Monday, December 20, 2010

Eatanswill-on-Tiber; Trasformismo in the 21st century

Or the Vicar of Bray, Italian style (“And to this law I will maintain/ Unto my dying day, Sir./ That whatever King may reign, /I will be the Vicar of Bray”)

The last week before the confidence votes were marked by violent polemics over the cattlemarket for wavering deputies. The opposition has made it very clear that Berlusconi played dirty in the ways he inveigled the less principled into his camp. But whatever the ethics of the matter and Di Pietro’s accusations of crimes, there is very likely nothing illegal and certainly nothing very original in the process.
Now that the government has a tiny (and relative) majority, it is almost certain that there is likely to be a lot of horsetrading at the next crucial vote. Two or three deputies can hold the government to ransom so we have certainly not seen the last of Parliament looking more like a stock exchange than a legislative body.
In English popular culture, the Vicar of Bray epitomises the figure who adjusts his principles to suit the times. In the 17th century, the real vicar maintained his prebend in the parish of Bray officiating happily as a puritan, an Anglican and a Catholic. Italian legislators are no less adept at navigating the shoals of a career in politics.
For a good part of its first 60 years and before, Italy was marked by a permeability between political groupings that was know euphemistically first as the connubio and then as trasformismo. Before unification Cavour managed to put together liberals and conservatives in the Piedmontese parliament in order to push through his reforms; this was the connubio or marriage. In 1882 the prime minister Agostino Depretis remarked “if someone wants to transform (trasformarsi) himself and become progressive, how can I send him away?” and the term was coined. But the whole period was marked by a lack of a clear divide in programmes and ideologies between the two sides.
A generation later, the Piedmontese statesman Giovanni Giolitti became a master of political management worthy of New York’s Tamanay or Dickens’ Eatanswill. Like today’s accusations of deputy-buying, Depretis and Giolitti cajoled their clients by promising them re-election as well as personal and political benefits. But on the whole, the persuasion which was exercised was much more similar to the carrots and sticks which an American president uses to negotiate a bill through congress. The lack of sharp party discipline also links the US system with pre-fascist Italy so that despite the extensive horsetrading there was rarely anything clearly illegal or overtly corrupt.
The lack of parties led to the importance of personalities; a deputy’s loyalty was to Giolitti, not to the party. And despite the overwhelming importance of parties today, paradoxically, personalities are even more important. The big difference between today and the old trasformismo is that the reward is personal rather than political.
The two members of Antonio Di Pietro’s Italy of Values (IdV), Domenico Scilipoti and Antonio Razzi who voted for Berlusconi were betraying Di Pietro because they had been recruited by him and had a loyalty to him rather than the party. Massimo Calearo is a Veneto businessman who Walter Veltroni had put in the Democratic Party list in the hope of widening the party’s appeal; he was linked more to Veltroni than the PD. Calearo left the party a year ago and last week voted in favour of Berlusconi. The bond in all cases in personal and the motive may or may not be private rather than political advantage.
The past master of today’s game is Clemente Mastella, the man who brought down Prodi’s government in January 2008 and is probably the best personification of a contemporary vicar of Bray. Just before the 14 December vote, he explained exactly why a deputy should look after his own interests and change sides. A deputy has an income of c. €15,000 per month; the legislature could last another 28 months which totals more than €400,000. Add to that the generous pension which a deputy is entitled to after five years service, there are strong incentives not to go to early elections especially for new deputies. Principles are hardly relevant.
His take on the result, by the way, was that Berlusconi will win by a short head and he was right. But the €15,000 p.m. figure that Mastella quotes is by my reckoning a bit low; the Chamber of Deputies states that a deputy receives c. €11,700 a month salary (which after tax, pension, health deductions becomes €5,500 net) plus €3,500 expenses for living in Rome, €3,700 for “relations between electors and elected”, c. €1,000 pm for travel to an from the airport, €250 pm for telephone and free air, rail and sea travel in Italy and free motorways.
In any case, it is well documented that Italian deputies are the highest paid in Europe.
So as Mastella put so elegantly, there are good reasons to support the government even if Berlusconi gives them nothing. The five years’ service before being entitled to a pension is not quite true as there are ways of getting a pension after only three years; but I’ll deal with that in another blog. Berlusconi does not only have the possibility of doling out cash bonuses to deputies. Like Giolitti a century before, but without Giolitti’s stature, he can decide who is to be elected in the next elections. Since the resignation of the Fli members of government, Berlusconi has the bounty of one cabinet minister, one deputy minister and two undersecretaries to distribute. And he is keeping those jobs empty, dangling as bait for possible incentives in the future. One deputy, a physician, is alleged to have been promised a consultant’s post in hospital; another is the daughter of the owner of Italy’s largest crammer which is also seeking university status and Berlusconi has supported private education. Future jobs and contributions to foundations and thinktanks have also been suggested a coin for these transactions but we will have to wait some months to see if the deals were respected.
One of those who gave their vote to Berlusconi, Domenico Scilipoti, even had the nerve to make fun of himself posting a clip from the great Neapolitan comic Totò’s Gli onorevoli where Totò is promised the world for three votes – very prescient.
Berlusconi claimed another eight deputies on Friday but of course it won’t be tested till the next controversial vote (Wednesday’s vote on the university reform bill will not be opposed by Fli).
There is no doubt about the sleaze which surrounded Tuesday’s vote. But while vote buying at an individual level is criminal, members of parliament have their independence guaranteed by the constitution precisely to prevent the parties taking over. Unless investigators are able to find more than circumstantial evidence that deputies were bought for precise benefits rather than persuaded by Berlusconi’s strength of argument and personality, then there will be no convictions. It is a question of ethics and standards rather than specific crimes; welcome to an Italian Eatanswill.
But before that, there is the far more immediate problem of violence in the streets which I will deal with before the Wednesday vote.

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