Friday, November 29, 2013

Mussolini on the road to Sainthood.

Rome provides unlikely images and stories which have delighted travellers and resident observers for centuries.

In his “Roma” (1972), Fellini was more the poet than the documentarist but he surely would delight in the juxtaposition of tourist tat on sale near the Vatican today; of another famous son of Fellini's Romagna with rather more sacred images.

After a visit with students to the Vatican’s foreign ministry this week, I was having a coffee with them in a bar back in Italy, together with an historian colleague who works on the Vatican and fascism. Next to us was a shelf full of statues of everyone of note from Romulus and Remus to the present Pope. Casting my eye over this sub-Berninian panoply, I noticed a very prominent jaw, sheathed in cellophane but still very recognisable. I turned to John and asked him “Is that who I think it is?” He nodded gravely.

Between the she-wolf, Jesus Christ and assorted saints, was Benito Mussolini, a 30 cm bust on sale at €75, a substantial enough price to tempt only true believers. (top left, photo by Peter Cardena)

It was a Wednesday morning, just after the Papal Audience so the place was choc-a-bloc and hardly suitable for a long chat with the owner, but one day soon, when they have a moment, I will go back there and ask how many they sell and to whom.

For the last 20 years or so, fascist memorabilia has been increasingly available on the open market without need to go into back alleys and sneak away with a plain brown paper bag. On Christmas stalls there are coffee cups with Mussolini in various poses and newsagents sell Mussolini calendars.

That is shocking enough and so are all signs of a rehabilitation of both Mussolini and fascism but I was extremely surprised to see him scowling out sternly from between ancient Roman and Catholic icons.

Obviously we ought to be more concerned with the modern fascists in various guises who are active in politics today across the whole of the EU but without a clear and unequivocal message that the original version and its leader are unacceptable in Italy and Europe it is very difficult to condemn the ideas of Mussolini’s heirs. There must be many tourists who make a silent equation of the moral value of people depicted in plaster on those shelves… a chilling thought.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Berlusconi’s endless endgame

While government and parliament deliberate over the budget where the final vote in the Senate is due this week, the foreign media (and the Italians for that matter) are more interested in guess-who.

And he is doing his best to concentrate political and media attention on himself and his imminent expulsion from the Senate. On Saturday he gave an impassioned version of his stock speech to the young members of his new Forza Italia. According to this narrative, he is the victim of a left-wing judicial conspiracy; he railed against the judiciary and the Left which has never been able to defeat him politically.

If, as is almost certain. he is expelled, according to Berlusconi, it would be a coup d’├ętat and the end of Italian democracy. It would not only be an affront and humiliation to him if he had to do social services “cleaning loos”, as he said, is obviously a serious fear for him. “Rehabilitation” would no doubt really be humiliating for him, but he maintains it would humiliate the whole country. He told his audience that he had brought the US and Russia closer together and various other statesmanlike deeds. Hyperbole apart, he sounds much like Josefa Idem, the minister for equal opportunities who was forced to resign in May because she had fiddled the tax use of her gym “After all the Olympic medals I have won for Italy, I should not have to go”.

Even if Berlusconi’s claims about his world statesman role were true (which they’re not), it is hardly the point. On 1st August, he was convicted of tax evasion and tax fraud after three levels of judgement in trials that lasted a decade; he had the choice of the best lawyers in the country and for most of the time, two of them were members of parliament working on lawmaking committees which could and sometimes did change laws in their client’s favour. He used his position either as prime minister or as member of parliament to delay hearings in the hope that the statute of limitations would have the case dismissed.

After the guilty verdict, he has hinted at, asked for and demanded that President Napolitano give him a pardon, the last time on Saturday when he said explicitly that he was not going to ask for it (which would imply the acceptance of guilt) but that Napolitano should give it to him against all the rules and the precedents. Napolitano has responded (the first time on 13 Aug., the last on Sunday) patiently explaining that he cannot do so legally.

There are many valid criticism of Italian justice and judges do make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, but no one can accuse the judiciary of running kangaroo courts.

The other element of Berlusconi’s narrative that no one challenges him on (most recently on RAI 1’s “Prima di tutto” this morning) is that because “the Left” (never the “centre-left”) cannot defeat him politically, they have taken the “red judges” as allies to kill him legally. Berlusconi was defeated at the polls in 1996 and again in 2006 by Romano Prodi; he was removed from office by his ally Umberto Bossi’s defection in 1994 and again in 2011 by the gradual disintegration of support for his coalition caused by his inability to face the euro crisis. This year his party did very well compared to the opinion polls a month or two before the elections but it polled 7.3m compared to 13.6m in 2008, a real collapse.

On Wednesday 27th the Senate will debate and vote on Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate. It will be an open vote as the regulation was changed. Normally personal matters involving a single senator are secret votes allowing single representatives to avoid the party whip or public opinion but the PD and some of the opposition decided that this vote was not a personal one involving Senator Berlusconi but was a question of testing a new law, the so-called Severino after the then minister of justice. This is an anti-corruption measure passed in December last year which prohibits anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office or standing for office. It has been applied to city and regional councillors and to candidates in the general election in February but never to parliamentarians up to now.

Berlusconi has threatened a big demonstration on Wednesday bringing a warning from Napolitano that it should be legal. Certainly there will be a big crowd outside the Senate on Wednesday bringing on fears of the apocalyptic images in the finale of Nanni Moretti’s 2006 film “The Caiman”.

A canny move would have been for him to resign before the vote; the Senate would have to deliberate (and vote) to accept the resignation and that would take a few weeks. Above all, it would be a secret vote. But on Saturday he said very explicitly that he was not going to resign. Instead he has announced new evidence to which would prove that he was not guilty in the Mediaset fraud case (and therefore the Senate should not vote on Wednesday). The other parties have said that the vote will go ahead.

Even with less than 48 hours to go before the vote, it is by no means certain that it will actually take place. Berlusconi is desperate not to lose his immunity because he is terrified of preventive detention for his prosecution for having bought a Neapolitan senator seven years ago. With Berlusconi's old friend, Putin in town, there is a wonderful rumour flying around that Putin will make him Russian ambassador to the Vatican…

Even when it’s over, it won’t be over…