Listening to Italy
THE LEAST BAD OPTION
The 4 March Italian general election was the focus of a Paris speech by Pierre Moscovici, the EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs. He noted his concern about the possible outcome saying that it would either be instability and/or a government with anti-EU policies. Italian Antonio Tajani, the President of the EU Commission, is an ally of Silvio Berlusconi. In the last week of January he was proposed by Berlusconi as his candidate to be the next Premier, should Forza Italia (Fi) be able to form a government. Knowing which side his bread is buttered, Tajani immediately said that the European Institutions mustn’t interfere.
Matteo Salvini, Lega Nord leader, actually outlined his election programme in his response to Muscovici. He said that Moscovici’s comments were the “unacceptable intrusion of a European bureaucrat in the Italian elections. The policies of uncontrolled immigration and economic sacrifices imposed by Europe have been a disaster and will be rejected by the free vote of the Italians.” La Repubblica 16. 01. 18.
But around 48% of Italians are politically disillusioned and don’t know where to put their vote. The financial position of Italy is grim. Its deficit exceeds the EU financial stability rules and the country could have economic strictures imposed on it. The EU are waiting for the election result before their next move. In 2010 the financially incompetent government of Silvio Berlusconi fell and was replaced by a 17-strong technocratic government run, as an interim measure, by Eurocrat economist Mario Monti. Monti said at the time that he had received “many signals of encouragement from our European partners”, but this was in effect the actual imposition of a Euro-approved administration onto the country. This intervention was unacceptable to many Italians.
The Monti administration, according to Elsa Fornero one of its members, was not as strong and successful in making reforms as it might have been. The cabinet was inexperienced in coping with the resistance to their policies, which came from both the public and the political parties. Fornero’s law, which dramatically raised the pension age, is a particularly incendiary issue in the current election. The important point from Monti’s period is that it has not stimulated a renewed enthusiasm for party governance and democratic change. Rather, it has been used by the Right and M5S to increase anti-Europeanism.
Matteo Renzi government’s policies have continued the same type of reforms which have increased austerity and are in line with the EU’s thinking. The de-regulation of the jobs market in particular, and the Fornero Law, have leached away what should be the centre-left Pd party’s core support, increasing the allure of anti-European parties.
The previously unconstitutional electoral system has been rewritten, so that the forthcoming election will be legal. This is coming at the end of a full term of government by the Pd. The Five Star Movement (M5S) opposed the new structures because they were deliberately devised to stop them winning an election. The amassed votes of coalitions will count, so that although the polls show M5S as the leading single party, this position could be trumped by a coalition.
The three identifiable groups contesting this general election are: centre-left, centre-right and M5S. (Some regional presidents will also be elected simultaneously). There are many small and very small parties, some of whom can and will join a coalition. For example, the centre-right is running as a coalition of four parties: the largest, Berlusconi’s Fi, is followed by Matteo Savini’s Lega Nord (now, to broaden its appeal, simply: Lega), Giorgia Meloni’s smaller Frattelli d’Italia, FdI, plus a very small party netting only 2.2% of votes.
The three main centre-right leaders insist on the integrity of their coalition at the same time as strongly disagreeing publicly on stances, policies and candidates. Berlusconi admires Angela Merkel politically, while making highly offensive remarks about her physical charms. Salvini has been photographed with Donald Trump and strongly supports his protectionism. La Repubblica of 25 Jan said of the three parties, “they are so different as to disorientate the centre-right electorate….”
Salvini and Meloni are overtly anti-migrant and racist. Attilio Fontana, the Lega centre-right candidate for the Presidency of Lombardia, made a racist speech which caused horror and some amount of delight on the left. There was agreement from Salvini’s Lega and from some others on the right, but following enormous press coverage and general condemnation, they later rowed back by trying to imply that he had been mis-reported. Fontana had said: “We must decide if our ethnic group, our white race, our society, can continue to exist or if it will be wiped out”. (Corriere della Sera 16 Jan.)
Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction for fraud makes him ineligible to stand for a seat or as Premier. But at 81, with frequent health farm visits, hair supplements (and surely botox) he is as brazen and powerful as ever. On 8 January at the start of the election campaign La Repubblica reported that Fi had launched its symbol: FORZA ITALIA. BERLUSCONI PRESIDENTE. Impossible, but! A few hours later, Salvini countered with his symbol. STOP FORNERO. SALVINI PREMIER. LEGA SALVINI.
The Right states that they are a coalition, while the Left is so hopelessly split that an appearance of unity is an impossibility. On Orecchiette’s recent visit to “RED” Bologna, the anti-Renzi graffiti was obvious and widespread. There are breakaway left groups and factions within the Pd. Older political figures on the left, such as Romano Prodi have attempted to bang metaphorical heads together but Renzi sits at the top of the centre-left, blocking any resolution and jeopardising the left’s election chances.
Renzi is seen as being anti-democratic and autocratic. The electoral programme dictates that candidates must be declared by 2 February. Renzi made himself responsible for the selection and caused an enormous furore by doing it swiftly and with little consultation. Rosario Crocetta, the former mayor of Gela in Sicily, was driven to say that he would take to the streets with a megaphone “to denounce a true purge of all dissent”. Or Alessandro Terrile from Genova was similarly outraged by having non-Genovese candidates imposed on the area. “This is no longer a party…”, he said.
At the same time close political allies of Renzi have been allocated safe seats. The loudest grumbling has been directed at the selection of Maria Elena Boschi, who some opponents say is “an even closer” associate. Boschi and family are shareholders of the Etruria bank – a bank involved in financial scandals. In many eyes it questions not only her probity, but also Renzi’s support. In any event, for Renzi to give 90% of what could be safe seats to his inner circle has further corroded an already broken party’s unity and spirit.
The Pd’s Paolo Gentiloni has served as Prime minister since Renzi lost a referendum and was forced to stand down. A La Repubblica poll of 26 January discovered that Gentiloni is the most trusted political leader in Italy. Second to him was Emma Bonino, respected as a principled politician and upholder of human rights.
Third in the list was Luigi De Maio, M5S‘s new leader. He is the political wild card dogging the Left and Right. The other parties designed the new electoral system to eliminate De Maio and M5S, but the polls at the start of February, suggest a very close finish. De Maio at 31, in his unremarkable suits and ties, looks like an innocent schoolboy. One Berlusconi associate disparaged him as: Little Luigi. He is in with a chance.
M5S was founded by Beppe Grillo, the comedian and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a somewhat reclusive IT expert. The Movement was designed not to be a party and decision-making was to be made through internet polls of members. Their aim was to stamp out endemic Italian corruption by providing an honest straight-forward democratic alternative to old style politics. The irony was, and remains, that a small group make the final, important decisions and members are purged if they don’t conform or want to have a voice of their own. Luigi De Maio was in this small controlling group. A while after Gianroberto’s death Grillo decided to retire and become the figurehead, “the father”, and he suggested De Maio as the leader. Davide, son of Gianroberto took his father’s place.
At the start of the election campaign, Orecchiette saw a television news strap quote De Maio as saying that “we have won already!” Since that naive indiscretion he has gained stature, is embarking on a “Rally for Italy” and is starting to put detail on what he would do if the Movement won. The anti-Europeanism is of concern to Europe as is his proposal not to follow an austerity budget.
The M5S hoped that their two high-profile mayors, in Rome and Turin, would demonstrate dynamic and successful management and be a credit to the Movement. Strikes and refuse disposal problems show that this hasn’t happened. Also, honest M5S‘s De Maio has been shown to have lied about having any knowledge of Mafia involvement in refuse disposal in Rome.
Political activity in Italy will now be at fever pitch. The Left and Right are both disunited, and are throwing out unrealistic and unrealisable promises. The Right are making a better job of keeping up appearances. M5S lacks the long history of failures, falsehoods and disrespected party machines and in contrast could appear to be a fresh alternative. They might therefore be given the benefit of the doubt. Di Maio said that “The only chance of stability for Italy is us”. The 48% politically disillusioned and undecided have a month to choose what one voter called “the least bad option”.