Italian Elections 2006 Part II

Well the election campaign in Italy trundles on, and issues are starting to emerge. One of the more curious details to have come out in recent days refers to the size and shape of the voting card. It is to be some 65 centimetres long with canditates arranged horizontally rather than vertically across the strip (if this seems like a long ticket, some US cards are up to a metre long apparently, although just why AGI online choses the US for its comparison is beyond me).

Beyond the ticket itself, Italy’s leading independent newspaper Corriere della Sera has just published an editorial coming down (for the first time I think) on the side of the centre left coalition lead by Romano Prodi (declaration of interest: CdS is my preferred reading among Italian newspapers). The reasoning for this decision seems to run something along the lines that the Berlusconi government has taken policy decisions more in the light of the need to resolve internal coalition differences than in the light of the real needs and interests of the country: to which ‘amen’.

Silvio Berlusconi, rather predictably, has had another of his hysterical fits: on the TV popular show ‘Porta a Porta’ he argued that Corriere della Sera had now revealed itself to be itself to be a journal of the centre-left, just like Unitá ( a strongly left wing paper).

In a campaign which is already being marked by sensations rather than policy, Berlusconi seems to have also managed to manoeuvre the Pope into a political scandal by getting himself invited to the Vatican. Roberto at Wind Rose Hotel has the details.

The campaign is also attracting it’s fair share of eccentricities. Like the case of Italian Senate President Marcello Pera (thanks again to Roberto for the pointer). Now Senate President’s often seem to be odd enough people and Pera himself doesn’t disappoint. Back in the late 90s he was declaring the Italian University system dead and buried (actually ‘stone dead’ were the exact words he used). Clearly the man has a tendency to exaggerate. So what is he exaggerating about this time?

Well according to Pera we have on our hands a problem of a disappearing Italian identity. Aha, he’s on to the fertility issue you might think, maybe he’ll put some pressure on his friend Joseph Ratzinger to see about getting some scientific help for all those Italian women who are now becoming too old to have the children they so often very much want to have. But no. You would be disappointed. Europe is, apparently “fading away,” “hiding itself from reality” and unable to defend its values. Well if he were talking about the duplicitous practices of the last Italian government and the flight from reality into indebtedness you might think that the man had a point. But no. This isn’t the issue at all. What we are into is rather a situation where our:

intellectual and political elites, obsessed with a dialogue that doesn’t exist and a multiculturalism that rationalizes every anti-Western act into European guilt, lack the courage to mark out the reciprocal parameters of pluralism. That results, he thinks, in Europe’s burying its Judeo-Christian identity and running from demanding compatibility with its tenets.”

On no! We’re back to the Danish cartoons issue. As might be imagined this version of events does not prove to be too unpopular in some US quarters, but with my feet squarely on European Terra Firma I find it hard to take any of this seriously at all. Except as another example of the flight from reality that this current member of the European political elite claims to be so preoccupied with. Italy has a declining population and the multiculturalism which seems to obsess him so forms an inevitable and integral part of Italy’s real and present cultural reality, a reality which all the rhetoric in the world won’t get him away from.

On the reality front there is however news of one concrete proposal today, Romano Prodi is advocating an increase in some types of capital gains tax (up from 12.5 to about 20 per cent). Predictably members of Mr “spend, spend, spend” Berlusconi’s coalition are lambasting the idea, with finance minister Giulio Tremonti stating that “In my home we call this a wealth tax. It is a wealth tax on the money of poor people.” This may well be, since from the distance it is hard to evaluate individual proposals like this, but one thing is clear, the next Italian government, whoever it is, will have no alternative but to raise taxes and cut spending, and anyone who suggests otherwise is, quite simply, wilfully misleading the people.

btw, on the latest polls the Prodi opposition is showing a 52 per cent share to 47.5 per cent one for the outgoing government coalition.

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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".

16 thoughts on “Italian Elections 2006 Part II

  1. “why AGI online choses the US for its comparison is beyond me” Interior Minister Pisanu said so in his press conference, mumbling also someting like “with all those questions”.

  2. Edward, thanks for linking to my recent post. Your remarks on the Italian campaign are very interesting, but, with regard to the fact that “Berlusconi seems to have also managed to manoeuvre the Pope into a political scandal by getting himself invited to the Vatican” let me just say this: speaking on a tv talk show, yesterday Massimo D’Alema—a former prime minister and the president of the Democratic Party of the Left, the biggest party of the centre-left coalition—admitted that Berlusconi showed a sense of responsibility by deciding not to attend the papal audience in the Vatican. In my opinion this acknowledgement was, in turn, an appreciable exhibition of fair play, and that is exactly what we need as well as what the vast majority of Italians want. Of course there are many who hate Berlusconi, as a politician and—perhaps mostly—as a person, but they are the worst enemies of a moderate and pragmatic Left, and perhaps they were the people chiefly responsible (though unconsciously and unwillingly) for Berlusconi’s victories in 1994 and 2001.

    With regard to the editorial of the Corriere della Sera, may I take the liberty of informing you and the readers of AFoE that it is now available in English.

    I would also give an answer to the reader who commenting the previous post asked “how much influence do the crazies have inside the Prodi coalition? Perhaps the problem with the Unione is not so much its extremes but its lack of a centre. […] If Prodi wins, who will govern?”
    Well, this is a very good question, may be the main question. And I’ll bear it in mind for one of the next posts.

  3. “with regard to the fact that “Berlusconi seems to have also managed to manoeuvre the Pope into a political scandal by getting himself invited to the Vatican” let me just say this”

    Fair comment. I was really taking my cue from the Guardian piece you link to. Maybe I look – as I have said – at many of these things through a Spanish filter – but I have the distinct feeling that none of these meetings (either with Bush or the proposed inclusion of Berlusconi in a delegation to the Vatican) just happens like that. There is normally considerable preparation before anything is formally announced. I sort of read the fact that he then stood down the offer as a recognition that he felt it would do more harm than good (to both of them) if he insisted (the Vatican may even have suggested this course mightn’t they?). The Machiavelli in me even considers the possibility that this eventuality was foreseen, and he was simply trying to provoke the left in having the thing arranged in the first place. D’Alema’s gesture would on this reading simply be a refusal to accept the bait.

    Here in Spain the Catholic hierarchy is now pretty openly lined up with the PP opposition. The main issue is religious education in the schools and the continuity of the enormous subsidy which the Church receives from the state. The previous pope even had a reference to a massive construction project (to divert part of the river Ebro) included in his last pastoral message to Bishops here, accusing us in Catalonia of lacking solidarity (opposition to the project was principally ecological and based on the idea that the proposal was a speculative one, with much of the water going to service construction projects and for things like new golf courses in the south).

    What I am sort of ironically hinting at here is that the idea of the separation of religious and civil entities is not a question which only needs to be raised in the context of non-European countries with another religion. I think we also need to practice what we preach to others and tidy our own house up a little.

    In particular I am concerned by the apparent influence of the Vatican in your recent referendum on on fertility treatment and embryo research. Italians are in bad need of both having more children and of medical advances to enable ageing Italians to remain economically productive for more of their lengthy lives. The intervention of the Church here is decidedly negative.

    “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:

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

    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.

  4. I’m bringing part of Bert’s comment from the previous post up to this thread:

    “My question is, how much influence do the crazies have inside the Prodi coalition? Perhaps the problem with the Unione is not so much its extremes but its lack of a centre. The manifesto – a bloated compromise – seems an ominous sign.
    If Prodi wins, who will govern?”

    This is really going to be the heart of the question I feel. It is still too early to be clear but the polls are suggesting that Prodi may win.

    Indeed I have already mentioned Machiavelli, but I will do so again, one may ask the question “does Berlusconi really want to win”.

    After all the froth is cleared away the core issue is really the sorry state of the Italian economy and what to do about it. I make no secret of the fact that I think Italian government debt is on an unsustainable course. Indeed it is so problematic that if it is not seriously checked it can bring the whole future of the eurosystem into question (ie Italy’s problems can begin to affect other Europeans).

    Now there are really two possibilities:

    A) Carry on regardless.
    B) Introduce a serious belt-tightening programme which would almost certainly imply a deflationary process inside Italy.

    Now (A) would really be the only serious option for Berlusconi, he couldn’t hold his coalition together any other way, and the resignation of Sinescalco is a clear early indication of this. But would he want to risk the open confrontation with the EU and its institutions that this would imply? I think not, which is why he may well see that it is beter to lose.

    It is better to lose since this would conveniently hand the ‘posioned chalice’ to his main opponent Romano Prodi, ‘Mr Euro’. Tremonti is often not backwards in coming forward with the idea that he holds Prodi’s decision to go for euro membership directly responsible for the present economic situation. And then there is Maroni and the Liga.

    If elected Prodi would have no choice: it would be plan (B). But plan B is destined not to work. Reducing wages and prices and cutting spending whilst raising taxes would mean that an economy which only ‘enjoyed’ zero growth last year would then move into negative growth. This would not be popular, and would make Berlusconi’s political opposition very easy.

    What, btw, is happening to the Liga petition to have a referendum on the euro? Berlsuconi’s role in all this has always been far from clear, and he did, of course, make his ‘the euro is a disaster’ speech back in the summer.

    I see ominous similarities with the situation in Argentina at the end of the ninetees, with Prodi being cast in the role of De la Rua, well meaning but flawed.

    “how much influence do the crazies have inside the Prodi coalition?”

    My guess is that their influence will be small to begin with, but then their anti-globalisation spin will lead many to find recourse in ‘denial’ type responses to the real issues, and in the end they could end up making the government unworkable. This is probably what Berlusconi is banking on.

    Not an easy problem to solve, and only time will tell.

  5. Well, Berlusconi seems to be gaining a little ground:

    According to the TNS Abacus/Sky TG24 survey, the centre-left’s advantage over Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition has dropped to 51- 47.5 per cent – one percentage point less than in an identical poll a week ago.

    This exchange is also quite revealing:

    Mr Tremonti scathingly portrayed Mr Prodi as a naive advocate of globalisation, saying: “It’s madness that Italians are voting for a gentleman who is acting as a commercial agent of China.”

    But Mr Prodi gave as good as he got, telling reporters: “If the decay to which the centre-right government has brought us over the past five years continues, Italy will be something completely de-tached from the modern world.”

  6. Edward, of course it is not you who hates Berlusconi, I was referring to those Italian leftists who get mad when they get into political issues and can’t explain why in 1994 and 2001 the majority of their fellow countrymen and women thought that Mr Berlusconi was a better choice for Italy. I am a leftist, too, (in a Blairite way) but I think that the collective wisdom of the people—especially in a democratic society—is usually wiser than the conventional wisdom of a self-regarding elite.

    Nevertheless, I think Mr Berlusconi could be worried about the following suggestion (in today’s The Times) …

    “Italians might […] be tempted to look to the ancients for inspiration. In 508BC, Cleisthenes pioneered a system in which citizens were invited to write, on ostraka or broken pots, the name of the politician whom they most wanted to send into exile for a decade. In an age when democracies want to increase electoral turnout, going back to basics may not be that bad an idea.”

  7. Well, Edward leaves some stones unturned, but I´m not quite willing to get into topics here that aren´t really Italy-specific. After all, Berlusconi really is a throwback to the past – not just to the postwar era, but further back still.
    On German TV, a “close personal aide” once showed a TV reporter around the mausoleum Berlusconi wants to be buried in, and at the end of that TV piece, the aide said he wanted to be buried there, too – along with his master, so to speak.

  8. Sorry, I seem to be spraying around fascist analogies when I discuss these elections.

    Edward, I can see the logic of why this might be an election it’s smart to lose. (An example from my own country: if Labour had won in 1991, it would have been blamed for the disruptive sterling crisis that followed, and Britain’s ejection from a European currency project; by losing, it sowed the seeds for its domination of UK politics for the next decade and more.) But I’m struggling to think of a ruling party that’s entered an election with a strategy that it’s going to try to lose. And I draw a total blank on finding a precedent when you add in the fact that the polls are balanced 47:51.

  9. What about the (external) reasons why Berlusconi would very much want to win this one …

    Does he not have numerous criminal charges hanging over his head which would resurface as his immunity withers away with a loss?

    Or have those (criminal charges) already fallen for the investigation time limit?

    On another note,

    “What I am sort of ironically hinting at here is that the idea of the separation of religious and civil entities is not a question which only needs to be raised in the context of non-European countries with another religion. I think we also need to practice what we preach to others and tidy our own house up a little.”

    Ah yes, perhaps we should all conform ourselves to the French prerogative of laïcité and indeed I am personally both an atheist and secular person … but that is another discussion which I should not begin in this thread.

  10. I ask this question as an ignorant outsider, so anybody who could enlighen me, please do so:

    How could Berlusconi have won 2 elections and how could he have any chance of winning this one?

    Yeah – the worst economy in Europe, but I own 90% of the media. Great leader, great for democracy. The states has nothing on Europe with idiots like this guy running around.

  11. Ben P, to make a long story short, I think that Berlusconi won the elections the first time mainly because he managed to convince people that he was
    a)a ‘homo novus’, an outsider with respect to the world of politics
    b)A self-made billionaire who could do to Italy and Italians the same wonders he did to his bank account.
    No matter if his claims were actually true, he managed to ‘sell’ them.
    His first government lasted for two years only, because the Lega Nord left the center right and Berlusconi had to resign.
    Belusconi’s second victory can therefore be interpreted as a second chance he was given when people felt that the first failure was not entirely his fault.
    Another reason for the second victory is that the candidate for the center-left (Rutelli) looked weak and unconvincing even to many center-left voters.
    Control on the media was a plus, but IMO it was not the main reason for Berlusconi’s second victory

  12. Many foreigners often ask me how is it possible that a relatively modern, big, educated and democratic country as Italy could ever have elected Berlusconi. I agree this should never have happened, but I would like to rationalize it. In a nutshell, my answer is this: because the center-left parties have often acted worse than Mr. B. Three quick examples. The media: Mr. B controls his media empire and now also most of the public media, but during the center or center-left governments the RAI was also totally and scandalously controlled by the current opposition (or their political ancestors). So the control of the public media is not Mr. B’s invention.
    The finance: Italian national debt passed from roughly 60% to more than 100% from the early 70s to the end of the 90s, when all center-left parties were either directly in power or in some form of more or less open collaboration with it (I refer to the years of close collaboration and co-legislation between the PCI and the DC in the late 70s). So again the huge economic problems of Italy are not Mr. B’s invention. Democracy: Italian democratic system is corrupt from inside, due to the selection process (even a party with 2% could have representatives in the parliament and render the system unstable), and to the huge influence of politics in all economic, social, cultural quarters. Parties have a tremendous and unbalanced power, an unlimited publicly financed budget (despite a referendum that succeeded in canceling it for a few years), they nominate head of banks, of hospitals, of companies, of cultural institution (even the election of the deans of universities is directly influenced by political parties) etc etc. And again, this is a heritage from the years of the communist and christian democrat’s mass parties, not Mr. B’s invention.
    So here it is: Mr. B is just the consequence, not the cause, of a long and deep illness of our country. People voted for him because thay see that he is not worse than the others and at least he could say that he was not responsible for the past. Now finally he is part of the past…and I hope for good.

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