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Finale. Understanding Italian Politics. Sunday: The Page Turns

Finale. Understanding Italian Politics. Sunday: The Page Turns

Stanton H. Burnett (April 9, 2008)

For the last five or six years this peculiar column, called Gothic for reasons not worth repeating, has trailed around the pages of Oggi7, the distinguished and all-too-short-lived USItalia, and the i-Italy web site…


For the last five or six years this peculiar column,

called Gothic for reasons not worth repeating, has trailed around the pages of Oggi7, the distinguished and all-too-short-lived USItalia, andthe i-Italy web site… a gypsy relic of a belief in trying to develop a structure of understanding for contemporary Italian politics based largely on exploring recent history, the political culture and unwritten rules and practices. The response was gratifying, but doubts were seeping in. And so we issued a call for a “Pause for Reflection”. The day after that column appeared, the President of Italy issued a call for a “pause for reflection.” Despite the incumbency in the Quirinale of a shrewd senior statesman, devoted to the health of the country’s political institutions, his call quickly, very quickly, swept aside by events. The speed with which possible solutions to the governmental crisis were broached and scotched was a testament to the intractability of the corner into which Prodi, Veltroni, Mastella, and Berlusconi had swept the country.


        Our wee lessons on the past, practices, and peccadilloes of Italian politics seem now to have been left behind by serious and profound change, the same change that made the mediation of even a Napolitano impossible. The long trek of Italian Communists, through Moscow, Salerno and the Red communes, and the reasons why non-Marxists such as Giorgio Amendola were central to that history… now shed little light on the trumpets of SuperWalter. That Fabio Mussi took with him the heart and soul of Italian Marxism when he walked out of the final gathering of compagni would be important if the remaining body of militant blue-collar industrial workers were of great weight in the electoral game, if they had not been overwhelming by the country’s move to a service economy and the robotization of the remaining large industry. The story of Fascism, neo-Fascism, and post-Fascism has less and less to do with Fini and the Alleanza Nazionale; the Fiamma is flickering out, and “good riddance” say most of the few remaining Italians who still pay attention to the antics of La Mussolini. And we wrote at length about the meaning of the fascinating Craxi era. But Bobo is not Bettino.


        The danger confronting every Italian citizen by a politicized and demoralized magistracy did not die with the cooling ashes of the burning down of Tangentopoli. (Nor, on the other hand, did the heroism of some magistrates, especially in the South, die at Capaci.) Politico-industrial corruption has shifted form and method, not disappeared. If the parties no longer have a huge, expensive permanent apparatus, political campaigning is becoming increasingly meaningful and so will be increasingly expensive, a bad formula for clean politics.


        On the surface, there seems to be continuity of the old politics. Parliamentarians still drape their jackets over their shoulders to stroll across the Corso where the coffee is better in the bar of the Galleria than in the much less expensive Montecitorio bar. If the day is warm, some will go as far as the Tazza d’Oro in the Piazza della Rotunda. Bureaucrats are still occupied with polite and efficient delegating so that they can get to their second, afternoon, job.   This tranquility occurs during what is called, with the Italian talent for negative hyperbole, a governmental crisis. Altan’s big-nosed cartoon citizens still declare, “Treni sporchi e in ritardo” to which their companions reply “E pieni di gentaglia che va in posti orribili.” 


        And the once-most-prosperous sectors of Italian industry are increasingly victimized by Asian under-selling. The demographic crunch is by now no surprise: for at least twenty years, scholars and journalists have warned of the worsening ratio between pensioners and workers. Italy has been aging for some time now, with declining birth rates and dramatically expanding longevity. Her governments have had all the information they needed to attack the problem seriously. Yet today, Italy is a European leader in the size of pensions and the cost of services, and a laggard in the responsible levying and collecting of taxes. Had we been writing about this before the Berlusconi era, we probably would have targeted the brevity of ministers’ time in office as a major culprit: who can, or would want to, lead the way to painful long-term reform when someone else will be in one’s elegant chair before the year is out? But Berlusconi’s ministers revealed the fact that a decent tenure is only an essential condition for serious action, not a guarantee of it.

That the South is a serious drag on Italian economic performance in the context of the new Europe is no new revelation. Stefano Vaccara and I, in a study published in 1999 by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that not only was the North-South gap dramatic, but that the trends were in the wrong direction, a situation that was largely masked in Brussels where most economic and social statistics are national statistics. Nor was the contributing factor of the blood-sucking vampire of organized crime anything new. In fact, we wrote too soon. Since we wrote, the sizes of the crime-controlled economy and the overall black (not all crime-related but off the books for either taxes or social services) economy have both increased tellingly as a share of the South’s, and the country’s, economic activity.


        Fair warning has also long been present about the now-again-worsening relationship between (some) magistrates and Italian democracy. We’ve had a front-row seat for this dangerous conflict, the one that Joseph LaPalombara predicted, a decade ago, would cause more distress for Italy in the context of the EU than even economic issues. The front-row seat has been provided by America Oggi, USitalia, and now i-Italy, with interviews (of two key Mani pulite magistrates and, a few months ago, of Clemente Mastella) that went far beyond what these folks said at home, and by those publications’ consistent attention to the politics of justice in Italy. The distinguished commentator Sergio Romano has now (Corriere della Sera, January 13) joined our (lonely) chorus calling on magistrates to explain and defend priorities and actions (not, or course, to reveal prejudicial information about current cases, the one form of leakage to which some of them have been prone). More is on its way. One must be both lucid and thick-skinned here because whoever questioned the motives behind the Tangentopoli lynchings was seen, improperly, as defending the gang of political and business robber barons who were hung. But it was not a Western movie: sometimes the bad guys in the black hats shoot at other bad guys in black hats.


        Sunday, however, signals great change, even if it will not be delivered immediately. It is true that we might see the return of Silvio Berlusconi to Palazzo Chigi. But he is not the Signor Rieccolo of the Fanfani days, a trusted member of the club popped back into office for a brief period when other solutions are temporarily unavailable. Berlusconi demonstrates that you don’t have to be a man of the people (although he has taken to wearing black open-collared shirts and turtlenecks in public so that he looks a little less like the banker who refused your last loan) to be a successful populist.


        But our eyes must focus on Walter Veltroni and his insistence that the Partito democratico will go it alone. What can this possibly mean? We have churned out several Gothic columns declaring that the most important new figure in Italian politics is not Berlusconi or Veltroni, but the floating voter. Private polling done before the law required its cessation still showed a large percentage of “undecided”.   Veltroni’s strategy can mean only one thing: he sees, down the road, because of this new voter, a possibility that has never been seriously considered in the post-war republic: the gaining of an electoral majority by a single party. We are so far from the possibility that it seems not worth discussing. (And polling guru Mannheimer warns that many of the “undecided” will, in fact, abstain.) But no other explanation fits Veltroni’s course of action.


        That’s what’s new about Sunday. Berlusconi and Veltroni are fighting two different elections. Berlusconi is striving to win this election. Veltroni’s real election is the next election.


        It’s time for old bearded political observers to go sit in the piazza and enjoy the pleasure of losing touch.


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