The land of lottizzazione and poltrone

Even as the European crisis intensifies, clientelism and corruption continue to dampen Italy’s prospects for development.

Giuseppe Lenzo
19 June 2012

As it struggles under the weight of austerity, Italy remains hamstrung by its legacy of corruption. In particular, clientelistic practices facilitated by extensive party power and a deeply entrenched caste system conspire to endow privileges on an intimate circle of connected Italians and undermine the meritocratic advancement of wide swathes of the public.

Many argue that these nepotistic practices started in the eighties, when it is said that a closed circle of party oligarchs emerged and, during their administration of public institutions, siphoned off billions of Euro in public expenses. In fact, this so-called “lottizzazione”—referring to the appointment to positions of public authority of political insiders over qualified professionals--has pervaded Italian politics since the aftermath of the Second World War. Indeed, the three biggest parties that emerged in the post-War period, namely the Christian Democratic Party (DC), the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) decided to allocate the state broadcaster RAI’s three television channels between them according to their shares of votes: RAI1 to the most popular party, DC, RAI2 to the PSI and RAI3 to the PCI.

Even in these austere times, this phenomenon hasn’t faded away. People from Bankitalia and Bocconi University—dangerously close to Mr Monti--were appointed to major posts in the Communications Regulatory Authority, AGCOM. A popular and widely-respected journalist, Michele Santoro, who had created a web show followed by millions of Italians after having been expelled from the state service by the Berlusconi government saw his CV for those same positions rejected on the basis that “nominations were not based on skills”. No further justifications were provided for these appointments.

This dysfunction permeates all manner of public institutions. Many job openings for state organs and public sector think tanks are not, as they might be otherwise, advertised publicly and decided according to CV screening, academic qualifications and work experience, but are instead filled through the leveraging of personal ties and connections. The party system is intimately tied to such practices. For example, it is quite common in Italy that unsuccessful candidates for Parliament, as if to be compensated for their defeat, are routinely appointed to senior posts in the civil service or other state institutions. Sunk deep in these “poltrone” (armchairs) is how most Italian public figures, both in the governing coalition and in opposition, have made their living.

In fact, according to a recent poll showed in an Italian TV programme recently, around 25% of Italian people have asked a powerful man for an explicit, personal recommendation for a job at least once in their life. And 25% is only the percentage of those who openly admitted it; there are many more who silently benefit from this state of affairs. It is common knowledge that without the patronage of a Member of Parliament or otherwise important individual, a young graduate hoping to make it in Italy stands no chance of succeeding professionally. 

Of course, corrupt governance is only one of many causes of Italy’s decline. The ossified and widely distrusted legal system, as well as the absence of mechanisms for direct electoral accountability, need their own overhaul. Parliament has repeatedly rejected proposals to even discuss a bill proposing the reintroduction of open list voting, since nowadays the decision to appoint members of the Parliament or Senate is fully in the hands of the political leadership, not the voting public. In addition, Parliament routinely vetoes arrest warrants issues against MPs who are protected from prosecution by extensive legal immunity.

The consequences of such pervasive dysfunction are easily predictable: horrific administration, beleaguered finances and recurring scandals. And yet, despite being to blame for this status quo, most politicians have the gall to publicly complain about the widespread brain drain. After Romania, Italy ranks second in European countries from which people emigrate most.

Corruption, scandals, oligarchy, caste. Welcome to Italy.

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