Sunday, February 06, 2011

Of cabbages and kings

Italian politics today make Lewis Carroll’s world seem remarkably staid but The Walrus and the Carpenter is as good a place as any to start any voyage through the absurd. Italy does not have a king any more but it does have a president and this last week he was an important figure. The 84 year old Giorgio Napolitano might have thought that he would have just a ceremonial and elder statesman role when he was elected in 2006 but instead, he has been busy with real politics; especially now. On Friday, he refused to sign a decree law passed by Cabinet but not by Parliament. The first take was that this was a major constitutional clash; the second that it was just a minor procedural glitch. The reality is that was just another Berlusconi sortie in the guerrilla war to increase executive powers and reduce all the others.
One of my correspondents suggested a blog on the head of state and this seems the right cue.
The section of The Italian constitution that deals with the President (Part II, Title II, articles 83-91) is short and vague. It describes a mainly symbolic figure with few formal powers. In practice he is has residual powers and is another guarantor of the constitution. The present president has increased his approval ratings from 58.5% in 2008 to 62.1 in 2009 to just over 70% last year according to Eurispes; that compares to around 25% for the government and over 40% for the magistrature.
He is elected to a seven year mandate by both chambers of parliament plus representatives of the regions. So he does not have a popular mandate but is usually elected by a broad majority (not Napolitano, though, who was elected by a simple majority). He “represents national unity”, and is the commander in chief of the armed force though not surprisingly, none has done anything substantial even when Italian troops were engaged in combat actions. He is also presides over the judiciary’s self-governing body, the High Council of the Magistrature but only one president, Cossiga, really chaired meetings and that only briefly.
Much more important is his power to dissolve parliament, a weapon which Berlusconi has often said he would like to have in the prime minister’s armoury in order to keep wayward allies under control. So when the prime minister resigns, the president will normally try and find an alternative before calling early elections.
Also more than a purely formal power, ministers are appointed by the president on the prime minister’s recommendation, not his right. So in 1994, Scalfaro baulked at the idea that Cesare Previti could be Minister of Justice. Previti was Berlusconi’s lawyer who was later given a six year sentence for bribing judges.
Most important for every day politics is the president’s role as the notary for all legislation. Unlike presidential systems where the head of state is also head of government, the Italian president cannot object to a bill on its substance. The US president can and does veto bills because they are politically unacceptable; the Italian president cannot veto a bill but he can send it back to Parliament if he reckons that there is insufficient financial cover (the usual reason before 1994) or if he thinks the bill might be unconstitutional. Even then, he cannot stop a bill; if parliament were to re-present a bill, he would have to sign it and it would be the Constitutional Court which would decide. But this has never happened. Moral suasion and back channels are the more usual ways of dealing with disagreement.
Napolitano has returned government decree laws though. In 2009 he refused to sign a decree which would have obliged physicians to keep a young woman, Eluana Englaro, on life support against her will confirmed by the Court of Cassation. Since there was a bill before parliament, undiscussed, the President refused to sign because he said there was no urgency.
This week, a Parliamentary commission did not approve one of the decree laws regulating fiscal federalism. An extraordinary Cabinet meeting was called which issued the decree law. It was this decree that President Napolitano returned saying that he was unable to receive it because it had not been approved by Parliament. The substance does not change as the decree will be put to both Chambers and will be passed and Napolitano will sign it. But Berlusconi and his allies have admitted that they were out of order. It was another gesture which showed Berlusconi’s impatience with democratic procedure.
Much more serious are his outbursts against the judiciary; he does not actually say “off with his head” like Alice’s Queen of Hearts, but he thinks it gets very close to saying it in public. These last few days have seen him once again attack the judiciary which he says is guilty of “illegitimate interference” in his private life (today); “Italy is a republic controlled by the prosecutors … a judicial republic” (yesterday). A week ago, he suggested an anti-judge demonstration in Milan; there was a rapid withdrawal when one of his advisors pointed out that having the prime minister demonstrate against the courts was close to a coup d’état.
These are the cabbages (or cavoli in Italian, a euphemism for unpleasant stuff in general). Next week, there will be a big cabbage for the prime minister, the court that Berlusconi wanted to demonstrate against will almost certainly put him on trial for abuse of power and under age prostitution. If and when that happens, there will be major international comment accompanied by resignation and indignation on either side of the Italian divide.
All sides claim that they do not want early elections but they are all preparing for them. If there are any more glitches in the road to the Northern League’s fiscal federalism, it will be Bossi that calls time. So we are back to Alice – elections in a country where no one wants them, with a government brought down by the prime minister’s closest ally.
The problem, of course, is that Italy is not on the other side of the looking-glass, at least for those of us who live here. It is the real world where the laws of physics apply but most other laws are up for negotiation.

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