Monday, April 10, 2006

The Italian election

Yesterday and today Italians went (and are still going) to the polls, which means the composition of parliament will be determined, and as a result, who will be the next Prime Minister. It will only become clear later in the day who has won the election. In the meantime, the Economist has unquestionably the best analysis of the issues (also see their more detailed Special Report; requires subs.) and makes a recommendation to vote Berlusconi out of office, though it is unenthusiastic about Romano Prodi, his opponent. This is a position which I fundamentally agree with (even though I'm a hawkish supporter of the Iraq War). I think it is particularly important for non-Italians to read it, because it concisely explains aspects of Italian politics which are not immediately apparent, as terms are often not used in the same way: there are practically libertarian parties running under a "socialist" banner, classically liberal-leaning reform-minded factions which are outgrowths of the former Communist Party, and members of the center-left who are quite conservative (in a Catholic sense).
I was not able to return to Italy on this occasion, so this will be the first Italian election since I turned 18 that I haven't voted in. I generally think that considering that so many people in history gave their lives to obtain this right for themselves and for us, we owe it to them to cherish it and exercise it, though I have to admit that low voter turnout is one of the signs of a developed democracy (which is clearly not a problem in Italy - last time around, in 2001, it was 81.4%). At any rate, I'm not very happy with either candidate, so I don’t feel like I'm missing out on anything.
However there is one thing that worries me. Romano Prodi, the center-left candidate, is the favourite to oust current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. For all his flaws the one thing I quite liked about Berlusconi was his Euroscepticism and Pro-Americanism, which his opponents do not share (though they are not half as bad as Schroeder, Chirac or Zapatero – only recall that when Serbia was bombed by NATO without a UN mandate, Massimo D’Alema the then left-wing PM sent military support). Nonetheless I think it is important to stress that no honest commentator can say, as surely will be said, particularly abroad, that Berlusconi's (expected) ouster has something to do with the Bush Doctrine. The Economist lucidly explains what the real problems are:
Our verdict against Mr Berlusconi in 2001 rested on two broad considerations. The first was the glaring conflict of interest created by his ownership, via his biggest company, Mediaset, of the three main private television stations in Italy. The second was the morass of legal cases and investigations against him and his associates for a wide variety of alleged offences, ranging from money-laundering and dealing with the Mafia to false accounting and the bribing of judges. We concluded that no businessman with such a background was fit to lead one of the world's richest democracies.
That view stands: we continue to think that Mr Berlusconi is unfit to be prime minister, both because of the conflict of interest arising from his media assets and because of his continuing legal travails (he may shortly go on trial yet again for alleged bribery, this time of a British witness, David Mills, who happens to be married to a minister in Tony Blair's cabinet, Tessa Jowell). But five years on we have a new and even more devastating reason to call for Mr Berlusconi's removal from office: his record in power.
As we predicted in 2001, his premiership has been disfigured by repeated attempts, including an avalanche of new laws, to help him avoid conviction in legal trials. He has devoted much time not only to changing the law to benefit himself and his friends, but also to besmirching Italy's prosecutors and judges, undermining the credibility of the country's entire judicial system. It is not surprising that tax evasion, illegal building and corruption all seem to have increased over the past five years. And, again as we predicted, he has done little to resolve his conflicts of interest: instead, he has shamelessly exploited the government's control of the state-owned RAI television network. Directly or indirectly, Mr Berlusconi now wields influence over some 90% of Italy's broadcast media, a situation that no serious democracy should tolerate.
Italian voters knew most of this in 2001, of course. Yet they still chose to give Mr Berlusconi their backing, for quite another reason. They hoped that he would deploy the business skills that had helped to make him so rich to reform their weak economy, making all Italians richer as well.
On this count, however, Mr Berlusconi's government must be judged an abject failure. Italy now has the slowest-growing large economy in Europe. With wages still rising even though productivity is not, and with currency devaluation no longer possible now that Italy is in the euro, Italian business is fast losing competitiveness. Many of the country's traditional producers in such industries as textiles, shoes and white goods are under devastating attack from lower-cost Chinese competitors. The Berlusconi government has also undone much of the improvement to the public finances made by its predecessor: the budget deficit and the public debt, the world's third-biggest, are both rising once more.
Therefore I would like to stress that Berlusconi is a deeply flawed leader for reasons totally unrelated to the Iraq war; the election campaign has essetially skirted over most foreign policy issues, and Italians – though generally against the war – are not very focused on such things anyway, particularly considering the significant domestic issues Italy is facing at the moment. Therefore, the probable ouster of Berlusconi may have (limited, in my view) adverse effects on the "Coalition of the Willing" which the US prefers to use, but that is only an unavoidable side-product, and certainly not an electoral rejection of a policy that was part of the public debate.
An Italian friend of mine gave a rather sweeping interpretation of Italian politics while we were chatting last night, which I think hits the mark quite nicely: the few unaffiliated voters who actually have to think about what side they are going to vote for hand the reins of power to whomever is not in power, in the vain hope that they will "make things better." After five years the voters realise that things aren't getting better so in their desperation they give the other side a chance. This is in fact what has been going on since two major coalitions emerged a decade ago. In 1996 Prodi beat Berlusconi and the center-left was in power until 2001 (Prodi’s government fell in 1998, after which the center-left formed two successive governments under Massimo D'Alema, and – if memory serves – one government under Giuliano Amato). In 2001 voters handed the reins to Berlusconi (who beat Francesco Rutelli) and now, according to this theory, which I'll call "Chiara's Theory of Alternation," it should be Prodi's turn. No worries though, he'll probably get little done, and Berlusconi will be back in power in 2011 (and age is not a consideration).

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