Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Electionwatch 9 - Tactics as the game warms up.

The die is cast… at least as for the candidates.

Yesterday evening was the deadline for submitting names of candidates. All the parties presented their lists in good time except for Silvio Berlusconi’s Party of Freedom (PdL).

The problem was whether to include candidates who were either under investigation or who had been convicted in the court of first instance. Pierluigi Bersani and the Democratic Party (PD) had started the ball rolling by excluding three candidates, two from Sicily and one from Campania. They have either been indicted or convicted of crimes “against the public administration” (some sort of misuse of public funds). Some of the old guard like Walter Veltroni and Massimo D’Alema have also stood down, not for any misbehaviour but because the party wanted to present an image of renewal.

In the PdL, the situation was very different. Berlusconi’s poll mavens had told him that running equivocal candidates would cost the party up to a million votes though it is not at all clear how many votes those candidates can muster in favour of the party. Heavy pressure was put on a swathe of candidates; some jumped before they were pushed. Claudio Scajola is the veteran Ligurian Christian Democrat for whom someone paid €600,000 towards his flat “unbeknownst to me”. He has not been convicted of anything but said “I will not accept moral judgements from anyone” and stepped down . Berlusconi’s long time business partner, the Sicilian Marcello Dell’Utri has been convicted of various crimes including mafia association. He stepped down saying that he did not want to be accused of being the reason for the PdL‘s likely defeat.

Two others, both deputies and former members of government were not so accommodating. Alfonso Papa (who has already served time awaiting trial, one of the few politicians to see the inside of a prison) and Nicola Cosentino (left), both from Campania and both accused of links with the camorra refused to go quietly. All of yesterday there were furious rumours flying: party secretary Alfano and Cosentino had come to blows, Cosentino had walked off with the party lists and notarised signatures, they were in, they were out, and so on. In the end, they were out. Once out of the Chamber of Deputies, they lose their get-out-of-gaol-free card (Dell’Utri is too old to go to gaol) which is the main reason why they were so desperate.

The irony of the PdL clean-up is that Berlusconi himself, national party coordinator, Denis Verdini and outgoing president of Lombardy, Roberto Formigoni all have much more serious convictions or pending investigations but they are still very much in the running.

This is a battle between modern spin doctors, focus groups and opinion polls on the one hand and old fashioned clientelistic and machine politics on the other. Campania is one of the key swing regions and we will only see on 25 February whether Berlusconi’s clean-up has paid off in electoral terms.

He has increased the PdL’s share of the poll by more than 3% over the last month but only by dominating television and radio (his own and the public broadcaster). From now on parties’ and candidates’ will be regulated so we can expect a flattening of the curve. Nonetheless, his efforts have paid off – once again, he is the centre of attention and once again he has succeeded in setting at least part of the agenda with Monti promising to lower taxes and Bersani backtracking on a wealth tax proposal and promising to adjust the IMU property tax for lower incomes.

But for unacceptable candidates, it was the PD which made the running. Then, the queen of Italy’s spoof videos took a leaf out of the Nat and Natalie King Cole with her version of “Unforgettable” – “Unpresentable”.

Apart from Campania, according to a recent poll by Renato Mannheimer, there are another four marginal (using the British term) or swing (using the American) regions where the polls are too close to call. These are Lombardy, Venetia in the north, Apulia and Sicily in the south. There is a month to go before the elections and and in all five regions, most polls show less that 5% difference which between the margin of error and 25% saying they will not vote and 15% undecided . Over the next month the big parties, PD and PdL will fight hard to squeeze the smaller ones, at least in the centre, telling their lukewarm supporters to hold their noses and vote tactically rather than waste their vote on the luxury of an ideological vote of principal. In any scenario, Mario Monti and his “Civic Choice” will be crucial.

In Latium, the PD has a six point lead but that is due to Nicola Zingaretti, the popular candidate for the Regional and might not translate into a win in the Senate.
The Senate uncertainty conditions tactics. In Lombardy, the PdL and the Northern League (LN) came to an agreement last week despite having throwing brickbats at each for the past year. They had to if the LN leader, Roberto Maroni was to have any chance of winning the presidency of the region and if Berlusconi was to have any chance of winning the Senate premium.

The other tactical conditioning is a throwback to the so-called “First Republic” where the five government party did everything they could to differentiate themselves from each other in order to win more votes, knowing full well that within days of the election they would be negotiating government posts. It meant that they could not be overly rude about each other. This is happening with Bersani and Mario Monti’s “Civic Choice”. They are making great efforts to focus on what makes them different but they are being polite enough to allow a post-election coalition.

But this is only the beginning.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

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