Saturday, July 28, 2012

Election Watch 2

Instead of winding down for the summer break, Italy has a corruption scandal in the north, a major mafia investigation in the south and regional governments with serious budget deficits across the country. The euro crisis and Italy’s national debt are by now constants which only change by some degree day by day. And hovering over it all are the uncertainties of the general elections.

The first uncertainty is over the date of the elections. For the last fortnight rumours have been swirling around the possibility of early elections this autumn. Last week Enrico Mentana on La 7 television news even put a date to it – 4 November. Over the last few days, La Repubblica suggested 20 November. The justification is that prime minister Monti is supposed to prefer to have an elected government rather than extending the agony of market uncertainty for another six months.

Monti himself has not said a word; on the contrary, he has repeated that he will continue his mandate until its natural end next spring.

Berlusconi and the PdL have been wavering but on balance, since the opinion polls are against them, they would prefer to vote later rather than sooner in the hope that they can improve. Bersani and the PD would almost certainly come out as the biggest party but they are maintaining a position of “responsibility”, trying to create an air of calm and normality where little is either calm or normal. Only the opposition – Maroni and the Northern League (LN), Di Pietro and Italy of Values (IdV) and Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement (M5S) are openly in favour of early elections.

The possibility of early elections is actually hardly more than a summer storm. There is little chance of the parties agreeing on a new election law in time for November elections; elections would not resolve Italy’s economic or other problems and would risk worsening them if the M5S made a strong showing and the traditional parties were not able to formulate clear and confidence-building policies; and Italy has never had autumn elections and is a country where the system is very conservative. Finally, the parties and the would-be parties need more than three months to organise.

In theory, of course, Parliament could pass a new electoral law within a week. It needs a simple majority in both houses; the Senate speaker, Renato Schifani has offered to keep the Senate open throughout August if necessary and no doubt that Gianfranco Fini would do the same for the Chamber. The problem is that the parties cannot decide on what sort of law they want. The PdL has said they would like a 10% premium for the winning party (on the lines of the Greek system) combined with preference votes (voters express one or more preferences for candidates in a party list – this is the system that was abolished in Italy in 1991 because it made individual votes traceable). The PD is against it.

The parties which are already in Parliament actually quite like the existing law, especially the PD which would do very well with it – if elections were held today, they would take a majority in the Chamber with only 27% of the vote. The Senate would be different, but they would still do well. Party leaders would have absolute control over which candidates were elected. But neither the PD nor any of the others can admit to saying they like the so-called porcellum (roughly and politely translated as “pig’s dinner”). And until there is a new law, no one can plan possible alliances because the electoral system conditions the type of possible future coalitions. The risk is, as Antonio Polito pointed out in today’s Corriere that there will be a neo-porcellum.

So the minuet continues. Possible partners present themselves, do a couple of turns or wait till the next dance. The PdL and the LN voted together on a constitutional amendment proposal (direct election of the president and a “federal” parliament) and they are said to be working on a common proposal for the election law. Some members of both parties would definitely like to reform the old alliance.

Di Pietro suggested that far from planning a “Vasto photo” coalition as I suggested in the first “election watch”, he would now like to see an alliance between Nichi Vendola’s “Left, Ecology and Freedom” (SEL) and the M5S. Grillo replied without even mentioning the IdV, just saying that the Movement was not planning any alliances and had had no overtures.

In the centre there is also movement. Last week, the free market economist, Oscar Giannino was reported as preparing to set up a new party. It would be economically liberal, aimed at economic growth and in favour of privatisations and against across the board cuts. There was implicit support from the employers’ federation, the Confindustria which has become almost explicit today with full page ads in newspapers calling for a new centrist formation.

The trial balloon is a complicated mix. According to Claudio Tito in today’s Repubblica, the new thing (party? Movement? Formation?) would have Monti somewhere in the title even if he himself would not be a candidate. A possible candidate could be the present (young), mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi who finds his own PD too old, too left wing and too constricting for a man of his ambitions. The former president of Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia, is said to be on the fringes but not yet ready to take the plunge. The party might also be led by Corrado Passera and include the support of Ferrari boss, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo and his thinktank/party in waiting “Italia Futura”.
In other words there is great uncertainty and everyone is manoevering on a field they still do not know.

Issues are still thin on the ground. Civil unions and gay marriage had the PD arguing last week, giving the measure equivocal support but they have quietened. As the elections approach it will return to divide the party and others. The government issues on the economy are in practice off limits as the three parties supporting the government cannot afford to differ too stridently.

As for the opinion polls, whichever one takes, around half the Italians are either undecided or have decided not to vote. This is a huge proportion and very unusual for Italy. The proportion will decline as the elections approach but it give substance to the alienation from politics. The PD is the biggest party at 25-27%, the PdL a long way behind around 18-19%. Grillo and the M5S is not far behind them at 16-18 with all the others around 5-6%.

We have a long way to go before we can even see the profile of the election campaign, let alone the results.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Single Transferable Vote - An Irish contribution to the Italian electoral system debate

It is obvious enough but has to be said: there is no perfect electoral system. If we want to elect a legislature, there are two major issues to resolve. Inevitably we have to compromise between representativity – giving every party or pressure group a voice – and effectiveness – creating a clear majority in the assembly so that they can actually take decisions. Secondly, we also have to build an acceptable form of responsibility into the system – who is the single legislator responsible to?

On the first issue, the most representative system is certainly the Knesset in Israel. The have a single 120 member constituency for the whole country with a threshold which used to be 1%, then 1.5% and is now 2%, still close to perfect proportionality. So in order to have a deputy, you only need to poll 2% over the whole country. Not surprisingly, there are usually between a dozen and 20 parties in the Knesset and forming a majority to support the government is normally a nightmare of bartering policy and position.

At the other extreme is the British model where there are 650 single member constituencies. The winner in each is the candidate who scores one vote more than the next candidate. Between 40 and 45% will normally give a party a large working majority around 60% of the seats. Until the last elections, Britain almost never had problems forming a government and the present government is the first fully fledged coalition since the war.

They have governability, the Israelis have representation.

On the second point, who chooses the single legislators and who are they responsible to, the usual (legitimate) answers are that they are chosen by their party or their electors and are responsible to them and their own consciences. Less legitimate answers include the lobby or pressure group that has supported or financed the legislator. Whenever the legislator votes, he or she has to weigh up the importance of the three responsibilities and if they are in conflict, take a decision over which one to follow.
The perceived failure of the present Italian electoral law is in the total lack of connection between legislator and elector. The members of parliament hold the post only through party loyalty. In many countries this is not seen as a problem but because of the personal character or many Italian parties, not only Berlusconi’s, a deputy or senator depends on the caprice of the Leader. And that is not healthy for any democratic polity.

There has been talk of adopting the French double ballot system or the German system of a list plus single member constituency or re-introducing the preference votes where voters may give one (or more) votes to individual candidate(s) of their chosen list.

One solution which has not been considered is the single transferable vote (STV) used in both the Republic and Northern Ireland, Malta and extensively in Australia. It is flexible and gives voters maximum choice in individuals and parties and ensures a small number of parties that have a good chance of forming a working government.

Constituencies are multi-member but small (three to five usually); this in practice gives an electoral threshold of around 15% though there is no official threshold. This limits the number of parties and prevents the formation one- or two-man parties as in Israel. In Malta, there are actually only two parties so that one has a majority.
The voters list their choice of candidates, normally the number of legislators to be elected and not limited to a single party. So one can vote for candidate 1 in party A as first choice, candidate 2 in party B and second and 2 in party C as third. A quota is calculated based on the number of votes cast and the first choice votes are counted. If candidate 1A polls more than necessary, his second choices are then counted and distributed to the other candidates; they are transferred until another two candidates reach the quota. If none reach it, then the lowest scoring candidate is eliminated and his votes transferred.

Voters have a choice of candidates and parties and the system minimises wasted votes. The legislator is closely linked to the electorate and to the party. The territorial link does makes for some clientelistic or pork barrelling practices but this is not just a function of the system. The number of parties is limited and will normally be able to form a government.

The only disadvantage is the complication and slowness of the count, a small price to pay for an excellent compromise. In order to give their candidates the best possible chance, Irish party workers develop mental arithmetic skills in probability that befuddle the average observer, a curious byproduct.

At the end of the day, no system will guarantee good government; the best cook cannot make a good dish from rotten material but a bad cook can ruin good raw materials.

This was published on 25 July in Italian in EuropaquotidianoSistema elettorale, la legge di Dublino

Borsellino and the mafia - 20 years on

Twenty years ago, the Sicilian judge, Paolo Borsellino and five police were killed by a huge car bomb in via D’Amelio in Palermo. Of the three mafia murders that Italy is commemorating this year, Borsellino’s is the most disturbing today because we know enough to confirm our worst suspicions of complicity between mafia and state authorities.

For the other two, the judge Giovanni Falcone, killed in May 1992 and carabiniere general, Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa, killed in September 1982, we can only say unequivocally that they did not have the full support of the state. The worst that we can say (and that is bad enough) is that no one in the higher echelons of government and law enforcement made it clear to mafia bosses that the two men had the full support of government and the ministries. Both were killed because they were too dangerous for mafia to let them live.

For Borsellino, on the contrary, we know that there were negotiations going on between mafia and state authorities at least from the time of Falcone’s murder in April. Borsellino knew about these negotiations and was furious. He vehemently opposed to them both as a matter of principle and strategically. Negotiating with mafia was not only a betrayal of everything the he and Falcone and other colleagues had fought for but also a losing strategy.

Yesterday, Palermo investigators indicted 12 men on various charges ranging from subverting state institutions to perjury. There is a suspicion that at least some of the state authorities had more than an inkling of the impending massacre. The full story of who ordered the killings, put the bomb together and carried out the attack is still not known but much more will be revealed when the Palermo case is tried and when two other investigations come to trial.

Italians use the shorthand “the state” and “mafia” in accounts of the negotiations but both words also refer to single individuals with names, ranks or titles and responsibilities. They include carabinieri officers, secret service men and women and ministers as well as the mafiosi and various go-betweens. Since 2007, thanks to a mafioso who turned state’s evidence, some of Borsellino and Falcone’s colleagues have been investigating these allegations. Of the 12 due to stand trial in Palermo, six are mafiosi, all big names like Totò Riina, Bernardo Provenzano and Massimo Ciancimino, the son of former Palermo mayor, Vito, longtime link between mafia and the Christian Democratic party. Six were from “the state”; three carabiniere officers and three politicians, one ex-minister of the Interior, Nicola Mancino, an ex-minister for the South, Calogero Mannino and Berlusconi’s close associate, senator Marcello Dell’Utri who has already been convicted of links to mafia.

They are alleged to have negotiated the release of hundreds of mafiosi from special prison terms known as “Article 41 bis”, introduced to isolate convicted mafiosi from their business interests and power base. In return, the mafia did not kill Mannino and various other politicians threatened because they had not given the mafia the promised protection. In other words, it was a typical mafia racket, extortion-style but on a much grander scale than promising a shopkeeper that his store will not be blown up if he pays protection.

If all or even some of the accused are convicted, it will be a bombshell for Italian institutions. Even without convictions, and with what we already know, the effects on public institutions are devastating.

For decades, actually from the birth of the Italian state, there had been an intermingling of mafia and the political and state authorities, something much more intimate than a cops-and-robbers, live-and-let-live set-up. Political and business interests overlapped in the upper- and underworld with no clear border between the two. Mafia immediately recognised the potential of electoral politics and has exploited them for a century and a half. With the growth of the public sector, they used their political levers both for profit and for power.
The cosy relationship was punctuated by occasional trials of lower level mafiosi for crimes of violence. The break came in 1986-7 when the so-called maxi-trial convicted over 300 mafiosi accepting the prosecution’s case of a mafia organisation. This prosecution was led by Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino which is why they became prime targets for mafia.

Now, 20 years on, there is some chance that we will know about one episode of collusion between mafia, politics and law enforcement agencies.

But we should not hold our breath; in the most disturbing recent development, President Napolitano has demanded that two intercepted conversations between the former minister Mancino and Napolitano should be destroyed. Mancino had called the president’s legal counsellor seeking the president’s help in having his perjury case transferred to a different court (these conversations are on the record). Mancino then actually spoke to Napolitano and since his phone was under surveillance, the call was recorded. The prosecutor has said that the call is irrelevant for his case, but procedure demands that it is a judge who decrees the destruction of material after the defence has been able to intervene.

Instead, President Napolitano has taken the case to the Constitutional Court arguing that even when a person under criminal investigation calls the president, that call should be subject to presidential privilege.

Even more disturbing than Napolitano’s action, is that most of the press and political parties support him. The President represents Power and should not suffer the indignity of having his conversation recorded even when he is called by someone accused of a serious crime.

It was this lack of respect for Power in whatever form (and its converse, the respect for the Law) that killed Borsellino and Falcone and general dalla Chiesa a decade earlier.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nine months to Elections. First Election Watch Blog.

By my calculations, allowing for Easter, Pesach, Liberation Day (25 April) and May Day, the Italian elections should be on 14-15/4 or 21-22/4 or maybe 28-29/4.

If I’m right, then we have nine months before Italians go to the polls to elect a new Parliament and, possibly, a new government. All elections are crucial for someone and they all are hyped as make-or-break-contests. More often than not, the results are banal and change little and there is a serious danger that the 2013 poll will be both make-or-break and change little.

This time, the elections are not just of interest to Italians. Between now and April, Italians and their politicians have a big responsibility on their hands. First of all, the country’s well-being, future growth and social peace depend on what the government does between now and April and how the political parties conduct the campaign; on those two points depend confidence in the euro and its future. Connected by a longer thread is the future shape of the EU itself because if the euro disintegrates, the Union will change shape; if the euro continues, it will mean a new integration and development of the EU.

In the much shorter term, but indirectly, Obama’s re-election depends at least partially on Europe showing signs of a recovery which would enhance an American recovery. Even more indirectly, the emerging economies depend on Europe and North America expanding again.

Most Italian voters do not realise the burden they are carrying (but some do). Much worse, most Italian politicians cannot see beyond the need to get re-elected and maintain their privileges. All important legislation in both the Monti government and before under Berlusconi has been passed as decree laws with votes of confidence. In practice the Houses have been reduced to a school playground where the children can shout and scream for half an hour and then when the whistle blows, they line up for a roll call.

Under Berlusconi, the showtime was extended to television talk shows where representatives of government and opposition would talk (or more usually shout) over each other, neither side listening or answering the other’s points. It was a Colosseum without the blood. Today, in deference to Monti’s “sobriety”, they are much more restrained but seldom any more to the point.

With Berlusconi’s promise or threat to return to active politics, television producers are rubbing their hands together at the prospect of a new series of bouts.

But whatever rules they fight by, their hands are tied. The three big groupings, known until last week by the acronym ABC after the three leaders (now perhaps BBC) are Berlusconi’s PdL on the centre-right (nominally led by Angelino Alfano), Pierferdinando Casini’s centrist UDC and Pierluigi Bersani’s PD. They have to fight a campaign in which they are rivals but are all supporting the same government. This will require considerable restraint and sleight of hand.

The present opposition groups are hardly better off. The Northern League is licking its wounds (caused by internal division and external prosecution for corruption) and the new leader, Roberto Maroni would like to manoevre back into some sort of alliance with the PdL, or at least leave that option open. On the left Di Pietro with his Italia dei Valori, and Nichi Vendola’s SEL (Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà) are highly critical of the Monti government but they too dream of a possible coalition with the PD, the so-called “Vasto photo” (left) of Bersani, Vendola and Di Pietro smiling together at Di Pietro’s summer conference.

Then on the edge, there is Beppe Grillo, much more than a joker in the pack. The Genoese comedian’s “Five Star Movement” (M5S) is the second party in most opinion polls at the moment with around 20%. A PD leader, Enrico Letta, said yesterday that he preferred Berlusconi to Grillo which brought a storm of criticism from most of the rest of the party. All the parties, nonetheless, are terrified that Grillo might steal their votes and bring out otherwise alienated electors. And be a real force in the next Parliament.

All bets are open. The actual alliances will depend on what sort of electoral system they will use, probably more than the actual policies they propose or which leaders they choose.

At the moment, the PdL or rather Berlusconi wants a French semi-presidential system but there will not be time to pass the necessary constitutional amendment so they are aiming at a premium for the party that polls highest (like the Greek system) with 40% of the candidates in a fixed list (so chosen by the party) and 60% elected with preference votes (voters give a vote to a party and then to one or more candidates on the list, so they chose which candidate is actually elected). The PD would like the premium to go to the winning coalition and want a double ballot system like the French one which gave the Socialists a majority in the National Assembly.

Despite President Napolitano’s admonitions to get moving on electoral reform, there is a good chance that nothing will happen and Italians will again use the much criticised porcellum, the pig’s dinner law, which gives a premium to the winning coalition and has fixed party lists – those elected depend on the party (and its leader) rather than voters.

So over the next nine months I will write an election watch blog every two or three weeks (more often as things get hotter) looking at the electoral system debate, proposed policies, choice of leaders, influence outside of Europe and opinion polls, plus, of course the debate over who will take over as President, one of the first jobs for the new Parliament. Just before or just after Easter, we will host our usual Italian Election conference at the American University of Rome

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Mummy Returns

When Margaret Thatcher made an unscheduled speech to a Tory election rally in Plymouth, the local cinema was showing “The Mummy returns”. She started her speech by mentioning this and adding “It turns out you did know I was coming after all” a nice self-deprecating touch for someone who was normally not very modest. This week has seen a flurry of speculation that another mummy, Italy’s most famous embalmed creature (and admirer of Mrs. T), Silvio Berlusconi, might be making his return.

Last week, Silvio Berlusconi told one of his family papers, Il Giornale, “I’m going on a diet, I’ll lose five or six kilos and then in September I’ll decide” while the rival L’Espresso put his possible return on the cover. Then his designated successor, Angelino Alfano gave the game away by saying that he would be the first person to support Berlusconi as a leader in the next elections.

It is not exactly clear what role Berlusconi will play in the campaign. The journalist and parliamentarian, Furio Colombo who cannot abide Berlusconi, is sure that he will not go as far going for the prime ministership because the likely defeat would be too painful. I am not so sure.

He has two major interests to safeguard; control of the RAI, its programming and publicity or if not control, then a strong influence. Secondly, being able to condition and pilot any changes in the criminal law or procedure. It is true that he can look after these without being centre-stage. Indeed, over the last few weeks there has been a bitter struggle over the RAI’s new president, director-general and board which at the moment Berlusconi is winning but without appearing in the first person. His people have key posts in the parliamentary committees which would oversee any law reform so, again, his position is strong.

But at the same time, he has an impelling psychological need to be the centre of attention. He has always been a performer and is clearly not going to give up now. Add to that, power is probably the strongest drug available and once tasted it is very difficult to kick the habit. It would be wonderful to savour the taste of victory in the company of world leaders who have so obviously shown their distaste for him.

It was clear from the start that Alfano was a lightweight, a dummy made of papier maché, not meant to eclipse his master intellectually, politically or even, despite being half Berlusconi’s age, physically. The dummy was ready to be shifted whenever necessary and this is what has happened. The possibility that the PdL might have some form of primary to chose their leader has been dropped completely now with Berlusconi the undisputed chief. However they might have run it, a primary would have been very divisive as all the potential leaders have been showing undignified squabbling. Opinion polls done for Berlusconi apparently show that with Alfano as leader, the PdL would poll 8-12%, with B as elder statesman in the background 17-20%, and as leader, a full 28%.

Berlusconi has been taking an increasingly active part in public life. Last month he suggested that Italy might leave the euro. He has weighed in to the debate over electoral and constitutional reform, repeating that he would like to see a French style semi-presidential system with, of course, him as the president. He gave specific instructions to the PdL senators that they a should attend the debate on semipresidentialism, an issue much closer to his heart than any change in the electoral system.

As a matter of fact, Berlusconi never went away.

Monday, July 09, 2012

From Paradise to the stocks - wasting public money and private time

If I am lucky I can park my car in Paradise – piazza del Paradiso, so named for a mediæval inn known for its gastronomic delights. One day in March, there was a space which I eagerly took, forgetting that I had not renewed the resident’s permit. The resulting fine sat on my pile of chores to be dealt with… later.

On 6 June, not even two and a half months later (instantaneous by Rome standards) the city council sent me a raccomandata or recorded delivery letter. I went to the post office to pick up a letter from a city office in Pomezia, 30 km away. The post office is close enough, the wait a mere ten minutes and fairly cool. Instead of telling me where and how to pay the fine, the letter tells me that there is another document waiting to be picked up in another city office. This is turning out to be a reverse treasure hunt.

The next stage is an office near the Circus Maximus so I at least have the river, Sta Maria in Cosmedin (near the Bocca della Verità), and the little temples opposite

(pictured on left). The office, too, is empty and two women look up from the magazine they were reading (their only activity) to search for my envelope out of a huge bundle of other malefactors’; they give me the documentation and the way to make amends. My bank is another 10 minute cycle ride away, on the flat, and mostly shaded. Only when I get there, I discover that they are not enabled to pay traffic fines… only two banks can and even then, it is not easy, you have to punch in 18 digits in order to pay at an ATM.

Instead, I discover that state lottery agencies also have the franchise and happen that my nearest Lottomatica is in… piazza del Paradiso, where I go and pay.
My little saga begins and ends in Paradise. It has cost me €52.43 and couple of hours, which with a bicycle, a decent temperature and Roman monuments were not unpleasant. But I could have been doing something more productive. The cost to the city was the computer, printer and operator in Pomezia to send me the first notice; another computer, printer and clerks in Rome to give me the full documentation and then the lottery agency to take the fine and the software to tell the city accountants that I have paid.

This is a banal and boring story matched by thousands elsewhere in Italy and no doubt other countries. The point today is that the government has just passed a decree cutting public spending by reducing public employees (at national, regional and city levels). There has been the predictable outcry from the unions and most of the left on the iniquity of such measure but I fail to see how the human resources employed to get me to pay my fine are doing anything useful. This is the Roman equivalent of paying people to dig holes and then to fill them in again, but without the Keynsian consciousness… or irony.

Only later did I discover that piazza del Paradiso had previously been called piazza della Berlina Vecchia – the place where those guilty of misdemeanors were exposed in stocks or cages, so maybe I got off lightly after all.

Follow me on Twitter @WalstonJames

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

If at first you don’t secede… Celtic fringes in Italy and Britain

As bad puns go, this one is old and stale, I know, but the would-be seceders are not exactly fresh, some more than others. The Lega Nord (Northern League, LN) has for most of its 20 years aimed at an independent state of northern Italy, Padania. Roberto Maroni has just take over from Umberto Bossi as secretary and immediately reiterated independence as the party’s strategic goal.

Maroni has a tough job on his hands. He has a divided party within where Bossi and his supporters (know has “the Magic Circle”) are loath to give up the power, perks and influence they have got used to. Even as he was stepping down, Bossi could not resist sniping at his successer and longterm rival. He compared his action to the judgement of Solomon – the message is that he is the true mother of the Lega and Maroni is an opportunistic fake. Bossi status has indeed been drastically reduced by the scandals and his condition but he is not going to retire gracefully; grace has never been in Bossi’s repetoire and he is not going to start now.

The investigations into allegations of misuse of public funds will continue; they will damage the Lega as a whole but more Bossi and his friends than Maroni and no doubt the lead up to next year’s elections will be punctuated with more details of the Bossi family’s expenses charged to the party.

Politically Maroni’s job is no easier. Much of the protest vote at the local elections went to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) while those who wanted a steady centre-right party in or near government didn’t vote. For 20 years Bossi convinced up to 10% of the electorate that the Lega was an anti-system, anti-Rome party of protest at the same time as being a responsible party of government. Maroni was minister of the interior until eight months ago. Now he is adamantly against the Monti government and has even canvassed the idea of abandoning Rome altogether; a contrast worthy of Bossi (still known as il capo).

They also have to decide whether they really want independence (or even devolution) or just to look after the interests of the conservative part of the north – the Bavarian model CSU as both Ilvo Diamante and Angelo Panebianco pointed out.

For the moment at least, Maroni his playing down Bossi’s invented Celtic traditions but there are some superficial similarities with the Scottish National Party (SNP).

They both have declared the goal of complete independence and both feel that they are giving more to the rest of the country than they are receiving. Both have been prepared to play long, waiting games, the SNP even longer than the LN.

But there the similarities end. The SNP is a social democratic party (some would say further to the left) while the Lega is a populist, xenophic centre-right party. In terms of national identity, SNP leader Alex Salmond has a huge advantage over Roberto Maroni. His future independent Scotland has a navel, in Ernest Gellner’s term, while Padania most certainly does not. Gellner divided modern nations into those with precursors or “parents” (and therefore a navel) and those without. Until 1707 Scotland only shared a king with England and even now the Scots have a different legal system and they still have banks of issue. Devolution gave them fiscal powers different from the rest of the UK.

In the UK, Salmond’s announcement of an independence referendum earlier this year led to a flurry of articles about the costs and benefits of an independent Scotland and if he really does move towards a vote, then these arguments will surely trump any memory of Bannockburn (he wants to hold the referendum on the anniversary of the battle in which the Scots defeated the English in 1314) in the same way that Scotland accepted the Act of Union in 1707 for economic reasons.

The breakup of the UK is still a long way off but the possibility is genuinely on the political agenda; an independent Padania is so much hot air.

Both cases as well as Catalonia and the Basque Country might make us face two questions: who decides on a divorce? The smaller would-be independent state or the whole? Only in Czechoslovakia “velvet divorce” was the split genuinely consensual (at least for the two governments). Secondly, how to deal with EU and euro membership assuming that either still exist in their present form in 2013. Do the new Scotland, Padania, Catalonia have automatic membership or do they join the queue with Turkey and Montenegro? Neither national governments nor the European institutions are prepared to address the question until it is posed in a very concrete way.

For the moment, though, these big questions and comparisons will disappear before the campaign questions. First of all, what sort of electoral law will Italy have by April next year? That will condition Maroni’s alliance gameplan. And then, how to capture the dissatisfaction of rising taxes without looking like a aging copy of Beppe Grillo.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

True born Italians - a reply

A long and thoughtful response from Andrea (and my own comment below):

E' triste e vagamente irritante sentirsi ancora, e ancora, e ancora costretti a riflettere su temi come il razzismo e l'intolleranza. Perchè ne avvertiamo, all'un tempo, la stupidità e l'importanza.

Avvertiamo con imbarazzo la futilità di ripetere a noi stessi e ad altri riflessioni tanto ovvie quanto ahinoi sempre nuovamente attuali. Ci irrita dover formulare esplicitamente quelle considerazioni che dovrebbero essere patrimonio fondamentale di umanità e obiettività per chiunque, e invece non lo sono.

L'esercizio di accettare l'evidenza che viviamo in compagnia di estranei non ha nulla di moderno: i Minoici consideravano gli Achei dei bestioni ignoranti, i Latini che fondarono Roma si consideravano rivali degli Etruschi di Veio. Passiamo la vita ad elaborare concettualmente le appartenenze (nostre e degli altri) a questo o quel raggruppamento identitario, che sia definito su base linguistica, religiosa, geografica o ideologica. Alcune "appartenenze" sono addirittura a geometria variabile, e limitate a certi periodi della vita o momenti sociali: ci riconosciamo (e riconosciamo altri) alternativamente automobilisti e pedoni, consumatori, pensionati, studenti, romani, inquilini, viaggiatori, maschi, anziani, metropolitani, europei, romanisti, comunisti, bianchi, baby-boomers, intellettuali, figli, meridionali, contribuenti. E in ognuno di questi ruoli consideriamo come le nostra e le altrui caratterisctiche ci definiscano per appartenenza a un gruppo e diversità da altri.

La riflessione diventa delicata - e rivela tutte le sue più pericolose implicazioni- quando dalla considerazione di appartenenza si cerca di far conseguire un diritto: "in quanto" appartenente a questa o quella categoria di persone "ho diritto" a qualcosa di diverso e speciale rispetto agli altri.

Il collegamento fra appartenenza e diritti era più facile da elaborare e accettare come principio generale quando le comunità erano meno eterogenee ed evanescenti nel tempo e nello spazio: per secoli e secoli, per la gran parte degli esseri umani l'dentità definita dalla nascita definiva all'un tempo gran parte delle caratteristiche potenzialmente rilevanti per definire un'appartenenza in termini di razza, religione, residenza, lingua; e perfino, in larga misura, interessi economici, prospettive di sopravvivenza, legami di parentela. In tali condizioni, è fin troppo semplice per chiunque riconoscersi in quanto parte di una comunità e "diverso" da chiunque differisca anche solo per un aspetto fra questi. Colore, credo, dialetto e campanile definiscono all'unisono chi siamo e da chi ci distinguiamo, e lasciano ben pochi dubbi su quale sia "la nostra parte". Ma il progredire della storia ha significato per gran parte dell'umanità la progressiva e sistematica istruzione delle identità di appartenenza. Sotto molti punti di vista, essere "moderni" ha significato per gli uomini essere sempre meno spesso capaci di definirsi in quanto parte di una comunità definita e riconoscibile.

La definizione di noi stessi per appartenenza e differenza è, ci piaccia o meno, una componente profondamente radicata nella nostra psicologia. Siamo pur sempre una specie che si è evoluta vivendo in tribù. Per questo il razzismo emerge così facilmente nei nostri comportamenti, perfino dove sembrava essere estraneo alla cultura dominante da generazioni.

Per questo, anche, è così facile per chiunque, in ogni epoca e in ogni nazione, trovare gente entusiata e pronta ad aderire a qualsiasi iniziativa che richiami un qualche valore identitario, non importa quanto ridicolo e infondato. Riconoscersi parte di una tribù esercita su di noi un'attrazione irresistibile, come anche stabilire un criterio sbrigativo per identificare i nostri rivali.
Serve fare esempi?

Ma insomma, James.... cosa ne vuoi sapere TU, che sei INGLESE? solo perchè VIVI a Roma e PARLI italiano, credi di poter dire a NOI che siamo razzisti? Ma guarda un po', questi INTELLETTUALI, che pensano di capire IL POPOLO essendo nati in un'altra CLASSE. Che vuoi che m'importi se Balotelli è negro, quando la verità è che è BRESCIANO (e nato in SICILIA, poi...). Come TUTTI i GIOVANI d'oggi, non capisce neanche a chi deve dire grazie; che il suo stipendio lo paghiamo NOI CONTRIBUENTI.

Vedi com'è facile? ;-)

Un saluto a tutti,

(pubblica quel che vuoi, se vuoi)

My reply: It is certainly irritating to have to repeat the same things over and over again but as long as human beings carry on doing the same dumb (and sometimes intelligent) things, we are all going to have to continue coming to terms with them… and ourselves.

That's why, Andrea, you quote ancient Greek examples, why their dramas and political analyses are as valid today as they were for Pericles or Aristophanes and long before.
And I am certainly not accusing Italians, all Italians, of being racist. Italy so far has dealt with immigration much better than Britain, Germany, France and the US. The Balotelli case is important precisely because it should help Italy avoid the mess that other countries have been through… or at least create new and different messes. Balotelli has multiple identities like the rest of us - he is claimed as an Italian and Bresciano, and maybe as a Palermitano and also by Ghanaians who would like to see him playing for the Black Stars. But he's also a son as I pointed out and is soon to be a father. I was just looking at one aspect.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

A true-born Italian.

In a couple of hours, Italian strikers Balotelli and Cassano will try and repeat their prowess against Germany and win the European Championship for Italy. But whether Italy wins or not Balotelli made his mark in the semi-finals. Not as a player, which was never in any doubt despite his ups and downs. His mark is on Italian society. In a striking way, he has changed what it means to be “Italian”.

Like so many other prominent sportsmen and women, particular black or brown ones, Balotelli represents a country which is uneasy and equivocal about whether he is truly “Italian”. Racist and crypto-racist Italians have no difficulty rejecting Ghanaian fruitpickers exploited by the camorra and the ndrangheta in the south. Most of them are irregular, their Italian is poor and above all, they’re poor and black. Ergo, they are not and cannot be Italian. Balotelli in contrast, was born in Italy, he is (now) an Italian citizen, he is a wealthy celebrity who scored the two Italian goals on Thursday. But he’s still black and like English footballers a generation ago, the racism comes out… on the field and off.

Before the Italy-England match, the Gazzetta dello Sport had a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong on Big Ben rather than the Empire State. Like Silvio Berlusconi who called a journalist an “imbecile” when he suggested that Berlusconi calling Obama “suntanned” was racist, the Gazzetta was sorry that anyone could have been stupid enough to take offence at the cartoon, not that the cartoon itself was offensive. The episode was nicely analysed by Simon Martin in the Independent where he took some flack for even talking about it.

Eighty years ago, an Italian middle-weight, national champion, Leone Jacovacci whose father was Italian and mother Conglese, was greeted on the ring and in the press with the slogan “there are no black Italians” (sometimes repeated about Balotelli). That was under fascism a few years before Mussolini “Fascist scientists” decreed that there was an “Italian race” (and that Jews were not part of it) in adocument they called The “Manifesto della Razza” which was absurd in scientific terms and would have been comic if it had not been for the Racial Laws which followed and their tragic consequences.

Italians were then as racially mixed as any other nation. Daniel Defoe’s satire on English “purity” could easily be adapted to Italy.

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman:

In eager rapes, and furious lust begot

Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.

Whose gend'ring off-spring quickly learn'd to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:

From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,

With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.

In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,

Infus'd betwixt a Saxon and a Dane 

While their rank daughters, to their parents just,

Receiv'd all nations with promiscuous lust.

This nauseous brood directly did contain

The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
Daniel Defoe, 1701

He wrote this 300 years ago in defence of the Dutch king William of Orange. A century and a half ago, the prime minister of Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, was the son of an Italian Jew. But Britain still went through sometimes violent moments trying to integrate the millions of post-war, non-white immigrants and all is still far from perfect today despite the progress. Today, the Belgian prime minister is a second generation Italian, Sarkozy is also the child of immigrants and of course there is Obama. Surely there are enough role models for well-integrated societies? Especially in sport and show business where the rules are more relaxed.

Well no. We know that there are still problems about who is a “real” Italian (or Englishman, Frenchman or whatever). This is why Balotelli is so important to push the boundaries of “Italian-ness”. There are two iconic photographs from Thursday’s match.

The first is just after his first goal when he took off his shirt to display an exceptionally well-sculpted torso (in a curious role-reversal of the Gazzetta cartoon, one paper had a cartoon of a bare-chested Mario Monti in Balotelli pose, flexing his muscles towards Europe and Chancellor Merkel). Balotelli has a fantastic body by any standards and in a country which puts much store in physical beauty, that counted.

The second is him hugging his mother. A natural enough gesture and again particularly significant in a country where “la mamma” is fundamental. In this case the picture is even more striking because he is black and she is white; it is a simbolic moment but between real people – it helps to exorcise whatever residual phobias there are over “miscegenation”.

The question of “Italian-ness” is not only about colour. There are more than half a million children born and brought up in Italy, speaking Italian as their first language, who are not Italian citizens because their parents are foreign. There are bills before Parliament which would change this but they are unlikely to see the statute book in this session.

In the meantime, Mario Balotelli is an icon and model for millions of Italians (as well as those Ghanaian fruit pickers) whatever else he does… and if he works his magic this evening, that will be another step as well as making a whole country jubilant for a few days.