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Thursday, 10 January 2013

ITALY, THE UNFINISHED DEMOCRACY

When Italy was unified about 150 years ago, it was a political not a cultural decision. It's not just a division between North and South that conflicts with the identity of this country, it's a deeper division.
Deeply catholic, over the centuries, people identified themselves with those in the proximity of the local church, with the bell tower well in view as a reference point, like an umbrella lifted by a tourist guide to keep the flock united. Campanile is bell tower in Italian, campanilismo is therefore the term coined to describe the allegiances people have to their local areas.
Although religion has played a big part in shaping cultural identities, the main catalyst for these divisions is the territory. The geography of the land has shaped the Italian way of life more than any invading power, political and religious force. It's a divisive land. To go from the west coast near Rome to the east coast of the Abruzzi region you have to cross mountains; the same happens if you need to transfer goods from the port in Genoa to the factories in Milan. There are alpine communities as well as maritime cultures, fertile plains, cold areas, hot areas... each with their own identity.
Not one part of Italy is too similar to its neighbour. Even at the time of the Roman Empire, the population was not homogeneous but made up of several kingdoms, tribes, fiefdoms. In fact, the kingdoms within the Italian peninsula have been at their most powerful and influential around the time of the Renaissance, when a feudal system controlled the land through various wealthy families, like Medici, Sforza, Borgia.

So the divisions are not just between the wealthy North and the struggling South but between regions (Lombardy vs Piedmont, for instance), Provinces, cities (Milan vs Rome), towns, quarters, streets, bars; even flats in a condominium can have their little council with its various rivalries.

Italians do love Italy though, especially when it's time to defend it, be it in sport, in politics or in the economy.
But Italian is a broad term, one loved at times of sporting events but hardly recognised in other sections of society. For instance, Italian cuisine is not a single entity; food cooked in Rome has different names and recipes than say Venice or Florence; newspapers always carry local pages; there are countless regional television channels.
These divisions and compartments in society are reflected in the way Italian politics is conducted.
Italian politics is not about the parties, it's about the individual. That's how we grow up. The football expert at the bar, the administrator of the condominium, the local priest, the Mayor, are all figures of power, the ones people will listen.

This is why parties never last, why they change name or political current, movement. It's because leaders within them have parted allegiances, have argued, ambitions touch on different shoulders, greed perhaps takes over. It's easier to move around coalitions when an individual is the party, he/she does not need to take ideologies ingrained over decades with them but simply followers.

Italy tried to stick to big party politics for decades, helped by post-war American and Soviet funds and influences. Christian Democrats on one side, Communist Party on the other. Then with the cold war over and the gathering of electorate from both the left and the right, the order of things crumbled, revealing enormous levels of corruption and criminal activities. The corruption and financial scandals of the Socialist Party led by former Prime Minister Craxi and internal unrest between Christian Democrats factions, all but ended the first experiment of democracy.

This led to the parliament defaulting and the rise of individuals who tried to form their own parties. These, over the last 20 years have changed named, sometimes sides, resulting in a plethora of smaller entities at times held in a fragile coalition of sorts.

So the constant changing of chairs in Parliament or the merry-go-round of Prime Ministers is not as worrying as if it happened in the UK. Chaos has its own charm and path, you only need to drive in central Rome to see the miracle of chaos in action... somehow it works. It's all about mediation, compromise, improvisation and a bit of luck too.

It works, until people break all the rules. Then chaos becomes, well, chaotic.

Berlusconi seized the opportunity to rise in politics while Italy's political identity was lost to years of corruption. People were disaffected by their representatives, let down by years of corruption and greed. Berlusconi seemed fresh, not a politician, a successful entrepreneur and more importantly his AC Milan had won everything there was to win! Surely he could not fail. Then it all came out, the mafia connections, the systemic corruption used to grow his media empire, the immunity from prosecution he secured by becoming Prime Minister.

Coalitions have been fairly easy to establish, but just as easy to break, the power being in the hands of parties with 5% to 15% of the vote.
In the centre-right, even Berlusconi himself, although in power on and off since 1994, has never gained more than 35% of the popular vote, often a lot less. Northern League of maverick Bossi and National Alliance of Fini have jostled for positions within the coalition, often threatening to call it a day.
In the centre-left the individual in-fighting has been even worse. Never with a clear leader, they have failed countless times to fight as a united front in opposition or in the short spells in government. Prodi failed because although he had the economic skills to steer Italy through the implementation of the Euro, he lacked the necessary grit to hold a fragile coalition of ambitious individuals.

And it goes on. Berlusconi almost bankrupted Italy, tarnished its reputation with his embarrassing behaviour, losing the financial confidence and political status it gained under Prodi. President Napolitano was left with no choice but to appoint an economist to lead the much needed financial culling, Monti. His mandate was clear. Look at the books, implement austerity measures, cuts and somehow restore international financial confidence in order to promote growth. These are the results of his year in power:

GDP  from -051% to -2.4%
Industrial production  down -4.05% to -6.2%
Debt  increased 120.7% of GDP to 126.4%
Deficit  from -2.5% to -2.8%
First house mortgages  down from -31.3% to -50%
Business loans down from €894bn to €876bn
Personal loans down from €618bn to €610bn
Employment down 200,000 in just 3 months
Unemployment up from 9.3% to 11.1%
CPI down from 3.2% to 2.5%
Meat  +2.3%
Wine  +3.6%
Vegetables  +6.0%
Fruit  +6.5%
Source: Ufficio Studi Sole 24 Ore/Istat/LA Repubblica

Not a sobering read, and a puzzling one too as he was hailed as a great economist.
All this is not all Monti's fault, as he had inherited a dire budget and state of finances. But like in many countries at the moment, he's been all about the cuts and not much in terms of growth. He has pleased the European markets and he has been woed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel because of it. This has in turns boosted his ambitions to guide the country by declaring himself the leader of a list of parties (which one precisely is not yet clear) headed by his own party with his own name. This has been his downfall in people's eyes. While in charge as a technocrat, he had a purpose and the fact that he was made Life Senator in order to be able to take the post, as he was not an elected member of parliament, was forgiven by most, given the emergency of the situation.
But now he wants to lead a coalition without going to the vote. He wants to lead without being elected. He can, as a Life Senator, but he's missing the point of democracy. Without people's endorsement he will never be taken seriously and liked. He's changed tactics and tried to bring out the charm, smiling more, doing cheeky interviews... all the things he was supposed to stand against, to represent an electorate tired of fake smiles, political answers.

And in comes Beppe Grillo of M5S (Movimento 5 stelle). He's the shouting leader of this movement that doesn't want to be called party. It does not collect donations, does not want them. No campaigns or interviews apart from social media. Grillo is an avid blogger. He's a former comedian, one who has always touched on the political satire. He's voicing people's grievances, condemning the high cost of a corrupt and expensive parliament. He doesn't want to be part of the establishment, but in order to govern he has to enter the political arena he so despises; opposing is not the same as leading. He's not a likeable guy, he's rough, brash and he directs his movement like a dictator, as he fires anyone who doesn't agree with him.

The centre-left have opted for American-style primaries to elect their leader, Bersani. And as soon as that happened, the individuals who didn't like the (democratic) choice, swiftly left to form their own movements or join other parties. Bersani lacks the charisma that is a necessary evil to lead a country and that, like for Prodi before him, that could be his losing point.

And it goes to show that the individual is still number 1 when it comes to politics.
That is what's missing in Italian politics. The ideologies have been replaced by promises, parties by personalities. No real responsibility is bestowed upon them as they can leave, regroup, reform with a different outlook.

The search for the winning coalition has started in earnest for the February elections. Monti's ideas are more in par with Bersani's centre-left but he has an eye on the centre-right as he's more likely to be allowed to be the choice as leader. Berlusconi threatened to lead but has seemingly backed down in order to gain more votes. Northern League have their demands. The centre is trying to find an identity with politicians with former Christian Democrats' past.
Former magistrates have left their post to join the political arena, raising concerns with conflict of interest as some have prosecuted or investigate current ministers.
Here is the current situation:


Source: Coesis/sondaitalia.com

So nothing has substantially changed. It will be a coalition. It will last until ministers don't get the post they expect, the policies they want, it will be business as usual.

Clear change is needed like at the time of Mani pulite investigation, when the parliament almost had to start from scratch. Someone new needs to show up with a clear sign for change but without stuffing it down people's throat like some are trying now.
But I'm guessing that in a society infatuated by x-factor/big brother style evictions (and not only in Italy), where popularity is more important than substance, change is a long way off yet.















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