Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The constraints of Italian politics. The big picture.

This is going to be a busy and challenging week for the government. An undersecretary declared very publicly on Sunday that Tremonti’s proposed budget should be examined by a psychiatrist. Then one of Tremonti’s closest advisors resigned because he is under investigation; the tension between Bossi and Berlusconi continues and yesterday saw the confrontation between police and anti-high speed train protesters in the north. The Naples rubbish crisis stinks on, with much buckpassing.
I will deal with all these issues when there is a clearer picture, Thursday, maybe, when the budget goes before the Cabinet. Instead, I want to take a much, much broader look at Italian politics
A group of Dutch journalism students visited recently. They were doing a master class on Italian politics and the media and I was asked to start the course off with an introduction to Italian politics. Since then, I’ve done similar talks for American politics and media students from Northeastern in Boston and Minnesota.
It presents a certain challenge. In 30-45 minutes, I try to give an overview of this country’s political system – something that can be quite an effort even with a whole semester to play with. The aim is to identify the most important constraints on Italian politics starting with the distant ones which have conditioned the country since unification or before and ending with today’s limits. It might help us as we start on what is going to be a very fraught and probably dramatic next few weeks and months.
First the factors which have conditioned Italian life and politics since unification (and long before, for that matter). The social ones can be grouped together as uncertainty, indecisiveness and the need for constant negotiation, lack of clear responsibility and lack of respect for rules. The traits are visible and tangible every time one takes to the road. Traffic regulations are a relative concept up for negotiation at almost every intersection not to mention building regulations, ministerial responsibilities and rules and of course laws. When Berlusconi complains that he can’t get anything done because of procedural difficulties, he only partially dishonest. Even for the prime minister, it is difficult to find out who is really in charge; for the rest of us, it is a life’s work.
Connected to these traits are two institutional constants which condition the country. The first is the presence of the Roman Catholic Church as both a spiritual and temporal entity. Since the 1929 Concordat, it is able to play on three different tables according to its specific needs and aims; as a sovereign state distinct from Italian society, as a major political player in Italian civil society and as moral and ethical leader. This gives the Church an influence even greater than in traditionally Catholic countries like Poland or Ireland.
The second constant is the difference between north and south; the so-called Southern Question. It is something more than the economic and cultural differences that any country has, deeper and more long lasting.
It is not that the Church and the south have created a culture of continuous negotiation, uncertainty and lack of respect for secular authority but it would take a long and controversial piece of sociological research to determine which was the chicken and which the egg. The most apt metaphor that I have found is the observation of a 16th C Venetian ambassador to Paris who said that the “disorder was like ivy which had taken over and destroyed a wall but by now was actually holding it up”.
More recent and more political constraints start with the 1948 constitution designed very carefully not to give too much power to the executive – they had had quite enough with Mussolini. This also gave the system its key tone – it was based a founding myth of the partisan war in which all were antifascist from the Monarchists on the right to the Communists on the left. It was true enough and did create a unity which covered the very real divisions created by the Cold War when the Iron Curtain not only divided Europe but came down in the middle of the Italian Constituent Assembly
It was a consociational system in which almost all decisions were taken collectively and resources were divided in strict proportion to each party’s electoral strength. The first was given the name of partitocrazia, literally “party power” or a system run by the parties. There were few outstanding leaders and most elements of civil society were linked to a party. This went from top public managers (who were “close to” this or that party) to children’s socialisation so that kids would play table football in the parish or the Communist Party’s section depending on their parents’ inclinations. Chief executives at all levels of government (city, region and national) were not chosen by the people who voted for the party which then decided who was going to be mayor, regional president or prime minister and who could and often did change between one election and the next. The second, spoilsharing system was called lottizzazione, literally dividing up into lots on a building site. The pork was shared according to voter share and went once again, from top public executives, the Southern Development Fund, IRI, the state holding company, ENI, the state hydrocarbons company, down to clerks and streetcleaners in the smallest municipality.
At first Socialists and Communists were excluded from the system at a national level but the first joined the system in the early ’60 and outdid the original members and by the late ‘70s the Communists too became junior partners and part of the establishment. Their presence as the biggest leftwing party created another factor in what came to be called “the First Republic”. Obviously, it was a geopolitical impossibility for a Communist Party to be part of a NATO government which meant that all coalitions excluded the PCI. It was dubbed bipartitismo imperfetto by political scientist, Giorgio Galli, “the imperfect two-party system”.
Finally, it was a very centralised system despite attempts from the ‘70s onward to devolve power to the regions.
It came to an end when the end of the cold war coincided with the need to stop deficit spending in order to bring Italy into the future common European currency. The massive corruption of the ‘80s created a runaway debt which had to be stopped and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union meant that the by now politically moderate Communists could recycle themselves as social democrats without links to the defunct Soviet Union.
So the “Second Republic” was born. It had the same constitution but a change in the electoral systems meant that the chief executive candidate at the national, regional and city levels was known and usually served the full mandate. The buzzword was “governability” which meant having a chief executive who was responsible to his or her electors. In practice it is close to a majoritarian democracy where power alternates between left and right. And of course it has focussed attention on the leaders, above all Silvio Berlusconi who “came onto the field” in his own words, in 1994 to fill a vacuum on the centre-right.
Given Berlusconi’s massive wealth and control of both the electronic media and publicity, it is a system with an institutionalised conflict of interest, a dangerous legacy for the future. Berlusconi’s other legacy is the power of television – videocracy, a social change even more than a political one.
The corridor negotiations of the partitocrazia have very partially given way to an increased role of institutional mediators like the Constitutional Court and the President but the Court still plays a marginal role compared to the US, say. The worst institutional conflict is between the judiciary and the executive/legislature, usually referred to as la legalità contro la politica, surprising as in most other countries “politics” accepts “legality” or the rule of law. The most vociferous proponent of this theory is of course Berlusconi, but the centre-left does not like to be examined too closely either.
Finally, there are a couple of structural changes in Italy over the last two decades. One is immigration; Italy now has 4.3m legal immigrants or 7.2% of the population. It is a multi-racial society more and more like the rest of western Europe and with all the richness and tensions that this brings.
It is also, and this brings us back to Thursday’s special budget, an economy which had grown less than the rest of Europe for 20 years now. The 2008 crisis and today’s Greek crisis have not actually changed the Italian economy but they have brought matters to a head so that action is now unavoidable.
There is a good chance that these economic issues will close this phase of Italian politics – sooner rather than later.

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