2017 07 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Stefano Rodotà, 84 year old intellectual and independent socialist died on 23 June, two days before the second round of the Italian municipal elections.

Rodotà served four parliamentary terms, was a member of the European Parliament, a jurist, writer and professor of civic law. He had been a Visiting Professor at All Souls, Oxford, and was part of the team who wrote the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. He didn’t seek celebrity, was not a natural leader, so was not a widely known European figure. He was however greatly respected for his intellect, integrity and modesty. Several post-election commentators used the coincidence in timing to compare current politicians unfavourably with Rodotà

Italy urgently needs to revise its unconstitutional electoral system for general elections before one is due in early 2018. This is currently being discussed in Parliament. Matteo Renzi leader of the centre-left Pd (Partito Democratico), Silvio Berlusconi of the centre-right Fi (Forza Italia) and Beppe Grillo of M5S (The Five Star Movement) are attempting to develop a mutually acceptable substitute. It is obvious, predictably, that they are individually attempting to devise a solution that will serve their own interests..

The modifications might retain a version of the current system whereby a winning party, or a coalition, are given a premium of seats to ensure a majority. This strategy was devised originally to provide stable governments, where there had been enormous instability. A proportional representation system, favoured by Silvio Berlusconi, is also being considered. Before the municipal elections Matteo Renzi had been proposing a September 2017 general election. As these constitutional wrangles dragged on the aspiration then became November.

The results of the 25 June municipal elections were unexpectedly bad for Renzi’s party. Municipals are held every five years and, like the UK, are not all held simultaneously. Every major city and all communes (comuni) with more than 15,000 inhabitants are able to elect a mayor and council. The contest generally runs to two rounds unless one candidate exceeds 50% of the vote. The results of these elections are likely not only to change the balance of power but also to modify the leaders’ proposals for the new voting system.

The increased vote for the right confirmed a drift that could be seen in the 2015 municipal election results. The left plummeted (in the current elections) from having a total of 15 mayors of major cities to having 5, while the right increased their tally from 6 to 16. Results for the comuni show a similar pattern of movement to the right. There were shocks when several places considered solid red strongholds (roccaforte) turned blue – Genova, Sesto San Giovanni (Milan), Pistoia and La Spezia.

The M5S vote was small. Beppe Grillo’s home city of Genova astounded everyone by turning the customary Pd lead in the first round to returning an Fi (Forza Italia) mayor on the second vote. Grillo obviously had hoped for a M5S win here. But early in the contest fierce arguments between the Movement and their candidates poisoned M5S’s chances. The unresolvable oddity of the group is that candidates are forbidden the autonomy that seems normal and necessary within a functioning political party. Bizarrely, issues have to be referred upwards to the non-elected hierarchy.

Grillo hoped that the existing 3 M5S mayors, particularly those in Rome and Turin, would give an example of success to inspire voters. Virginia Raggi, Rome’s mayor made  senior appointments of people who had previous mafia connections. This has impacted negatively on her sense of judgement and the progress of her administration. La Stampa reported on 29 June that the satisfaction ratings for Chiara Appendino in Turin have now dropped to 45%. So, although M5S picked up a handful of mayors in the comuni, there are few visible signs to support Grillo’s contention that he is ready to govern Italy.

The fiercest criticism in the press is for the conduct of Matteo Renzi. The background is that he resigned as Prime Minister and Pd party leader after losing last December’s referendum. He made a come-back as party leader while Paolo Gentiloni (referred to as his puppet) was given the task of running the Government. Renzi is clearly still in control.

Renzi’s own (previous) government had worked closely with centre-right Berlusconi to form an informal and sometimes clandestine coalition, in order to force legislation through. Significantly and curiously, he made no attempt to forge alliances with groups on the left. The result, predictably, was, and still is, dissent within the party and the wider left, plus splits which have resulted in a break-away party.

In the immediate election aftermath – one commentator referred to it as Renzi’s “ko” (knock-out), he appeared still, inexplicably, to be buoyant. Tomaso Montanari in Il Fatto Quotidiano saw that this “arrogance and grotesque deafness” are a “huge obstacle on the road to a left that is united and renewed”. There are now indications that the left are examining and evaluating their future, even if Renzi is unwilling to do so.

Before the municipals Renzi was suggesting that a general election win could open the possibility of a formal grand coalition with Silvio Berlusconi. Peter Gomez (an Italian/American journalist specialising in corruption) referred to this in Il Fatto Quotidiano of 26 June, as “a super-vile compromise destined to increase the discrediting of politics in the eyes of the electorate”. Gomez writes in the same vein as many others when he says that “for someone who is only interested in Power, and has abandoned every desire to change the country, this is not a problem”.

Immediately after the polls Berlusconi’s Fi party claimed to have a mandate for change in the cities. The Lega Nord (Northern League) of Matteo Salina and Georgia Meleni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) were both reported to say that they were ready to govern the country and join a coalition with Berlusconi. Although small, both parties are able to influence useful numbers of voters. Both are at the extreme end of the right-spectrum.  La Repubblica‘s Monica Rubino (26 June) reported a more guarded Berlusconi saying that he favoured “ a ‘moderate’ coalition”. The explanation for this uncharacteristic circumspection came from Gianluca Luzi (La Repubblica, 26 June) who suggested that Berlusconi would never accept the internal leadership challenge that would inevitably come from Salvini.

The turn-out in the municipal elections was unusually low and several commentators have examined the significance of the absence of 54% of voters – in fact, a majority. To Il Fatto Quotidiano‘s Tomaso Montanari it is more than just a crisis in the parties of the left but a crisis for Italian democracy. After all, “we can’t talk about democracy if the majority of people don’t vote.” And, if as several articles suggest, these abstaining voters do register their vote at a general election, the outcome will be unpredictable. There has been some swift analysis to guess future outcomes. But with a climate of general disillusionment any predictions are uncertain.

La Repubblica’s obituary for Stefano Rodotà (23 June) makes a fitting conclusion. They quoted him as long ago as 2000, commenting on the Italian political scene, here translated literally: . “There is a cultural impoverishment. The bad politics are a daughter of a bad culture”.