2017 12 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


At the end of November there was a huge rumpus in the Italian press when it appeared that Eugenio Scalfari, founder of La Repubblica, was backing Silvio Berlusconi. La Repubblica has never supported Berlusconi. Indeed at one point their publisher and Berlusconi were at war over control of the Mondadori publishing house. To think of Scalfari supporting Berlusconi caused Italian jaws to drop very loudly indeed. The cover of Il Fatto Quotidiano had a photo of the body of Silvio with the head of Eugenio pasted on top. Their gleeful headline ran: The New Repubblica BERLUSCALFARI.

In fact it was slightly trick question on a TV show that caught Scalfari unawares. His reply was instantaneous but he lacked the speed to dodge the question with political adeptness. Scalfari was discussing the current political scene and was asked: “Between Berlusconi and Di Maio, who would you choose?” (Di Maio is the new leader of Beppe Grillo’s M5S.) The following day Scalfari bulldozed the misrepresentation and La Repubblica led with “The deception of my vote”. Obviously, he continued, he would NEVER vote for Berlusconi but was simply answering a question directly. But, he said, between the two, at least Berlusconi has substance. “The Populism of M5S is far more dangerous.” The best option, being realistic, is for an alliance between  Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Fi) and Renzi’s Partito Democtratico (Pd). In effect this has been happening for some time, as Renzi has lost the support of the left of his party and had to rely on Berlusconi’s support.

Berlusconi not only had open heart surgery in the Summer but also spent a physically transformative week at an exclusive spa in The Alto Adige. A photo on his arrival showed him standing next to the owner and he looked old and bald. By the end of the week he had a perfect, glistening white smile, a full head of hair and a suntan. The minimum cost of a week at The Palace Hotel in Merano is £3,600. In the last week of November 2017 he returned there for what was called a detox week. He described himself as “a boy who is getting on in years with a heart that is forever young”.

For Berlusconi has two current issues things are crucial. Chronologically, the Sicilian Regional Assembly elections were held on 5 November. Sicily has always voted for the right. But they lost power in the last elections following political feuding and the Pd took over. This time their support plummeted because of internal feuding (18.5%) and Berlusconi’s Fi won (39.9%). They were closely followed by M5S (34.6%).  These elections are seen as a predictor for the General Election which must be held by early Summer 2018.

The second important issue is Berlusconi’s appeal against the Italian Court’s barring him from holding public office because of his conviction for tax fraud. He was convicted in 2013, and spent a year doing community service one day a week in a retirement home and was let off any further penalties. His appeal to Strasburg is that his ban was enacted retrospectively under the Severino Law. Seventeen judges started to hear the case on 22 November. If the ban is upheld, he would still be eligible to take office again during the course of the next parliament, assuming that it runs full-term.

Meanwhile the left, led by Renzi’s Pd (his Government kept alive by Premier Paolo Gentiloni) has been riven by splits for years. Renzi discredited himself in the eyes of both the left and the voters, by working closely with Berlusconi to put through “reforms”. These reduced the rights of various groups of workers, their party’s core support. The result of his reforms has made little difference to youth unemployment or the enormous Italian budget deficit. Orecchiette reiterates a scenario familiar to many European countries:-  the populist party (in this case M5S) is seen as an alternative to a political scene where politicians are discredited, voters are abstaining from voting, because the choices offered are not answering their concerns.

And there is still more woe to come!  The M5S‘s young leader Luigi DeMaio does not have the presence of Grillo or the gravitas of a political leader. So, the appeal of the Moviment is waning.

There appears to be no leader who can unite the left and attempts at making alliances have all failed. The Pd’s leader before Renzi, Pier Luigi Bersani (aged 66) is the only widely respected politician to have a slight chance of leadership. He had the opportunity to form a government in 2013, but this failed, he has had health problems and is not seen as a realistic alternative to Renzi. He was reported recently saying that the reviled, on the left, “Jobs Act” was a betrayal of the promises given by the electorate and this would be the Pd’s “tombstone”. Pietro Grasso, the President of the Senate was reported in La Repubblica (9 November) that he was leaving the Pd. He summed up his reasons saying that the party of Bersani is the real Pd, and that the Pd itself  had actually left its own party!

The shining Berlusconi and the Fi have yet more problems. Success in the forthcoming General Election is dependent on the successful coalition of Fratelli D’Italia and The Lega Nord. Both very right wing/fascist, the Fratelli, or Brothers of Italy is a small group, but every vote is needed. Matteo Salvini is the leader of The Lega Nord but also interestingly of  Noi Con Salvini or Us with Salvini. Salvini obviously sees himself as the new leader of the right, but not just in the North of Italy. He has been mobilising support in Sicily and other regions and, with Silvio’s age in mind, can smell an opportunity. He made a provocative announcement this week. Berlusconi had been talking about a tax of 23%, which he countered with the suggestion of a flat-rate one of 15%. La Stampa used the verb scavalcare – to unseat.

Within weeks of the November Sicilian elections several new Fi Deputies were indicted for corruption. One Pd Deputy was accused of buying votes. The real shock was that two Fi Deputies, father and son, members of an extremely powerful local entrepreneurial and political family, were accused of money laundering. Their money trail winds from Switzerland to Bermuda to Monte Carlo and back. The father, Francantonio Genovese and his son Luigi have made Silvio Berlusconi look ridiculous, Luigi, a mere boy at 21 and a quarter of Silvio’s age is, or was if convicted, the youngest Fi Deputy. After the elections Berlusconi had celebrated saying: “Sicily…has chosen the path of real serious constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience”.