Wednesday, August 27, 2003

On heroism at sea and pusillanimity on land

To go down with your ship with all guns blazing is supposed to be the honourable thing to do for a sailor. Politicians have a different reputation and tend towards excessive care even when the risks are slight.

One man, though, is prepared to come out fighting and very likely will not even have to go down with his ship but, nonetheless, his comrades in arms are trying to stop him. Antonio Di Pietro has always been a bulldog as a prosecutor and as a politician; his allies much less so.

A Risorgimento battle parallels today’s politics.

In 1866, Italy went to war with Austria to bring Venice and Venetia into the new country. In six years of unification, millions of lire had been spent on a new steam-driven, ironclad navy and the politicians in Rome were itching to show their mettle, defeat the Austrians and make the Adriatic an Italian lake. The commander in Ancona, Carlo Pellion di Persano had different ideas. Admiral Persano was approaching retirement and he knew his own limitations; he had never commanded in a combat situation and he really did not think that now was a good time to start.

He delayed and found endless excuses for not seeking the enemy. When the Prime Minister explicitly ordered him to sea, Persano did his best to avoid the Austrians whose fleet, by the way, was smaller and mostly timber and sail. When the engagement finally took place because the Austrian admiral Wilhelm v. Tegethoff was actually on the offensive, the Italian fleet was horribly and ignominiously defeated.

Worse, Persano fled his crippled and sinking ships and back in port used all his belligerent abilities to accuse his subordinates of incompetence and cowardice.

A Parliamentary inquiry finally established the truth and Persano was lucky to escape with his life, unlike the British admiral Byng a century earlier.

Despite the disaster, honour was not entirely lost for the Italian navy. One officer, Emilio Faà di Bruno more than fulfilled his duty. He engaged the enemy with skill and courage and went down with his ship. He was given the Gold Medal, Italy’s highest award for valour and is remembered across Italy with streets named after him that do little more than perplex the passerby with the pronunciation. A pity, as he deserves more.

What is the relevance to today’s politics? The setting is far less dramatic but the lesson is there.

In June, Parliament passed a bill protecting the country’s five top institutional posts. President, Prime Minister, Speakers of Senate and Chamber and the President of the Supreme Court are immune from criminal prosecution while they are in office. In practice, of course we know that only the Prime Minister Mr. Berlusconi is actually on trial and that the law was rushed through before Italy took over the EU presidency.

Not surprisingly, the opposition would like to see the law removed but they are by no means certain how they would like to do it. A long term possibility is to change the law if and when they win the next elections.

Another possibility is that the Supreme Court declares the new law unconstitutional. The Milanese court where Mr. Berlusconi is on trial for bribing a judge has appealed to the Supreme Court for a ruling. It should deliver its verdict in between six and twelve months.

The third option is a referendum to repeal the new law. In order to do so, half a million Italian voters’ signatures have to be gathered, the Court of Cassation must determine that the law is neither budgetary nor an international treaty nor constitutionally relevant. The proposal is then voted on and if more than half the electorate vote, the result is valid; the law is either confirmed or repealed.

The only risk for the anti-Berlusconi opposition is that one of these conditions is not met. Now, it is relatively easy to find 500,000 signatures and the immunity law will certainly pass muster at the Court of Cassation. The next two conditions are trickier and are bringing out all the worst in the centre-left. The lack of interest in the issue might mean less than half the voters turn out which would mean the result was invalid. The worst possible case would be a defeat with the immunity law confirmed.

Antonio Di Pietro is well on his way to collecting the signatures but the two main parties of the opposition have been less than helpful. The DS has been ambiguous on the question. The official position is against the referendum but they have still given space to Di Pietro’s people collecting signatures at their summer Feste dell’Unità.

The Margherita is actively against the initiative and has lauded the Verdi and Comunisti italiani for also being on their side.

The logic, according to the Margherita spokesman, the deputy Maurizio Fistarol is that they should leave it all to the Supreme Court. He reckons that the referendum could end up as a boomerang against the centre-left and in favour of Berlusconi, if it failed, Berlusconi would be endorsed by a popular vote. He even promised a campaign to try and stop Di Pietro; one centre-left party fighting another in order to prevent an anti-Berlusconi initiative. Self-destructive? Well, yes.

This is where the parallels with the 1866 battle come in; Persano had a bigger and more powerful fleet but no stomach for a fight so when he did go into battle, he made a terrible mess of it.

The centre-left has a perfect weapon against Berlusconi in the referendum and a highly principled and moral reason for using it but if they fight each other, pull punches and show the world that they lack the courage of their convictions, then they really do risk losing the battle. If the professional opposition is not convinced, why should the public be?

In contrast to the big parties, Di Pietro has no such doubts. He is prepared to go down with his ship like Faà di Bruno. But the absurdity of the whole business is that for once the moral and political choice coincides with the pragmatically most winnable one. The referendum should be easily winnable.

If the Supreme Court hands down a verdict before the referendum, all well and good but the campaign will have had its effect in the meantime.

For comments, please write to James Walston at