Thursday, June 30, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing or Very, Very Little: Katharsis is Greek, not Italian.

The Greeks have a word for it and they seem to be in the middle of practicing it. Catharsis is the dramatic liberating moment of a tragedy which allows the survivors to pick themselves up and start again. But that does not happen in Italy.
Last week we were supposed to have one of those moments, a verifica or reckoning with the truth between the government coalition allies (which passed with hardly a murmur) and today we have economics minister Giulio Tremonti’s much-heralded budget package being presented to the Cabinet. There have been plenty of leaks so we don’t know exactly how it will look (and obviously, even less what it will look like when it’s been through the Parliamentary wringer). It is at least partially a response to the EU’s demand that Italy balance its budget by 2014.
According to what we do know about it (and if there are dramatic changes, I will do an update this evening), its subtitle could be “never do today what can be put off till tomorrow”. In a €47 bn measure, less than €2 bn will be cut this year, €5 bn next year and €20 bn each in 2013 and 2014. Guess what? Elections are due in 2013. So if the plan is passed in approximately its present form, it will only start hurting when a new government is in place. If ever there was a poisoned chalice…
Tremonti promised swingeing cuts but in the name of “collegiality” and less subtly, under threat of the sack, he has produced budget which tickles rather than slashes, at least for the first two years.
Most of the measures are gentle and designed to hurt unidentified, indirect or small and unpopular categories. In the first group are those who will not replace civil servants who retire (only police and firemen will be replaced), tho’ those remaining will certainly know that they have more work to do. In the second, are cuts to the regions and municipalities so that they rather than national government will look bad as they cut services (and more than half of them are centre-left anyway). And in the third is a proposal for a financial transaction tax, higher taxes on SUVs and some cuts in payments to politicians (there is a rising tide of disgust at how much politicians milk the taxpayers; this might just be the fuel for the next revolution).
There is the usual claim that tax evasion will be reduced; VAT will be reorganised and Tremonti hopes to bring in some money with a flat rate payment to resolve disagreements between taxpayers and the revenue, a sort of mini-amnesty. Distinctly unpopular is the plan to increase health service charges but with a nod to the Northern League, there will be no fines for exceeding milk quotas and with another to an important Berlusconi support group, women’s pensionable age will not start being raised to 65 until 2020 to be completed in 2034.
The opposition have called it a joke and a time bomb which they will have to defuse. Antonio Di Pietro has put forward his own alternative budget which might even get a look in rather than be mere rhetoric as yesterday the government lost two important divisions in the Chamber showing that they are even more divided than ever. But the opposition is hardly more united or clear in what path to take. Umberto Bossi has not guaranteed the Northern League’s support so the tension continues there.
It is the very weakness of the government that holds it together. Both League and PdL know that they would lose heavily in early elections; for all his vaunted fiscal courage and rigour, Tremonti is not prepared to resign yet and Berlusconi cannot fire him without incurring the wrath of the EU and the markets both of which see Tremonti as the only barrier preventing a Greek meltdown.
At the end of the day – today but also all the days between now and the passage of the bill – it is Europe and the markets which matter. The spread between German and Italian bonds is growing so if Italy really does go down the Greek road, it would be a disaster not just for Italy but for the euro and European institutions.
Catharsis is still to come.

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.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pontida and the Northern League – Riding Two Horses in the Circus

“Long live freedom, long live an independent Padania!”
Not for nothing the self-declared “Celts” of the Northern League worship Braveheart as one of their heroes. But Mel Gibson/William Wallace cries “freedom!” a moment before execution; after his rendering yesterday at the Northern League’s annual rally at Pontida, Roberto Maroni went back to his day job of being a minister of the Republic of Italy. Incongruous to say the least to demand independence from the government that you’re part of.
The Scottish Labour politician, James Maxton said famously that “if you can’t ride two horses at the same time, you shouldn’t be in the circus”. Umberto Bossi and the League have put on the same show for 20 years so they should be good at it but in the latest Pontida rally the contradictions were just too visible. The two horses haven’t changed but they have moved a long way apart.
The whole point of the Pontida show is like most political conventions and congresses; it should energise the base and show them that the League is still a revolutionary movement fighting for the good of the common, straight-talking (northern) people against thieving, plotting, dishonest Roman, southern and establishment interests. Hence Maroni’s call for independence (and calls to Bossi from the crowd for “secession”. Maroni also attacked the war in Libya, NATO which was “able to stop ships entering Libya but not the refugees leaving” and the magistrates who are “more concerned about immigrants than our own people” and a government which does not help the northerners who do the real work in the country.
In a very short speech, he took on NATO, the Church (at the same time as Pope Benedict was exhorting the faithful in San Marino to look after the less well off, and the outgoing archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Tettamanzi made solidarity to immigrants part of his mission), the judiciary, the EU and at least part of the government, specifically on fiscal policy; his was an appeal to those in the crowd waving “Maroni Premier” placards. There is nothing like having enemies to unite one’s own people; but when you’ve stopped attacking the “enemies” and insulting them it is then much more difficult to work with them and deal with real issues. That is what Maroni does when he is riding his other horse.
He has been Minister of the Interior since May 2008 and for eight months in 1994 (and deputy prime minister at the same time), for five full years he was Minister of Labour (2001-06). He and three other League Cabinet ministers, voted extra status to Rome and supported the intervention in Libya. “Consistency”, “resign” and “collective cabinet responsibility” are obviously not part of Maroni’s or the League’s vocabulary.
In contrast, Bossi speech was quintessentially reasonable. It was if Bossi and Maroni had exchanged roles. He laid down a series of conditions for the League’s continuing support of the government, mostly vague like passing resolutions in cabinet rather than actually implementing reforms. Ilvo Diamanti, who has studied the League for more than 20 years and knows it better than most wrote with surprise this morning that far from the usual plaintalking Bossi, he used language redolent of a past era. He sounded like a Christian Democrat to the point of being like the most obscure of them, Aldo Moro, who needed a soothsayer to interpret the arcane messages.
Bossi’s speech has kept Berlusconi and the PdL happy for the moment. They are not going to pull the plug… yet. Maroni’s speech was ignored by most of the media and both the PdL and left for what it was, a speech for the faithful and his first campaign speech as possible successor to Bossi.
The problem is that the League’s grassroots are not happy. Some 55% of League voters are dissatisfied with the Government’s performance and many of them showed their displeasure in the recent local elections and the referendums.
Both Bossi and Maroni know that if they left the government today, they would be seriously punished by their electorate. They cannot leave until they have something to show to their own people for the last three years in government. Hence the demands.
Four ministries should be moved to Milan and Monza – not necessarily a wise move as other parts of the north will complain that they have been left out. It is in any case not going to happen for practical reasons as well as the massive opposition from the South and Rome. Bossi wants a new economic stability pact to give local authorities greater spending power, a constitutional amendment reducing the number of parliamentarians and making the senate a “chamber of the regions” (an idea which has been floating around for almost two decades and which no one opposes strongly), reduction of the costs of politics (everyone in favour as long as it doesn’t affect my budget). These are all vague enough for Bossi and the other League leaders to decide when and how they will leave.
So once again, a possible cathartic moment has passed (predictably, by the way). There will be another one on Thursday when the Chamber discusses Tremonti fiscal package. But it won’t be over “until the fat lady sings…” I’m sorry, until the short man in make-up finally leaves.
Until then, both Bossi and Maroni will have to go on riding their two horses.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Bloomsday and Berlusconi – James Joyce on Italian Politics

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the day when Leopold Bloom journeyed round Dublin, himself, his wife and just about everything else. And not only the then known world, Joyce had a clear eye for the future, it seems.
One of the rituals of Bloomsday is to read a portion of Ulysses with friends – we had the following passage which struck me as germane to present goings on in Italy.
Leopold is pondering a book that Molly is reading:
He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler’s. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we’ll break our sides. Families of them.
Berlusconi’s parties have not yet revealed any sado-masochistic pastimes, but a circus they certainly are as is the rest of the political scene. The double meaning of “ring” is something that B himself would appreciate but rather more crudely, and the “doped animals” are, I suppose, the longsuffering Italian electorate who are part of the spectacle tho’ there are strong signs of an awakening. There are plenty of illustrations on the cellphones of the girls who take part in the parties and you can take your pick of who plays the “fierce Italian with the carriagewhip” or the “monster Maffei”. Another performer in the circus is “Leo ferox, the Libyan maneater”, surely a reference to B’s erstwhile friend Qaddafi.
Elsewhere, B makes another appearance at the head of a delegation of The Friends of the Emerald Isle
“Commendatore Bacibaci Beninobenone (the semiparalysed doyen of the party who had to be assisted to his seat by the aid of a powerful steam crane”
Even on 16 June, it seems we can’t avoid him. A more serious blog this evening and then a comment on those other (self-styled) Celts, Bossi and the Northern League on Sunday.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Nuclear Option

Before polls closed this morning, Prime Minister Berlusconi admitted to the visiting Bibi Netanyahu that Italy’s nuclear energy programme was over and that he should concentrate on renewables. There is another nuclear option available, though, but not to Berlusconi; if his essential ally, Umberto Bossi decides to withdraw the Northern League’s support at their annual rally at Pontida on Sunday, the effect would be the same as a bomb on the government. For the moment, one of their ministers, Roberto Calderoli said that they’ll use Pontida to tell Berlusconi what they want from the government for the 22 June vote of confidence.
The League has been increasingly unhappy with their position in the government and over the last few days their leaders have been trying to ride grassroots discontent. There are real issue differences which have nothing to do with Berlusconi personally. The most important is the disagreement with Tremonti over his economic austerity programme which the League reckons is far too stringent. Until recently, it looked as if Tremonti was the darling of the League but at the moment, the shine is off. Then there is the war in Libya which the League was always unhappy about and despite the almost daily declarations that “Qaddaffi’s time is up”, the war, its cost in money and in immigrants and refugees continues to mount up. Finally it is the perceived lack of control on irregular migrants that the League complains about.
Then there is the implicit but never voiced criticism of Berlusconi himself as he appears to be less and less in control of the situation, so Bossi and the League want to distance themselves.
Berlusconi’s admission to the Israeli prime minister was the admission of what he hopes is a tactical defeat in order to avoid the total defeat of a collapsed government. He still has a majority in Parliament but it is clear that he does not have one in the country.
For the last two days, Italians voted four referendums. The holy grail was a quorum of 50%+1 of the electorate. In the event, all four had a turnout of over 57% in Italy which is enough to guarantee the quorum even if residents abroad are included. All four have a majority of well over 90% which means that more than half of the total electorate supported the repeal of the four laws. More than the substance of the laws, most of them were making a clear statement of their distaste for the Prime Minister. Once again, for the third time in a month, Berlusconi backed a loser.
In Milan he stood as a councillor to prove that the Milanese supported him against the Milan court: his vote was halved compared to 2006 and his mayoral candidate had to face a run-off. After a bitter and racist campaign, she then went on to lose the run off as did his candidate in Naples. This time for the referendums, he feigned indifference and said he was not going to vote because the referendums were irrelevant, hoping that a combination of opposition and apathy would win the day for the noes.
Instead a large number of Italians made the effort to go out and vote despite the call of the beaches in late spring. Some pollsters reckoned that as many as 6-7% voted precisely because Berlusconi wanted them not to, much the same as happened 20 years ago when his friend Bettino Craxi told Italians to “go to the seaside”. They did, but they voted first and soon threw out Craxi.
This time, they repealed two laws which encourage the privatisation of water supply, an important measure but not in itself vital. They repealed the law which sought to re-start Italy’s nuclear energy programme which means that it will be another decade or two before an government can restart another programme and finally, the bellwether question, they abolished the prime minister’s and ministers’ possibility of not turning up to their trials because of a “legitimate impediment”. The law had a twilight clause on it and was due to terminate in October and in any case the Constitutional Court had given most of the control back to the court sitting in judgment. The effects on Berlusconi’s trials will be minimal but the political effect is very clear. Most Italians do not like their prime minister avoiding judgment.
Of course Berlusconi could step down, but that is not his style. It is very clear that the centre-right is in a serious mess and that they have no exit strategy. With a one-man party, there is no mechanism to find a new leader and no obvious substitute. Two of his apparently most faithful courtiers, the undersecretary Daniela Santanché and businessman, Flavio Briatore, were caught in a leaked telephone conversation admitting that he was ill, had not changed his lifestyle (and continued with his bunga-bunga parties, only in a different villa) and showed little concern for the country. “If people like that think he’s cooked… what about the rest of us?” was a widespread feeling.
So Bossi keeps his nuclear option ready.
For the moment, at any rate, Berlusconi “staggers on like the mummy” said one friend, and he is looking increasingly like one too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Referendum update 2

It’s been a bad week for Berlusconi.

On Monday Bill Emmot in The Times said “the Italian Prime Minister is a political vegetable — one that’s riddled with E. coli” and predicted his imminent political demise. Then Ariel Levy produced an elegant eleven page description of Berlusconi sleaze in The New Yorker “Basta bunga bunga”. And now The Economist has produced yet another devastating dossier, this time by John Prideaux. The paper edition was “delayed for inspection” for a few hours at Rome airport on Friday

But the worst could yet be to come.

The last polls suggested that the 50% turnout was right in the middle of their range of uncertainty . Bersani confirmed the presumption in his final rally and Berlusconi’s own pronouncements give the same impression. A fortnight ago, he repeated that even if he lost Milan, it would make no difference to the government. His own polls were warning him of an impending disaster. He is doing the same now and one of his most loyal courtiers, Vittorio Feltri, now back as editor of the Berlusconi family paper Il Giornale wrote an explicit editorial today. “It would take a majority in Parliament to bring down the government”, not a defeat on the referendums.

True enough; but if Bossi and the Northern League decide that Berlusconi is a liability, then the government will lose its majority.

Despite protestations to the contrary from both sides, today’s vote is blatantly political – a single referendum on Berlusconi, not four on water, nuclear energy and “legitimate impediment” (the most explicitly anti-Berlusconi referendum). If they pass, it will be a blow against Berlusconi but once again, not a lethal one. Next week Bossi and the League have their annual get-together at Pontida (site of the supposed oath of the Lombards against Barbarossa in 1167) and he will certainly talk about the future of the government but is unlikely to blow it up then. After all, the League lost in the recent elections.

Losing the referendums would take us another step towards the end of the Berlusconi government and probable early elections.

It is far from certain that he will lose them. There is no doubt that the yes vote (to repeal all four laws) will win, but if there is no quorum (50%+1 of the electorate), the vote has no effect. There are two crucial figures 25,297,435 and 23, 678,940. If more than the first figure vote, there will be no doubt; the laws are repealed and Berlusconi suffers. Less than the second and nothing happens. The difference between the two figures are the 3.2m Italians resident abroad. They have the vote so they should be included in the total electorate; but there have been so many mistakes in letting them know, delivering their ballot papers, receiving completed votes, that the pro-referendum committees have already promised appeals if turnout is between 23.6 and 25.3 million and some have been already lodged. There will be work for lawyers and the Court of Cassation and probably the Constitutional Court. We will know soon after 15.00 tomorrow and the Court of Cassation has promised a verdict for Thursday 16 June.

In the meantime, Pierluigi Bersani of the Democratic Party encouraged his supporters to vote early knowing that if early turnout figures are good, it will encourage waverers to go. At 12.00 today, some 11% had already voted, a good figure, comparable to the last time a referendum reached a quorum in 1995.

Berlusconi and most of his cabinet have said they will not vote, hardly surprisingly. The centre-right mayor of Rome will vote and will the League’s president of the Veneto, Luca Zaia. A number of senior Italian churchmen like the archbishop of Turin have declared in favour of public ownership of water supplies and from the Vatican, Cardinal Turkson, head of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace says instead that water is a common good, should be public.

More tomorrow.

Friday, June 10, 2011

European, Christian, Catholic, Orthodox Values. Pope Benedict in Croatia, Lady Gaga in Rome.

This is an explosive week for the Vatican and Brussels even if neither are normally given to incendiary behaviour. The Pope visited Croatia last weekend and as in the past was less than subtle in his admonitions. He hoped that Croatia would soon complete its EU accession process because the country is after all “at the centre of Europe, Mitteleuropa, not the Balkans” a phrase which was no doubt music to his listeners’ ears but not to the other countries of ex-Yugoslavia. Having said that Croatia deserved Europe, then turned to denigrate Europe as being a centralised bureaucracy and home to “abstract rationalism” which Croatia might soften with its accession.
The two faces of “Europe” Van Rompuy and Ashton do precious little to defend “European values” and in any case it’s probably wise not to pick a fight with the Pope but there is no little irony in dismissing those European values in favour of Christianity, especially from south east Europe.
Christianity is, I think, the only major world religion that explicitly separates church and state with Christ’s response “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, a remark much fought over with words and weapons in western Europe’s middle ages as the popes took on more and more temporal power.
The Protestant Reformation and subsequent wars of religion then laid the bases for modern democracy as we know it. In the 16th century the English fought each other at least partially over religion and half of Europe spent 30 years also fighting at least partially over religion. At the end, implicitly and then explicitly they began to develop the concept of religious toleration. We have to learn to agree to disagree, they reckoned, otherwise we will continue slaughtering each other.
The Enlightenment in France, Scotland, England followed, consolidating tolerance of ideas and behaviour unthinkable under absolutist monarchs and above all absolutist religions which believed they had the monopoly of truth. They created a pluralism which is the basis of what we mean by democracy and “European values”.
Both before his election and since, Benedict has railed against the “relativism” of secular values, the very relativism that allows for religious freedom; he and his predecessor have made it very clear that other Christian denominations, Jews and Muslims are at best misguided and that the Church of Rome still has the only truth even if it is prepared to go on peace marches to Assisi with everyone.
For all its ineptitude in trying to stop the Yugoslav wars, the European institutions took some action – as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Vatican did nothing even to stop the killing by Catholic Croats in the early ‘90s. Some 800 years ago Venice pressganged a crusading army into besieging the Dalmatian town of Zadar instead of attacking the infidels. Innocent III ordered them not to do it and when they ignored him excommunicated the crusaders and ordered Venice to compensate the Zadar survivors.
More recently, in World War II, Italians were again mistreating Slavs, this time in the concentration camp on the Dalmatian island of Rab. Slovenian and Croatian bishops told the Vatican which intervened on the Fascist government and conditions improved.
Three times in the 20th century there was terrible bloodletting among the south Slavs but instead of using this visit to try and overcome some of that rancour, Benedict visited the tomb of Aloysius Stepinac, the controversial Croatian prelate beatified in 1999. Stepinac was the primate of Croatia during the murderous Croatian fascist Ustaše regime of Ante Pavelić. He described Stepinac as “a defender of life and of the right of man to live with God” .
I found a chilling quote of Stepinac’s eulogising Pavelić and his Ustaše regime “The times are such that it is no longer the tongue which speaks but the blood, through its mysterious union with the earth, in which we have glimpsed the light of God. We are convinced and expect, that the Church in the resurrected state of Croatia will be able to proclaim in complete freedom the uncontestable principles of eternal truth and justice” . This was after Pavelic had issued decrees discriminating against Jews and Serbs.
The Ustaše set up Jasenovac, the extermination camp which was so brutal that Pavelic’s Nazi allies asked him to be more humane. The victims were Serbs, Jews and Roma. This week, there were complaints by holocaust survivors’ associations and the Serbian Church made it clear that it would probably not invite the Pope for the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 2013, the Emperor Constantine’s decree which proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman empire.
It is a different sort of toleration which is being celebrated in Rome tomorrow, but one which is just as much part of Europe’s “abstract rationalism” and “centralised bureaucracy” that Benedict complains about. Lady Gaga is due to close this year’s Europride being held in Rome. Apparently the US ambassador, David Thorn added his weight and indirectly, President Obama’s to support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement to persuade the Queen of Transgression to appear. Two million spectators are expected for the free concert.
Apart from the music and high camp, there is a letter from LGBT Christians addressed to the Pope asking him to speak out against violence to them, and to deny the biblical injunctions against non-conventional sex. They will also ask him to remove the epithet of “sick” and “needing medical treatment” for homosexuals. In Croatia, the Pope reiterated his belief that marriage (implicitly, religious and Roman Catholic) was the only basis for a family and that living together was not acceptable. A few years ago, the Church was able to block an Italian bill allowing civil unions while the number of religious marriages continues to fall and children born to non-married partners continues to rise.
Rome and Brussels continue to battle over values but this week Rome also has Lady Gaga and not just Joseph Ratzinger. This contrast enhances the best “European (and American) values”, not the “rational abstract” one but the human ones that touch the real lives of real people.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Referendum Update.

As expected, the Constitutional Court declared yesterday that the referendum on nuclear energy should go ahead. More surprising was that their verdict was unanimous.
We shouldn’t have been surprised after the new president, Alfonso Quaranta said “unofficially” on Monday that there were no grounds for not holding the referendum. Given the the political composition of the Court it would have been unlikely that a majority of the judges agreed with him. Instead, all of them decided that their only job was to judge the constitutionality of the referendum and of the earlier Court of Cassation verdict: they decided that there were no objections.
The question under examination was whether the government’s moratorium on the nuclear programme changed the substance of the issue, and was a way to cancel the referendum. The court decided it did not.
Its unanimity means either that the Court is a purely legal body with no political loyalties or that the centre right judges have sensed that the wind is changing and do not want to risk unpopularity. Neither hypothesis is wholly convincing but together, they explain the decision. There was also presumably a sense of pique from a group a 60 and 70 year old lawyers who however conservative they might be, bridled at be labelled “communists” by Berlusconi and who also objected to the underhand ways used to stop the referendums.
Along with the court, there has been a stream of figures and institutions encouraging the quorum. Most church newspapers and senior churchmen, Emma Marcegaglia the president of the employers’ federation, Carla Fracci the ballet dancer and President Napolitano.
A week ago, I was very sceptical that more than 25 million Italians would turn out to vote – they haven’t done so since 1995. Now I think there is a good possibility. The next technical question is whether the 3 million or so Italians abroad will be included in the quorum but the issue will only arise if they are crucial to the result.
Correction. Bruno Tiozzo pointed out a mistake in the last post:
"FLI is not in favour of the proposal to keep water distribution public. In fact the law bear the name of Andrea Ronchi, who is (at least for now) still a FLI MP. You are however right that some single MP’s from FLI (like Granata) have expressed themselves against the liberalization of water distribution."
Thank you Bruno.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Referendums – Italy’s Direct Democracy

On Sunday and Monday, Italians will vote once again, the third time in a month. This time it is the whole population, just over 50 million; they have to decide on four referendums, nuclear power, water (two) and the so called “legitimate impediment”. In practice, once again and despite strenuous denials from all sides, the real issue is Berlusconi and his government.
The Swiss use referendums every other week for everything from a village pedestrian crossing to minarets in the whole country; the British use them when the government wants to avoid committing itself; De Gaulle used them as confirmation that he had popular support (only he called them plébiscites); some American states increasingly use them as a way for moneyed lobbies to avoid lengthy legislative processes.
In Italy, they are a constitutional instrument which in theory only allows the repeal of laws. In order to have a referendum, half a million citizens (about 1% of the electorate) have to petition. Referendums can only repeal existing laws (not propose them as in Switzerland or California) and they cannot be used to repeal budget laws, amnesties or international treaties. The biggest restriction is that to be valid, more than 50% of the electorate must vote.
For 26 years no one challenged Parliament with a referendum. Then in 1974, the Church and part of the Christian Democrat party thought they could overturn the new divorce law. It backfired badly with divorce being confirmed 60:40. The Radical Party used the referendum as an agenda-setting mechanism forcing Parliament to deal with an issue rather than face a referendum. Abortion was legalised in 1978 before the existing prohibition could be voted on.
In contrast, most of the following referendums confirmed the laws but in the early ‘90s the Clean Hands corruption trials were accompanied by a spate of referendums where Italians protested against the government. Three abolished ministries, one stopped the public financing of political parties, another political appointments in banks. They all produced a turnout in the mid/high 70s and all were passed with a majority of 80 or 90% (with the exception of the one which removed penalties for the use of soft drugs which meant that voters actually looked at what they were voting for and not just vote all “yes”). The most significant ones changed the electoral system and thus the whole political system. Taken together, they were a strong expression of disgust in politics as it was played in the so-called “First Republic”. Along with the trials, they helped to remove the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi and many leading Christian Democrats.
We seem to be at an equally crucial moment today.
None of the four addresses a fundamental issue though the one on whether to restart a nuclear energy programme is controversial enough. But as in 1993 they are even more important than last month’s local elections where centre-right candidates lost in Milan and Naples causing major tension in the government coalition.
The four laws up for repeal were all passed by the present government in the last couple of years so if the referendums pass, it will be a major blow for Berlusconi. The mechanism itself, though, inherently supports the conservative (with a small ‘c’) point of view – for change, more than half the electorate have to turn out. Normally about 20-30% of Italians do not vote. Some have died since the list was last revised, some are infirm, some are abroad on business or holiday and many are not interested. Another 10-20% either don’t know what the issues are or can’t be bothered to find out; so if only 20% of the electorate strongly support the law being voted, they can win by not turning up to vote. This is what has happened since 1995 – no referendum has succeeded in repealing an existing law.
So the biggest campaign for Sunday is to get the vote out – there is little doubt that the ‘yes’ vote will win on all four. Voters in practice have a three way choice: yes, no, abstain. In 1993 Bettino Craxi famously encouraged people to go to the seaside and ignore the referendums; they didn’t and a few months later, Craxi had fled the country, never to return.
Anti-government media are doing everything to increase turnout – most are in favour of a blanket four yes vote while government media either ignore the vote or when they are public service broadcasters, they downplay them. Yesterday, RAI 1’s main evening news even gave the wrong date.
As for the yes and no, there is some limited articulation. The non-government centre right (Fini’s FLI) and far right (Mussolini) and even some ministers (Micciché and Prestigiacomo) are in favour of keeping water public and against the “legitimate impediment” and nuclear programme as are Bossi and some others in the Northern League, notably the Venetia president Luca Zaia. The PD mayor of Florence and the ex-mayor of Turin have both said they are in favour of privatising water.
A year ago the government passed a law which would re-start Italy nuclear energy programme which was stopped in 1987 by another referendum. After the Fukushima disaster, a clause was introduced in a recent law which puts off the re-start for a year – that way, the government hoped to be able to avoid the referendum but the Court of Cassation allowed it to go ahead as planned. The government has now appealed to the Constitutional Court in a last ditch attempt to stop the referendum. The verdict is due tomorrow or Wednesday although the new President of the Court elected today has said that he doesn’t think there are grounds to stop the referendum. Everyone has strong opinions on the subject – on Saturday I heard a group of young people walking back from the beach heatedly debating energy security and the dangers of fossil fuel versus nuclear. The government’s attempt to stifle the referendum through silence and the courts has backfired with even centre-right voters fed up with the perceived sneakiness and worse, a way of limited the democratic process.
The “legitimate impediment” allowed the prime minister and members of cabinet to decide if they were too busy on government business to attend court hearings. In January, the Constitutional Court said that it would be the single court, not the defendant who would decide so the law’s effect has been reduced. But it is still a symbol of Berlusconi’s attempts to avoid prosecution.
Of the two water referendums, one law allows the privatisation of the public utility while the other guarantees a 7% on anyone who invests in water.
The referendum in Italy is still a powerful weapon.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Italy’s Other Anniversary

This year Italians (some of them at any rate) celebrated the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the kingdom of Italy. It has been a series of low key events partly because there’s not a lot to celebrate in Italy at the moment but mainly because a good part of the government would like to secede. The date was 17 March when the new kingdom of Italy was officially proclaimed in the Piedmontese capital Turin.
Today is Italy’s other anniversary; the day in 1946 when Italians rejected the monarchy which had unified the country and chose a republic with almost a 10% margin (54.3 to 45.7 with an 89% turnout and women voting for the first time). There were good reasons for pensioning off the house of Savoy; Victor Emmanuel III had accepted Mussolini and fascism and made him prime minister in 1922, he had signed the Racial Laws of 1938 which deprived Italian Jews of their political and most legal rights (despite some private wingeing because his dentist was Jewish “some of my best friends are Jewish… but”); he accepted the declaration of war in June 1940 which most Italians were against and finally, when he could have done something strongly symbolic and stayed in German occupied Rome in 1943 he fled and ran away to the south even ordering his son Humbert to go with him. Humbert was young, healthy and an army officer so could have maintained the Crown’s prestige. He fled too. After the war, his aging father clung onto his position so long that Humbert did not have time to establish himself as a plausible successor.
It was a shabby performance by the little king and it was a tribute to the idea of Italy created by his father and grandfather that as many as 45% actually voted in favour of the monarchy.
At the same time as they chose the republic, Italians voted for a constituent assembly and it is this constitution that is being celebrated today more than the institutional choice.
Despite the continuing divisions between north and south, for the first time, the country’s economy became one; education and the growing presence of mass media slowly unified the language and by the 1970s all Italians were speaking Italian, albeit with a strong accent. Millions of Italians moved from the poorer areas of the south and north east to the industrial triangle of Milan-Genoa-Turin which not only created a standard Italian language, it also created “Italians” who were less attached to their families’ origins.
The country was divided by the Cold War. The Iron Curtain came down in the middle of the Constituent Assembly with the Communists and some Socialists on one side and the Christian Democrats and the other parties on the other. But in spite of that division which lasted until 1989, all the parties were united by their loyalty to the Constitution and by their antifascist position. For the next 45 years they would all go under the label of partiti dell’arco costituzionale (parties within the constitutional arc). Their local branches spread across the country socialising millions of young Italians in the ways of their chosen party. This was not so different from the way Mussolini had tried to do with the Fascist Party except that this time there was a choice.
For all its failings, mostly in its inability to deliver decisive government and clear decisionmaking, the 1948 Constitution has served Italy well. It preserved both the form and substance of democratic pluralism during the Cold War and it has withstood the very serious attempts to undermine that pluralism over the last 17 years, not only by Berlusconi. It regulated the sometimes very bitter social divisions which accompanied the “economic miracle”. I would maintain in any case that what was called “lack of governability” is an Italian cultural and social trait which cannot be resolved with this or that institutional architecture.
National days in any case are for the symbols rather than the detail. The US did not become independent on 4th July nor did France become a republic on 14 July. Italy actually declared the Republic on 18 June not today and constitution came into force on 1 January 1948s.
National days can be and probably should be an opportunity for reflection on national identity. In Britain there has been a decades long debate on how to re-invent national identity. The Empire and World War II have long since ceased being the cement which holds the country together and for all the hooha in April, a royal wedding isn’t enough either. There are indeed British values and principles that most of the country accept and subscribe to but there is no symbolic moment when those values are celebrated. The most articulate forum at the moment is OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom.
There was a suggestion earlier this year that maybe 17 March should become the national day. Apart from meteorological considerations – it’s better to celebrate in the season when you can parade and party in the open – Italy is no longer that kingdom and not just because the king left. There are a few diehard monarchist left but apart from them, no one seriously laments the passing of the monarchy and a great many would object to making a permanent celebration of it.
Germany had a problem when to celebrate – now it is reunification (3 Oct 1990), before it was the date of the East Berlin rising in 1953. I don’t know what they celebrated between 1948 and 1953. I asked some Irish friends what they would celebrate if it weren’t for St. Patrick (already a trifle too religious for an increasing number of secular Irish) and got some worried glances; the Easter Rising in 1916… er no. Even less the 1922 Treaty both tremendously divisive moments. Perhaps the republic in 1949 but without great enthusiasm.
Today in Rome, there are 80 foreign delegations and 40 heads of state taking part in the celebrations showing that even if the Italian government is shaky, its economy stagnant and the national identity is being re-invented in the face of immigration, it nonetheless does exist. Sixty five is an age for retirement – the Italian republic is not ready to retire but is certainly in the process of recreating itself and 2nd June is a far more appropriate date than 17 March which we can leave to Ireland.