Listening to Italy
ALWAYS THE SILLY SEASON?
Brexit? There is little time for the Italian press to divert themselves from their current exceptionally busy and volatile political scene. Included in the programme are the municipal and mayoral elections on 5 June, there are also the internal miseries of the leaderless and rudderless M5S (The Movimento 5 Stelle), plus an October referendum. All are being conducted in the customary forthright and passionate Italian way.
Municipal and mayoral elections are held every five years and the campaigns in a significant number of mayoralties have been exceedingly controversial. One particular conflagration followed the announcement by Georgia Meloni, a well known political figure, that she had decided to stand for the Roman mayoralty. Meloni is pregnant. Berlusconi immediately said motherhood was incompatible with office, while his favoured male candidate said that she shouldn’t have to work a 14 hour day, dealing with potholes while she was breastfeeding. Women were outraged by the misogyny and protested loudly. Similarly a candidate in Milan, Patrizia Bedori stood down after becoming increasingly unhappy about adverse and offensive comments about her appearance. This is a familiar problem for British female politicians and prominent women such as Cambridge Professor Mary Beard who have to cope with trolling.
Gianroberto Casaleggio, the owner, or managing director of M5S died suddenly in April leaving a large gap in the Italian political scene. M5S is a significant political force as it netted the largest number of votes in the last general election. The movement was not established with a leader and democratic structure in the accepted political way and it has Beppe Grillo the famous comedian as its figurehead, carrying their public branding. Casaleggio was in effect his puppet-master and since his demise Grillo has not made any moves to lead the Movement. Neither has son Davide Casaleggio or two of the three current hierarchy; only Luigi Di Maio’s voice comes through as a spokesperson.
Di Maio is ambitious and, at 29 is the current and youngest-ever Vice President of the Lower House. On 21 May he appeared in an interview on the regular political TV show Otto e mezzo. This is hosted by Lilli Gruber a 59 year old ex-politician of the left. Gruber is ferocious. Di Maio looked slightly fearful but he has appeared on the programme before. The setting was noteworthy for its symbolism. Sleek in black, with long dressed fair hair, Gruber wore the most impossibly high, sharp stiletto heels. The camera would occasionally shoot from a low vantage point that emphasised her shoes as deadly, killer weapons, a metaphor for her ability (usually) to flatten (puncture is probably a better word) her interviewees.
However, Gruber made a significant point. Grillo had hit the headlines in Italy and the UK after his provocative remark about waiting for London’s new Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan to blow up Westminster. Gruber suggested to Di Maio that it was untenable for a comedian, whose working method is ridiculing people, to also expect to have credibility as a politician. He has to be one or the other, not both. There is no satisfactory answer to this. Di Maio did his best, saying that Grillo wasn’t the leader but was there to guarantee the rules.
And although it may seem extraordinary to have a comedian as a significant player in politics, there are precedents elsewhere. It is unimaginable that old style comics such as Frankie Howard or Tony Hancock would be fronting a political movement. But politics has changed and the illusory familiarity of celebrity status actually confers a largely unquestioned credibility onto people who are just self-opinionated publicists. Or was it ever thus? Figures such as Stephen Fry and Russell Brand, and Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are considered as leaders not for their strong manifestos but rather because of their capacity to entertain.
On 16 May Corriere della Sera published an article headed” Boris Johnson: “The European Union has the same objectives as Hitler”. Although there is, for many reasons, growing anti-EU antipathy in Italy his pronouncement was viewed with horror. Johnson is generally seen as a clown, bracketed with Grillo or Trump. Fittingly for the early silly-season, Corriere also ran a piece based on a Bianca Jagger Tweet. Her tweet saw a likeness between Johnson and Trump and it suggested that “they were separated at birth”. This article expanded a little on Johnson’s views but continued to say that his fellow “demon” Trump believed that Brussels is “an infernal hole” and that “isolation is good, integration is stupid.” Fittingly Corriere illustrated the piece with a photo of Boris looking ridiculous on his bike.
La Repubblica ran an interesting video interview with Vittorio Zucconi, its New York correspondent of 30 years, who attempted to answer the question about why Trump was being taken seriously. At first everyone laughed, he said. Then this changed to incredulity and then the reality of his popularity hit home as truth. “The smile turned to fear…. His aims are simplistic but to his supporters he represents “Anything But” the traditional politicians”.
The Italian government’s proposed changes to the electoral system, which reduces the numbers in the Lower House (Camera) and radically changes the Upper House (Senate), were the particular responsibility of Maria Elena Boschi, the Minister for Reform. This Bill will be put to the country in a referendum in October. If approved, the Senate will be appointed from the regions. For a country where nepotism and influence are such a dampener on democracy, this is a retrograde step.
The progress towards their referendum is as heated in Italy as in the UK. Boschi recently made a huge gaffe by saying that real Italian partisans will be voting “yes” to the constitutional reforms. The hornets’ nest exploded. Italy’s partisan groups were started immediately after World War Two with the aim of ensuring a future of national freedom, peace and anti-fascism. Carlo Smuraglia, President of the main group, Anpi (Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia) was outraged at being directed how to vote. The left-wing candidate for Mayor of Rome, Stefano Fassina, concurred with their thoughts. “This is a very serious statement, very worrying, confirmation of the culture of intolerance towards dissent that the Renzi government manifests every day.” (Huffingtonpost.it 23.05.2016) And it is a serious vote loser for Renzi’s government.
The 93 year old communist and partisan Smuraglia responded to the 35 year old Boschi with an article in Anpi’s magazine saying that she didn’t know what she was talking about. He talked about her government forcing through agreements in parliament by running confidence votes to curtail discussion. In essence he decried the vacuous and noisy nature of current politics. As a communist with enormous life experience, the world of lightweights in politics was an anathema. “I find this out of place compared with a campaign that should be quiet, calm and focussed on content. Enough”.