Saturday, July 28, 2012

Election Watch 2

Instead of winding down for the summer break, Italy has a corruption scandal in the north, a major mafia investigation in the south and regional governments with serious budget deficits across the country. The euro crisis and Italy’s national debt are by now constants which only change by some degree day by day. And hovering over it all are the uncertainties of the general elections.

The first uncertainty is over the date of the elections. For the last fortnight rumours have been swirling around the possibility of early elections this autumn. Last week Enrico Mentana on La 7 television news even put a date to it – 4 November. Over the last few days, La Repubblica suggested 20 November. The justification is that prime minister Monti is supposed to prefer to have an elected government rather than extending the agony of market uncertainty for another six months.

Monti himself has not said a word; on the contrary, he has repeated that he will continue his mandate until its natural end next spring.

Berlusconi and the PdL have been wavering but on balance, since the opinion polls are against them, they would prefer to vote later rather than sooner in the hope that they can improve. Bersani and the PD would almost certainly come out as the biggest party but they are maintaining a position of “responsibility”, trying to create an air of calm and normality where little is either calm or normal. Only the opposition – Maroni and the Northern League (LN), Di Pietro and Italy of Values (IdV) and Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement (M5S) are openly in favour of early elections.

The possibility of early elections is actually hardly more than a summer storm. There is little chance of the parties agreeing on a new election law in time for November elections; elections would not resolve Italy’s economic or other problems and would risk worsening them if the M5S made a strong showing and the traditional parties were not able to formulate clear and confidence-building policies; and Italy has never had autumn elections and is a country where the system is very conservative. Finally, the parties and the would-be parties need more than three months to organise.

In theory, of course, Parliament could pass a new electoral law within a week. It needs a simple majority in both houses; the Senate speaker, Renato Schifani has offered to keep the Senate open throughout August if necessary and no doubt that Gianfranco Fini would do the same for the Chamber. The problem is that the parties cannot decide on what sort of law they want. The PdL has said they would like a 10% premium for the winning party (on the lines of the Greek system) combined with preference votes (voters express one or more preferences for candidates in a party list – this is the system that was abolished in Italy in 1991 because it made individual votes traceable). The PD is against it.

The parties which are already in Parliament actually quite like the existing law, especially the PD which would do very well with it – if elections were held today, they would take a majority in the Chamber with only 27% of the vote. The Senate would be different, but they would still do well. Party leaders would have absolute control over which candidates were elected. But neither the PD nor any of the others can admit to saying they like the so-called porcellum (roughly and politely translated as “pig’s dinner”). And until there is a new law, no one can plan possible alliances because the electoral system conditions the type of possible future coalitions. The risk is, as Antonio Polito pointed out in today’s Corriere that there will be a neo-porcellum.

So the minuet continues. Possible partners present themselves, do a couple of turns or wait till the next dance. The PdL and the LN voted together on a constitutional amendment proposal (direct election of the president and a “federal” parliament) and they are said to be working on a common proposal for the election law. Some members of both parties would definitely like to reform the old alliance.

Di Pietro suggested that far from planning a “Vasto photo” coalition as I suggested in the first “election watch”, he would now like to see an alliance between Nichi Vendola’s “Left, Ecology and Freedom” (SEL) and the M5S. Grillo replied without even mentioning the IdV, just saying that the Movement was not planning any alliances and had had no overtures.

In the centre there is also movement. Last week, the free market economist, Oscar Giannino was reported as preparing to set up a new party. It would be economically liberal, aimed at economic growth and in favour of privatisations and against across the board cuts. There was implicit support from the employers’ federation, the Confindustria which has become almost explicit today with full page ads in newspapers calling for a new centrist formation.

The trial balloon is a complicated mix. According to Claudio Tito in today’s Repubblica, the new thing (party? Movement? Formation?) would have Monti somewhere in the title even if he himself would not be a candidate. A possible candidate could be the present (young), mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi who finds his own PD too old, too left wing and too constricting for a man of his ambitions. The former president of Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia, is said to be on the fringes but not yet ready to take the plunge. The party might also be led by Corrado Passera and include the support of Ferrari boss, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo and his thinktank/party in waiting “Italia Futura”.
In other words there is great uncertainty and everyone is manoevering on a field they still do not know.

Issues are still thin on the ground. Civil unions and gay marriage had the PD arguing last week, giving the measure equivocal support but they have quietened. As the elections approach it will return to divide the party and others. The government issues on the economy are in practice off limits as the three parties supporting the government cannot afford to differ too stridently.

As for the opinion polls, whichever one takes, around half the Italians are either undecided or have decided not to vote. This is a huge proportion and very unusual for Italy. The proportion will decline as the elections approach but it give substance to the alienation from politics. The PD is the biggest party at 25-27%, the PdL a long way behind around 18-19%. Grillo and the M5S is not far behind them at 16-18 with all the others around 5-6%.

We have a long way to go before we can even see the profile of the election campaign, let alone the results.

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