Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Italian Government between an Irresistible Force and an Immoveable Object.

Or put more simply, Berlusconi is still between a rock and a hard place. After all the hype over the last week about “last chance for the euro”, for Europe, for Berlusconi and his government and the apparent solution, what has actually happened? Here in Rome or in Brussels, Paris and Berlin?

This time there is a real risk of the government falling from the pressure of the European institutions and internally from doubting allies. The fall has been predicted so many times that I might be crying wolf but this is the most serious so far. Berlusconi once again told the world that his government is solid until the end of its 2013 mandate immediately after the all-night session with euro member heads of government and has repeated the mantra since coming back. It is just… just, possible that he will make it – Berlusconi is one of the world’s most stubborn politicians able to resist multiple storms but the odds of his making it to 2013 lengthen by the day.

The irresistible force is the European Commission and Council which gave Berlusconi clear orders to take immediate action to reform the Italian economy; the immoveable object is Umberto Bossi and the Northern League who refuse to accept any radical changes to Italian pensions.

Early Thursday morning, the European institutions accepted Italian government reform plans avoiding an immediate crisis; now the ball is back in the Italian court. Very little of the plan to the EU that is actually new – the proposal to raise pension ages to 67 by 2026 became law earlier this year or can be guaranteed to raise real income in the coming year – selling off public property is a risky business especially in a country where real transparency in public accounting is still a long way off and which in any case has little money; and nabbing tax evaders is a great idea but but not something that can be banked on in next year’s budget. Changing the law to make it easier to lay off and fire workers has already brought a reaction from the unions with demonstrations in Rome on Friday.

The first market reactions on Thursday were positive both on the Italian plan and the broader plan to support the euro and European banks. But on Friday the Milan stock market took the heaviest losses on the continent and Italy had to offer more than 6% on its 10 year bonds, the highest ever.

It was a very short relief period. Berlusconi is once again out of control verbally denigrating the euro at the same time as the EU and ECB are supporting Italy. He said on Friday that the euro is “a peculiar currency which has convinced no one” only to say he had been misquoted a few hours later. This is hardly the behaviour which inspires confidence. Antonio Politi brought in Aesop’s frog and scorpion story to explain Italy and the EU; the scorpion begs the frog to carry him across the river only to kill him in mid stream, drowning himself. “Why have you poisoned me?” asks the dying frog. “Because it’s my nature” replies the drowning scorpion.

Quoting Aesop ennobles Berlusconi’s incompetence which is muddle rather than tragic destiny. But we get the point.

The only positive result of the Prime Minister’s remarks is today’s reply from Mario Monti where the former European Commission and present president of the Bocconi University analyses the euro’s role and Italy’s need for it and suggests that Berlusconi work to give the euro some binding rules. The letter is respectful and professorial in tone but with little respect in substance; it is another indication that he might be a candidate for prime minister of a technocrat, non-political government. Last week he was the guest on Lilli Gruber’s “Otto e Mezzo” and finessed the question about his candidacy – previously he had kept well out of that possibility. If anyone can show some political leadership combined with skills as an economist sufficient to put Italy back on track, it might just be Monti.

It certainly is not Berlusconi closest ally, Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League. Bossi is fighting hard to prepare his party for elections next year and to maintain his own leadership in the party. He stopped any serious pension reform – the biggest cost of pensions are people who can retire early after a certain number of years of contributions. When the Speaker of the Chamber, Gianfranco Fini reminded viewers that Bossi’s wife had retired at 39, there was a brawl in Parliament between his and Bossi’s supporters the following day. On the same day, the government lost two divisions; these too are not signs that inspire confidence.

On top of it all, the 15 page letter replying to the European Commission and Council Presidents request for an Italian plan was not countersigned by the minister for the Economy, Giulio Tremonti, neither formally nor in any public statement.
Little wonder that both Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy showed their scepticism over Italian reliability very visibly last week. Their smirks

were institutionally inappropriate but devastatingly telling. More than anything else the scene shows “sovereign” states are far from sovereign. The smiles also showed that the problem is with the leadership, not with the substance of the Italian economy and finance which are weak but not as catastrophic as market reactions suggest.

The danger is that the government will continue its muddle, not face either Europe or the League by which time we will all be in the middle of the river. The more hopeful scenario is that Berlusconi will have to demand more votes of confidence and Bossi finally pulls the plug…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wanted – grownups – desperately

The other evening I was talking to an Argentinian who gave me graphic descriptions of their 2001 crisis – not the default and the financial side which is fairly clear in an abstract sort of way, but the social side. He explained that just about everyone had to go down a rung or two or more on the social ladder. Not a pretty sight and even less pretty to be part of.

But of course it can’t happen now… and can’t happen to us. Can it? Well, something similar is happening in Greece. But the rest of us are safe… there are lots of clever people in charge and some of them know what to do. After all, in this one, we’re all on the same side, aren’t we and they’re grownups, aren’t they?

The present crisis is, or should be, different from other blights which try society from time to time. Natural disasters are just that, natural and we understand the corruption or incompetence which accentuate the damage and suffering caused by an earthquake or tidal wave. Those involved in conflict whether on the battle field or in politics think that they will win and even when we condemn their motives or methods we know why they do it.

Today, no one will profit from a collapse of the euro and a prolonged recession in Europe and North America. Certainly not those who lose jobs, savings or businesses; not the mainstream politicians who just look ineffectual and will lose to some radical populists riding the recession tiger. Even the much reviled speculators, bogies blamed for all our woes, do not want a total collapse. They can make a lot of money on severe short term losses as George Soros did in 1992 when the pound went down with his help but over the medium and long term, growth will give them many more possibilities for profit. So this time, we all have the same interests it would be nice to think that there were some grownups who could save us.

As children, the grownups do actually take charge and most of the time, they stop us falling down holes, electrocuting or poisoning ourselves or doing all the dangerous things that infants love to do without realising the consequences.

Here in Italy, no one expects very much – the Berlusconi-as-Nero caricature is working overtime at least in the foreign press; by now, most Italians do not even grant him the stature of a Nero style villain bunga-bunga-ing while the euro and the Italian economy burn.

Those who should be acting as grownups for Italy do not either because they do not have the power to sanction, like the ECB which can only advise and cajole or because it would be diplomatically unacceptable which is the case with Merkel and Sarkozy who cannot be seen to be giving orders to a fellow head of government of a sovereign state. With an Italian as the new head of the ECB there is a better chance of some of the advice being taken as Mario Draghi is not only a very competent banker, he also cannot be seen to be soft on his own country. The ECB and the French and Germans have been pleading with the Italian government to implement public spending cuts and growth encouragement measures at least since August but Berlusconi happily tells the world that there is no hurry.

We also know that the markets like stability and clarity and here again, the government is squabbling over who to appoint at governor of the Bank of Italy to replace Draghi (who was appointed to the ECB in June) . The Prime Minister’s main worry at the moment is pass a law preventing the publication of telephone taps which are already part of the court’s public evidence (it is already illegal to publish taps which are not part of the public court documentation).

It was only in July that Berlusconi and economy minister Tremonti admitted that there was a crisis here – before that they assured us that everything was fine. Now it is not just Italy which is at risk but the whole euro. If the euro were to collapse, it is unlikely that the other European, political institutions would survive and certainly not in their present form. This is a doomsday scenario which would make Argentina look mild but the fact that it can even be made explicit is cause for serious worry.

The only way to avoid it is for there to be a radical change in the direction taken by European leadership but as George Monbiot argues, “Governments and central bankers now have an unprecedented opportunity to learn from the catastrophic mistakes they’ve made. It is an opportunity they seem determined not to take” .
Soros who knows more than most about financial crises argues that there must be a new agreement among Europeans which gives more power and funds to the Commission “a European treasury with the power to tax and therefore to borrow. This would require a new treaty, transforming the EFSF into a full-fledged treasury” and it should be done quickly “Once the principle of setting up a European Treasury is agreed upon, the European Council could authorize the ECB to step into the breach, indemnifying the ECB in advance against risks to its solvency”. He concludes ominously “That is the only way to forestall a possible financial meltdown and another Great Depression”.
So if we cannot find the grownups, we will be looking to a new version Brother, can you spare a dime. Worse, we might be looking at the end of the EU.
Merkel has already told us not to expect too much from the Sunday summit and Sarkozy is gooey about his daughter… the prospects are not good.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Flames in Rome

The most shocking aspect of Saturday’s riot in Rome was the fact that it did not come as a shock. For 10 years now in Italy, at least since the violence at Genoa’s G8 in 2001, there has been the strong possibility of protest marches being hijacked by relatively small numbers of very well organised, well prepared thugs.

It happened in Rome last year after the 14 December vote of confidence and for the whole of last week, all the papers were talking about the likelihood of violence on Saturday. I have no special sources but from very public ones, it was obvious to warn my American students wanting to show some solidarity with the “Occupy Wall St.” protest to be very careful as there were plenty of signs that something nasty was going to happen. As it happened, they were careful but they did come back with some good primary material for the course on political violence…

Yet both the organisers and the police had made no plans to deal with what was a very effective takeover of the whole demo. Most Italian demonstrations have their own servizio d’ordine, a group of people from the organisers who see that none of their own people cause trouble. Trades unions and more established protest movements have a long experience of managing crowds and acting as buffers between the demonstrators and the police or public. This time the organisers very explicitly had no internal security. When the violence began, there were many spontaneous attempts to contain it but mostly they didn’t stand a chance against well prepared and disciplined spoilers. One 52 year old tried to stop a gang starting on a bank, and lost two fingers from a hand; in another area, there was the paradox of the usually radical and anti-police, anti-establishment left wing Cobas getting help from the celerini, the riot police normally their antagonists.

On the other side, the different police forces were badly prepared, low on morale and in the wrong places. It could hardly have been worse. The close control and divisory tactics that other police forces have developed were not used on Saturday. There is footage of carabinieri, police or finance guards (the three main national police forces, all of whom were present), standing around in the midst of the melée uncertain of what to do next. Like other police forces, though, the Italian ones have had to deal with swingeing cuts in their budgets and like the British at least, they have been accused of being heavy handed in the past (and some suffered either financially or in their careers) so many were afraid of being too aggressive. Finally, the majority was deployed around the sensitive areas in the centre (Parliament, ministries, Berlusconi’s residence) rather than with the demonstrators so that when the violence began there were no police.

Those were the tactical errors. There have been much more longterm mistakes made too.

It is axiomatic that economic hardship increases social tension and might lead to violence. Some politicians and commentators have been warning government of the dangers for months. Antonio Di Pietro and the deputy and journalist Furio Colombo clamour like Cassandra. The response has been to accuse them of encouraging violence.

The clear message from the demonstrations across the world was that banks and governments had either misbehaved or been incompetent and that the young in particular were not prepared to give up their futures for others’ crimes or stupidity. Their expectations have been crushed and they are angry.

But on Saturday all the demonstrations apart from Rome were peaceful and here, the vast majority was peaceful and furious that a few had stolen the show.

Those few are usually referred to as the Black Block as if it was a single organisation. They aren’t – they are small numbers of mostly young people, mostly male who use left wing usually anarchist rhetoric and fascist methods. They use black block techniques developed and tried in Germany and elsewhere over the last 25 years; according to one interviewed in La Repubblica this morning, they have used the Greek unrest as a training camp. Wherever they learnt, they are extremely effective. Calm and unworried as they hack away at armoured glass or a police vehicle; prepared by donning protective clothing before beginning the mayhem and by leaving caches of molotov cocktails and ball bearing or paving stones – the ubiquitous sanpietrini which can be used as an instantly available missile in most of Rome; careful to destroy CCTVs and warn off cameramen but also sometimes oblivious of the hundreds of cameras around.

Those who are able and prepared to use the violence seen on Saturday are quite able to use more serious violence in terrorist attacks and we can only hope that law enforcement agency will be capable of dealing with the symptoms and more importantly, that government agencies are prepared to address the underlying causes and work with the majority on non-violent protesters.
Not very likely, I fear. The Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni was the only member of government who made a public appreciation of the non-violent protest. The new head of the European Central Bank (and until the end of the month head of the Bank of Italy) Mario Draghi said before the violence began that the protesters had a point.

But the rest of government tried to put all the blame on “the left”. Berlusconi did not go as far as saying that Bersani, Vendola and Di Pietro, the leaders of the main centre-left parties, were responsible but the innuendo was there – and no doubt will continue. Anything to move attention from fundamental economic difficulties.

They will return to the surface soon enough – but so will the prospect of political violence.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Zombie Government

While the rest of Europe is worrying about the possible implosion of the euro, Berlusconi is once again marshalling his forces for a vote of confidence tomorrow.

The reason this time is a combination of a disintegrating coalition and sloppy parliamentary management. The government was defeated on Tuesday on a division on article 1 of last year’s budget account. This should be and normally is a formality; it would only be controversial if there were suggestions that the books had been cooked which there aren’t. The money has been spent after all, and Parliament has to approve the account. Instead the article was turned down by one vote which means that the rest of the bill cannot be discussed.

The Italian system does not have whips so there is no one whose job it is to see that parliamentarians actually turn up to divisions and with a good majority this is usually not a problem (even though they have lost quite a few votes over the last few months). On Tuesday there were two key ministers (Tremonti and Bossi) who arrived late for the vote (the Chamber votes electronically with deputies at their own places) despite being in the building. An ex-minister Claudio Scajola who had had a long meeting with Berlusconi that morning also did not turn up.

Berlusconi called the defeat a “technical hitch” but it is much more serious than that. According to the constitutionalist, Michele Ainis, the government has put itself in a catch 22. It cannot re-present an identical bill for six months and it cannot change an account which has already been closed. And without the previous year’s account approved, the government cannot move on to this year’s. President Napolitano has said that the Prime Minister must sort out the puzzle so there will be some sleight of hand by lawyers and accountants in order to allow the ship of state to keep spending. It is just possible that the president will not accept whatever solution is presented, but unlikely.

That is the form and the letter of the law. On the substance, the defeat was yet more proof that the coalition is disintegrating. An increasing number of parliamentarians in Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL)(People of Freedom) would like him to step aside and let someone else run the country and the party until the elections and his ally, Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord (LN)(Northern League) has said explicitly that the government will not last till 2013. This morning Berlusconi gave a 19 minute speech explaining why he was going to continue and that Tuesday’s defeat did not count. Bossi was sitting next to the prime minister and his body language was most eloquent – he couldn’t stop yawning.

His probably successor, the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, went and sat on the LN benches rather than his ministerial seat, another very explicit move.
The right wing commentator, Marcello Veneziani wrote about “leaders who hadn’t died and babies who haven’t been born” this morning (in one of the Berlusconi family papers). He pointed out, rightly enough, that reports of Berlusconi’s political death have been much exaggerated, for the last 333 days, he said (but he could have said for the last 17 years). And he points out that despite the many proclamations, the opposition leader has not been born yet. Also true. He does not add, though, that both facts are to the utter detriment of a country which is in serious economic trouble and risks dragging the rest of the euro zone down with it.

Veneziani and some other courtiers like the editor of another family paper, Il Foglio, Giuliano Ferrara do indeed criticise Berlusconi but from the role of court jester; none of his political associates have the courage to act decisively enough to end the misery. He is like a bull in the ring, weakened by the picadors and made angry by banderilleros but there is still no matador.
It is a zombie government, not clinically dead but close to being brain dead, lurching from one crisis to another, golem-like and out of control. Worse, actually, because Berlusconi is very much alive to his own appetites and aversions.

If Berlusconi loses the vote of confidence, he will have to resign but knowing his stubbornness, he will try and put together a new government. Some of the opposition and some of the majority too would like to see a “technical” interim government to see Italy through the acute moment of the financial crisis but there is no consensus yet. The other alternative is early elections.

My own guess is that he will win the vote tomorrow but that the next crisis is just round the corner and the chances that this government will run its full term to 2013 are decreasing by the minute. But I might be proved wrong tomorrow. Either way, spring elections are more and more likely and the overall prospects are not good.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Ghosts of the Past, Politics of the Present in Spain and Italy

On Friday I went to El Valle de los Caídos, Francisco Franco’s massive monument to himself, to Catholicism and in theory, at least, the dead (caídos) of the Spanish Civil War. Its size is impressive, half hidden, half visible for miles around a fitting metaphor for Franco himself. The visibile part (for 40 km) is a 150 m. high cross whose arms are 46 m., supposedly the largest in the world. Hidden from the outside is the basilica cut 260m into the mountain’s solid granite, a tribute to the more than 20,000 workers, mostly the forced labour of Republican prisoners of war who made it.
The magniloquence of the work is mindboggling – under any circumstances, it would have been extraordinary; it is all the more so as Spain in 1940 had been devastated by the civil war and was trying to survive in a Europe which itself had just begun to tear itself apart. The decree starting the works proclaimed it was to be a monument “to perpetuate the memory of those who died in our glorious crusade” and to the “Victory” (the decree is republished without a hint of irony on a Francoist site describing the Valle de los Caídos a “place of peace and reconciliation”). Franco believed that the “crimes” of the Republicans could be “redeemed by work”, a sinister echo of the Auschwitz motto Arbeit macht frei.
He very consciously compared himself to Philip II and his own monument in the nearby El Escorial, built in much more prosperous times. The imagery is mostly Catholic with the mysteries of the rosary adorning the huge entrance crypt and a mosaic day of judgement in the cupola above the altar, but the nave is guarded by four hooded figures on either side, hinting at crusading warrior monks but actually representing the three armed forces and the fascist Falange militia. The founder of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera is buried there on Franco’s orders and when Franco died, he too was buried there.

There is no doubt as to the monument’s message.
For 30 years after Franco’s death in 1975, it stood as a very visible reminder of a past which Spain was uneasily coming to terms with. On Franco’s deathday in November, a few, mostly elderly supporters would come and commemorate the Caudillo but the monument was hardly a focus for a Francoist revival.
Then in 2006, the present government passed the Ley de Memoria Histórica, the law of historical memory one of whose effects was to close the Valle de los Caídos as a “political” monument. The intention was to close it completely but since it contains a church, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom kept it open. So as we drove into the park surrounding the monument, we had to assure the wardens (state employees) that we were going for the 11 o’ clock mass (a sung mass, by the way, which makes full use of the cavern’s amazing acoustics). No one checks to see that one is praying but there is a certain confusion over what exactly the place is for.
Spain, like so many other places has a problem digesting its past.
By chance, Friday was also Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement for Jews and one way in which human individuals come to terms with their past and make amends to their fellow men for their misdeeds. All societies have some mechanism for dealing with individuals’ past and many are highly institutionalised but we have not yet worked out how to deal with our collective past; most attempts are pretty messy, Italy and Spain particularly so, but in very different ways.
Mussolini’s birthplace, Predappio, is a pleasant little town in Romagna apart from the sale of Fascist souvenirs (until 2009 when it was banned though it continues online) and the pilgrimage to Mussolini’s tomb complete with honour guard. Both the Fascist junk and the paraphernalia around the tomb are or should be illegal since just after the war when antifascist Italy created the crime of apologia del Fascismo (defence of Fascism). But few have been prosecuted for it and no one convicted.
Predappio and the other shrines to a regime that was both murderous and seedy are extremely disagreeable in a western European democracy and in an ideal world should not be there all. But we are not in an ideal world.
Recently two Neapolitan artists suggested closing Mussolini’s crypt but no one seriously suggests using the 1952 law to do so. It would almost certainly create a backlash which would boost fascist nostalgia.
The issues of the memory of Franco and Mussolini are very different. Franco was overall much more canny; he allied himself to the Roman Catholic Church and said he fought in their name while Mussolini was at best a pragmatic supporter of the Church and vice versa. Franco carefully avoided World War II while Mussolini jumped in with both feet… and lost; with the result that Franco died in his bed an old man recognised if not respected by the whole world while Mussolini was killed by partisans and reviled by all but his most diehard supporters.
Despite a massive building programme, there is no monument to Mussolini apart from the few small ones erected in his life time most of which were destroyed immediately after the war. The family chapel in Predappio is no more grandiose than thousands of others across the country.
So all in all, the softly-softly approach to Mussoliniana is probably the right one, politically and morally although the revisionism by some right-wing politicians is distasteful and dangerous. It is not the best solution but it’s probably the least bad.
In contrast, dealing with Franco’s physical legacy or the memory of any fascism with the law is surely a mistake. El Valle de los Caídos is too big to ignore – short of using tons of dynamite, it is going to be there for a long time and it is part of Spanish history and unlike the Mussolini family crypt, it belongs to the Spanish state. The memory of fascism can only be digested with history – an accurate account of the past critically analysed and presented in a way which is understandable to all.
Criminal law can and should be used to address today’s manifestations of fascism – racism, intolerance, political violence and authoritarianism – not to lay 70 year old ghosts.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Power of Referendums

Referendums are an arcane branch of politics; electoral systems even more so – combined they are normally as stimulating as a valium-camomile cocktail. But once again, Italy is different and yesterday’s news that the promoters of an election reform referendum managed to gather more than 1.2 million signatures is news indeed, and of much more interest than Berlusconi’s latest Montenegrin “fiancée”. If passed the referendum would abolish the very unpopular electoral law (nicknamed “porcellum”, a multiple pun I won’t try to translate, but the sense is close to “pigsty”or what is in one) in which parliamentarians are in practice nominated by party bosses
. There are immediate consequences which change the political agenda, the power relationships between the parties and the public perception of politicians and politics in general. And then there will be medium term consequences on how (and who) Italians elect to Parliament. Referendums are one of the few forms of direct democracy that we have in modern societies. Apart from the Swiss who have them on everything from putting in a new pedestrian crossing in a tiny village to weighty national matters of religious freedom, most of the rest of us use referendums sparingly as they can easily become a bludgeon in the hands of expert and well-funded populists. De Gaulle changed France with plebiscites bypassing the other institutions. California worries that powerful lobbies and interest groups can use the referendum to further sectarian interest. Italy’s founding fathers recognised some of the risks and ringfenced referendums. The first was not even in the constitution – in 1946, Italians voted in favour of a republic over a constitutional monarchy. Then they drew up the new constitution which allows referendums in only two circumstances. The first can repeal or confirm a constitutional amendment passed with less than a two thirds majority. The second and much more common referendum can be used only to repeal (not propose) existing ordinary legislation and in any case, key fields are excluded: budget matters, international treaties and amnesties. In order to call for one, half a million signatures have to be collected in three months and for the result to be valid, more than half of the registered voters have to cast a vote. This type of referendum lay dormant for 25 years until conservative elements in the Church and the Christian Democratic party (DC) had the bright idea of using it in 1974 to repeal the newly passed divorce law. The initiative backfired badly with 60% voting against repeal and began a season of civil rights reform spearheaded by the Radical Party (PR) using mainly the referendum or threat of referendum to legalise contraception and abortion, liberalise drug laws, reform family law, and reduce and then abolish military service. As well as being a direct instrument of change, the threat of a referendum was often enough to put an issue on the agenda and push through a reform like the legalisation of abortion in 1978. Along with the major factors which changed Italy in the early ‘90s (end of the Cold War, anti-corruption trials and the debt), the 1991 and 1993 referendums which changed the electoral systems were an important catalyst. Then in the 2000s, those who wanted to maintain the status quo realised that the best strategy was to rely on low turnout to avoid a quorum. It worked until this June when when Italians voted on three referendums producing resounding quorums and showing once again that a majority was so fed up with the political classes that they would have voted to have sunrise in the west if the government was against it. The 1.2 million signature deposited yesterday are proof that this tide is still flowing, and strongly. To reach half a million is not difficult but to more than double the figure is impressive and presages a very high turnout and massive ‘yes’ vote if and when the referendum is held. The next stage is for the Court of Cassation to check the signatures’ validity. There is no doubt that the half million threshold has been reached. Then in January, the Constitutional Court will pronounce on the legal validity; they will almost certainly accept it. Then, if there are no early elections next spring, Italians will vote the referendum. In the meantime, all the parties have to decide what to do. It is a truism that referendums are divisive. Angelino Alfano, the People of Freedom’s new secretary and Berlusconi’s designated successor wants to avoid that division; instead of defending an unpopular law, he would like to change it so that there would be no referendum. While his ally, the Northern League’s Roberto Maroni has said he’s in favour of the referendum even though the law which will be repealed was drafted by a party colleague, Roberto Calderoli who also wants reform rather than repeal. It is decision time for the opposition too. The Democratic Party (PD) (and it’s predecessors) has always been lukewarm on the idea of direct democracy and this time made little effort to gather signatures apart from Arturo Parisi who almost left the party in order to gather signatures. Now the PD support it. Other opposition parties, right, left and centre support the referendum led by Di Pietro’s Italy of Values (IdV) and Vendola’s Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL). There is little chance of changing the law before April so the government finds itself between a referendum rock and an early election hard place. The only way to avoid the referendum is to have early election. In the midst of a financial crisis and prime ministerial sex scandals, there will be little time for an electoral reform debate. Which is a pity as the electoral system determines the style and texture of a democracy. The present fixed proportional representation party lists allow the party to determine who is elected and cuts any direct link between voters and the elected representative. There is a majority premium for the winning coalition in the chamber. If the referendum passes, Italy will revert to a mixed system with 75% of deputies elected in single member, UK or US style constituencies/districts and 25% from fixed party lists. Voters will have a much bigger voice in who represents them and will at least know who it is. But for the moment, it is all politicians who are considered fair game, a bit like lawyers in some other countries. On that score, have you heard the latest Sicilian politician joke? The Regional Government paid one of its employees 200 hours overtime in August… to clear snow. And, you’re right, it’s not a joke.