Italian Elections 2006 III

Well Romano Prodi and Silvio Berlusconi finally got to meet up in front of the TV cameras last night, even if they didn’t exactly enter into face to face combat. The poll consensus seems to be that Prodi won it on points.

The debate seems to have centred around economic themes, and Euractiv has a summary of it here. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti has been trying to put a brave face on things, by claiming that Italy is now “on the right tracks” and that the situation of Italy’s “public finances is good”. Mario Draghi, the new governor over at the Italian central bank does not seem especially convinced, since he was claiming only last week that the Italian economy had run aground.

Again unsurprisingly a poll held shortly before the debate showed that a large number of Italians are still undecided about how they will cast their vote, even if there is some evidence that the Prodi coalition may be hanging on to their lead.

Roberto over at Wind Rose Hotel has the third of his election posts now up. He draws our attention to the latest contributor to the ‘great debate’, semiologist and erstwhile novelist Umberto Eco (link in Italian). Eco has indicated he might consider leaving Italy were Berlusconi to be re-elected. Democracy, according to Eco, is in danger in Italy. Angelo Panebianco, writing in Corriere della Sera (which has remember endorsed the Prodi coalition), takes issue with Eco and asks: why so much theatrical drama?:

For two reasons, I think. The first is that such dramatisation is exactly what attracts the kind of ‘intellectual’ audience which has chosen Umberto Eco, and especially Umberto Eco, as its very own champion and reference point. The hate for Berlusconi among this section of the public is palpable and evident, we have surely all of us found this in recent years in scores of private conversations and in the fascinating phenomenon of collective psychology. …..

The second reason for the dramatisation, I think, is to do with a problem which is typical of our (Italian) culture. It is an ancient legacy here, for many, to mistake democracy, which is a method of resolving conflicts by counting heads instead of breaking heads them……..(to mistake this process) forthe realisation of their own ideals. To mistake the victory or defeat of their political views for the victory and defeat of democracy: this is a kind of childhood illness of democracy.

Well it seems that Italy is a society which is rapidly ageing but where ‘childhood illnesses’ abound. Reading the piece by Panebianco I could not help but think, not of Umberto Eco, but of Nanni Moretti, whose films I thoroughly enjoy, but whose perceptions of contemporary Italian society have always struck me as being ‘warped’ to say the least. Democracy is not in danger in Italy in this election, it is not even in doubt. What is in danger, and about this there should be no doubt, is the Italian pension system and the mid-term economic well-being of Italian society. Far from the Italian pension system having been reformed and fine-tuned to the extent which Tremonti alleges, the necessary adjustment has only recently started on the road, and this small step was taken only after the last minute tussle and haggling (in part with represantatives of Berlusconi’s insurance industry interests) which was needed to salvage at least one piece of reforming legislation from 5 years of a decidedly ‘reform unfriendly’ government. What Italy needs at this point in time is a government which is serious about introducing the Lisbon agenda in Italy. This would not be a Berlusconi-lead government. Will it be a Prodi-lead one? This is what remains to be seen. If it turns out that neitherof the alternatives are up to the task, then Eco may well, in a certain sense be right: Italy will then have a crisis of democracy, but not, I think, the one he has in mind.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

28 thoughts on “Italian Elections 2006 III

  1. Thanks for linking again to my posts, Edward. Interesting remarks, as usually. Besides, your observations on Nanni Moretti seem to be taking the words right out of my mouth …
    I take the opportunity to draw the attention of the readers to this New York Times report.

    Best wishes
    Roberto

  2. I have lived in Italy until October last year and still follow the situation pretty closely. I’d say that democracy is indeed not only in peril but already compromised. The recent reshaping of the constitution and the electoral systems are more than examples. So is the fundamental undermining of the judiciary’s ability to investigate white collar crime.

  3. To me, the fact that so many people in Italy can simply shrug off a phenomenon like Berlusconi is a damning indictment of your nation, which to me is the weakest democracy in the industrialized world.

    Not, of course, is this weakness all the fault of Berlu, but he is its most ugly sympton. I mean I want to scream at “leftist” windrosehotel: the guy owns 90% OF THE MEDIA. That alone makes him a serious threat to a real democracy.

    Italy, the the 21st century sick man of Europe.

  4. “Italy, the the 21st century sick man of Europe.”

    Look I would in many ways agree with this. I recently said in a mail to roberto that Italy may well be the only EU member state where things – a lo grande – are actually going backwards rather than forwards.

    (I mentioned the present Polish case as a comparison, in the sense that the new administration there is doing some strange things, and some of them do give cause for concern, but the submerged part of the iceberg, Polish society in general, is clearly modernising, and relatively fast: this can’t be said of Italy. Hence it is preoccupying).

    But having said this, is democracy in danger? Not really. For all Berlusconi’s media interests (which I, incidentally, do not approve of) it seems Prodi might win. That in itself should give some measure of how seriously threatened democracy is.

    Of course Berlusconi (like any other prime minister) can make laws which suit his purpose, and then Prodi (or someone else) can unmake them. This is the test of democracy. Just because you don’t like one set of laws doesn’t make things undemocratic.(And of course Italian democracy is far from perfect, and long has been so).

    I think the BIG point is in the link to the NYT that roberto has put. Neither of the candidates seems really ready to grasp the nettle and try to bring a halt to Italy’s decline. There is a pretty clear agenda on the table, it comes from the Commission in Brussels and the ECB in Frankfurt. All the next Italian govenment has to do is follow instructions, but of course no-one wants to explain that, which is probably why no-one will actually do it, and deeper into the mire Italy will go.

    As I say, I don’t think for a moment democracy is in danger now, but another decade of drift and it certainly could become so, as anger and frustration take hold in a voting process which will be progressively be dominated by older and even older voters.

  5. To an outsider, Berlusconi looks like some who simultaneously manages to combine the worst elements of Bush, Blair, and Chirac into a whole – no mean feet – while simultaneously owning 90% of the Italian media. Again, to some one who has lived their whole life in “English speaking democracies,” it boggles the mind.

    The very fact that one individual can own that much of one countries media is bad enough. That this person is allowed to participate in elections cast serious doubt on the electoral process. Add to that that one of his major coalition parties is a fascist party, it looks even uglier. Add to that that Italy has the weakest Eurozone economy (no mean feat in the last couple years) and yet the ruling party still even STANDS A CHANCE of winning begins to cast doubt onto the health of the nation’s democracy.

    This isn’t simply an indictment of Berlusconi, although he is the most obvious sympton. Its also an indictment of the Italian left, and further of the unwieldiness of Italian coalition politics.

  6. Edward, you seem to have a good, sober understanding of the situation in Italy, just what people like Eco seem to be lacking, drowned as they are in the partisan hate that has come to polarise much of the political debate on both sides.

    That said, Berlusconi’s rise and -much more so- the fact that he is still in play in these elections, does not bode well for Italian democracy. Not only Italians are not at all hungry for the reforms needed to save the country from its future, but they have proven that what they want in a leader is not skill, knowledge, moderation and genuine concern. What way too many people in this country will gladly settle for is a man “who has made it in life”, who spins whatever criticism right back as “communist lies” and who embodies, in many ways, many aspirations of the common italian man (money, a yacht, a villa, a beautiful wife, a big personality).

    At another level, this is somewhat comforting. Foreigners often don’t understand how much Berlusconi mirrors many Italian peculiarities, and that he is not up there in spite of Italians, but because of them. Many Italians actually really like, respect and look up to him. I myself can’t help but smile when he puts horns on the Spanish foreign minister’s head during a photo shoot. He has charmed Italy before conquering it. But this happens in every nation: Bush plays into the American values of religion, family, hard work, straight-talk etc. (although he is a Yale privileged kid).

    Democracy is not in immediate danger, but B. sets an awful precedent and demonstrates just how easy it is to buy off power in Italy with money, commitment and media who are, if not unabashedly supporting you, at least intimidated.

    The most interesting part of the debate is the reactions of the other center-right parties, that tells us a lot about that coalition and the backdoor deals they’re brokering.
    http://www.repubblica.it/2006/c/sezioni/politica/versoelezioni38/iracavaliere/iracavaliere.html

    best to all, nice job with the blog.
    Davide

  7. “Is anyone else concerned that he might not go if he loses?”

    I hadn’t imagined even for the slightest moment that if he isn’t forced to go (ie by legal problems) he would ever be thinking of leaving. Especially and in particular since there is simply too much money at stake for a select few if Italy is forced to leave the euro and default on the sovereign debt.

    Berlusconi could present himself as the ‘saviour of the people’ whilst making more money than he has ever previously been able to dream of by hedging against his country (ie moving a lot of cash in euros out of Italy and into, say, Germany). He has been going liquid of late.

    Basically I still think a Prodi victory is the best outcome for B, even if he can’t actively campaign for one. We will then see a government forced into an unworkable belt-tightening operation, while B stirs things up via Tremonti and his allies in the Lega with their ‘exit-the-euro’ referendum proposal.

    It is possible that a Prodi government may not be able to last the term, and in Italy there seems to be little possibility of a German-style cross the chamber type coalition. In Italy this would clearly be the best bet.

  8. “Democracy is not in danger in Italy in this election, it is not even in doubt.”

    I think you’re terribly misguided here, Edward.

    There’s no imminent risk that Italy will become dictatorship. But Montenegro, Moldavia and Ukraine aren’t dictatorships and yet they’re hardly fully democratic. Italy isn’t Russia by any means, but it’s closer than any other western european country, and therte’s certainly a risk things will get worse.

    I can’t agree that the lisbon agenda is a more pressing concern than the flaws in Italian democracy.

  9. All the next Italian govenment has to do is follow instructions,

    If that is true, there’s little point in worrying about democracy.

  10. “If that is true, there’s little point in worrying about democracy.”

    Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m one of the people who isn’t :). At least not now. I’m not especially worried about the future of democracy in the US either, and I have a feeling that in some people’s minds these two are connected.

    The thing is I am pretty sure, whatever the outcome, the attempts to follow the Brussels-Frankfurt line will be half hearted at least. I feel there is marginally more possibility with Prodi at the helm (although look at what he has been saying about national champions) so I would come down like the CdS on the side of Prodi.

    Really I think (says he in tongue in cheek desperation) Italy would be better of being handed over to the IMF. They certainly seem to be doing a lot better job with Turkey than the EU is doing with Italy. Basically our institutions lack teeth. Essentially Italy gets cheap money, and international credibility, but is able to avoid offering much in return. Look how long it took to resolve the Fazio affair.

    Will the Lisbon agenda items still work at this stage? Hard to say, the debt problem is enormous and this is likely to dominate all the others, but clearly an Italy which was making a serious attempt to change its ways would have the possibility of a much more sympathetic hearing than one which wasn’t.

  11. The parallel I was thinking of was Thailand. Shinawatra is almost identical politically and culturally to Berlusconi. What I’m worried about is that, if he looks like losing, if he’d be tempted to cling on by illegal or more importantly extra-legal means; declare a state of emergency or try to rig the ballot.

  12. “There’s no imminent risk that Italy will become dictatorship.”

    Well I think we are agreed about this then. Incidentally a Spanish version of the Moretti case would be the film-maker Pedro Almodovar (must be something about cinema, still I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of Volver this weekend, even if it’s only for the title song). Almodovar associated himself with the rumour in the early days after March 14, that on the eve of the 13th the people in Calle Genova (the PP headquarters) had been actively considering calling for a military coup.

    This of course was tosh, as was the counter claim that members of the security services sympathetic to the PSOE had been involved in the March 11 bombings themselves.

    Latin society is a bit like that, full of crazy rumours. There were penty of such rumours in Italy at the start of the 70s, and although there is undoubtedly plenty of ‘dark matter’ to investigate, all the claims were wildly exaggerated. They did, however make for good cinema, viz Bertolucci’s Spider’s Stratagem or Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses.

    Probably Italian democracy has survived some of it’s darkest moments in times of crisis for mafia violence or red brigades terrorism, but it did survive, and it did mature, which is why the current stagnation is, well, worrying.

    So I am not saying at all that we should be complacent about Italy, indeed I am saying that if things aren’t done there could be cause for real concern in the future, but I am also saying that the current obsession with Berlusconi is unhealthy and, in the case of Eco, simply demogogic. It is a way of avoiding the hard realities of the real issues:

    “I can’t agree that the lisbon agenda is a more pressing concern than the flaws in Italian democracy.”

    like this one you mention :). The Lisbon agenda is about the economic and political survival of Europe as a force in the world. I don’t know what you are thinking of in terms of *bigger* beer. The real question is that most people don’t seem to recognise just how important important is here.

  13. Davide,

    Thanks for the comments, they are interesting, and add perspective:

    “Foreigners often don’t understand how much Berlusconi mirrors many Italian peculiarities”

    Yes, I think that this is important, and when many North Europeans laugh at Berlusconi they are actually, without meaning to I’m sure, laughing at the Italians themselves. That is probably why many ordinary people stick up for him.

    “I myself can’t help but smile when he puts horns on the Spanish foreign minister’s head during a photo shoot.”

    Nice of you to be so honest when approving of ‘cuernos’ :). I think part of the difficulty is that Italy is stuck between some sort of soft ‘machismo’, as when Silvio speaks of the Finnish PM, and some sort of hard feminism. Between the two it is hard to discuss your current fertility issue in a dispassionate way (I will post on this one next week). But the real problem is that you have formal gender equality in work and before the law, but not in the home. So all the work (including the grandparents, as well as ‘baby hubby’ and any children there are) falls on the woman. What you need undoubtedly is ‘soft feminism’ (ie real gender equality in the home, an lets cut off the horns) and someone like Angela Merkel as your leader :).

  14. It is possible that a Prodi government may not be able to last the term

    This is of course the norm for post-war Italian governments…

  15. overlooking the shape of democracy in italy and only focusing on economy might be short-sighted, since spanish economy did pretty well under franco. and yes, berlusconi isn’t that far from the late franco.
    is there any other country in the world where the electoral law is changed less than 6 months before the general elections, admittedly because polls show that the old one might be bad for the ruling party (link in italian).
    i must add that only few of the self-aiding laws passed by berlusconi’s government receive any coverage in this blog (or in other european media, for that matters), and this may well cause a strong bias in your opinion.

  16. “since spanish economy did pretty well under franco”.

    Nope. I don’t really accept this. I think the Franco years will still leave a heavy negative legacy on Spain when all the bookeeping is finally done. But then the Italian economy has done hopelessly badly under Berlusconi with virtually no reforms worthy of mention, so I suppose this would help myour analogy, Berlusconi and Franco both being people who were bad for economic performance and all. It is the substance of your comparison I don’t buy. Talk to people who lived in Sapin under Franco (and who had relatives who disappeared or were shot etc) and think of Italy today. I am at a loss to understand the comparison.

    “strong bias in your opinion”.

    Bias, what bias? I genuinely don’t understand what you are referring to. Do you mean that I am biased because I give conditional support to Prodi? Then I don’t understand the earlier part of your argument.

  17. “if he’d be tempted to cling on by illegal or more importantly extra-legal means;”

    Look, I think the difficulty I’m having with this argument Alex, and that which David was putting earlier, is that it really does ignore the EU anchor type argument. Belonging to the EU and staying in the euro really do place institutional limits on what can and can’t happen in Italy (or Poland).

    Now I am arguing that at some stage Italy may be forced to exit the euro. At this point virtually anything can happen. But we may not get to this point. That is why there is a political argument about what to do now, and that is the argument about the next legislature. If none of that works then we may get to your point, but only then. At the risk of repeating myself I’d be worried about what a future Berlusconi government might do if Prodi was forced out by popular pressure in the streets following a financial debacle. But this is just idle speculation at this stage, and it isn’t, I repeat isn’t, what Eco is referring to.

  18. > I am at a loss to understand the comparison
    there was no comparison. i was just saying, i think it is rather dangerous to focus on the economy only, as you’ve done:
    >I think the BIG point is in the link to the
    >NYT that roberto has put. Neither of the
    >candidates seems really ready to grasp the
    >nettle and try to bring a halt to Italy’s
    >decline. There is a pretty clear agenda on the
    >table, it comes from the Commission in #
    >Brussels and the ECB in Frankfurt.
    sure, the ec and the ecb do care mostly about italian economy, but should we too? my point was: let us not forget democracy, while caring about italian economical bad (in fact, awful) shape.

    >Bias, what bias? I genuinely don’t
    >understand what you are referring to. Do you
    >mean that I am biased because I give
    >conditional support to Prodi?
    no, i mean that if you had listened to more reports about those dozens of terrible italian laws passed by berlusconi’s majority (most of them being laws only conceived with the purpose of saving berlusconi, or his brother, or his lawyers, or his friends, or his company, or… from harm) your support to prodi would be much less conditional.

  19. OK, Delio, now I am a bit clearer. I would say that I don’t think you are being quite fair when you accuse me of bias. I bring forward what I said on the previous thread about Berlusconi from the Economist, which has of course campaigned vigorously on this issue (see paste below).

    “your support to prodi would be much less conditional”.

    No. My support for Prodi is not conditional on anything about Berlusconi, it is conditioned by my appreciation of Prodi himself and his coalition, and on how likely I think they are (or aren’t) to really get to grips with the problems.

    Here comes the paste:

    “Of course there are many who hate Berlusconi”

    On the hating Berlusconi thing, I certainly don’t hate him (I’m not sure I hate anybody actually, I think these kind of emotional responses only make bad problems worse).I do, however, hold him directly responsible for the fact that Italy’s already serious problems have now reached crisis proportions.

    Basically I would sign the open letter the Economist wrote to him in 2003:

    http://www.berluscastop.it/__artic/econ_eng.htm

    and would very much go along with their “Fit To Run Italy” piece:

    http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=593654

    Which means I logically have to endorse the CdS editorial. There are only two real possibilities, and one of them has already ruled himself out.

  20. “The Lisbon agenda is about the economic and political survival of Europe as a force in the world.”

    A very strange turn of phrase. If developing nations catch up to us, the relative importance of Europe will inevitably decline, regardless of our economic policies. That shouldn’t be seen as a threat, indeed it’s highly desirable, and casting the discussion in term of survival would be ill-advised.

    But I’m not sure that’s what you meant. I can’t tell at all what you mean.

    Also: the suggestions that is the lisbon agenda, is somewhat ambitious, but it’s not the kind of stuff that by themselves will bring about – or heed off – revolutionary change.

  21. “if developing nations catch up to us, the relative importance of Europe will inevitably decline”

    Oh, of course, and I welcome that: the arrival of the new developing countries I mean. But I still think Europe has something to offer the world. something that won’t be there if we break up into squabbling go-it-alone nations (neo-protectionism) or go into permanent economic stagnation (the danger signals are already there in Germany and Italy). Just look how Japanese influnece has waned in Asia after 15 lean years. I will try and define a bit better what I mean about Lisbon in another post.

    “it’s not the kind of stuff that by themselves will bring about – or heed off – revolutionary change.”

    Yep, but maybe what we are most in need of David is a quiet revolution, not a noisy one.

  22. “I will try and define a bit better what I mean about Lisbon in another post.”

    I’m very glad to hear that, the subject probably calls for blog posts rather than a stray comments.

    I wonder if you use Lisbon as a shorthand for “vital needed reform according to Edward”, encompassing more than the actual lisbon agenda, which would invite confusion.

  23. How much do we differ on prognosttication rather than priorities, though? I’d take a stagnant economy over a severly flawed democracy any day.

  24. “I’d take a stagnant economy over a severly flawed democracy any day.”

    Most of us would. The thing is, I am conjecturing that the two may be interconnected, ie that a severe financial crisis that saw a lot of people losing their life savings might produce a situation where many people may not be pre-occupied about the nicetees of democracy.

    But lets do a little test. If we say, following the rating agencies, that Germany say has a AAA democratic rating. And that 11 of the old EU 12 shared this. Where would we put Italy? AAA-,
    AAB, ABB or where? Just how serious are the deficiencies on your view?

    And what would we give Greece and Spain AAA-?

    And what about the 10 new accession members ABB?

    Or Turkey BBB?

    And Iraq CCC?

    Russia BCC or BBC?

    Ukraine BBB?

    Argentina BBB?

    Chile ABB?

    China BBC?

    And then, aha, what about the US. Do you still give them an AAA rating?

    Interesting test this one I think. It tells us something about ourselves as well as about the countries in question.

  25. Well, the issue is a bit too murky for that kinds of ratings (and I understand you understand that). I had to think a bit about how to answer.

    One can surely talk about flaws in Norwegian democracy, but if you’re not willing to agree that Norway is a democracy without adding a qualifier, you’re not on the side of the angels.

    In the case of Russia, if you’d object to a qualifier, you’re not on the side of angels.

    Italy, less clearcut, but I’d add a a qualifier. “Berlusconi mostly controls television, and he’s not fully committed to the rule of law.”

    But I don’t want to sound too shrill, I think Italy is defititely closer to Norway than Russia.

  26. Anyone who watched BBC2 last night would note that the line is finer than you think..

    More seriously, the question isn’t whether Italy is closer to Russia or Norway, it’s which direction it’s going in.

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