Point Counterpoint in the Italian Campaign

Let’s forget about the Pope’s retirement, OK? Not that it doesn’t have huge implications for the theology of the Church and the role of future tenants of St. Peter’s see, but none of that is an electoral matter. And please, let’s pay no further attention to the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, that bad little boy who wants all our attention, all the time. Just ignore him. Let’s notice instead where the Italian electoral campaign is really happening, where it has always been happening, and where in the aftermath of next Sunday’s vote all the political action will be concentrated. Let’s look at the wonderful triangulation between Pier Luigi Bersani, Nichi Vendola, and Mario Monti.

For background, recall that Bersani and Vendola both came of age in the old Italian Communist Party, both participated in the Rifondazione movement in the ’90s, and both retain a fondness for working people and the venerable culture of the Left that comes with that territory. When Bersani was consolidating his hold on the big-tent Democratic Party a half-decade ago, Vendola still held on to his Left purism, enough so, some say, that he helped bring down Romano Prodi’s center-leaning government in 2008. Since then his SEL (Left Ecologist Freedom) Party has governed Puglia with a red/green slant, but has embraced as well the business growth and market logic that have made Puglia a rare success story in Italy’s Mezzogiorno.

What does any of this have to do with the technocratic Monti, the former EU Commissioner, professor at an elite business school, unelected premier in the ‘government of the professors’ that made Italy take its austerity medicine for the last year? Well, all parties declare a grudging mutual respect, and indeed Bersani’s PD was a solid if reluctant pillar of Monti’s reformist government until Berlusconi chose to kick out the props and make it fall. More to the point right now, though Bersani still polls well ahead in the race for the lower house, and thus the premiership, his alliance seems unlikely to pick up enough seats in the regionally skewed Senate to control it. He can’t govern without it. SEL’s seats won’t do it–he’ll need the centrist senators controlled by Monti. Which may explain that grudging but persistent respect.

Meanwhile day after day Vendola and Monti go at each other, like rival siblings competing for the attentions of a fond but slightly absent-minded father. Except of course for a few things: Bersani’s aloofness is anything but accidental, Monti HATES being bracketed with a leftist politican, and the differences they are flourishing are the essential policy questions that will determine Italy’s future. Such as:

  • On Monday Monti declared he could sit in the same government with Vendola as long as it was ‘reformist’; Vendola quickly noted that for Monti ‘reform’ means rolling back workers’ rights, while for his part those rights are the cornerstone of any reform.
  • Vendola has consistently deplored the benefit reductions Monti has imposed at the behest of the ECB, referring yesterday to his austerity measures as the “same old conservative ideology.” Bersani meanwhile lamented Monti’s “lack of gratitude” for the support his government received from Bersani’s Democrats.
And so forth. What is playing out is a classic competition between management strategies, as Vendola advocates for activist stimulus and Monti calls on Italians to tighten their belts for one more round. Bersani meanwhile tries to walk a fine line he calls “austerity with justice,” whatever that turns out to mean. But as Hollande waffles along the same line, and Merkel prepares to defend her mercantilist fundamentalism this fall, Italy–for all its woes, still the Eurozone’s 3rd biggest economy–will be helping to arbitrate the larger EU’s path through this intractable crisis. And it is Vendola and Monti who are waging that struggle day by day.
Sadly, American readers are at risk to miss the whole show. Rachel Donadio, the Times’s estimable Rome correspondent, managed to write a whole story about the election last Friday without mentioning Vendola’s name. But that’s OK–as I noted at the time she wrote a similar article a month ago that lovingly catalogued Berlusconi’s clown acts but failed to even mention Bersani, the clear front-runner. With the EU leadership openly campaigning for Monti, along with David Axelrod (hired by Monti’s campaign) and maybe President Obama himself (Gianluca Luzi in today’s Repubblica calls the President’s support for continued reform “a sort of endorsement for Monti”), one might almost suspect an aversion to the ex-Communists of the center-left. But like ‘em or not, they are poised to take over Italy’s government, though on what terms is precisely the contested terrain of this election.

 

11 thoughts on “Point Counterpoint in the Italian Campaign

  1. Circumstances make it hard to ignore Berlusconi, whether one likes it or not. His center/right “coalition” has closed the gap from 14% to around 5% in the polls, Bersani is knee deep in the Monte dei Paschi fiasco and now yesterday Italian growth took another dive Q/Q to -0,9%, thereby posting the 6th negative quarter in a row. So here 9 days before the election all Berlusconi has to do is to say “the Monti/Bersani was is clearly not working, let’s try my tax cuts instead”… Simplistic and crude it may be, but it only needs to work on 3% of the voters to bring the house down…. Best regards, Henrik.

  2. Ignoring him would be a serious mistake. I have no doubt he will win. This is by far the best politician (D. Hannan has described him once very aptly) and he can be the one who takes Italy out of the euro. That would be it for the EU.

  3. Nice post, although I do not think P. Bersani has ever been in “Rifondazione comunista” in the 90′s, he has come from PCI, then PDS, then DS, nowadays called “PD” or “Democratic party”. Cheers, Marco Valerio

  4. “Vendola still held on to his Left purism, enough so, some say, that he helped bring down Romano Prodi’s center-leaning government in 2008.”

    Many people say this, but they are wrong.
    What happened is that Prodi had a very small majority and to get that majority he had to do similar triangulations as Bersani with Vendola and Monti. When he was in power, there were continuous infightings between the left of his government (Rifondazione, that included Vendola) and the right of his government (with, for example, Clemente Mastella). In the end, the right of the government always won the fights, because the left knew that they had no other place to go (while the right of the government knew that they could jump to the actual right).
    So in the end the “far left” was forced to sustain the centrist government to the end, while the “centrist” parties played continuous brinkmanship and ultimately killed the government.

    This is an important point because Bersani is today in a very similar position: it might seem that Vendola is a dubious ally for Bersani, but in reality Monti is a worse risk because he has other options, while Vendola hasn’t.

  5. Well, Rachel Donadio wrote a whole article without mentioning one of the two leftist contenders (not hard, they are so meaningless I am surprised when someone does mention them), but you managed to write a post without mentioning Grillo’s rifraff.

    To be honest, they will play a very modest role in the after-elections and they are likely to dissolve like snow by Christmas 2013. Some die-hards might hold out until 2014 or so.

    But still, what is playing between SEL, PD, PDL and Monti is nothing new – we have seen more than half a century of that, and surely the last 20 years.

    What is new is Grillo and what his politicians and electors are going to do after the movement falls apart.

  6. @ Marco Valerio: thanks for the correction re: Bersani and Rifondazione
    @ randomlurker: this account of Vendola’s ‘betrayal’ of Prodi lives on, though I meant to suggest my doubts about it (“some say”)–your much fuller account is much appreciated, and I absolutely agree with your analysis about how this might recur in a Bersani government
    @Henrik and Mozza: let me enlarge on my flippant dismissal of Berlusconi. Yes, he is still formidable in that he can apparently persuade lots of idiots to vote for him. No, he seems unlikely to ‘win.’ But the real point, in my view, is that his many outrages have made him ‘unclubable’ in any new government: other players (apart from the Lega) will affiliate with ANYONE else to keep him out. In that sense I do sense that he is irrelevant, however conspicuous. BTW, I left out Grillo for space reasons, but I sense that in the category of outrageous outliers he is the more important player.

  7. Silvio doesn’t like theTroika and the Troika doesn’t like Silvio. Therefore, I support Silvio. Screw the Troika, tell them to get out of your country, print and devalue if need be.No more relinquishing of sovereign rights to Brussels, look at the damage its done so far

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