Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Andiam, votiam!

One of the caricatures of Italian opera is the call to immediate action usually launched by the tenor “Andiam! Partiam!” (“let’s go, let’s leave!”), sustained heartily by a robust chorus… for the last 25 minutes of act III.

The People of Freedom (PdL), or at least part of them, are singing that tune, except that instead of the lead tenor, we have Daniela Santanché at the moment Silvio Berlusconi’s most outspoken supporter. She and the other so-called hawks have been saying that unless Berlusconi is granted some sort of agibilità politica, a neologism which more less means a “licence to act politically”, despite his conviction to gaol and a bar to holding public office on tax evasion and fraud charges, then they will bring the government down.

Forza Italia (FI), Berlusconi’s original 1994 party has in practice been resuscitated and is on an election footing; Berlusconi has declared as much and his people have promised (threatened) aerial publicity over the beaches on Thursday, Ferragosto, Italy’s second most sacred holiday after Christmas. There are already posters up in parts of Milan. It is significant, but hardly surprising that the end of the PdL and the rebirth of FI has taken place with no discussion, deliberation, motions. In that party, the boss decides and no one questions his decisions.

But even if Santanché is spoiling for a fight, we are unlikely to have a first ever autumn election.
The end of the present government, headed by Enrico Letta, would mean an automatic increase in VAT (the default setting which the government would like to change), it would mean the automatic payment of the IMU property tax which the PdL promised to abolish and the application of another local service tax, the TARES for a total of €7bn according to the reliable CGIA thinktank.

IMU is a double-edged sword. The PdL hawks threaten to bring the government down if it is not abolished but if they do, they risk taking the blame for the inevitable tax increases that would follow. Letta has said that the cabinet will deal with the IMU and other tax issues on 30 August.

Another reason for not having a snap election is that on 3 Dec., the Constitutional Court will rule on the present electoral law, nicknamed the Porcellum or Pig’s Dinner. If they declare it unconstitutional – it gives the winning coalition 55% of the the seats in the Chamber even as was the case in February, they only won 29% of the vote – then a Parliament elected in November with the old law would lose its legitimacy.

In any case, elections with the Porcellum would most likely result in a similar result, forcing another “broad agreement” between PD and PdL, or worse if Grillo were to come out with the relative majority in the Chamber, he would have the 55% premium and could call the shots – not likely but a nightmare scenario for the PdL and PD.

Then there are the divisions within both PdL and PD which would make snap elections even more uncertain. For the PdL, there is the question of succession. The further Silvio Berlusconi moves from centre stage the more the divisions in the centre-right become apparent as they did last year before Christmas when they were polling a mere 15%. This is precisely why Santanché would like elections now but of course there is no way to do it.

The PD is hardly better off. At the moment, their divisions are merely comic – at their last Directive meeting, the two party vice-presidents issued conflicting statements over the date of their autumn congress. But there are real differences over policy and leaders which they hope will be resolved by the congress but which are still open wounds.

Hovering not very far in the background is another nightmare scenario for the PdL which is Napolitano’s threat to resign if the government falls. If that were to happen, there is a fair chance that this time, the centre-left would succeed in electing Romano Prodi, Berlusconi’s nemesis.

Outside the limited sphere of direct self-interest, Italy takes over the EU presidency in July next year and no one really wants to see the country in turmoil. On the economic front, the public debt continues to grow and the GDP to fall but positively, the difference between German and Italian interest rates which govern the cost of servicing the Italian debt is at the lowest for two years. These are mixed signals and no one wants to be responsible for making them wholly negative.

But over the short term, it is Berlusconi’s agibilità politica which conditions the noise levels of Italian politics – for the government, Letta has shown himself to be even more unflappable in public than his predecessor Mario Monti.

The Senate committee on eligibility for election is due to decide “by October” on whether he should step down now under a 2012 law which bars anyone with more than a two year conviction from holding or standing for public office. They will almost certainly declare him disbarred from being a senator though he will almost certainly appeal against the decision.

Then some time over the next two or three months the Milan Court of Appeal will declare on the exact length of Berlusconi’s bar on public office, one, two or three years. Until then, even if he wanted to, Napolitano could not issue a pardon or any other measure on what is still an indetermined sentence. He has promised a statement today or tomorrow but however much he wants the government to hold, he would be foolhardy to try and overturn a Supreme Court verdict before the full sentence has been published (in Italy the verdict is given one day but the reasons for it are not made public for 60 days).

The original “Andiam, partiam” aria was in Gounod’s Faust, act II so we still have a long way to go till the grand finale. It is just possible that Letta’s government will survive its full term to 2018, but highly unlikely; he could make it to his own self-imposed term of 2015 but only if his ability and circumstance allow him to exploit the divisions in the PD and PdL (and their successors) rather than be brought down by the ever more serious bickerings within and between the two parties. Or he could last until next spring when there is a new electoral law and the two parties think that they can face elections or at least the cost of staying together would be even higher.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Civil War – Intolerance of Regulation

Many countries have had civil wars – mostly long and bloody affairs fought over deeply held principles. After Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and tax evasion, one of his advisors, Sandro Bondi expressed the possibility for Italy. This civil war, thankfully, will not be bloody but it will be drawn out and it is being fought over a deeply held principle, respect for the law against loyalty to the chief.

Three episodes last Sunday perfectly illustrate Italy’s “civil war”.

Silvio Berlusconi addressed a few thousand supporters gathered outside Palazzo Grazioli, his Rome residence. He proclaimed his innocence after his conviction on Thursday explaining that the judiciary were mere unelected functionaries and that they were undemocratic when they deprived him of his liberty and political rights. He was not prepared to accept their judgement, even that of the Supreme Court after two appeals. This was a repeat of the extraordinary performance a few hours after his conviction when he distributed a speech (shown by most media) where he appeared with the European flag and the Italian tricolour behind him dressed up as a head of state or government. His message, though, was profoundly subversive as he attacked the judiciary, one of the institututions of the state.

In a peripheral story on the demonstration, it seems that Berlusconi had not even asked the Rome council for authorisation to put up the stand from which he spoke.

Finally, the Guardia di Finanza, the tax police checked hundreds of businesses in tourist resorts from the upmarket Costa Smeralda and Capri to the much more downmarket Riccione on the Adriatic. The super-rich Flavio Briatore complained that this would discourage super yachts from going to Sardinia while at the other end, mayors made the same complaint that an economic recession was not the moment to be too severe…

The Supreme Court, taxes and municipal permits, so the message goes, are constraints on citizens’ freedom and therefore “undemocratic”.

But something is changing.

For the first time, Silvio Berlusconi has been convicted at the third and final level of judgement. Italy’s Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation confirmed the verdict of the two lower courts; they confirmed the four year prison sentence and sent the five year bar on holding public office back to the Court of Appeal to correct a technical flaw. The new bar will be between one and three years (the prosecutor at the Supreme Court asked for three years last week).

President Giorgio Napolitano said within an hour of the verdict that “now” the justice system can be reformed – a possible implication being that the judiciary had won this battle, Berlusconi had lost and now we can move on and change a system which is in desperate need of reform, especially the civil law which apart from being unjust in its delays (“justice delayed is justice denied”), is one of the biggest single elements discouraging development. Others have been less generous in their interpretation and suggest that now that Berlusconi has taken a drubbing, there should be some restrictions on the judiciary, particularly the criminal law, a sort of return match.

The Democratic Party (PD) secretary, Guglielmo Epifani said also within an hour of the verdict that sentence must be implemented; curious as a party leader has nothing to do with the implementation of a sentence but he was talking to his own base. Since then he has repeated that statement as have most other PD leaders; their not-very-hidden message is to their own members to keep calm and not rebel against the leadership for being in a coalition with a convicted tax evader.

Berlusconi and his followers have complained that after creating so many jobs and paying so much in taxes, he was convicted for a mere €7m. This is a grand echo, in technicolour of the former minister and Olympian Josefa Idem who justified her alleged cheating on planning permission and local taxes by saying that she had won lots of medals for Italy. She has just regularised her position with a €3,000 payment but her political career is ruined (she resigned as minister after the allegations were made). To paraphrase Behan on terrorists, a small tax evader is a low-grade criminal, a big one is saviour of his country.

These last ten days have seen Berlusconi offensives on all fronts. They aim to either change the verdict (impossible) or reduce its effects and allow Berlusconi to continue a public life. The offensives are against the president of the bench that convicted him (go for the man, not the ball; but not very effective as there is no way to overturn the conviction); against President Napolitano – the leaders of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party from both houses went to see him to implicitly ask for a pardon or they would bring the government down (Napolitano has rejected the pardon as legally impossible but some rumours suggest he might be working on some other solution); against prime minister Letta, again threatening to bring down the government (but they risk an own-goal if the government falls before it has dealt with some tax reductions at the top of the PdL agenda; the (re-)launch of the old party Forza Italia with a new but recognisable leader, Silvio’s eldest daughter, Marina Berlusconi (she has been less than enthusiastic and many PdL leaders don’t like the idea of a dynastic party either).

So Silvio Berlusconi is down but far from out yet. But barring some sort of electoral coup (snap elections where Berlusconi wins a relative majority and is crow-barred into office – not very likely even if some of his supporters dream of it), he will not hold elected office either in this or the next Parliament. His influence will remain and indeed some of Italy’s most successful criminals, like the leader of the New Organised Camorra, Raffaele Cutolo, have continued their businesses from inside gaol – Berlusconi will not actually be in gaol so it will be even easier. But it is a declining influence – and the civil war between Italians who do not accept laws and regulations and those who do will outlast Berlusconi.