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Italy: another false dawn

Geoff Andrews
22 October 2007

These should be exciting times in Italian politics. A new party was launched on 14 October 2007 with a charismatic leader elected with a clear majority in primary elections in which more than 3 million Italian citizens participated. It was a "great celebration of democracy", according to the candidates, one they feel will provide the impetus for much-needed democratic and constitutional renewal.

Walter Veltroni, the first leader of Italy's new Democratic Party - primarily a merger of people from the Democratici di Sinistra (Left Democracts) and the Margherita (Daisy) party - is fond of quoting John F Kennedy and has long aspired to apply Kennedy's modernising reformist dream to Italy's decaying body-politic. He has gone to some lengths to present himself as the answer to Italy's relentless political crises, initially through a series of lectures on the importance of "political ethics" and latterly by embedding his candidacy for the leadership in a clear reform agenda. His book, La Nuova Stagione, published during the leadership campaign, calls for a "new season" or new beginning for Italy (see "Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons", 3 July 2007).

Veltroni, who received 75% of the vote for the leadership of the new party, even looks and sounds like a statesman in a country that was run for six years by a salesman; and indeed he has usurped Silvio Berlusconi's own personal popularity ratings, a feat beyond Italy's current prime minister, Romano Prodi. His popularity is partly based on his record since 2001 as mayor of Rome, where he has introduced an impressive range of cultural initiatives, providing Italy with a much needed cosmopolitan feel. Veltroni's outward-looking trajectory has also appealed in a country with a weak national identity which is always comparing itself unfavourably with its international allies.

A systemic discredit

However, there is little chance of a new beginning. Instead what we have seen over the last few weeks has been a public spectacle of a moribund and degenerate political class that is incapable of reform and is now close to becoming the laughing-stock of western Europe. Almost every week in Italy some story of a politician's compromised interests comes to light, and their unconvincing attempts to extricate themselves have provided rich material for Italy's comedians, whose interventions are beginning to mobilise some significant dissent.

To be fair, the government - wracked by divisions and constrained by a tiny majority in the senate - at times has performed reasonably well; particularly in the area of economic and social reform, where Prodi has proved to be a tough negotiator and resilient leader at times of crisis. This has not prevented an autumn of strikes, nor a mobilisation of parties of the right (and counter-rallies of the left) in anticipation of early elections; on the day of Veltroni's victory, the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) held a 500,000-strong rally in Rome demanding tougher security and lower taxes. Italy, riven down the middle by the April 2006 election, shows no hint of unity. No wonder Italians look with envy at a Germany where, after a similarly tight election result in 2004, a grand centrist coalition has overseen something of an economic recovery while preserving political stability.

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007). His The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure will be published by Pluto Press in 2008. Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

Every Italian knows that political reform is the precondition of much-needed modernisation of the economy and public life. It could be a long wait: Italy's politicians rarely retire and, under the party-list electoral system, are still effectively appointed by their respective party's bureaucracy. It is astonishing that fifteen years after the tangentopoli ("bribesville") crisis of 1992, Italy's "untouchable" political elite remains (as Sergio Rizzo & Gian Antonio Stella's best-selling La Casta has recently argued) uniquely protected by patronage. Much of this has to do with the failure of the centre-left governments of 1996-2001 to carry through the reforms initiated by the mani pulite ("clean hands") investigators and by their refusal to introduce "conflict of interests" legislation that would have prevented Silvio Berlusconi's return to power. Walter Veltroni was deputy prime minister during that period.

After the honeymoon

The discontent with Italy's politicians has taken an unusual and significant twist in recent weeks in the form of comic Beppe Grillo's popular blog. Grillo has pioneered the blog as a vehicle of creative political intervention in Italy's sterile political atmosphere: by leading a campaign for a clean parliament that bars from public office those convicted of criminal offences (a significant number of Italian politicians), by calling leading members of the government (notably justice minister Clemente Mastella) to account for their actions, and more generally by promoting the internet as a space of free exchange and debate (which, he argues, is no longer possible through the party-controlled state broadcaster RAI).

Paul Ginsborg and others have noted a paradox of Italian politics: that the inertia of its political institutions has existed alongside a historically vibrant civil society. Grillo is in the latter tradition, and through his blog has managed to mobilise significant numbers of Italian citizens into the piazza on 8 September 2007, "V-day" - a public, two-fingered dismissal of Italy's politicians - while maintaining a sustained, acerbic commentary on the state of the nation.

From another perspective, however, the reactions to Grillo's intervention only confirm the depth of Italy's political crisis. Politicians have been both defensive and disingenuous; at times even fearful. Grillo has been accused of "populism", described as a "leftwing Umberto Bossi" (in reference to the coarse Lega Nord regional separatist) and - most twisted of all - bad for democracy. But Grillo's great achievement is to have called the bluff of the centre-left in its stated intent of bringing transparency and legality to Italian politics after the Berlusconi years.

Can the centre-left under Veltroni's leadership respond: by addressing some of the citizens' discontent that Grillo has articulated and by presenting his own persuasive reform package? Veltroni has promised to introduce proposals to reduce the number of MPs and change the electoral system within the first eight months of his leadership, if he takes office. Commentators have wryly pointed out that this is more likely to be the length of time before Veltroni, buoyed by his rise in support, will have a chance to present himself as the centre-left's prime-ministerial candidate at the expense of an unpopular Romano Prodi.

Walter Veltroni can expect a honeymoon period. But his new party contains many familiar figures who can hardly make a claim to be the bearers of a fresh political-reform agenda. The signs are not good.

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