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Italy's “business as usual”

There is a certain kind of drift into a regime that has nothing to do with the introduction of paramilitary stances, Roman salutes or party uniforms: more to do with television
Carlo Ungaro
1 July 2010

The year 2011 will mark the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. The most influential political party in the Italian ruling coalition – the “Northern League” – has publicly and flamboyantly indicated its lack of interest in the celebrations, and its leaders were conspicuously absent at the parade held for Italy’s National Day last June 2.

This is just one example of the malaise which permeates the Italian political scene today, even as many notice – with growing, impotent fascination – the country’s seemingly inexorable glide into what could be defined as a form of “bourgeois neo-fascism”, greeted with apathetic indifference by the vast majority of the population.

The roots of this unwholesome situation reach far back into the country’s history. At the very beginning of its reign, in 1861, the fledgling Italian Monarchy found itself confronted by a number of major problems which it failed to tackle, and which many decades later still persist. The lack of a really deep-seated sense of national unity; the great social and economic gap between North and South; together with the oppressive presence of the Pope and the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the national turf, were certainly three of the  biggest concerns. Although partially tackled – with some success – both by the Fascist regime (1922-1943) and by subsequent republican governments, they have been, and still remain, major impediments to the country’s political and social progress.

The first two of these problems go hand in hand: and as the  economic gap between north and south widens, so too does the intense rivalry between two very distinctive cultures, constantly eroding the sense of unity bound by the use of a common language with its historical and cultural resonances of belonging to the same nation. The “Northern League” tends to exasperate feelings of frustration which they insist are due to the useless handicap imposed on the regions of the North by a “thieving and  lazy” South. Their request for a “federal” solution is often accompanied by empty and yet effective threats of “secession”.

There is a more than apparent contradiction in the situation: a strong government, with definite authoritarian tendencies, supported by a very large parliamentary majority is compelled, by its most prominent partner, to dedicate the bulk of its energies to the decentralisation of power and its devolution to regional authorities. The results can be chaotic and begin to show growing rifts within the majority itself.

The considerable, insidious weight of the Catholic Church constitutes, in itself, a fundamental factor in Italy’s failure to achieve a normal social status. At present, however, its influence appears  secondary compared to the constant erosion of Constitutional guarantees on the part of the Government, as well as the growing centrifugal tendencies shown by the Northern League, easily the country’s most efficient and influential political party.

There is one fundamental factor, however, that is at the basis of the current crisis in Italian democracy, contributing directly to the gradual loss of democratic sensibility by the population: the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns the three most relevant private national television channels. By grossly overreaching his powers as head of Government, he exerts undue influence on public channels as well. He does not attempt to hide this and has frequently stated that “in a civilised country” the “state television” (he never uses the correct term “public television”) does not broadcast programmes which are “critical of the Government”.

He has also openly reiterated that “since the people have given me such a large majority, I must be allowed to govern”. This statement signals a deep, oft-stated aspiration radically to modify the Constitution (which he has often and publicly dismissed as a “Soviet- inspired document”) in order to remove or fundamentally loosen those  “checks and balances” which still work, albeit in ever more difficult circumstances.

He has repeatedly referred to himself as “the greatest Prime Minister in Italy’s history”, and his efficient propaganda machine keeps informing the Italian public of his popularity and triumphs on the international scene: a telephone call by Berlusconi to Angela Merkel, Italians have been told, brought about the success of the recent EU summit on the Greek crisis. There is no trace of this in the international media, but then, it is easy to take advantage of Italy’s cultural isolation. Most Italians are stubbornly monolingual and, for example, have never seen a foreign film if not badly translated and atrociously dubbed, nor do they follow international news on foreign channels. Their only source of information is television, because only a small minority read the vast number of Italian newspapers, most of which are of a high standard.

At the moment the Government appears to be losing a battle, thanks to the “defection” of some political allies, which would have had Parliament approving a law  - which the press has almost unanimously dubbed “the muzzle law” - designed to silence most forms of investigative journalism and to undermine the powers of public prosecutors and judges. If the law should pass, the control of telephone conversations would be difficult and the reproduction of bugged conversations would be a crime: this would protect many leading politicians (the main object of the proposed legislation) but it would also be a boon for organised criminality.

According to the official propaganda “leitmotif”, virtually all Italians are subject to arbitrary telephone control, and the law is designed to safeguard the sacred right to privacy. In reality the number of legally  established telephone controls (or other forms of electronic espionage) is extremely limited and applies only to people under investigation, or strongly suspected of very serious crimes, including Mafia activity.

In reality the law is designed to prevent the press from reporting precisely on those links between politics and criminality which are of great public interest, and the “privacy” which would be defended concerns highly placed political figures, who for some reason, often are involved in conversation with some of the people under investigation.

It is also true that some newspapers have very easily and freely published extracts from official transcripts which concerned prurient aspects of some politician's private life and had nothing to do with  any criminal investigation: the point is to find a solution that can prevent these abuses without muzzling the press in its right to conduct investigative reporting.

The Government has had to back down from its initial demands, but the battle is still raging.

The path towards the transformation of the government into a “regime” is, far from complete, and is taking place in a “business as usual” atmosphere which does not plan the introduction of  paramilitary stances, Roman salutes or party uniforms. This makes it  all the more dangerous and menacing.

Some have described the period we are living through as “Italy’s Weimar” – referring to Germany’s ill-fated democratic experience between World War One and the Nazi regime. Others claim that if Italy, in its present state, were to apply for membership in the European Union, doubts would be expressed on its eligibility.

These, doubtless, are exaggerations: but there is a feeling here that Italian democracy is in real danger.

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