Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"No-one doubts that he will win the vote." "Berlusconi will celebrate his birthday with a rousing majority..." Sorry, I thought we were expecting some political excitement...Or might it all go pear-shaped even at this late juncture? Thanks, PP

Very unlikely today - the vote is scheduled for 19.00 today. But it will almost certainly go pearshaped again in a few months. JW
A lucid and fair analysis of the latest developments in traditionally-murky Italian politics, though I am sure Blair will not appreciate being paired with Berlusconi. It is still unclear whether Fini's long conversion to the middle ground of Italian politics is genuine, or whether it is solely motivated by a lust for power. What is even more worrying is the ineptitude of the Italian left to profit from the situation. Have they learnt nothing from New Labour? The Partito Democratico will never win an election if it does not come to terms with the fact that Italy is a fundamentally conservative country.

Nick Rigillo, journalist
Berlusconi’s Birthday not quite the OK Corral

For the last week or so, there has been growing tension over today’s debate on Berlusconi’s “Five Point Plan”. Will he, won’t he make it into a vote of confidence? (it is a vote of confidence). What sort of majority will he have? (No one doubts that he will win the vote). Will this really mean peace in the governing coalition and the possibility of facing some of Italy’s real problems?
The answer to the last question, unfortunately, has to be no. The vote is just another skirmish in the ongoing battle between Fini and Berlusconi, every bit as fascinating in personal and political terms as the Blair-Brown saga and much more drawn out and much more damaging for the country. Their partnership began in 1993 and is only now drawing slowly towards the endgame but there are still quite a few acts to follow.
After much speculation, Berlusconi has decided to make the motion into a vote of confidence forcing the Finiani to support him or take the responsibility of bringing the government down in the middle of a dire economic situation. The precise motion that Parliament will vote on in a few hours time has not been published nor discussed by the government coalition, nor even, according to a cabinet minister and Berlusconi spokesman, Sandro Bondi, last night, has it been discussed in the cabinet. We can be sure that the five points (economy, the south, federalism, justice, security) will be covered in very general terms which will allow the Finiani to vote it along with the other deputies who are the result of Berlusconi’s autumn shopping spree and have made his offers to them public (€10,000 a month to one, a junior ministry to another).
Fini shows a curious ambivalence; he talks tough but then pulls his punches. He and his supporters, particularly Italo Bocchino who has in practice become his spokesman, show an increasing contempt for Berlusconi politically and ethically and at the same time are prepared to support his government.
Over the weekend he apparently threw down the gauntlet in a Messaggero interview challenging Berlusconi with a serious accusation and fighting words: “what is happening now puts the whole democratic system at risk; this is a dark moment for democracy… we have a gunfight at the OK Corral, a fight to the last drop of blood”.
Earlier in the month he spoke for an hour and half at Mirabello near Ferrara attacking Berlusconi and the government in no uncertain terms. He accused the prime minister of using Stalinist techniques and told him to stop using Parliament like a supermarket full of his employees saying that it was not “an appendage of Palazzo Chigi” (the prime minister’s office).
The fighting words, though, have been balanced by an apparent willingness to compromise. He and his supporters have repeated that they are willing to vote a motion on their electoral manifesto and that they would even accept a constitutional amendment which would give the prime minister immunity from prosecution.
There is one Fini who is an intransigent man of stern moral fibre and adamantine principle and there is another prepared to compromise to save his position.
Fini’s ambivalence is understandable. He is vulnerable on various levels. He knows that he is not ready to fight an election with his own party especially if he is seen to have brought the government down. He also knows that when the election campaign starts, the going will get very rough for him. Already he has been put through the wringer for the last two months by the Berlusconi family newspapers (Il Giornale and the weekly Panorama) and supporting paper (Libero). It has been a similar campaign to the one waged against Dino Boffo, the editor of the bishops’ newspaper L’Avvenire, last year. Boffo had been mildly critical of Berlusconi’s lifestyle and was pilloried by Il Giornale for an harrassment charge (true) with an official document saying he was a known homosexual (false and Giornale’s editor subsequently apologised) but by then Boffo had by then resigned.
This time Libero and Giornale claim that a flat in Monte Carlo left to Alleanza Nazionale has in some way been misappropriated by Fini’s brother in law. It is a complicated story and if it comes back into focus with either criminal charges or proven sleaze, I will try and link the chain which goes from Rome to Monte Carlo with diversions to St. Lucia, Santo Domingo and cheap furniture on the ourskirts of Rome. So far, nothing criminal has been alleged let alone proved – there is certainly more than a whiff of sleaze and some incompetence. But so far nothing has been proved. Still, it forced Fini to make a statement in which once again he attacked Berlusconi but promised to resign as Speaker if it was shown that his brother in law was indeed the owner of the Monte Carlo flat
The three divisions between the two men remain; Fini argues that the Northern League is demanding too much power and is moving towards some sort of division of the contry. He supports the constitution and “legality” which he says Berlusconi is dismantling with his attempts to avoid going to trial and finally there is the personal antipathy, not enough to destroy a political alliance but no help when there are real political differences
He has supported Berlusconi for 16 years which makes a divorce on matters of principle very difficult since Fini supported the previous immunity laws.
Today is Berlusconi’s birthday, he will be able to celebrate it with a rousing majority from the Chamber but the real problems are still to come. In December the Constitutional Court will decide on the law which allows Berlusconi to avoid his trials. More importantly for the whole country are the economic problems which are not being faced. The minister for economic development has still not been filled after almost five months; unions and employers agree that unemployment and growth are priorities but nothing is being done. Today’s vote is only the beginning.

Monday, September 20, 2010

More on “Ahi serva Italia”.
Last week’s blog was republished in Foreign Policy and provoked some responses. The most public was from Giulio Terzi, the Italian ambassador in Washington:

To put it simply, the article by James Walston, whose title I will avoid mentioning so as not to spread its vulgarity, is a clear example of faziosita’ (factiousness). And Mr Waltson’s choice of Dante’s quote may well be a Freudian slip, since Dante himself experienced the tragic and painful effects of the fight between fazioni in XIII Century Florence, being eventually banned from his native city and exiled.
Anyone has the right to express his own opinions, even when they are blatantly biased as in Mr. Waltson’s case. But I am very surprised that an important publication which is dedicated to Foreign Policy and bears on its front page the name of its illustrious founder Samuel P. Huntington chooses to host such an acrimonious and false story based on domestic gossip, with a lack of balance and seriousness one could expect at the lowest levels of tabloid sensationalism.
I am even more surprised since it’s also on the international stage, the “Foreign Policy”, that, over the years and in particular with the current Government led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy has given more and more evidence of its worldwide credibility, strong commitment and resolve as is proper to a founding member of the European Union and a leading country of the G8.
For coming issues of “Foreign Policy” I dare suggest a few stories about Italy that may be of some interest to your readers all over the world: for an Afghan audience you might run a story about the 4000 Italian troops helping secure the country against the Taliban threat and strengthen local communities together with the US and other Nato allies; your readers in Lebanon, Balkans and in Africa will most probably be happy to see some pictures of those 7,500 Italian peacekeepers they meet every day in their towns and villages and that make Italy the first G8 country contributor to UN missions; as for those in the US who are particularly scared about the well known effects of unregulated financial markets, it could be useful to learn more about “Lecce Framework”, a set of common principles and standards for propriety, integrity and transparency proposed during the Italian G8 presidency last year or the proposals Italy has put forward on commodity speculation for the upcoming G20 Summit in Seoul (by the way, talking about economy Mr Waltson might want to reconsider his figures about Italy’s growth and take a look at more recent public data showing an annualized rate of 1.3 percent).
Best Regards,
Giulio Terzi
Ambassador of Italy to the United States

Another took issue with Paolo Sylos Labini


While another recommended that I take up the English Catholic author G. K . Chesterton as an antidote to a supposed anti-Italian and anti-Catholic bias from a Brit or an American:

Leggo che Lei,a proposito dell'Italia, cita il Purgatorio di Dante(serva Italia di dolori ostello,nave senza nocchiero in gran tempesta,non donna di provincia ma bordello).Non so se i media hanno riferito questo parallelismo con i tempi di oggi correttamente o hanno esagerato travisando il di Lei pensiero e riferendo che l'Italia è un bordello.
Se fosse così sarebbe disinformazione e gossip.Che le cose vadano male è vero, ma prestarsi al gossip dei media disinformati e pilotati è puerile. L'Italia non è peggiore di tanti stati europei che hanno abbandonato l'etica e le radici giudaico cristiane per trattare solo di denaro.Purtroppo,dalla caduta dell'Impero Romano d'occidente, l'Italia è stata invasa da barbari di tante provenienze ed è per questo che ha perduto le sue radici latine e la sua genuinità democratica e repubblicana.Immagino che Lei conosca lo scrittore inglese Chesterton;dia una ripassatina ai suoi libri e si ricrederà. Non è offendendo una nazione che la si aiuta a migliorarsi.La prego non si adegui al pensiero imperante mitteleuropeo che è geloso dell'Italia per le sue latenti possibilità di RENAISSANCE. Da una università ci si aspetta un pensiero costruttivo e non il solito chiacchiericcio (baked & baked).

There are other replies and comments on the Foreign Policy site, mostly positive. My favorite is:

"There has been a lack of clear leadership since the end of July"
Italy has not been having a clear leadership since Cavour: and he spoke french

My response to the ambassador was the following:
Dante was indeed very concerned about discord in Florence and did suffer personally. He was also an authority on the consequences of lack of leadership, consensus and moral authority. Hence my use of his quote.
Italy’s problem today is not that there are political factions or parties. Italy and Italians are as capable as any other country of discussing issues; the medium term problem is Silvio Berlusconi’s massive conflicts of interests, unique to Italy and unacceptable in any other western democracy and the ensuing concentration of power in the executive (not unique in the west but more pronounced and long lasting). These two factors have rendered a good part of Italy government “courtiers” rather than servants of the state. The point of my article was that it is the wholesale corruption of the institutions which is the “vulgarity”, the prostitution of ideas and minds not the “tabloid” sex.
Commenting on the laws passed to prevent the Prime Minister’s trials coming to verdict or the indictment of other politicians is a “partiality” shared with most of the western press, left, right and center; it is hardly “gossip”. In these fundamental issues, Italy is out of step with the standards of the rest of western democracies. This is a concern for us all.
In the immediate past, moreover, Italy has indeed been without a helmsman with even Berlusconi’s own newspapers commenting on his lack of leadership.
The growth figure that Amb. Terzi quotes refers an increase after striking declines in previous years and in any case should be analyzed together with other figures. However, whichever figures the Ambassador cares to use, it is undeniable that Italy has been in relative decline for almost the last two decades (eight years of center-right under Berlusconi, seven years of center-left under Prodi and others, the rest technical or centrist).
As far as the record of Italy’s peacekeepers across world is concerned, I wholeheartedly support Ambassador Terzi’s affirmations and have said so in the past and in an article due out next month. They do sterling work in the Balkans and in Lebanon and as well as in Afghanistan – all are missions given almost universal support by the Italian Parliament and initiated by both center-right and center-left governments. But their good work does not cancel the strongly negative elements of Italy’s present and past governments.

I would add that Italy’s apparent lack of leadership and lack of alternation in the so-called “First Republic” from 1948 to 1994 with 47 governments in 44 years was compensated by consistent economic growth and a distribution of power and resources (lottizzazione) which however grubby at times, did maintain a high degree of pluralism.
As for my correspondent who gives Paolo Sylos Labini the responsibility for Italy’s population decline, I am sure that there are many economists who would dearly love to have had such an influence on society but few apart from perhaps Keynes have been anywhere near. Many on the left would also dearly have loved to have been in government for 30 years but so far that is just pie in the sky.
On the Catholic score and the role of the Church in Italy, today is 20th September and I hope to address that question on the 140th anniversary of the Breach of Porta Pia.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, 
nave sanza nocchiero in gran tempesta, 
non donna di province, ma bordello!
Quoting Dante (or Shakespeare, Wilde, Shaw) is, I admit the last resort of a scoundrel or at least the indolent scribe. But this one is too apposite not to use. Roughly translated, it reads “Alas enslaved Italy, inn of sorrow, a ship without a helmsman in a great storm, not a queen of her provinces, but a whorehouse”. It was the title of a book by Paolo Sylos Labini published posthumously in 2006; Sylos Labini was not only one of Italy’s most distinguished economists but a man of absolute integrity who consistently and very openly refused to compromise with Power (even “power” with a small ‘p’). His last work described, analysed and criticised the Italy of five years ago. Today’s Italy has been battered by even more internal storms as well as the obvious international economic ones; since then the Prime Minister’s residences have become brothels literally and not just metaphorically. Above all, the ship of state is near to being rudderless. So I am not the only person quoting Dante.
There has been a lack of clear leadership since the end of July as anyone who follows these blogs will know but over the last fortnight the lack of direction has become paroxystic. For most of August, Berlusconi threatened elections in order to bring the rebellious Fini and his followers to heel. Then as the polls showed that the only real winner in an early vote would be Umberto Bossi with the Northern League and, worse, that there was a good chance that he would not win a majority in the Senate, he started backpedalling. These last few days, his public statements once again refer to “three more years in order to carry out the Great Reforms”.
He spoke at the Kremlin organised Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl last week about the details of Italian politics, with a swipe at Fini (without naming him) saying there were some who had created “little political businesses” (aziendine); then he made the nth complaint that “communist judges” were stopping him and his people from governing and finally, to cap his effusive welcome to Ghedaffi a week ago, came the remarkable statement that his hosts Putin and Medvedev were “god’s gift to democracy” (pity that The Economist’s KAL had beat him to it with a cartoon showing Vladimir Putin’s real love of democracy and the press.
Even the editor of one of his own papers, Vittorio Feltri in Il Giornale criticised him for wavering this morning. Worse, his approval ratings are down to 37% with the PdL below 30%.
We will know if the “three more years” proposal has any chance whatsover at the end of the month when the Chamber will debate Berlusconi’s five-point plan (justice, federalism, security, the south, the economy) and vote on it. In the meantime, it seems that he is on the expected shopping spree hoping to pick up independents so as to make up the loss of Fini’s deputies - he needs 19 to have a secure majority.
He has experience in convincing parliamentarians to come over to his side as revelations about the so-called P3 are showing. In late 2007, in another shopping spree, there was a lot of movement to bring Prodi’s government down and in January 2008 Prodi’s government duly fell. But the revelations themselves are proof of the change since then. It seems that most of the accused are singing as if they were in La Scala – and suggests rodents leaving the nave sanza nocchiero.
The storm buffetting comes from real winds. Some come from a long way off; Italy’s relative decline began almost 20 years ago but every year production figures go down with respect to Europe, and of course China and the other emerging economies. Last week the OECD reckoned that Italy’s GDP would decline by 0.3% in the third quarter, the only G7 country with negative growth and grow by a miserable 0.1% in the fourth quarter. The World Economic Forum reckons that a real recovery has not begun and puts Italy in 48th place for global competiveness. Economics minister Tremonti preferred the ISTAT figures which are slightly better but not much. Youth unemployment continues to grow. The Minister for Economic Development resigned four months ago and still has not been replaced. As the school year begins, teachers are on the warpath over cuts as are the police. There are plenty of real issues but they are not being faced.
So is Italy once again “enslaved” as Dante lamented 700 years ago? And is Italy a brothel instead of queen of her own provinces?
A new book by a Princeton scholar argues that Italy is very much the brothel. In La libertà dei servi (Anticorpi, Laterza 2010), Maurizio Viroli says that Italy has succeeded “… in the political experiment of transforming, without violence, a democratic republic into a court which has at the centre a feudal lord surrounded by a plethora of courtesans admired and envied by a multitude of people with a servile spirit”.
Rigoletto cursed the courtesans with his wonderful aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!” but today it is the courtesans who are in control. Even Fedele Confaloniere, probably Berlusconi’s best friend and closest associate described him in 2004 as “an enlightened despot… a good Ceausescu, but decidedly anomalous as a democratic politician”.
Last week a centre right deputy in Fini’s group accused some of her fellow deputies of having prostituted themselves to get into Parliament. She withdrew the statement immediately but Veronica Lario, Mrs. Berlusconi, and the Fini thinktank “FareFuturo” had made the same point in April last year. The real point though is that the problem is not that some women got into Parliament through a bedroom; it is that men and women, journalists and professionals, have given up their minds and principles rather than their bodies.
So Dante is oft-quoted for good reason.