Sunday, February 20, 2011

The usual questions…

This last week has been hectic for Italy-watchers with first a huge demo last Sunday which might, just might, mean the beginning of a change of direction in Italian society. Then on Tuesday there was Berlusconi’s indictment on charges of under age prostitution and abuse of power. The first hearing will be on 6 April but before then we will have hearings for his three other prosecutions (two for setting up slush funds: Mediaset on 28 February and Mediatrade on 5 March, both for fiscal fraud and embezzlement aimed at setting up the funds and one for corruption: the Mills case where the English lawyer, David Mills was paid to perjure himself. That is on 11 March).
Over the last few days, there has been the Berlusconi counterattack. His own media and his allies have accused the opposition of being nosey moralistic puritans unable to defeat him electorally (nothing new in this, but they have been particularly loud these days). His lawyers have threatened all the legal responses possible in order to delay the Ruby hearing and politically he has managed to pick off (Fini has explicitly accused him of buying them) another half a dozen opposition parliamentarians to consolidate his majority in both houses, and he has launched a series of drastic initiatives to curb both the ordinary judiciary and the Constitutional Court.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Mediterranean, his friend Muammar Gheddaffi seems to be in trouble but Berlusconi does not want to “bother” Gheddaffi except to worry about a possible flood of refugees which in any case has already started from Tunisia.
There has also been some pretty serious friendly fire in the reports by US diplomats published by WikiLeaks which confirm that Berlusconi is considered weak and malleable and a liability for Italy.
I will try and deal with all these issues over the next few days but for now, will answer some of the questions which have been put to me by foreigners who find it difficult to understand the country. They are mostly the same ones that we have all been asking ourselves for years but there are still no set answers.
Berlusconi's approval ratings have plummeted to 30 per cent, a survey showed on Monday. Does that mean the prime minister’s supporters have been split because of the scandal?

B’s approval ratings have been sliding for the last year mostly because of Italy’s economic woes and the perception that the government is not actually acting. Unemployment and the number of businesses failing have been rising; the recovery is very sluggish compared to the rest of Europe. These are the real reasons for Berlusconi’s declining popularity. His ratings have not “plummeted”, on the contrary, some surveys suggest that he might even have gained some support recently. A 14 Feb survey gave him a 32% approval rating down 2% from 7 Feb while another survey gave him as much as 50%; both were friendly surveys. Obviously there are some conservatives who like Berlusconi’s politics but not his lifestyle but all of those who speak, are vocal in not letting one weigh on the other. Those who do not speak are apparently a small proportion.
Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that even when Italians actually voted, it was a minority who actively supported Silvio Berlusconi’s party. The rest either voted for his allies (the Northern League), or they voted for the opposition or else they didn’t vote at all. The result of course is that he won the elections, but that is not the same as saying that most Italians support him. Today with only surveys to go on, that support has further waned but given the electoral system, he could well win again.
As for the accusations, criminal and moral, there has only been muted criticism from Cardinal Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. After a ceremony to commemorate the signing of the Lateran Pacts between Italy and the Vatican, Berlusconi said that relations with the Church were excellent as always, the cardinal responded saying that the meeting was a “symbolic and institutional” hardly a ringing endorsement.
Prime Minister Berlusconi has repeatedly shrugged off a string of accusations and scandals to win three elections since 1994. Could this time be his downfall?

Berlusconi has made it very clear that he has no intention of stepping down. On the contrary, while most of the international media has wondered when he is going to go, he himself has been attacking and proposing new measures. He has said he will not go until he is convicted and there is every reasons to think he will keep his word. Since there are three levels of judgement in Italian law, that could take some time. It is possible, and looking ever more likely that the Northern League will indeed insist on early elections but if that happens, there is no guarantee that Berlusconi would lose them. He still has enormous resources, financial and political combined with control of much of the media. He is still an expert campaigner and the opposition is still very divided. We should not hold our breath.
Why has the prime minister has remained popular for such a long time on Italian political stage? Could anybody replace him?

His popularity depends on the three reasons I’ve just listed plus of course the essential quality of any successful political leader, that he has to inspire his people, either by his own example “you too can be like me” or by his positive promises “I will make your lives better so that you can live your dreams” or by promises of protection from danger “I will save you from the left”. Berlusconi has done all three for most of the last 17 years in Italy. There is no one able to replace him using all three elements but there are some centre-right politicians lining up to try and give a less flamboyant voice to conservative Italy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beyond the bimbos

There are two dramas being played in Italy today. The first is Silvio Berlusconi’s personal and political story. It combines political power and sex, high finance and the media, organized crime and corruption; a heady mix by any standards and one which makes the characters from “Dallas” look tame. With the Roman settings and operatic staging, there have been times when it looked like Benny Hill was playing Scarpia but the reality has not been as comic. His indictment today is only the latest episode in the ongoing saga.
The other spectacle is not centered on one person but it affects the whole country. “Berlusconi-ism” is not just a way of conducting politics; he has profoundly changed Italian society and the change began long before he “came onto the field” as a politician in 1994 and will continue long after he leaves it. On Sunday more than a million people came out on the streets, not only of Italy but across the world from Aukland to Honolulou, via Geneva, London and New York and even including Maputo, Jakarta and Kathmandu. Their slogan was “If not now, when?” and was a call for Italian women to take back their dignity.
The first drama is drawing inexorably to a close but like grand opera, the finale will be a long time coming. In the meantime, we can be sure that there will be plenty of revelations about the prime minister’s lifestyle. The most immedate issue is whether the accusation that he paid for sex with a 17 year old and used his position to get her released when she was accused of theft. After today’s decision by the Milanese investigating magistrate, the case will have its first hearing on 6 April.
It is ironic that while Italians discuss whether their head of government is a victim of “moralistic puritans” a married American representative resigned after being caught trying to find a date on line. Berlusconi makes no secret of giving parties for up to 30 young women, some under 18, and a few, usually elderly male friends. Indeed one of his own family owned papers, Il Giornale, has just published photographs of one of the girls who calls him “Papi”, Noemi Letizia . She spent New Year’s Eve 2008-09 in his Sardinian villa when she was 17. Her friend who took the photographs was asked “Did the prime minister ever give you money?” “Money for sex? Never. Money for little presents, €2,000 or sometimes presents like necklaces or bracelets, the usual sorts of presents that an uncle gives a niece”. Nor does he deny knowing Karima el Mahroug (aka Ruby) or having phoned the Milan police station where she was being held to get her released. In contrast, representative Christopher Lee, stepped down after sending a possible date a picture of himself stripped to the waist. But Italy is different as we know.
Not only does a large proportion of the country accept their prime minister’s behavior, verbal as when he said that President Obama was “suntanned” (and called an American journalist an idiot when he suggested that the remark was offensive. Then repeated the remark) and in substance when he maintains control of much of the country’s media.
It is this control that has been used since the Ruby indictment loomed. Over the last few days, his media have started what looks like an organized campaign to defend the boss and attack his enemies. The Noemi photos are part of this campaign. Last week, Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of another Berlusconi family paper, the low circulation, opinion daily, Il Foglio, published a long interview with Berlusconi in which he accused the Milan prosecutors of carrying out “a moral coup” against him, acting illegally. He compared them to the Stasi and today’s Italy to East Germany. Ferrara was also allowed a six minute monologue on RAI’s Channel 1 prime time news program in which he attacked the main anti-Berlusconi media. RAI is Italy’s public broadcaster and Channel 1 is their flagship channel; the news editor, Augusto Minzolini has become famous for his opinion piecesd to camera in which he either praises Berlusconi or attacks the opposition. Last week, there was an interview with the prime minister without a single question about his trials.
It is hardly news that a political leader has meetings with his staff to plan his media strategies but what makes Berlusconi different is that the “staff” are editors of family owned newspapers or television channels covering more than half the population. Even some of the public broadcasters, like Minzolini, are part of the Berlusconi phalanx and it is a testimony to Italian independent thought that despite this overwhelming firepower, Berlusconi has been defeated twice in national elections. Still, it is not surprising that Freedom House has downgraded Italian media to “partly free” for the last two years.
It was Berlusconi brilliance at seeing media opportunities and taking them with the help of his political friends that put him where he is today and gave him much of his wealth. But it is also the mainly Berlusconi media which transformed Italy before he even “came onto the playing field”.
This transformation is most visible in the role that women have in Italy today. Sunday’s massive demonstrations are perhaps a sign that after 30 years something is changing.
In the late ‘60s and for most of the ‘70s, Italian society changed dramatically under both demographic and political pressure. As in the rest of Europe and the US before, 1968 brought millions of young people out on the streets demanding change.
For women, this meant divorce in 1970 (confirmed in a 1974 referendum), family law reform and the legalization of family planning both in 1975 and legal abortion in 1978 all of which gave women greater legal, financial and health security. The student protests and changing social climate gave women a dregree of real freedom an increasing voice in the work place and in the wider society.
But instead of moving to the near equality that women enjoy in the rest of western Europe and north America, in Italy the process stopped, or rather, was pushed off course. There are certainly underlying sociological reasons for this not least the influence of the Roman Catholic church but Berlusconi’s televisions certainly weighed heavily.
The liberalization of broadcasting in the late ’70 was the opportunity for Silvio Berlusconi to create an alternative to the very staid public broadcaster. His commercial stations pandered to consumers and created a world where fame was appearing on television. For women, that meant with few clothes on. The recent Swedish documentary “Videocracy” describes a world in which as a high school student put it in yesterday’s demonstration “the superficial became reality and everything was for sale”. Pretty scantily dressed girls became essential decoration for most television shows, to be seen but not heard.
Success through sex or being sexy is not unique to Italy but here it became the only way for most Italian women and the model for most girls.
Berlusconi and his channels were the prime propagators of the model and Berlusconi himself became the symbol as well as the main engine of the social change. And the glass ceiling is much thicker and tougher than elsewhere.
The story of Ruby is the quintessence of what the journalist Paolo Guzzanti, a disillusioned Berlusconi supporter, dubbed mignottocrazia or “tartocracy” but it is also paradoxically now the story of Italian women deciding that they have had enough and must start again where they or their mothers left off 30 years ago.

This is a different version of the piece which appeared in Foreign Policy this morning under the title Berlusconi's real woman problem

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Clash of institutions

Italy’s image abroad reels under each revelation of Silvio Berlusconi’s private life – the sex, the parties, the favours and largesse and political jobs given to pretty young women. Berlusconi has become an instantly recognisable peg for comics across the world to hang their jokes on. At home the prime minister’s lifestyle leaves him open to blackmail not only by the girls who go to his parties and their friends but also his business and political partners interested in government affairs. But worse than either is Berlusconi’s attempt to subvert the constitution, to annihilate the power of the judiciary and concentrate power in the executive and this is what he is trying to do now. This is a clash of institutions which can be a serious threat to Italian democracy.
Today was supposed to see the Prime Minister demonstrating against the Milan public prosecutors. At least that was what we thought a fortnight ago when two of Berlusconi’s closest supporters issued a communiqué proclaiming a Saturday 12 February as a day of action of Berlusconi against the prosecutors. Then the editor of one of the Berlusconi papers, Giuliano Ferrara (pictured above with Berlusconi) called the communiqué “politically criminal” and the machine went into reverse.
Instead one of the two original proposers, demonstrated outside the Milan Palace of Justice yesterday and we did indeed have a demonstration today but led by Ferrara himself in defence of Berlusconi and against what Ferrara calls “puritan moralism”.
For a prime minister to lead a crowd of supporters against the judiciary would have been a dress rehearsal for a coup d’état. But to have one of his most faithful courtiers doing it instead is not very different, especially since Ferrara published an interview with Berlusconi yesterday in which Berlusconi declared “there is an anti-democratic plan to get rid of me without a vote. It is managed by spying prosecutors followed by a crowd of Jacobins. But I will not yield and there is a gentleman in the Quirinale”, he again accused prosecutors of making Italy into a Stasi-run DDR because of their use of phone intercepts. Yesterday at a press conference, he said that the prosecutors were subversive and acting illegally and that he will sue the state for damages.
Far from being either subversive or illegal, the Milan prosecutor’s office is investigating the episode in May last year when Berlusconi phoned a Milan police station in order to have a 17 year old girl accused of theft released immediately. It transpired that she had stayed at Berlusconi’s villa in Arcore and had had frequent contacts with him. Investigators made extensive use of telephone taps of the girls that go to Arcore and the organiser of the parties. This is why Berlusconi calls the prosecutors “spies” and compares them with East Germany. The prosecution believes they have enough evidence to indict Berlusconi for abuse of power (the call to the policeman to get the girl released) and paying for sex with a minor. They reckon that there is clear and sufficient evidence to use a fast-track prosecution procedure and sent their request to the investigating magistrate this week. She should decide next week.
If she accepts the request, Berlusconi will argue that the Milan court does not have jurisdiction and will certainly do his best to delay the case coming to court.
But in the meantime, the prime minister and his supporters are doing their best to delegitimise the judiciary. They are trying to spin his tussles with the law into a supposedly anti-democratic move by revolutionary (hence the use of “Jacobin” to describe them) prosecutors who are “using the courts to subvert the people’s democratic will”. He and his supporters do not countenance the possibility that there might be some substance to the accusations against him.
In actual fact, it is Berlusconi who once again is trying to undermine the democratic process.
Whatever definition one takes of democracy today, it is a system in which no single element predominates in society or the political system. The separation of power is scissors, stone and paper written into the constitution with the rule of law as important as the rule of the majority. That majority rule must in any case be tempered and limited by among many other things, respect for human rights and minorities. Another fundamental feature of democracy is that no one is above the law whether for sexual misdemeanours like Bill Clinton a decade ago or for crimes like president Moshe Katsav of Israel who stepped down after being accused of rape and who was convicted in December.
Not for the first time, Berlusconi presents his view of the prime minister as being uncontrollable either by the law or indeed parliament. If either try to do so, he becomes angry and impatient. Even more so when newspapers or television programmes criticise him.
He is not even prepared to be conditioned by a political party so that when Gianfranco Fini dared counter him, Fini was expelled.
The corollary of unbridled power is populism and Berlusconi is very good at it. Over the last few weeks, he has increasingly used direct appeals both to his people and the whole of Italy. There are shades of Big Brother in his strategy – Orwell’s rather than the softer, more recent one which is another symbol of Berlusconi’s times. The Leader is always liable to turn up on one’s screen either with a mellifluous message or an attack on his enemies.
A message broadcast on the party website is not so surprising but for a prime minister to call a live television chat show and insult the presenter “your presentation is disgusting, foul and repugnant and completely untrue… I know what I’m saying, you don’t… this is a television brothel” is rather more unusual in western democracies. A few days after this episode, the director general of the public broadcaster, the RAI called another presenter to “disassociate” himself from the broadcast, another example of a lack of division of roles.
When he does appear on television, it is only with well-housetrained interviewers and he is now planning a careful media counterattack as damage control for the Ruby case. Once again, a dominant position in the media is a serious limit on democracy and both Freedom House, The Economist and Reporters without borders all have Italy’s ratings declining since 2008. Freedom House puts Italy at 72nd out of 196 for press freedom; “partly free” for 2010; Reporters without Borders puts Italy at 49 out of 175.
So far from democracy being under attack from latterday Robespierres, it is once again, Silvio Berlusconi’s refusal to accept limits which threaten Italian institutions. For the moment, though, they are holding firm and by now there is also some popular movement as well. Tomorrow sees demonstrations across the country in favour of women’s dignity. I will describe that Italy in the next blog.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Of cabbages and kings

Italian politics today make Lewis Carroll’s world seem remarkably staid but The Walrus and the Carpenter is as good a place as any to start any voyage through the absurd. Italy does not have a king any more but it does have a president and this last week he was an important figure. The 84 year old Giorgio Napolitano might have thought that he would have just a ceremonial and elder statesman role when he was elected in 2006 but instead, he has been busy with real politics; especially now. On Friday, he refused to sign a decree law passed by Cabinet but not by Parliament. The first take was that this was a major constitutional clash; the second that it was just a minor procedural glitch. The reality is that was just another Berlusconi sortie in the guerrilla war to increase executive powers and reduce all the others.
One of my correspondents suggested a blog on the head of state and this seems the right cue.
The section of The Italian constitution that deals with the President (Part II, Title II, articles 83-91) is short and vague. It describes a mainly symbolic figure with few formal powers. In practice he is has residual powers and is another guarantor of the constitution. The present president has increased his approval ratings from 58.5% in 2008 to 62.1 in 2009 to just over 70% last year according to Eurispes; that compares to around 25% for the government and over 40% for the magistrature.
He is elected to a seven year mandate by both chambers of parliament plus representatives of the regions. So he does not have a popular mandate but is usually elected by a broad majority (not Napolitano, though, who was elected by a simple majority). He “represents national unity”, and is the commander in chief of the armed force though not surprisingly, none has done anything substantial even when Italian troops were engaged in combat actions. He is also presides over the judiciary’s self-governing body, the High Council of the Magistrature but only one president, Cossiga, really chaired meetings and that only briefly.
Much more important is his power to dissolve parliament, a weapon which Berlusconi has often said he would like to have in the prime minister’s armoury in order to keep wayward allies under control. So when the prime minister resigns, the president will normally try and find an alternative before calling early elections.
Also more than a purely formal power, ministers are appointed by the president on the prime minister’s recommendation, not his right. So in 1994, Scalfaro baulked at the idea that Cesare Previti could be Minister of Justice. Previti was Berlusconi’s lawyer who was later given a six year sentence for bribing judges.
Most important for every day politics is the president’s role as the notary for all legislation. Unlike presidential systems where the head of state is also head of government, the Italian president cannot object to a bill on its substance. The US president can and does veto bills because they are politically unacceptable; the Italian president cannot veto a bill but he can send it back to Parliament if he reckons that there is insufficient financial cover (the usual reason before 1994) or if he thinks the bill might be unconstitutional. Even then, he cannot stop a bill; if parliament were to re-present a bill, he would have to sign it and it would be the Constitutional Court which would decide. But this has never happened. Moral suasion and back channels are the more usual ways of dealing with disagreement.
Napolitano has returned government decree laws though. In 2009 he refused to sign a decree which would have obliged physicians to keep a young woman, Eluana Englaro, on life support against her will confirmed by the Court of Cassation. Since there was a bill before parliament, undiscussed, the President refused to sign because he said there was no urgency.
This week, a Parliamentary commission did not approve one of the decree laws regulating fiscal federalism. An extraordinary Cabinet meeting was called which issued the decree law. It was this decree that President Napolitano returned saying that he was unable to receive it because it had not been approved by Parliament. The substance does not change as the decree will be put to both Chambers and will be passed and Napolitano will sign it. But Berlusconi and his allies have admitted that they were out of order. It was another gesture which showed Berlusconi’s impatience with democratic procedure.
Much more serious are his outbursts against the judiciary; he does not actually say “off with his head” like Alice’s Queen of Hearts, but he thinks it gets very close to saying it in public. These last few days have seen him once again attack the judiciary which he says is guilty of “illegitimate interference” in his private life (today); “Italy is a republic controlled by the prosecutors … a judicial republic” (yesterday). A week ago, he suggested an anti-judge demonstration in Milan; there was a rapid withdrawal when one of his advisors pointed out that having the prime minister demonstrate against the courts was close to a coup d’état.
These are the cabbages (or cavoli in Italian, a euphemism for unpleasant stuff in general). Next week, there will be a big cabbage for the prime minister, the court that Berlusconi wanted to demonstrate against will almost certainly put him on trial for abuse of power and under age prostitution. If and when that happens, there will be major international comment accompanied by resignation and indignation on either side of the Italian divide.
All sides claim that they do not want early elections but they are all preparing for them. If there are any more glitches in the road to the Northern League’s fiscal federalism, it will be Bossi that calls time. So we are back to Alice – elections in a country where no one wants them, with a government brought down by the prime minister’s closest ally.
The problem, of course, is that Italy is not on the other side of the looking-glass, at least for those of us who live here. It is the real world where the laws of physics apply but most other laws are up for negotiation.

Municipal federalism

Many thanks to those of you who reminded me that Michelangelo’s David is not in the Uffizi but in the Accademia. The point remains, wherever the illustrious marble stands: who owns it? And who can use for good or ill? Now we are told that two days after the government tried to push their municipal federalism decree past President Napolitano, the Grand Canal belongs to the Italian state and not to the city of Venice. I’m not sure what that means in practice and apparently nor do the city authorities or central government but it does demonstrate some uncertainty about what “federalism” really means.