Italy: the ungovernable nation

Geoff Andrews
11 April 2008

This is the election that few Italians wanted. One of the failures of Romano Prodi's disputatious government, elected by a narrow majority in the election of 9-10 April 2006, was the strengthening of the belief among its citizens that Italy's political class was more remote than ever. La Caste (as Sergio Rizzo & Gianantonio Stella have described Italy's political elite) - better paid and more numerous than its European peers, overwhelmingly male and more likely to have been involved in criminal activities - is seemingly entrenched in power.

An early election has been inevitable since Prodi resigned on 24 January 2008 after losing a vote of condfidence in the senate. Nothing that has happened since then - certainly not the campaign populism of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi or the studied moderation of emergent centre-left leader Walter Veltroni - has altered the belief in La Caste's enduring position.

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)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's political meltdown" (30 January 2008)

The campaign for the the vote on 13-14 April 2008 has been lacklustre. It has come to life only in its final days, when Berlusconi raised the stakes (as he did in the 2006 election) by warning of centre-left cheating and voting irregularities. Veltroni's response was first to call for his rival to respect the constitution and then to repeat the claim made by the Economist in July 2003, that Berlusconi was "unfit to govern".

Silvio Berlusconi's record

But the question is not merely who is fit to govern, but whether Italy can be governed. The election is being conducted under an absurd electoral system bequeathed by Silvio Berlusconi shortly before the 2006 election and designed to prevent a clear majority from emerging. It is arguable that the most likely outcome of this or any other election taking place under such rules is that Italy will become (or remain, some would argue) virtually ungovernable (see "Italy's governing disorder" [31 January 2008]).

Yet Italy needs to elect a government capable of reforming its institutions and to revive a sluggish economy. Italy's economy underwent rapid decline during Silvio Berlusconi's second period in office between 2001-06 (the first had lasted only from April 1994 to January 1995); and while Romano Prodi reduced the spiralling public-spending deficit, the economy is still in a perilous condition. Ten years ago, Italy had surpassed the British economy in respect of the citizens' purchasing power and was second only to Germany among the leading five European Union economies. Now, it has fallen behind Spain and Greece, a statistic that few of Italy's political class are willing to admit. It is now second-last amongst the fifteen pre-enlargement EU countries; on current projections, according to the Italian think-tank Vision, will be overtaken by the ex-communist countries over the next decade.

The economic record of the previous Silvio Berlusconi government, his unresolved "conflicts of interest" as media entrepreneur and prime minister, and his ineptness as a statesman make many Italians as well as those of other nationalities wonder how it is possible that he might win again. Berlusconi himself has no doubts. His election slogan, Rialzati Italia ("Get Up, Italy") reflects his belief that his success as an entrepreneur can lift the aspirations of his people. His usual populism has shaped his campaign strategy, which has included his claim that he has a business plan waiting to buy out the ailing Alitalia. When asked by a young woman what he proposes to do for people like herself struggling on a low income, his response was that she should marry a millionaire like his son. Worryingly, she took his answer in good faith and will probably vote for him. It is a measure of the inability of Romano Prodi's government to make significant economic change that Berlusconi is still able to do this.

Walter Veltroni's appeal

This election has probably come too early for Walter Veltroni, leader of the new Democratic Party, which was founded in October 2007 through a merger of the two main centre-left parties: the ex-communist Democratici di sinistra and the Christian Democrat Margherita. Veltroni has fought a cautious and moderate campaign, attempting to project himself as the statesman Italy needs at its vital hour. His slogan Si Puo Fare ("Yes we can") is taken from Barack Obama's Democratic campaign in the United States - signifying that Veltroni, an admirer of John F Kennedy and many other foreign statesman, is hoping to lead Italy back to the European and western mainstream.

He has refused to align with the communists, has brought in some younger candidates and has attempted to pose the electoral question as one of building a new Italy. Yet he has conservative forces in his ranks and some of the more innovative civil-society initiatives in recent years have come from the left, who are in a separate coalition.

The election manifestos of the two main coalitions have many similarities. Both offer lower taxation and promises to modernise Italy's economy. Yet, there are also significant differences. The rightwing coalition, the Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom / PdL) - bringing together Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Gianfranco Fini's "post-fascist" Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), while sustaining an alliance with the Northern League - takes a tougher line on immigration and Iran. The Democratic Party offers greater links with European allies and more support for pensioners. However, the main contrast is in the language of reform, with Veltroni seeking early institutional changes, including overhauling the electoral system and reducing the number of politicians. On these questions he has at least been consistent; whether his coalition is strong enough to shape a new political consensus is a matter of continuing doubt.

Italy's choice

If the very governability of Italy is the shadow that overhangs the 13-14 April election, the most probable result is yet another stalemate - followed by a period of uncertainty, rancour and recrimination. Although many voters are still undecided on the eve of the vote - and there is still time for a surprise or two - many observers (as well as opinion-pollsters) anticipate a win for Berlusconi's coalition in the lower chamber (where the leading coalition is guaranteed a winning bonus of seats) and parity or a tiny majority for either side in the senate, where the votes are decided by strict regional proportionality.

In such a scenario, the smaller parties such as the centrist Union of Christian Democrats, close to the Vatican and reminiscent of the worst aspects of the old DC - its leading representative in Sicily, Salvatore "Toto" Cuffaro, was in January 2008 banned from public office for five years for mafia favours - could have an important role. So, too, could the leftwing rainbow alliance of communists and greens.

However, the big question over any post-election negotiations, one that is currently taxing the minds of leading commentators, is whether a "grand coalition" between Berlusconi's and Veltroni's coalitions will be attempted and under what conditions. Despite denials from both camps that they would enter into such a post-election deal, rumours have persisted throughout the campaign and unofficial soundings are thought to be taking place between the two parties. In order to get its economy going again, Italy needs more transparency, legality and an opening up of its institutions to allow greater competitiveness. It needs to build a new consensus for reform, and the prospect of involving figures from outside politics - such as business leader Luca di Montezemolo or moderates of the centre-right such as Franco Frattini - is now becoming a real one.

Silvio Berlusconi is known to be reluctant to carry on in a situation similar to that of Romano Prodi two years ago, when the ex-president of the European commission had a majority of only two in the senate and had to rely on the support of the life-senators. Yet Berlusconi is essentially a man of power and he will want to leave his mark in any post-election deal. Walter Veltroni will surely see the opportunity of a grand coalition as a test of his statesmanship and the chance to drive through reforms. Veltroni's objective now must be to isolate Berlusconi and break from his stifling influence; such a strategy presents Italy's only road to recovery and stability. It would also surely meet with the approval of most of Italy's European allies.

However, when Berlusconi has in the past forged deals with his opponents, he has normally outfoxed them or altered the rules of the game. Any prospect of lasting reform in Italy requires the marginalisation of this ageing salesman and a break from the culture of illegality and short-termism that has marked his years in power. Italy cannot afford to let him set the agenda any longer.

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