2016 12 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Italy has recently confronted three large and seemingly insoluble issues. The first is the earthquake that has cost lives and money. Tremors continue to frighten people and destroy infrastructure. The second, which threatens to make an enormous impact in the wider Europe, is the continuing arrival of migrants. Italians are working to assimilate them, while the EU and other separate European countries are either unable or unwilling to assist. This is causing anti-EU feeling and increasing unease within Italy itself. The third was the 4 December referendum on constitutional changes called by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Secure in the thought that he would win a YES vote, he said he would resign if the vote went against him.  As time went on he sensed that this was not likely to be in his favour and the date slid back more than once. Renzi’s over confident way of playing politics has irritated Italians of all political shades. It has also particularly alienated the many voters and groups that should be his centre-left party’s natural constituency. For example, his “Jobs Act” – he used the English words – reduced employment rights and gave employers more freedom to hire and fire. Teachers, who naturally lean towards his centre left Partito Democratico (Pd), also had the terms of their employment changed against their stiff opposition.

Renzi is energetic and he worked hard to turn the referendum in his favour, zipping around the country making many speeches to support the YES vote. At the same time other political groups were pressing Italians to vote NO.

Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (the Five Star, M5S) was the most vocal opponent. Currently the largest Italian political group, they have everything to play for when they rubbish Renzi. And in the post-Trump world the hurling of hyperbolic statements probably isn’t as counterproductive as it once would have been, and wild taunts were thrown at Renzi. Luigi De Maio, part of the hierarchy of M5S and Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament) called him a dictator, comparing him unfavourably with Pinochet; at least you knew where you were with Pinochet. Beppe Grillo stoked up his case with: “the serial killers of the lives of our children…(Renzi’s) reforms are full of bullshit”.

The implications of the referendum vote for Italy and also Europe are enormous. This article goes to print as the vote takes place, so Orecchiette can only speculate by saying that Renzi would be extremely lucky if he managed to get a YES vote. Indeed so lucky, that his tactical blunder in calling what became a personal confidence vote, would effectively undermine his position. He did retract his threat, or promise, to resign at one point, but he went ahead with the 4 December date.

A NO vote will throw the country into turmoil and give President Sergio Mattarella many dilemmas. Renzi’s government, a continuation of Mario Monti and Enrico Letta’s administrations, was ruled to be unconstitutional in law. (In essence this was because the powers of citizens to have an effective voice had been limited). These governments’ primary task had been to develop a new electoral system that could be used for future elections. A further constitutional anomaly is that the current unconstitutional government had confirmed Mattarella as President when Georgio Napolitano decided, reasonably, to retire just before his 90th birthday. Obviously the EU has to pretend not to notice the status of the Italian government.

President Mattarella has only one real option – to appoint another caretaker government. However, M5S have said that they will immediately, and insistently, demand an election. Grillo believes that he just needs the chance of an election to bring his Movement to triumph and power – like Donald Trump. He congratulated Trump on his successful election and made enormous capital about what he sees as their similarities in content and style. But Grillo was unable to resist saying that he was first to champion the underdog against the corrupt self-serving establishment. Trump just had the luck to be elected first. It is also unsurprising to note that Nigel Farage and M5S are in the same Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the European Parliament.

M5S is a Company, not a conventional party, and it conducts its internal business via members’ votes using the internet. The Movement aspires to make a people’s democracy by extending this mechanism to all Italian voters. Although Grillo is the leader he is unable to take a seat in the Parliament because of a manslaughter conviction following a road accident. The Movement states strongly that it is against corruption. But because it operates in the real Italian world it has been as prone as any conventional Italian party to pressure and temptation. In fact it is embroiled in scandals in Palermo and Bologna over false signatures on candidates’ registration forms. The M5S is also against Europe, corruption, the press and the establishment and Grillo is personally against gay marriage.

The views of The Economist and FT on the referendum were widely reported in the Italian press. The Economist wobbled but eventually recommended “a reluctant NO”. The FT recommended a YES. The Economist based its decision on their contention that the majority of Italian businesses and industries are inefficient and need to invest in technology to compete internationally. Several of the banks (actually the smaller ones) have a large number of unsecured loans and are technically insolvent. Plus, the judicial system is cumbersome and so painfully slow that the accused frequently pass the statute of limitations before they reach the point of a possible conviction.

The Economist doesn’t explain the obvious paradox behind its recommendations. If there is a NO vote how will Italian economic and structural inefficiencies be solved by a period  of political turmoil?  A change of government might compound the instability by making an Ital-exit. It would if it were controlled by M5S who are Eurosceptic, and the resurgent 80 year old Silvio Berlusconi favours coming out of the Euro.

In his pre-vote November desperation Renzi turned his attention to persuading the significant number of Italian ex-pat voters to vote YES. He sent a letter to them all, in his own name. He refuted critics who might see the country as politically unstable or weak and stressed that the constitutional changes would make for a stronger Italy. There was criticism in the Italian press about who paid for this and also how personal addresses could be used for this kind of very partial mailing. A Il Fatto Quotidiano cartoon showed Santa struggling to cope with all this extra mail.

Rather unfortunately for Renzi, the letter’s website address contained a typo and so was incorrect. A member of Silvio Berlusconi’s party spotted the mistake and bought the domain address for €10. So, any recipient of the letter who searched for more arguments in favour of YES, would instead have found a lot of reasons for voting NO.