in Italy’s prosecutors, too many of whom insist upon the quaint idea that politicians should obey the law. Furthermore, while the PCI had many defects, it was not populist. The People of Liberty are ultra-populist. Berlusconi’s record shows that he makes big promises that he does not keep. He would be a most untrustworthy partner in government. Nevertheless, many senior figures in the PDwant to make a deal. The lure of ministerial offices and limousines is a powerful one.

If the PD makes an agreement with Berlusconi, it will commit electoral suicide. Such a deal would permanently damage its credibility with the party’s supporters. It is hard to believe, in fact, that it is being contemplated. Since the failure of Bersani’s attempts to woo the M5S, the PD has collapsed into internal strife as the party barons propose various solutions to the impasse and insult their rivals while so doing. The only thing that unites the PD’s leading figures is fear of the ascent of the thirty-eight year old Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and the nearest thing to Tony Blair that Italian politics has so far produced (this is not necessarily a compliment). Renzi, who challenged Bersani for the leadership of the center-left coalition before the February elections, is a modernizer, with no links to the PCI, who is able to communicate with the young and the disaffected. Like Blair, he is also a tad too glib for his own good. Renzi openly disparages the party leadership and is pushing for fresh elections.

The deep blue sea is fresh elections, which can only be called after a new president has been elected. There are two major problems with holding elections in, say, June. First, there is a strong chance that Berlusconi would win them. He is ahead in the polls. The bond markets would surely melt down if the People of Liberty and their allies took power again. Outside of Italy, nobody believes that Berlusconi is capable of being a statesman. Second, if Italy votes with the same electoral law, the current stalemate in the Senate would probably not be broken. How would the bond markets react to such an outcome? But if a temporary government of national unity is formed by the new president, it is quite possible that parliament will pass several months in excruciating negotiations over devising a new electoral law.

The election of the new president is a litmus test of the way in which the crisis will be resolved. If the PD and the People of Liberty converge on a candidate like Massimo D’Alema, a former premier and foreign minister acceptable to Berlusconi, or Giuliano Amato, a twice former premier also in Berlusconi’s good graces, then the likelihood is that a government of “broad agreement” will be attempted. If, however, in the secret of the ballot box, deputies vote for Romano Prodi, the former President of the European Commission and twice premier, it will be a sign that party conflict is about to be renewed. The election of Prodi would almost certainly mean a return to the polls.

Just to complicate matters, the M5S have proposed a muckraking journalist, Milena Gabanelli, or an eminent radical jurist, Stefano Rodotà, as their preferred candidates for the presidency. On April 16, Grillo even hinted that he would rethink his veto against collaborating with the PD if Bersani backed these names. There are plenty of PD parliamentarians who would be tempted to support Rodotà.

There is one candidate, Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner and internationally respected women’s rights campaigner, who is acceptable to some on the center right, to many in the M5S, and to some in the PD. Italian bishops would be horrified by Bonino’s election, but the Church of Pope Francis is less “Italian” than it has ever been. Bonino herself jokes, however, that there is more likely to be a female cardinal in Italy before there is a female president.

In the meantime, while the political games go noisily on, the country is sinking fast. The economy is stagnant, consumption is falling, house purchases are plunging, youth unemployment is reaching Greek levels, tax rates (for those who pay their tax bill; many do not) are at punitive levels, and public services are being cut back. Italy used to export its illiterate rural masses. Now its engineers, doctors, and PhDs are emigrating en masse.

Italy’s politicians are paying the price of two decades in which they did too little to prepare for the rigors of the Euro and of a globalized economy. For the next few days, Italy’s newspapers will be full of insider gossip about the presidential election. Il paese legale (literally, the legal country, i.e. the people who make the laws) will be busy politicking. Il paese reale (the real country) will continue its accelerating downward slide. Italy’s politicians need to get real fast.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit : AFP: Italian President Giorgio Napolitano