Sunday, September 09, 2012

Election Watch 3 – Monti succeeds Monti? The temperature rises. Berlusconi again, “The White Thing” and left in disarray.

The buzz is all about what sort of government Italy will have after the elections and the very unsecret consensus is that it will be Monti again – either as prime minister or heading another ministry or as a deus ex macchina leading the government’s policies.

For the rest, as is often the case in Italy, there is uncertainty.

The Americans know exactly when they will vote for their next leader and for the last few months, they have known the choice of individuals. The two men’s policies are less clear but over the next month we should have a better idea.

Here in Italy, we’re pretty sure about the policies but we do not know what sort of choice of leaders the Italians will have, nor which parties and their alliances, nor what sort of electoral system they will be using. We are not even sure when they vote – it will most likely be April but it could just be March or May and it might just be in November.

A second Monti government is top of the business community’s wish list along with the centrist UDC. At the annual meeting of economic leaders at Cernobbio, a straw poll was taken and 80% of those questioned declared themselves in favour of what is called in Italian, a Monti-bis. (“bis!” is the cry for “Encore!” in a theatre of concert hall as well as being “twice” in Latin.)

The man himself has said explicitly, once again, that his job (as prime minister) ends with the elections. Others across the spectrum have reiterated the need for an elected government.

There is, of course, another job up for grabs next year: the presidency. Until two months ago, it was clear that Napolitano had greatly enhanced not only the prestige of the presidency but also its power. Constitutionally, the Italian presidency is mainly symbolic, but its powers and influence expand as that of other institutions wane. The new president might have expected to step into a more than ceremonial role. But because of Napolitano’s clumsy effort to protect himself and the presidency from judicial investigation, his and the presidency’s reputations are under discussion.

As for candidates, right from his nomination as prime minister last November there has been speculation that Monti might take over from Napolitano in the Quirinale. This is still a possibility but former Italian prime minister, European Commission president and leader of the Italian centre-left, Romano Prodi has also been put forward as a possibility though he has denied interest. No doubt Silvio Berlusconi still dreams of finishing his career on “Rome’s highest hill” as the Quirinale is often called in a political rather than altimetric epithet, but that is not on the cards.

If presidential hopefuls are keeping their powder dry, the real politicals are even more careful about their own ambitions, at least until we know what the electoral system will be.

As we move closer to elections and towards a Monti-bis with or without Monti, the space in the political centre is becoming more and more crowded with undeclared wannabes. Corrado Passera went to the centrist UDC’s summer gathering, expressed his sympathy and redeclared his technocratic neutrality. Another media-positive figure, Emma Marcegaglia, has said she is a definite undeclared for politics. She was the first woman to lead Confindustria, the employers’ association and was popular and successful. Another definite maybe is Montezemolo but he has been hovering on the edges of politics for years now so even in the country of uncertainty, he is perceived as too indecisive. The prospect of some new, centrist, post-Christian Democrat (DC) party appears and disappears like a ghost at the party: la cosa bianca, the “white thing”, an as yet undefined successor to the old DC’s epithet of “white whale”.

On the right, they all wait with bated breath to see if Berlusconi will stand again or not, the Great Unknown. He is due to appear as the star act on a cruise organised by one of his family papers, Il Giornale. Obviously, there is intense speculation that this will be the launch of his new candidacy. Whether he goes centre stage or not depends entirely on the opinion polls. He is unlikely to win outright but he does not want to crash (anything less than 20%). Berlusconi’s candidacy is a heady mix. There are his interests, financial and legal. He needs to keep political power to maintain Fininvest’s role in the media and publicity and to condition the courts and law reform to protect himself from present and future prosecution. Then there is the psychodrama of the almost 76 year old who needs to show himself and the world that he can still make it; Europe’s answer to Chavez and Mugabe.

The centre-left does not have quite the theatre, but they are trying hard. Within the Democratic Party (PD), the debate is more about leadership than policies. The Italian left has a vocation for seizing defeat out of the jaws of victory and they are trying again now. For the last year, opinion polls have given the PD with or without allies, a clear advantage over any other party. Now they are fighting over primaries in which from the party establishment’s point of view, the wrong person might win. The “wrong person” in this case is Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi, a bumptious youth (he actually 37, a respectable age for leadership prospects in most countries but in Italy, hardly out of political nappies and now definitely guilty of lèse nomenklatura). He might just beat PD party secretary, Pierluigi Bersani if the party can decide when to run them and with what rules.

Outside the PD, there is continuous sniping between them and Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement (M5S) which picks up most of the protest vote, mostly on the left but some on the right too. Bersani has accused Grillo of using “fascist” language and Grillo has called Bersani a “zombie”. At the moment at least the PD is ready for an alliance with the left wing Nichi Vendola’s Left-Ecology-Freedom (SEL) party and has given up an alliance with Antonio Di Pietro’s Italy of Values (IdV) but this geometry could still change. Grillo’s M5S is also riven with dissent over uncertainty of the leadership and policies, with members criticising Grillo’s concentration of power.

It is as if electoral politics had become an almost irrelevant sideshow while Monti and the grownups, above all the other Mario, Draghi and the European authorities are dealing with the euro crisis. The rest of the government is addressing but not solving the Italian employment crises.

For the moment at least, the political parties are as far away as ever from regaining public confidence.

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