Saturday, April 21, 2012

Partying in Italy

Italy does parties very well, as we all know. The festive kind have been around at least since the pre-Roman Etruscan triumphs, political parties are a bit more recent but they ran all aspects of the country in such a way as to have led to the creation of a new word: partitocrazia. They have never been loved but today their credibility has sunk to new lows.

In one recent poll, just over 48.2% of the Italian electorate said they would not vote for any party (compared to a turnout of just under 80% in 2008 – 22.8% did not vote). Overall confidence in the parties is as low as 4% in some polls and none gives them more than a 10% approval rating. This is lower than the trades unions and much lower than the unelected prime minister Monti who still scores over 50% despite the austerity budgets and some confusion and indecision of his government over the last few weeks.

In contrast, the quintessential anti-system group (from the left), the Movimento 5 Stelle (the 5 star movement) led by the Genoese comic Beppe Grillo (pictured above) is scoring more than 7% in the polls, the third biggest party if the polls are accurate. There are local elections on 6 May for about a fifth of the country and a general election by spring next year or possibly earlier, so the hypothetical numbers will become real soon enough. Grillo is “surfing the wave”, a wave that he reckons will wipe away the parties.

The professional politicians have been quick to complain about the dangers of “populism” and “antipolitica” evoking the spectre of the 1940s crypto-fascist, Poujadist movement, the Uomo Qualunque. Former prime minister and leader of the Democratic Party, Massimo D’Alema called the Grillo trend “a poison in society”.

Grillo certainly steals votes from the conventional left but he is also taking advantage of the Northern League’s (LN) scandals. The League has always been a protest movement but the scandals have show how much they have become part of the establishment so it is not surprising that dissatisfied LN people might support Grillo.

Enough has come out about the LN to make one wonder how it still exists. This week, the former treasurer delivered 10 gold ingots, 11 diamonds and an Audi A6 used by Renzo Bossi to party headquarters. Renzo (“the Trout”) is the son of party leader Umberto. These were supposedly party “investments”. Former minister and Bossi faithful, Calderoli has admitted that the party is paying €2,200 a month for his flat in Rome. Prosecutors in Calabria are accusing the Lega of managing €80m of party and Calabrian mafia (ndrangheta) funds together and trying to take over a Swiss bank together. To top it all, there are allegations that the former treasurer was also spying on Bossi’s rival, Roberto Maroni looking for dirt.

The League makes a better tabloid story but it is the the government parties, left right and centre, that really matter.

Berlusconi was in court yesterday explaining that his girls dressed up as nuns and police because “women are exhibitionists” and that there was nothing improper, but bunga-bunga aside his People of Freedom (PdL) party is disintegrating anyway.

Senator Beppe Pisanu and 30 other PdL parliamentarians launched an appeal to “moderates” yesterday presaging another split in the PdL. At the same time, the centrist leader Pierferdinando Casini of the Christian Democrat Centre Union, (UDC) launched the new Partito della Nazione (Party of the Nation) which would like to include some of the more popular supposedly “technical” ministers in Monti government; people like Corrado Passera, Andrea Riccardi and Anna Maria Cancellieri, perhaps even Monti himself.

Casini has also been trying to bring former Fiat and Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo into his circle. Montezemolo set up a foundation a couple of years ago which seemed to be the statement of intent to go into politics but he has dithered ever since. Montezemolo met with Berlusconi yesterday but still has not put his hat in the ring either with Casini or Berlusconi.

All this means that there is a crowd in the centre, elbowing each other in time for next year’s elections and presuming that the Berlusconi era is over. Berlusconi himself (through his mouthpiece, Angelino Alfano) has promised a “new campaign and new political actor” after the local elections. For decades now, political parties have been sold like washing powder but now we even have the “mystery product”, the new model which is advertised even under wraps – actually, being under wraps is supposed to make it all the more seductive. This is the hope, but the competition between Casini and Alfano is too obvious to attract anyone. If Berlusconi comes back, not unlikely, then the balance changes.

On the left, the Democrtic Party (PD) has been showing its divisions for months now especially on economic and labour issues. Apart from Grillo, there is an attempt to set up a party or movement to appeal to the disappointed left wing voters, yet another try to make a coherent, votable party for people of the left without a real political home. Next week there will be a meeting to try and set up a new party.
In the meantime, the big issues of employment, growth and taxes are being sidelined by personal or party interests. Berlusconi and the PdL are fighting a government move to auction off television frequencies instead of giving them free to Mediaset and the RAI. The PdL is delaying the progress of an anti-corruption bill before Parliament and all the big parties are defending their own generous public funding. While they all complain about the antipolitica, none of them is prepared to look to the causes.

Last summer I wrote a blog entitled “They don’t get it” about politicians who were out of touch with reality (and many others have been writing similar laments for ages before that). You would think that after all that has happened since then something would have changed in politicians’ perceptions of themselves… but they still don’t get it! As one correspondent put it “Pitchforks!” but that would be populist, wouldn’t it?

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Labours of Monti

Prime Minister Mario Monti has set himself three major tasks so far. The first was the austerity budget, which he called Salvitalia or “Save Italy”, passed in November and now beginning to bite. The second was the Crescitalia or “Grow Italy” drafted in January and now before Parliament. The third, with no easy nametag, is labour reform. After a couple of months of discussions between the Minister of Labour, Elsa Fornero and unions and employers, a bill is about to go to Parliament.

Fornero, Monti and the other high profile minister, Corrado Passera (pictured) have been swapping roles since they took the jobs, with one or other of them playing tough or mediating. Over the weekend, it was Fornero who said that if the labour reform is not accepted (by the majority in Parliament), then, the government will go home. This has been Monti’s subtext since he became prime minister; he acknowledges that his government has no electoral legitimacy and can be brought down by Parliament in any division. But he and they know full well that the parties cannot take the responsibility of bringing down a government which is keeping Italy afloat in the euro storm.

The red rag (to both unions and employers and to their supporters in Parliament) is article 18 of the 1970 Worker’s Statute. This allows a worker who has been unfairly dismissed (as established by a court) to be reinstated. It only applies to firms with more than 15 employees and in practice only applies to employees who have an indefinite contract.

The secretary of the employers’ federation Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia recently accused the Monti government of giving in to union and PD pressure over article 18. The centre-right PdL has moved in to back up the Confindustria in the parliamentary debate. Marcegaglia and others have maintained that article 18 is a fundamental brake on growth, not because it is used in practice but because it dissuades foreign investment. Granted it is difficult to prove a negative but all Confindustria people can come up with are very vague “colleagues have told me…”. Last month British Gas formally gave up on a project to build a regasification plant in Brindisi. They had spent 11 years and €250m on the project but even then had not been able to complete the paperwork for the necessary authorisations.

Only today, the emir of Qatar told Monti that the most important reason for not investing in Italy was corruption. Monti added that the uncertainty and desperate slowness of reaching a verdict in civil law was another reason.

Over the medium term, Italy’s position in the Heritage Foundation’s ratings on “Economic Freedom” have continued to fall with Italy now coming in (in 2012) at an abysmal 92nd (out of 179) place. According to the conservative thinktank, almost all their criteria have worsened (freedom from corruption, labour and monetary freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom). Italy is in the class of “mostly unfree” countries, between Azerbaijan and Honduras. Heritage is partnered by the Wall Street Journal which recently also accused the Monti government of giving in to the unions over article 18 but they have condemned Italy for the last decade for its lack of economic liberalism – left, right and Monti governments.

These seem to me to be much more convincing reasons for not investing in Italy than the distant possibility that if an employee is laid off and a court finds that the dismissal was without “just cause”, the employee will have the choice of getting the job back instead of monetary compensation.

The unions too have made the defence of article 18 into an article of faith with the more left wing CGIL threatening a general strike if it is abolished. The Democratic Party is preparing to move into parliamentary trenches though neither they nor the PdL are prepared to fight too violently because they cannot afford to bring down the government.

Hence the grandstanding from Fornero followed by rude rejections from the party leaders and then conciliatory moves by Passera and then Monti.

The parties are concerned with their own credibility (and that will be the next blog) while government and civil society organisations including employers and unions are trying to deal with the domestic and foreign pressure.

At home there is a new nightmare word, esodati, a neologism meaning literally “exodused”, in practice a class in limbo. These are people who were paid by the cassa integrazione, a temporary redundancy fund, on the understanding that their pay would come first from the cassa and then they would retire and get a pension. With Monti’s November reform, the retirement age has moved and these people find themselves without the cassa and without a pension; far from being led by Moses, they are stuck halfway across the Red Sea with the waters about to cover them. The problem is that we have no idea how many they are. The government says 65,000 and says they can take early retirement. INPS, the national pension fund says double that and that the pensions are not covered. The unions reckon the figure is closer to 300,000.

Youth unemployment continues to grow. ISTAT says that unemployment is up 0.2% in February on January at 9.3% and is the highest figure since 2004 when this series began. Youth (15-24) unemployment is 31.9%. Women suffer more. The eurozone is 10.8% so Italy is still slightly better off.

On the other side, a reliable research institute reckons that in 2011, a record 11,600 businesses closed, the worst year since the crisis began. The figures are given flesh by the increasing number of suicides of bankrupt businessmen.
Meanwhile, internationally, the spread between German and Italian bonds wobbles more upwards than down and some of Monti’s previous supporters are less vocal.

This afternoon I got an invitation to express my “views on Italy's political situation and how it can ride the wave of financial problems”. It was consoling that the question was “how” and not “if” which is the way many consider it. It is still “how” and not “if” but Monti’s tasks and difficulties are increasing rather than decreasing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The best democracy that money can buy

[with acknowledgements to Greg Palast’s 2003 book of that title]

How much does politics cost? Italians and Americans have very different figures but they both have the same answer… too much. And in both countries it is democracy that is brought into disrepute.

The present rot in Italy began a long time ago, when Parliament reintroduced public financing of parties within months of a referendum which had abolished it in 1993. They called it “elections campaign reimbursements”, a fiction to begin with made even more absurd when they did not even have to show their expenses for the campaign. The absurdity was cubed when we learnt that the “reimbursements” ran for five years even when the legislature only lasted two as in 2006-08 (the clock obviously started again after the 2008 elections). Last month we also learnt that a party does not even have to exist any more in order to receive the taxpayers’ manna.

Since 1994, the different groups received €2.5 bn but accounted for less than €600m with bona fide election expenses. The rest went into the party kitty. The combination of corruption in the now defunct Margherita and the Northern League with the swingeing tax increases and benefit reduction have meant that political party approval ratings are below 10% and sinking. A bill to change the public financing of parties will probably be presented to Parliament this week but is more likely to be a fudge than any serious reform. None of the parties is willing to give up public support nor their control over many public resources.

After the Lockheed bribery scandals in 1974, explained because of the need to pay for election campaigns, Parliament introduced public funding. This was abolished in the April 1993 referendum (90.3% for abolition)in the wake of the kickback scandals only to be reintroduced later the same year as “reimbursements”. Parliament revised an existing law on electoral expenses so that €47m were paid out for the 1994 general election.

In 1999 the centre-left introduced electoral expenses at 800 lire per year per vote received. And three years later, in 2002 the Berlusconi government more than doubled the reimbursement to €1 (lire 1,936) for European Parliament elections, Chamber, Senate and Italian regional elections. For a total of almost €50m p.a.
The parties are given a “reimbursement for electoral expenses” which are paid yearly over the five years following the elections. In 2006, the outgoing Berlusconi government introduced a small amendment which means that if there are early elections, the parties are paid for the original elections and for the early ones which is exactly what happened in 2008.

On top of all this, there is the indirect financing of politics. Friends, relations and political supporters are given jobs either in the public administration (anything from road sweepers on the town council’s wages bill to senior civil servants in ministries) to the very popular “consultants” or as elected representatives. Berlusconi’s “dental hygienist” and alleged procuress for his Arcore parties, Nicole Minetti is a regional councillor for Lombardy (salary €12,000 pm) as was Umberto Bossi’s son Renzo until Monday; other female friends of Berlusconi are in the European Parliament.

The shows of indignation by politicians at the moment is amazing. You remember the old one, the Spaniard who asks the Irishman if they have a word for mañana. “We would” replies the Irishman, “but without its sense of urgency”. Is there a word for chutzpah in Italian? “Of course, but without its sense of ethical rigour”.

This is another proof of my contention that chutzpah is actually originally an Italian word. It is only now that once again after two party treasurers have been shown to have been rather too relaxed about the public financing of their parties that something might be done.

The Genoese comic Maurizio Crozza was already saying it five years ago when he asked “how much does politics cost?”. The style was very funny but the detailed and accurate figures wiped any smile off taxpayers’ faces; and the situation has only got worse. All the numbers he used were taken from the bestseller La Casta, the bestseller by two Corriere della Sera journalists, Gianantonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. Yesterday, Rizzo wrote yet another horror story explaining that tax relief for donations to parties and party newspapers receive 51 times more tax relief than donations to research on child leukemia. He adds bitterly that there are some deputies who think that even that is not enough tax relief.

In the US, things are different. It is true that the taxpayer makes only limited direct contributions to campaign. But all donations are tax deductible so in the end, the taxpayer is indeed paying. The damage to American democracy is not in the illegal use of those funds it’s the uncontrolled quantity of funds. Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United verdict in 2010, corporations may contribute unlimited funds to election candidates via supposedly independent Political Action Committees (PACs). The power of PACs has been shown by Romney’s ability to outspend all his opponents on the airwaves.

In France, starting on Easter Monday television and radio media access is strictly limited and controlled for all ten presidential candidates, a stark contrast to both the US and Italian campaign and financing methods. There are flaws in France, too, no doubt, but for the moment neither Italy nor the US give the idea of democracy a good name.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Bossi and Orwell’s Pigs

Umberto Bossi has finally resigned as leader of the Northern League which he founded and personified. He began his political career almost 30 years ago attacking the thieving capital, Roma ladrona, as a vampire which sucked the hardearned taxes of honest northerners into a vortex of corruption to support a lazy, workshy, gangster-ridden south. If even half the allegations against him are true, he has shown that he has learnt how to play that particular political game even better than those he once excoriated.

In the last scene of Animal Farm the animals look in through the window
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

The great revolution had come to an end with the revolutionaries morphed into their former oppressors.

We poor animals of Italy have been witnessing this scene for some time now. Thankfully the result has been mostly an expensive comedy rather than the bloody tragedy that Orwell was satirising. And even better, Bossi has indeed stepped down, at least for the moment. Today, his eldest son, Renzo, has resigned from the Lombardy Regional Assembly under pressure from the grass roots.

Before that happened, Bossi, his family and close political allies had become more “southern” and more “Roman” than the real Romans and southerners.

Bossi started in a small way in his native Varese, north of Milan working hard to create a northern, populist party, the Lombard League. In 1987, he was elected to the Senate and since then is often referred to as Senatur, the Lombard for senatore. In 1990, he joined forces with the other northern parties which had imitated him to form the Northern League (LN) and in ’92 was both a cause and beneficiary of the collapse of the existing parties. They took 8.6% of the vote for the Chamber and 55 deputies. The following year, they won the local elections in Milan.

With the other parties seriously weakened and a new majoritarian system, in 1994, with 8.4%, they won 102 seats in the Chamber and became part of Silvio Berlusconi’s first government with five ministers. That only lasted seven months until Bossi left the coalition. Next time, in 2001, Berlusconi had prepared the ground better and the government lasted the whole term. Again in 2008, Bossi and Berlusconi were partners. The anti-establishment party has had cabinet ministers for more than nine of the last 18 years.

Right from the beginning, Bossi was way over the top and very soon became a caricature of himself. He and the leghisti were and are coarse in language and gesture with frequent expletives in public, middle fingers (Bossi and Roberto Calderoli in a typical pose) and the more traditional Italian translation (left hand in the crook of the right arm followed by a sharp upward movement of the right forearm – the English two fingers, the American one finger are much more economical but less expressive). His deputies waved a noose in the Chamber of Deputies as part of their contempt for political corruption – an irony not lost today. Bossi and his close associates make racist remarks, insult their opponents (including sometime and future allies like Berlusconi) and say that the the national flag should be used as lavatory paper (only he was more explicit). He has no illusions about his son, Renzo (pictured), who had to re-sit his maturità, high school exam, twice before passing the third time with a bare minimum; when someone suggested that Renzo was his Dauphin, he said “he’s no dolphin – at best he’s a trout”. Nonetheless, the Trout was elevated to the Lombardy Assembly with a €12,000 per month salary. He is also alleged to be taking a degree at a “private university in London” paid for with LN funds. Today, he resigned from the Assembly.

The LN treasurer also resigned last week after it became clear that he had had links with the Calabrian mafia, the ndrangheta, had probably been creating and using slush funds and had been investing millions of public funds in Tanzania.

Rosy Mauro, the woman who has looked after Bossi politically since his 2004 stroke was made deputy speaker of the Senate where she famously conducted the divisions on a whole bill without taking any notice of the assembly in front of her. That was a couple of years ago; now she is in the news because of her alleged lover whose degree was paid for (€130,000) with LN funds and who now has a job in the Senate. Even better, he made his name as an Elvis impersonator and singer in his own right with numbers like “Kooly noody” (or culi nudi – bare bums). After Renzo’s departure today, Mauro cannot be far behind him, at least as deputy speaker (pictured in the Senate).

They have all been dubbed “the magic circle” but the spell is wearing off.

In England, the performance could be “Carry on polenta” (or Madonnina or some other symbol of northern-ness) with Syd James as Bossi, Hattie Jacques as Rosy Mauro, Kenneth Williams as the Trout. Orwell who loved the saucy post cards of Donald McGill would surely smile at some of the League’s antics but tut-tutted the excesses. In any case, I have no doubt that Italian filmmakers are already working on the script – commedia all’italiana has no need to copy foreigners.

The rest is not very funny. The real scandal is not that an anti-corruption party should be caught buying degrees and cars, renovating the leader’s house or investing in Tanzania, it is that they have the funds to do it; these are the so-called “reimbursements” which don’t reimburse real electoral expenses but are part of a massive public funding for political parties.

In political terms, the LN will pay for some of the scandals in next month’s local elections and is going towards a long-awaited showdown between Bossi and his friends and his erstwhile lieutenant and partner, Roberto Maroni. The first test will be tomorrow evening in Bergamo for a League Pride (Orgoglio leghista) rally, the first opportunity for the party faithful to express themselves and show support for either Maroni or Bossi.

The League’s longterm aims of either secession or real federalism or devolution are no closer today than they were in 1994 when they first went into government bu they still have the best grass roots organisation of any Italian party. They have taken on and developed the local clientelism that used to be the prerogative of the old parties of the “First Republic” so despite the policy failure and the leadership scandals the League is not dead yet.

It is not only the leaders who have come to look like the old-style polticians.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Why let the truth get in the way of a good slogan.

There is something more than perverse in the way some American Republicans view both the word “Europe” and the term “socialism”.

Once upon a time, there was a loony left which dubbed the mildest conservative or even liberal as “Fascist” advertising their ignorance of what the word means together with their intolerance. Today, serious candidates for the US presidency and representatives of the party which controls one of the houses of the US Congress show the same crazy disregard for reality. This is dangerous not just for Americans but for us in Europe too as widening the Atlantic helps neither side.

Last week, I was asked to try and understand what what going on How GOP candidates get Europe wrong which forced me to think about the issue.

Almost four years ago, during the Thanksgiving weekend after the US elections, I visited the Budapest House of Terror, a museum which seeks to describe the city under the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross movement during the war and the subsequent Communist regime. The museum’s intention is to evoke unmitigated disgust for the two regimes and paint a picture of bleak, grey and painful city and it succeeds. So it was with some surprise that I came across these two entries in the museum’s visitors’ book:
Thank you for this fantastic exhibition. With the new Obama nation in the United States, soon [underlined] we will be a Communist nation. Please try and help us.
A New Yorker
dated 25 November 2008
same date but in the other book and in a different handwriting
It is shocking and scary how similar the earlier days of the Nazis and the Communists look to the promises and plans of the Obama administration in the United States. All Americans should learn about what really happens under Communism and Socialism

Republicans are only more circumspect in the way they talk about “European socialism” but the substance is the same. The intention is muddle any differences between Stalin’s gulags and Danish social democracy, between Greek debt and Spain’s high unemployment and Germany’s growth and low unemployment, between the European Union, the euro zone and geographical Europe. But all these distinctions don’t fit in 15 second sound bite.

Of course caricatures must have a grain of truth to have any currency. The way the euro crisis was allowed to deepen is hardly a positive lesson in financial management (but Romney and Santorum should explain how bailing out banks is “socialist”). Most European countries do indeed have socialised medicine, rarely free, but the candidates should explain why in Europe (by any definition) we spend a smaller proportion of our GDPs on health and it mostly gives us care which is as good or better than the US (according to the WHO, for 2008, social democratic Norway spends 8.5%, the UK and Italy 8.7%, Netherlands 9.9 and Germany 10.5%… while the US spent 15.2%). There are plenty of Americans who would love to have those figures and that sort of health care – it’s true that top American health is the best in the world but it requires insurance that the majority cannot afford. It is also true that not all Americans consider European health care as pre-Florence Nightingale Crimea. This week’s New Yorker has David Sedaris writing lyrically on dentists in France… but New Yorker readers are unlikely to vote for Rick Santorum. How Obamacare can be perceived as “socialist” in any way defies the lexicon and political definition. Even if it allows some wry humour about eating broccoli.

But the “socialist” ploy is not new “We are all socialists now” Jon Meacham in Newsweek thought so in 2009. Actually William Harcourt made the remark in 1887 when a bill was passed in the House of Commons allowing local authorities to acquire land compulsorily on behalf of the community. For him, the revolution had already arrived and he could almost hear the tumbrils coming down Whitehall. A lot of rhetoric has flowed under the bridges of both Thames and Potomac since then and the word has taken on many different nuances since then.

In most of western Europe at least, both the word and the substance of community responsibility have positive connotations. Conservative parties have to reassure voters that their neo-liberal, free market rhetoric will not mean high prices for education, health, pensions and support for the unemployed. In eastern Europe, the word does have negative connotations for some but the substance is if anything more ingrained than on other side of the old Iron Curtain.

But for all the (necessary) pedantry about what “Europe” and “socialism” really mean, the most disturbing conclusion is that the Republicans who rant against “socialism” are merely covering up a vitriolic racism against a black president.