Monday, December 31, 2012

Electionwatch 8 – two cheers for the centre-left primaries

The Italian electoral law, the Porcellum or pig’s dinner, has fixed party lists. The party or the party leader decides on the order. If you win 25% of the vote, then the top quarter of the list are elected; the voter can only choose a party and can do nothing to influence which of the party’s candidates should be elected. The Israelis have a similar system and will be using it next month.

After a very successful primary campaign for the leadership, the Democratic Party (PD) decided to repeat the scheme for their parliamentary candidates. They worked very quickly and effectively to draw up rules and organise elections across the country. The aim was to give voters the choice that the electoral system denies them as well as guaranteeing some gender balance (voters in the primaries can vote for two candidates; one male, one female).

On Saturday and yesterday, party members and sympathisers voted for the candidates that they would like to see fight the elections in February. My immediate presumption was that the primaries would establish the order of the fixed party list and therefore the likelihood of a candidate actually being elected.

I was wrong.

First of all, Party Secretary, Pierluigi Bersani, chooses the people for the top of the lists. There are 26 constituencies for the Chamber and 20 regional constituencies for the Senate. Then the national executive chooses up to 10% of the candidates (about a 100) on the basis of “competence and openness towards society”. That counts for almost a third of likely parliamentarians.

The rest are not ranked directly by party activists though; today’s primaries are organised on a province basis while the constituencies are much bigger, usually regionally. So, as Chiara Geloni, chief editor of the PD’s television station, YouDem, told me, “in my province of Massa Carrara, the party decided that we should have two candidates at the elections so we chose two from the four in the primaries.”

The Tuscan constituency has 38 deputies and if the PD does very well, they might win 20 seats (in 2008, they had 19) so candidates 1-15 are sure of election, 16-22 are possibles and 23-38 are no-hopers. Geloni was not able to tell me where the two winners from Massa would be placed on the list or whether the man or the woman would be first “that will be decided by the Regional and National executives”. They will also decide on the order for the Senate candidates. The final results are expected on Wednesday.

So at the end of the day, the exercise was rather less than a triumph of transparency and democracy. The leader and the secretariat did not let the activists decide who would stand the best chance of being elected as the Americans do in their primaries and, indeed as the PD did in its own leadership primaries last month.

But it would be ungenerous to carp too much and accuse the PD of residual communist control. No party anywhere in the world allows militants to decide all the posts. In Italy, only the PD and its allies even staged primaries. At a local level, the “wrong” ie non-party-sponsored candidate has won on more than one occasion. And then gone on to win the mayoral election like Giulio Pisapia in Milan and Luigi De Magistris in Naples.

Angelino Alfano proposed primaries for the centre-right in order to give himself some legitimacy beyond Berlusconi’s investiture. But then Berlusconi couldn’t resist coming back into play and the PdL was worried that they could not manage the PD’s 3 million turnout and so would be perceived as losers. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) held their primaries on line with some doubts as to the reliability and transparency of the process. In any case only 95,000 people voted.

Mario Monti and the centre haven’t given themselves enough time even to think about primaries.

So all in all, the PD primaries have been a success. The leadership process gave the party huge coverage and a big boost in the opinion polls hitting 38% briefly. They are now down to 33-35% but still doing well. Pierluigi Bersani has established himself as the clear and undisputed leader not only of the PD but of a centre-left coalition that goes from Bruno Tabacci in the centre to Nichi Vendola on the left. And finally, 3 million people turned out to vote in November and a million this weekend; they paid €2 each; €8 million is a useful start to an election campaign. Many of them left phone numbers or emails so will be contacted during the campaign and some will campaign themselves. So even if the people in my local PD office did not know exactly what everyone was voting for, the overall effect was certainly positive not just for the PD but for Italian democracy in general.

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.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Election watch 7 – Election law basics. This little piggy is complicated…

For the last year all the political parties and their leaders agreed loudly that the 2005 electoral law was unjust and inappropriate and should be changed. The man who guided it through Parliament, the Northern League’s Roberto Calderoli, called it a porcata (pig’s mess) back then and Italy's top political analyst Giovanni Sartori immediately dubbed it with a dog-Latin tag Porcellum.

Every month or so, President Napolitano reminded Parliament and the parties that time was passing and the old law was still in place. They answered with a ritual “it’ll be ready in a fortnight”. The parties and parliamentary committees discussed nerdy and arcane distinctions between single member constituencies, double ballots and preference votes… but in the end came to no conclusions and the law is unchanged.

This should surprise no one as the Porcellum gives complete power to party leaders to decide who gets elected and it also gives a hefty premium to the largest party or coalition. Silvio Berlusconi and his PdL wanted to keep control of the candidates and Pierluigi Bersani and the PD were not averse to taking 55% of the seats with only 35% of the vote, a quite probable result.

So as the election campaign gets under way, it’s worth looking at the rules and the playing field that they are competing on.

Italy has perfect bicameralism – its two houses have equal power as in the US but very different from the UK or France, say. In order to govern, a coalition needs a majority in the Senate and the Chamber.

The Chamber has 630 deputies so the majority is 316. There are twenty six multi-member constituencies to elect 617 deputies. The other 13 come from the Valle d’Aosta single member constituency and 12 representing Italians abroad. The party or coalition that wins a relative majority automatically takes a premium of 55% on the 617 equal to 340 seats. In 2006, Prodi’s Unione won 0.1% (or c. 70,000) more than Berlusconi’s coalition and took the premium.

There are thresholds in order to qualify of seats. A coalition must poll 10% with each single component party taking 2%. A party standing by itself must poll 4%.

There seems to be an incentive to put together the broadest possible coalition in order to maximise the chances of being the biggest group and winning the premium. This is what Prodi did in 2006 but the coalition was too broad and unravelled after only two years. In 2007, Walter Veltroni gambled that a single and united party would stand a better chance; he founded the Democratic Party which was the main cause of the Prodi coalition falling apart. Berlusconi took up the challenge and founded his single party, the Popolo delle Libertà by uniting his own Forza Italia and the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale. The PdL swept the board in the 2008 elections but it too started showing cracks after two years in practice losing its majority in 2011.

The candidates who actually become deputies are those at the top of the list, down to the percentage the party polled. In simple terms, in a constituency with 40 deputies, a party which polls 30% will have the first 12 on their list elected. The order of the list is decided by the party, not the voters.

Today it is highly likely that Bersani’s PD in coalition with Nichi Vendola’s left wing SEL (Sinistra, Ecologia, Libertà – Left, Ecology, Freedom) will win the relative majority in the Chamber.

The Senate is much less certain.

There are 315 seats up for election and the system works on the same principle as the Chamber and gives a premium of 55% to the winning list or coalition but at the regional rather than national level.

The threshold is double the Chamber’s; 20% for a coalition and 4% for each single component and 8% for parties outside a coalition. This is why Monti’s supporters have decided to present a single list in the Senate as singly they would not reach the 8% threshold.

There are 20 regions. The traditional “red” regions (Communist once upon a time - Emilia-Romagna, the Marches, Tuscany and Umbria) will almost certainly give the PD a majority. The “white” regions (Christian Democrat – Venetia, Lombardy and parts of the south) are much less certain. Now that there is a strong centrist option with Monti, the votes will be evenly split and even in the red belt, a protest vote for Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) or the new Arancione (Orange) movement could cause problems for Bersani.

The electoral system means that American terms and techniques will be used. Whoever wins Lombardy takes 27 (out of 49) seats; Latium 16/28. Both regions will be campaigning for their regional governments at the same time and the centre left is hoping that disgust at the outgoing centre-right’s corruption will not only give them a regional victory but will bring them the Senate in tow. Sicily with its 25 seats (14 to the relative majority) voted in October and returned a centre left government. These are the key “swing regions”.

The coalitions must indicate a leader (not, strictly speaking a candidate for prime minister as the President has the prerogative of choosing the prime minister). The debate over the last week was whether, and then how Mario Monti would be present in the centrist coalition. In his pre-Christmas press conference he was highly critical of politics based on leaders rather than programmes. Now he has become a “leader” himself.

The last important technical element of the Porcellum is the obligation to present lists of candidates supported by citizens’ signatures… more than 120,000 for new parties (the exact number depends on the number of registered voters). Not an easy task. But two days ago, Parliament amended that section of the law reducing the necessary number by 75% for new parties outside Parliament and by a further 60% for breakaway groups within the old Parliament. That means that Grillo will have to find around 30,000 signatures and Ignazio La Russa former minister and outgoing deputy who created his own group a week ago will have to find around 12,000. The old saying in Italian is “fatta la legge, gabbato lo santo” “as soon as the law is made, the saint is made a fool”.

There is life yet in this little pig.

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 speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Previous Election Watch Blogs
1. 15 July Nine months to Elections.
2. 28 July Summer
3. 9 Sept. Monti succeeds Monti? The temperature rises. Berlusconi again, “The White Thing” and left in disarray.
4. 30 Sept. All aboard the Monti bandwagon.
5. 13 Oct. Elections Watch 5. Disintegrating regions.
6. 2 Nov Election Watch 6. Berlusconi unleashed and Sicilian elections.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Europontifex Maximus

Two days before the Pope’s Christmas homily, Mario Monti delivered his own sermon. It was not a call for peace like the Pope’s; on the contrary, it contained a string of deadly barbs mostly aimed at Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi and in Monti’s ever-polite way was a gauntlet thrown down.

Berlusconi picked it up immediately and has been working the media overtime ever since.

But Monti did only criticise Berlusconi for inconsistency (“my predecessor was not always linear in his actions”) and his parties. He put forward his own manifesto which had already been dubbed “l’agenda Monti” which he put on line almost immediately. It is a continuation of his government’s programme of fiscal rigour combined with some liberalisation of the economy and growth measures. His declared aims are the support of the Italian and European economies; his less declared aims are the support of the Church and it seemed till then that he would maintain a papal detachment from the rough and tumble of real politics.

With his two hour performance, Monti dispelled any idea that anyone might have still had that he is not a political animal. Without any Alastair Campbell or other obvious spin-doctor hovering in the background, he has been expertly building up his attack forces.

Before the press conference, he gave a long interview to the founder of the centre-left paper La Repubblica, and doyen of Italian journalism, Eugenio Scalfari saying that he was going to move into politics but indirectly and with a hint of some sort of working alliance with the Democratic Party (PD) and Pierluigi Bersani. A couple of days before he had used his last outing as prime minister before resigning to meet with Sergio Marchionne, controversial FIAT CEO and at least some of the union leaders who have come to a deal with Marchionne.

In the press conference itself, he never said that he would actually stand for office himself despite much pressing from the journalists. He does not have to stand for election to Parliament as he is a life senator but he could have said that he would stand as a centrist coalition leader.

He was, as my colleague, Pietro Garau said immediately after the press conference, playing the “europontifex maximus”
The man is far too conceited to go through the grind of a political campaign. In the end, he'll choose to play Europontifex Maximus, stand by the sidelines, offer occasional blessings onto the ones who seem to follow his "agenda" more respectfully, and wait on the sidelines to be begged to save Italy again. Which won't happen.

I wish that was true but since then he has moved a lot closer to the actual playing field.

On Christmas night (at 23.31), he posted his first tweet
Together we’ve saved Italy. Now we must renew politics; no use complaining, get involved. Let’s ‘ascend’ into politics.
Here he was spinning again. There were no papers on Boxing Day but the web, radio and television buzzed for the whole day with all the centrist politicians clustering round Monti like flies round a honeypot.

Yesterday, the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano explicitly endorsed him. The Church in Italy has always made it clear which side they are on (the winning side normally) but it is rare for the Vatican as such to be explicit. Monti is the first European candidate for head of government, I think, to have the explicit support of other European leaders and the foreign country here in the middle of Rome.

The next step is technical and tactical and this is being taken today; the disparate elements of the potential Monti-led coalition have to decide how to present themselves. In the Senate the system forces them to stand as a coalition as the threshold is 8% for single parties which would mean no seats. The Chamber threshold is half that so there is still the temptation to stand alone. Either way, they have to act quickly as symbols have to be registered in a fortnight, by 11 January. And somewhere, somehow, they will have to find if not candidates for all 945 seats in Parliament, then at least a third. It is not easy to find 300 good men (and women) and true (and of proven honesty).

For their part, candidates and potential candidates across the country are weighing up the advantages of a job (as minister, undersecretary or just simple backbencher) compared to ideological purity. It is the age-old quandary of principles versus expediency. Some have already moved from the PD to Monti and others from the PdL. For the moment they are the people of principle – the vicars of Bray will come later no doubt when the media searchlights have found other targets.

This has been Monti’s campaign so far. Planned with care, making sure of the size, strength and reliability of his troops before deploying them and then only to well-chosen positions. But it is still a very dangerous game. He risks coming in third or even fourth leading a motley crowd of some very competent and decent people and others who are neither.

In contrast, Berlusconi has laid down a box barrage worthy of the battle of the Somme. He has appeared in one-to-one interviews every day except Christmas. In some of the RAI encounters he was actually questioned and in one, he threatened to walk out. On his own channels, he was naturally given a free run and one he was even caught telling the interview what questions to ask (“after the break, you should ask me…”). The message has been unflinching. “Monti is Merkel’s lapdog and I will lower taxes, especially the property tax. The spread or interest rate difference between Germany and Italy is a con-trick. Trust me.”

This is an interesting message as I have a text on my phone which reads “We abolish the property tax. They tax your house and your savings. Choose the road ahead”. It sounds familiar… but is dated 6 April 2006, just before the last but one elections. The only giveaway for the date is that the property tax is called ICI not IMU like today’s and the message exhorts me to vote for Forza Italia rather than the PdL.

So the battle lines for the moment are between a Monti marshalling his forces and an already fighting Berlusconi. Monti is prepared to get into bed with Bersani who is also willing but neither must seem too keen and above all, Bersani will have to manage the left of his party and his coalition partner Nichi Vendola’s SEL very, very carefully otherwise he will lose Vendola, the left, Monti and the elections.

Grillo and Berlusconi shout populist messages from left and right while the Northern League has to plan its national and Lombard campaigns at the same time.

But by now, if the Europontifex monicker is to stick, Monti will play a Julius II warrior pope rather than one above the fray.

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 speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Misplaced nationalism

This morning two young men arrived at Ciampino Airport, the only passengers on a special government flight. They were welcomed by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Chief of General Staff of the Italian Navy and the President of the Region of Latium. They also had a welcome telephone call from Prime Minister Mario Monti. This afternoon, they were received by President Napolitano who gave a grandfatherly embrace.

They are Massimiliano Latorre e Salvatore Girone, marine NCOs who have been held in India for the last ten months, accused of killing two fishermen who they mistook for pirates trying to attack the tanker that Latorre and Girone were deployed on as guards. They have been granted a fortnight’s parole for Christmas before returning to Kerala to face trial.

There is nothing surprising that Italian diplomats did their best to secure the parole; one of government’s primary duties is to protect its nationals if they are under threat abroad and to look after the interests of nationals accused of crimes.

It is extremely surprising and disturbing that the two marines have been granted such high honour and recognition. No one denies that the fisherman were killed and that they were killed by the marines but exactly how is not clear.

The precise circumstances of the shooting have not been accepted by all parties but a lot of evidence has been gathered both by the Indian court and journalists and no doubt more will be presented as the trial proceeds.

So it is very inappropriate to treat the two men as returning heroes and does not help either Italo-Indian relations or the fight against piracy in the Arabian Sea.

Italy has experience of foreign soldiers accidentally killing Italians. There have been two incidents in the recent past in which Italians have been killed by US military personnel. In the first, in 1998, a Marine plane cut a skilift cable killing 20 people. In the other, an Italian secret service officer, Nicola Calipari was killed at a Baghdad road block by a National Guardsman, Mario Lozano. In the first case, the pilots were tried by an American court martial because of the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Italy. They were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. In the second, an internal US Army investigation cleared Lozano of any wrongdoing. Both episodes left Italians feeling that justice had not been done and in Italian terms, it had not.

But the Americans were never given a public welcome when they came home, not even from junior officers, let alone the Secretaries of State, Defence and the President. If they had, most Italians would have been extremely indignant as are many Indians commenting on the story.

As well as the welcome from the authorities, (including the outgoing Latium regional president, Renata Polverini electioneering already for the February elections), MP Ignazio La Russa has offered to have them stand as candidates in his brand new right wing movement which has just split from Berlusconi’s PdL and is in need of publicity.

Months ago, the two marines were used as pawns in Indian election games, now they have become part of the Italian game. Italian and European diplomacy can do better than return to out-dated nationalistic stereotypes.

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 speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

People to Watch - Mario Monti

The ever sage Lord Palmerston reckoned that “The function of government is to calm, rather than to excite agitation”. That rather sums up Mario Monti’s approach. In his first year in government, he fulfilled the objective very effectively only to excite a great deal of agitation over his personal role in the future as his term in government came to an end. Next year there will certainly be much excitement around Monti before he resumes his more normal calming role.

His declared aim over the last year was to introduce reforms in the Italian economy which would give the country security and growth. To continue that aim, there are three possible jobs open to him in 2013; to become President of the Republic, Prime Minister or Minister (probably of the Economy). He has varying degrees of control on which one he actually takes up. Whichever one were to come his way, he would continue to exercise a crucial influence in Italy and an important one in Europe.

The least influential position is the presidency which should return to its largely symbolic function assuming there is a responsible government expressed by the people and parliament. But given the uncertainties in Italy, a President Monti might be called on to take real decisions rather than just cut ribbons.

Continuing as prime minister would obviously give him the greatest possibility of carrying on his work as an economic reformer. But it would require either a hung parliament or a new and different Monti, a politician who would have to come to terms with the parties and interests that support him, possibly a coalition son or grandson of the historic compromise. In either case, he would have to face non-strictly national economic issues from justice to the media to prisons and immigrants’ citizenship.

Finally, he might become economics minister in a centre-left government where there would be an uneasy tension between him and a prime minister Bersani. They would not always see eye to eye but could produce some interesting and positive synergies leaving Bersani to deal with unhappy party followers. Monti would continue his role as a secure link to the European institutions.

It is the first time that other European leaders have in practice endorsed another country’s potential leader. It should not surprise us given the interconnection of so many strands of government and above all, the shared currency. The cries of shock and horror over injured sovereignty are disingenuous.

It makes a change to see a former EU commissioner making good in his own country. The normal path to Brussels is as a consolation prize for not making it at home.

The endorsement itself is hardly surprising as Monti was part of the Brussels establishment for years and has represented European institutional values before and after his time as commissioner. Over the last year he used all his skills as an economist and as a politician to bring the presidency back to a much more traditional position.

The alternatives are to become the leader of a new, enlarged and revived neo-Christian Democrat party, coming onto the stage as just one of the many party leaders.

This was published on 19 Dec. in the ISPI series "People to watch in 2013"

Friday, December 21, 2012

Italian Elections Conference - Call for Papers

Italian Elections 2013 – Conference at the American University of Rome 8-9 March 2013

The American University of Rome’s Department of International Relations will be holding its usual Italian Elections Conference. This year our conference will take place on Friday and Saturday 8th and 9th March 2013 after the probable elections on 24-25 February. As in previous years, there will be a mix of scholars, commentators and observers, journalists and active politicians.

The keynote speaker will be Paul Ginsborg of the University of Florence.

Papers are invited which address the issues over which the elections were fought and which led up to them; the personalities who fought the elections; the results and prospects for the future; institutional issues like the role of the President and courts; technical issues like the electoral system and possible reform; the influence of European institutions and issues; the influence of meso-level government on national government (it is very likely that regional elections in Latium, Lombardy and Molise will be held on the same day as the national elections. Rome city elections will be held in the Spring), influence of the Church.

Non-academic submissions from professionals and experts working in and on Italian politics are also welcome.

Working languages: English and Italian.

Deadline for submissions: 1 Feb. 2013

Reply to

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dreams & Nightmares

Politics is about power and policy, the two motivations for anyone to get involved. You go into politics because there are issues you want to push whoever is pushing them or because you just like the taste and trappings of power, whatever the issues. There are few politicians who are wholly one or the other but most veer one way and from what we have seen so far, Mario Monti is a man of policy and principle.

He is a Catholic and is moderately neo-liberal economically and progressive socially. He was appointed to push through economic reform and that is his agenda. Though no doubt he is flattered by all the compliments and prodding from the European Popular Party leaders and even from the Socialist François Hollande and a 45% approval rating from Italians, who all think he is doing a good job, that alone is not enough to make him want to stand for office and possibly make a fool of himself.

If this is the case, he has to choose how best to pursue his policies. We can question those policies but it is difficult to question his motives for pursuing them. He has said repeatedly that he can walk away from the prime ministership and I think he means it.
He has various possible strategies. Dreams and nightmares.

He could go explicitly with his nearest ideological bedfellows – Pierferdinando Casini, Luca di Montezemolo and maybe Gianfranco Fini? Since he doesn’t have to be elected, it would mean lending his name to either a special list, “Lista per Monti” or suchlike or explicitly supporting the UDC. At the moment they are polling less than 10% so Monti would be reduced to being part of a minority party. That would be a pretty dull dream unless he was able to move unhappy centre right voters from Berlusconi and the rapidly disintegrating PdL into something looking like a neo-Christian Democratic party. The buzz at the moment is that he is preparing his list but no one has explained how he might find candidates for the 945 posts in Parliament to be filled (or even a fraction of them) in a month. Berlusconi managed in 1994 by putting in his employees; Di Pietro, the anti-corruption magistrate found his own party full of buyable turncoats expert in expenses scams. It is difficult to find a cabinet of unsullied public figures let alone a whole parliament. A Monti list would risk looking like a lifeboat for parliamentarians on sinking ships (Corriere della Sera’s Ferruccio De Bortoli has already compared the centre right to the wreck of the Medusa).

Or he could move to more distant relations. Bersani has made it clear from the beginning of Monti’s premiership that he would be happy to continue working with him. With his newly won legitimacy from the primaries, Bersani could probably bring the left of the PD with him and certainly have the centrist API within the coalition (API’s Bruno Tabacci stood in the centre-left primaries) but would have serious difficulty with Nichi Vendola and Monti would not want to work with him. This could also bring Casini and the UDC into something similar to the present government after Berlusconi’s departure and with a working majority. That would be closer to dream (ticket).

The programme would include (and emphasise) growth and spending and greater social equity, something that both Monti and Bersani have already promised. They would continue austerity and convince doubters, motivated by fear rather than any wonderful prospects.

The nightmare is that he does decide to lead Berlusconi’s proposed rassemblement (Berlusconi uses the French because any Italian term suggests a “heap”) of moderati (difficult to see what is moderate in Berlusconi, but that is part of Italian Newspeak). This would win the elections which after three months would fall apart because they cannot decide on what action to take. The spread tops 500 points and America’s fiscal cliff looks like a soft option. Monti’s ideas and his personal prestige would be blown to shreds and the recession would go on for another two or three years.

Then I wake up… and tell myself that Monti has already said explicitly (to the Catholic paper L’Avvenire) that he is not the continuation of the PdL, that Berlusconi and Alfano have insulted not only him but have rubbished his policies.

Monti’s choice lays bare the left-right divide in Italy and shows it to be much more a question of which gang you belong to rather than serious policy differences – there are indeed very serious policy cleavages but they cut across the existing parties rather than divide them.

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 more likely to be almost a month after the probable 17 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Monti and Berlusconi

This was a question that came in today, similar to many others:

Do you think that Mario Monti might run as a political candidate? If yes, how and with whom? Could a party headed by Monti have a chance of winning more votes than Bersani's coalition? Will Berlusconi be in a strong position to control events after the elections?

My students are taking their exams this week; this is one for me, in 250-300 wds…

Monti is a life senator so he has the luxury of knowing that whatever happens next year, he will be a member of the upper house – he just has to stay alive. But that’s not the real question. Is he going to stand as a candidate for prime minister… or as a possible minister?

My guess is that he is not going to go into party politics in any explicit way, supporting this or that list or this or that party and leader. He seems to be a man of principle rather than one seduced by the sirens of power; if that is true, he is pursuing his economic agenda and will continue to do so whoever wins the elections. He’ll do this whoever is prime minister and he will be that much stronger if he does not support anyone explicitly but he will try and condition the parties and leaders who are seeking election.

His natural partners are the Catholic centre – Casini and the UDC with possible friends but if he joins them explicitly, then he would become a supporter of a group which is polling around 10%, the fourth biggest party after Bersani’s PD (at c. 35%), and the populist extremes of Berlusconi and Grillo (anywhere between 15 and 20% each). Much better to stay above the fray (the Vatican stays out of the UN so it does not have to vote and is all the more influential for that) and condition the whole campaign as he has done very ably since he told the world he would resign on Saturday.

As for Berlusconi, we have two jokers in the political pack – him and Grillo and both are showing signs of losing control. B has lost the support of most of his followers, on the right, ex-Alleanza Nazionale, from the Northern League and also from a good portion of the centrist ex-Forza Italia and even his own Popolo della Libertà and this evening he was again ranting against the judiciary as a “cancer of democracy”, a Bersani in thrall to a left-wing Vendola and the "communist" trade union. On the other side, Grillo has told anyone who questions his democratic credentials to get out of the movement (on the lines of “I’ll hit anyone who calls me violent”).

Still, both of them at the moment would win enough seats to condition (not control) the new government. And as anti-European populists, it would be interesting to see Berlusconi and Grillo in bed together – it might even happen!

If Berlusconi did have 100 deputies he could certainly influence the government enough to look after his own intersts but he wouldn’t be able to dictate the agenda.

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 more likely to be almost a month after the probable 17 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Twitter: @WalstonJames

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Silviosaur or Sunset Boulevard on Tiber

A tactless remark from a cabinet minister was the cue for Silvio Berlusconi to storm back onto center-stage. The consequences for Italy and for the rest of Europe are likely to be dire.

After months of dithering and keeping his supporters on tenterhooks Berlusconi finally decided to once again throw his hat in the ring and run for prime minister or at least “return to the center of politics” as the People of Freedom (PdL) secretary said. A few hours earlier, Corrado Passera the suave and experienced Minister for Economic Development had said that “A return to the past would not be good for Italy”. The remark was an explicit reference to Berlusconi’s PdL led government which stepped down in November last year. The immediate reaction was a salvo of criticism from PdL leaders followed by Berlusconi’s promise to come back.

On Friday, the PdL abstained from a vote of confidence on the budget bill and today, Angelino Alfano the party secretary, said that the Monti government was over. Berlusconi in practice brought the government down over a huff and a caprice.
A couple of weeks ago he had promised that he would “pull a dinosaur out of the hat”; the implication was that he was the dinosaur and so it is.

The given reason was predictable; Monti’s economic policies, according to Berlusconi, are not working and he has to return in order to save Italy… again.
Behind the rhetoric, there are myriad real reasons, mostly personal, as ever with Berlusconi, but some are party political.

The first is Sunset Boulevard on the Tiber. Berlusconi is the aging star who refuses to accept that he is past it and still craves adulation and the attention of fawning fans and the media. He is 76 and despite (and sometimes because of) the very visible pancake makeup, he looks his age and more. This “I know my people” plan is a dangerous ploy as he also knows that he risks an electoral disaster and before that bitter criticism from his own former party faithful; that is why he has waited so long to declare his hand.

Then there are much more concrete reasons outside the realm of psychopolitics. Cabinet was discussing a decree law which if passed would prevent anyone convicted of crimes which carry a two year sentence or more from running for office. As it stands, it only applies to those convicted at all three of Italy’s levels of judgment. It would only affect a couple of parliamentarians though rather more at lower levels of government. Berlusconi himself has never been convicted at the highest level but his close friend and business associate, Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, who was convicted of mafia association by the Court of Appeal but was let off on a technicality by the Supreme Court, was convicted at all three levels for false accounting with a two year three month sentence but even he would still be able to stand as there is a date stamp in the law and his conviction is past its best by.

There was talk that before the decree law is passed, it might be modified to include first or second level convictions in which case Berlusconi would be in trouble personally. Even as it stands, the draft law says that anyone convicted while in office will have to stand down. Berlusconi is expecting judgment on the Ruby case in February in which he is accused of using under age prostitution and abuse of power. That would only be the court at first instance but he felts the noose tightening.

He and Alfano have made it clear that another reason for abandoning the government is the lack of progress on the reform of justice. Berlusconi and Alfano when he was minister of justice did nothing to answer the most pressing issue facing Italian justice: the years it takes to reach a definitive sentence. This is not only a problem of equity and justice but a serious discouragment to investment; no one is going to invest when they know the courts do not decide civil cases.

Berlusconi, in contrast, is only concerned that judges and magistrates should bear personal civil liability for their actions independent of malice or negligence. So in his world, if a prosecution fails, the prosecutor should be personally liable for damages to the accused. It is a measure which smells of vendetta as well as a way to discourage any prosecutor from proceeding, not just the over-zealous.

His other hobbyhorse is to limit telephone taps. Wire taps, both leaked and regularly used in court proceedings have been very damaging for his reputation and others’ but they have been shown to be the most effective and cheapest way of obtaining evidence.

For his party as well as himself, Berlusconi would like elections to be earlier rather than later. Whatever happens, there were going to be general elections by April next year but after bringing the government down and Monti resigning, they will take place in February (either 7th or 24). And since the region of Latium will vote in early February and Lombardy probably in March, Berlusconi argues that millions of euros would be saved by having a single (or two) election days rather than three. It sounds logical enough but there are election tactics not far below.

The present electoral system allows the party to decide who is elected – for the PdL, the “fixed party list” is fixed by Berlusconi but if parliament changes the law as they say they want to, it would be the voters who would probably choose. So better to have elections sooner rather than later and without changing the electoral system.

The center-right is on a downward slope at the moment; they lost the regional elections in Sicily in October and polls give the PdL anywhere between 10 and 20%, a disaster compared to their 37% in 2008. If, as is likely they lose the Latium elections and then the Lombardy ones, the trend will continue, they fear. Worse, the backbiting and divisions would have torn what is left of the party apart.

Until Berlusconi said he was coming back, secretary Alfano was banking on primary elections to give himself some legitimacy but after the success of the center-left Democratic Party’s (PD) primaries, the PdL would have match the PD’s turnout which they cannot do. So primaries would actually have worsened the center-right’s position. Hence the need for snap elections brought about by bringing the government down.

Finally, Berlusconi wants to ride the Grillo tiger. Beppe Grillo is the Genoese comic who has launched his Five Star Movement (M5S) in a national force which pollster reckon is the second biggest party in the country. It is mostly left wing but there is a strong populist element against traditional parties and politics. Berlusconi hopes to tap into this discontent and regain some of the alienated centre-right voters. About half the electorate is either undecided or says they will not vote. They do not like Monti’s austerity measures and the old parties. If Berlusconi can mobilise even a small proportion of them, he will increase his share enormously. Berlusconi is also tapping into Grillo’s anti-Merkel and anti-Europe vein.

The consquences of Berlusconi’s threatened return were immediate. The spread between German and Italian government bonds which had dipped below 300 for the first time since early last year immediately jumped to the mid 300s, a tangible demonstration that Berlusconi’s showing declared reason of “saving the Italian economy” was nonsense.
Italy is liable to once again be seen as the risky man of Europe as well as being sick and all the gains in reputation and pains in austerity will go by the board.

Many feared that Berlusconi would pull a Silviosaur out of the hat but hoped that he wouldn’t, for the good of Italy and of Europe but he has and Italy is once again thrown into the storm.

Unless the old triumvirate of President Napolitano, the European Union and the markets can persuade Berlusconi to step back (unlikely), the elections will probably be in February and will certainly be coloured by economic uncertainty and bitterly divisive internal politics.

An edited version of this appeared in Foreign Policy.

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 more likely to be a month afterwards. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Monti’s Move

On the Italian chessboard a year of positioning play is moving rapidly towards a new phase.

On Thursday, Berlusconi said that he was going to stand again and his party secretary Angelino Alfano said that they would withdraw PdL support from the government… but responsibly, after passing the budget which is before Parliament. Berlusconi reckoned that way he would be able to condition the timing of elections and the rhythm of the campaign. It would be him who decided when to pull the plug and use the moment most likely to give him a boost. Check.

Like anything political, Italy is not a simple chessboard with only two players; Berlusconi’s move stymied Monti certainly but also silenced his own internal opposition whose divisions were the centre-left’s best weapon and so put the PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani in the shade. Bersani has just won the centre-left coalition primaries and the PD is riding high in the polls at 38%. His moment of glory was short-lived, though. Now he has to deal with an antagonist who has already gone back to his traditional anti-communism using Nichi Vendola as a frightener to unite the alienated right wing voters. And finally Berlusconi was able to snub President Napolitano and the European institutions who removed him 13 months ago.

Then yesterday Monti made his own move. He resigned as prime minister with effect from the budget approval. Now it is Berlusconi who is checked. Monti has taken the initiative and it is him that can say when and what will happen. He has also said implicitly that he no longer feels barred from going directly into politics (rather than waiting politely on the sidelines waiting to be called). Presumably his Sunday is one of reflection on exactly how and with whom he is going to go into politics.
We’re still a long way from the endgame but with the election date likely to be at the end of February, we’re moving towards it.

In the meantime, the country will face a storm from the markets and strong implicit criticism from the European institutions. Already most European and American papers have laid into Berlusconi as a self-centred danger to his country.

The dinosaur he promised to pull out of the hat is himself, a Silviosaur but the new-old species does not have the resources or the glamour of the 1994 Mk 1 model so is not going to become prime minister. But he does have enough appeal and resources to make the life of whoever wins the elections very difficult and he will try to drive wedges through whatever centrist-centre-left coalition Bersani is able to come up with.

Berlusconi-Nero fiddling as Rome burns is an old image for cartoonists but is still a valid one but Monti’s counter move shows that the game will be a long and tough one; fascinating for chess buffs but of life and death importance for Italians and those who live in Italy. It’s not just a game.