2015 03 – Letter from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Sergio Mattarella was elected Head of State and President of the Republic of Italy at the fourth ballot on 31 January 2015. The electorate for Presidential elections comprise the full Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, plus regional representatives. The constitutional procedure requires a series of ballots. The majorities needed for a successful election reduce from 2/3 on the first ballot to a simple majority on the fourth. The first three were not really taken seriously by any group except Beppe Grillo’s M5S. Ferdinando Imposimato, a Magistrate and Honorary President of the Supreme Court of Italy, was the internal M5S’s on-line ballot choice for Presidential candidate, with 32% of their members’ votes. The 78 year old M5S member has been involved in important anti-mafia cases and both he and Mattarella have had a brother killed by the mafia. He also believes that the FBI were aware of the presence of the 9/11 terrorist group in America and did not share this information with the CIA.

The first three ballots showed Imposimato to be the highest scorer with 120, 123 and 126 votes. Mattarella received a curious 5, 4 and 4. The credible candidate Romano Prodi received 9, 5 and 3. A large number of suggested presidential candidates were written in each time and well over 500 scheda bianca, or blank ballot papers appeared with each of the ballots. During the progress of the first three ballots the serious horse trading was obviously proceeding in the background. The final result was Mattarella winning the fourth ballot with 665 votes, or 66% of the votes. Imposimato gained a consistent 127, while Prodi’s votes declined to 2. But who gave the single vote to ex-President Napolitano? By then he must have been planning his ninetieth birthday celebrations with a feeling of enormous relief.

Sergio Mattarella is a 73 year old Sicilian judge known for devising the system of electoral reform named after him: the Mattarellum. He is a quiet man, with determination and a reputation of being able to separate himself from party politicking. He was a member of the Christian Democrats and towards the left.

Matteo Renzi’s Nazareno pact with Silvio Berlusconi, predictably unpopular with the left of his party, played an important part in the election. The name comes from the Italians’               metonymic way of naming something after the place where it was agreed. The via del Nazareno is a street in Rome. The pact’s finer details were always kept secret but the result was that Berlusconi supported Renzi in parliamentary votes. But Berlusconi couldn’t countenance supporting Renzi’s choice of Mattarella for President because he had challenged his increasingly monopolistic commercial media interests in the past. Berlusconi told his Forza Italia group, Fi, to vote against Mattarella. He was also expecting his former deputy Angelino Alfano, who had formed the Ncd (New Centre Right), to follow his line. In the end the pull of Renzi was stronger and Alfano voted for Mattarella, as did several members of Berlusconi’s own party.

Berlusconi managed to organise a neat piece of spying on his party’s voting performance. It is possible to see on camera the difference in the time taken by an abstainer to fold a blank voting paper, and compare it with the time taken to write in a name. In this way Silvio managed to organise a clear tally of those who had chosen not to follow his diktat and be whipped. After this cracks began to open up in Berlusconi’s territory of the right and he was seen to be humiliated.

Renzi and Berlusconi’s Nazareno pact was mutually beneficial while it lasted. It gave Renzi additional votes to push through unpopular legislation while Berlusconi was able to declare and feel that he was at the centre of power. Renzi’s shrewd choice of Mattarella was partly made to appease rebels in his party, at the same time as knowing that it would break the by now counter-productive Nazareno pact. Its end represented a second humiliation for Berlusconi. Then, Berlusconi had also to swallow his pride and congratulate the new President Mattarella.

But Berlusconi always works swiftly to put difficulties behind him and by the 7 February was wining, dining and working to rebuild alliances, particularly with the Lega Nord’s Secretary, Matteo Salvini. The Lega Nord are seen as traditional allies. Berlusconi’s new mission of revenge was one of total opposition to Renzi and his reforms. Alessandro De Angelis in The Huffington Post described it as having the “objective of creating an inferno” to kill the Italicum electoral changes. He was going out to organise “ a war cabinet” against Renzi who he was accusing of being a bully and a dictator. One could smile at this sabre rattling, seeing it as a case of pots and kettles. But the truth of his description of Renzi is beginning to resonate just as strongly in Renzi’s own party, as well as wider. This is becoming much more than just a Berlusconian rant.

On 11 February opposition to Renzi’s changes led to a scuffle in the Chamber of Deputies. The sitting of the Chamber of Deputies, the Camera, was suspended and three Deputies were also given suspensions. La Stampa called it “the brawl of the left”. It is easy to snigger at the disorder, but it is refreshing to see the contrast between their strong feelings and the UK parliament’s limp reactions and acquiescence. The Camera had had an all-night sitting. Deputies were increasingly being put under pressure to conform and many from different parties were getting angry and disturbed about being denied the ability to speak. La Stampa quoted someone saying that “not since the fascists have people been stopped from speaking”.

And so to the Aventino Hill. Groups of Deputies started to absent themselves pointedly from the Chamber rather than voting under Renzi’s pressure – and this was referred to as Aventino opposition. This actual or symbolic walk up the Colle Aventino, or Aventino Hill in Rome is loaded with meaning. The tactic currently makes complex references to challenges to the democratic system and to the process of making changes to electoral law. It also makes intentionally sinister references to Mussolini. The story behind this is interesting.

In the Second Century B.C. the Roman plebs led by Gaius Gracchus battled against the patricians in an attempt to restore a genuine democracy to Rome. The battle took place on the Roman Colle Aventinus. Renzi’s current electoral changes link back in spirit to changes made in 1923 during the time of Mussolini. The Acerbo Law replaced the system of proportional representation and gave the largest party, with 25% (or more) of the votes, a premium of 2/3 of the seats. (The ground had been prepared but Mussolini had no need to force this as he was subsequently voted in with more than a 2/3 majority.) In 1924, 150 Deputies of the left and centre withdrew from the Chamber as a show of opposition to Mussolini. The precipitant had been the political murder of Giamcomo Matteotti. Mussolini’s complicity in this has never been proven but at the time there was opposition to what was seen as his complicity. They went up to the Aventino and the event was called The Secessione dell’ Aventino.

So Renzi is seen as dictatorial not just by Berlusconi. Others are increasingly worried by his impulsive drive to sidestep opposition. Renato Brunetta, a close ally of Berlusconi, is concerned by what he calls a drift to authoritarianism. Renzi has managed to sustain sufficient parliamentary support and his voter popularity is high. But future parliamentary success without the support of Berlusconi will not be easy. Brunetta is obviously politically opposed to Renzi and is, as expected, one of those using the Aventino Hill strategy in protest. But he predicts that “Renzi will see green mice”. Italian green mice are not cuddly creatures but are seen as threats. Renzi, as usual, smiles and moves on: His Twitter post of 14 Feb congratulated the tenacity of the deputies at working to conclude the vote. He then simply and calmly patronised the green mice by giving them a hug, un abbraccio.