Sunday, September 30, 2012

Election watch 4. All aboard the Monti bandwagon.

It should not have been a surprise to hear Mario Monti say publically that if asked and if necessary he would continue in government but that he was not going to stand for office.

From the moment he was appointed almost a year ago, there has been speculation about what he would do after the elections. At first, the presumption was that he would “go up the hill”, the Quirinale and take over from President Napolitano whose term ends in May next year but over the last six months there has been increasing speculation that he would continue as prime minister.

If he does stay on, he would not be the first politician to “sacrifice myself for the good of the country” only with Monti, one gets the feeling that he actually means it. Certainly he does not want to jump into the electoral fray and if he does continue, it will be on his own terms.

A second Monti government would be useful for many politicians and some of them are already taking advantage of Monti’s possible second term. The centre has always supported him as have Catholics across the spectrum; so Pierferdinando Casini was explicit last week saying that his centrist UDC would campaign for a “Monti bis” which he repeated again today along with Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the Chamber and leader of Futuro e Libertà. The head of the Italian episcopal conference, Mons. Mariano Crociata was more guarded but gave Monti his implicit support for “any solution to overcome the crisis”. The more secular centre is represented by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the Ferrari boss. He set up a foundation Italia futura in 2009 which was presumed to be his springboard into politics but he has wavered ever since. Now he says that he will not go into politics himself but will support Monti. All together, the centre might just reach 10%; Casini and the others are hoping that with Monti as the future prime minister, they would do much better.

Angelino Alfano, the nominal leader of Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà, (PdL) said today that Monti should declare his candidacy but has made it clear that he and implicitly Berlusconi would prefer a Monti bis to a centre left victory. They seem to be preparing the way to tag along after Monti and maintain some say in both positions and policy for the next government. It is a rational strategy as all the opinion polls suggest that with or without Berlusconi, the PdL would come in a poor second. In any case, they are seriously divided, suffering from the Latium scandals and worried that other regional scandals will further soil the party’s sagging reputation. Like the centrists, they think that by hitching their wagon to a Monti bis, they can do better at the elections and above all after the elections.

Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is in a much more difficult position. They are supporting Monti’s government today but are leading in the polls and hope to win the elections. To support Monti today would be to give up before the campaign begins. And Bersani has indeed expressed his admiration for Monti but laid his claim to at least trying to win the elections.

We are a step closer to the date; most likely 7-8 April (not a very difficult calculation given the end of the mandate, the Easter and Pesach holidays and then the 25 April and 1 May holidays). But we are no closer to an electoral system. There is a real risk that Italy will once again vote with the despised fixed party list system known as the porcellum or pig’s dinner. If that happens, turnout will plummet as voter confidence is at an all-time low and to have candidates chosen by the parties will reduce that confidence even further.

We already have Sicilian regional elections at the end of October and now the Interior Minister has said that Latium will vote within 90 days after last week’s dramatic resignation of the president, Renata Polverini. (And Rome will elect a new mayor in spring so we will have a surfeit of elections over the next six months).

One of the new Parliament’s first jobs will be to elect Napolitano’s successor, at the moment the favorite has to be Romano Prodi but obviously the result will depend on Parliament’s composition.

Much lower on the pecking order but much closer in time is the PD’s struggle to work out their own primary system to choose their own leader. Most likely Bersani but by no means certain. The 37 year old Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi, is close on his heels and there are other candidates

The Northern League is trying to re-invent itself after the Bossi family scandals. The new leader, Roberto Maroni has talked about a “renaissance” and “Forza Nord”, hoping to emulate the early Berlusconi success.

Meanwhile, with typical irony, Parliament is addressing a new anti-corruption law unconcerned that a good number of them might fall victim to a serious measure.

So much better to look for the possible winner and his bandwagon.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Vatican – the real issues beyond the butler.

The trial of Paolo Gabriele (left with Pope Benedict) began today. He was the Pope’s manservant who is accused of having stolen material from the Pope’s appartment much of which was then published in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s Sua Sanità. Le carte segrete (His Holiness. The Secret Papers) published in May. At worst, he risks four and a half years in gaol, a long way from being stunned and quartered publically by Mastro Titta, the papal executioner 200 years ago (the last public execution was in 1870 with the guillotine a month before Italian forces took Rome. The death penalty was formally removed in 1967 at the same time as Britain). It’s a good story because of the Vatican’s proverbial secrecy and intrigue and because of its ambiguity between its role as an international political and economic power and its claim to spiritual and ethical leadership. Mix that with the pedophile priest scandals (none in the Vatican itself so far but plenty of accusations of cover-ups) and not surprisingly, there is good copy for all.

But it strikes me that the fuss around the leaks and trial story misses the point. “The butler did it” was too tempting a headline to resist but the butler in question is only a very small part of a much more fascinating tale.

There are at least three different divisions within the Vatican. The first is an old one between conservatives and reformers. This is a front that has been around for as long as the Church itself but the present battle lines were fixed 50 years ago around the Second Vatican Council. The role of the faithful in deciding Church doctrine moved from John XXIII’s opening to dialogue to John Paul II’s strongly heirarchical vision. The issues are the ongoing ones: women priests (and more in general, the role of women); legal or illegal abortion, contraception and in general fertility control or enhancement; medical research; relations with other religions and those who have none. These are major issues for all of society but made more controversial within the Roman Catholic community because of the Vatican’s claim to a monopoly of the truth.

The second is a little more recent and pits those who want to keep Vatican financial transactions completely discrete and under sole Vatican supervision and those who feel that the Holy See’s own budget and its banking rules rules should be transparent and respect European regulations. The first loud episode was in the 1980s, when the Vatican bank, the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (IOR) and Banca Ambrosiana scandals blew up. Two of the protagonists met sudden and unexplained death: the bankers Michele Sindona (above left) and Roberto Calvi (below left), one poisoned in prison, the other found hanging under Blackfriars bridge in London, and the third, the head of the IOR, the hardnosed Chicago cleric, Mons. Paul Marcinkus (“You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys”) (below right), was wanted by Italian justice but escaped back to Illinois. Over the last few years, the Holy See found itself on the EU’s grey list of possible money launderers and has once again been forced to look at its own finances and how it manages its banking system. Last year, senior functionary of Vatican finance, Mons. Carlo Maria Viganò wrote to the Pope revealing both improper behaviour and serious waste (and reduced the Vatican’s budget deficit); for his pains he was removed by promotion to papal nunzio in Washington. The lay president of the IOR, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was removed from his job in May. He alleged that it was because he wanted to know the names behind the IOR’s anonymous accounts. Over the last few years both Italian and EU banking authorities have put pressure on the Vatican to respect international banking rules or find themselves in the same company as shady offshore tax havens accused of recycling dirty money. They have begun to change but still have a long way to go and the Gabriele trial will not mention the internal debate.

The third set of cleavages is between factions following this or that cardinal or senior functionary, mostly personal (rather than ideological) power play looking to present advantage or links to a future pope. In this sense, the Vatican is still a mediæval court in which personal loyalty often trumps political positions. But with an aging pope, the debate over succession becomes more urgent but unlike other political successions, cannot be debated openly.

These are divisions that exist in any political system; what makes the Holy See’s version unique is they are played out by an organisation which sets itself up as a spiritual and ethical authority above politics. In practice it is impossible to play international politics and run a bank without getting one’s hands dirty as any Roman for the last 1,500 years well knows. In its politics the Holy See has no transparency or checks and balances and until recently, had none in its banking system so the inevitable court intrigues are inflated and distorted by a political whispering gallery which makes the real one in St. Peter’s dome seem banal. The fog that envelopes the Vatican makes the Kremlin walls (today or in Soviet times) transparent in contrast.

Finally, the present conflicts and scandals are exacerbated by a lack of firm and able leadership. The peculiarities of the papal election process mean that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church may not necessarily have a keen political sense or strong leadership skills. Joseph Ratzinger showed his lack of both early on in his papacy and even though he has dropped fewer bricks over the last few years, the contrast between him and his predecessor’s well-honed political skills is striking. In his public utterances, Benedict is earnest and wellmeaning but neither subtle nor convincing like John Paul II. In private, apparently, he has been unable to mediate between the the factions that swirl around him, something that Woytila was expert at at least until his final illness.

None of the major issues will be touched on in the Gabriele trial but there will be oblique references to them. So we are unlikely to have striking revelations though we will have a few more insights into the Vatican – it is in a transitional state, uncertain how to use contemporary media to present their case at the same time as not revealing too much. A few months ago, they took on Greg Burke, Fox News’ man in Rome to present an American-sytle media face; at the same time in contrast, witnesses are referred to as letters (A, B, C), not names and there are no cameras or court record and a limited pool of journalists.

But it will still be a trial worth following closely for what is said and for what is not said.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Causes and effects. Guest comment from Andrea Vannucci

[this is much more than a brief comment - so I'm happy to post it by itself, however depressing the conclusions are. jw]

The old italian saying “è nato prima l’uovo o la gallina?” (Which came first, the chicken or the egg) is a vivid warning that reminds us how difficult it is to
guess which is the cause and which the effect when considering two concurrent
facts. Good social-political analysts and economists, more than others,
should always remember to be cautious at making statements that imply an
underlying cause-effect assumption.

It’s interesting to see how many citizens, personalities, and expert political
commentators and analysts alike, looking at current Italian politics go on
affirming how much a change in Italian politics would be needed and welcome.
Most often, these comments basically mean (or wish?) that old politicians,
corrupt administrators, bureaucratic and money-wasting organizations “should”
just leave, thereby letting younger, honest, more trustworthy and motivated
individuals and organizations take over and “clean-up”.

Any such statements and analysis are more or less explicitly based on the
assumption that as long as Italian politics (or, any country’s politics at any
time, for that matters) is corrupt and inefficient, it could and should be
changed from the inside. And, that the main reason for which this does not
happen is that corrupt politicians resist and oppose the change, supported by
the corrupt organizations they have built. And, more generally, that the
citizens are the victims of this corrupt system, kept strong and powerful by a
pool of few, determined, smart, experienced bad guys that have penetrated the
institutional system, and make a distorted use of it.

This assumption, whether clearly focused or simply implied, unfortunately
proves to be wrong, in many ways.

Italian politics has proved able to reproduce itself over and over, with the
same bureaucratic inefficiencies, clienteles, change-resistant power
structures, money-wasting apparatus, hyperbolic growth of useless
institutions, growing public spending. All this happens at any institutional level, and at different times in different places; with different electoral rules in place; with major traditional parties occasionally crumbling and getting replaced by
new, different organizations. And, even as a vast number of individual
politicians - small and big fish alike - were replaced over time.

By that evidence alone, any honest social scientist should conclude that
corrupt politics is NOT the cause of Italian cultural and economic decline.
And that even if the “old” politicians who are in command today decided to
leave and make room for younger, fresh actors to take their place (don’t mind:
that could never happen, anyway!), that would NOT result in any substantial

This is because Italian political corruption has strong roots: they consist of that
solid, persisting Italian culture that was once defined as “familismo amorale”
(this doesn’t need to be translated, definitely). Italians, more than other
peoples, search and prize personal favors above equality, private relations
above public, standard procedures, introduction above qualification. They,
maybe slightly more that others, love politicians that offer protection and
advantages in turn for their vote. And, they hardly doubt that the government
should be entitled to act (and spend, obviously) in any possible field of
social or economic life.

Given these premises, it’s not surprising that Italians succeeded in raising
corrupt politicians and administrators by the numbers for decades, and that
they easily replaced those parties and organizations that eventually succumbed
as they got hit by accusations, lost their electoral bases, had their leaders
found guilty of crimes of any kind.

Wishing that Italian allegedly largely corrupt politics (or, any corrupt
politics, at any time, in any country) should, or even only could renew itself
is like wishing a fever to go away without healing the body from an infection.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Too little too late? Or the Bastille?

The chief executive of the Latium regional government, Renata Polverini (left), resigned earlier this evening; a resignation without honour. After a week of increasingly embarrassing revelations about her party’s parties (and much else); after seeing her nominal party boss, Angelino Alfano and her real leader, Silvio Berlusconi who both told her to hold her ground; after going to see Prime Minister Monti (today) and President Napolitano (today) who apparently gave her little or no moral support; she finally decided that the time had come to resign. She went out with all guns blazing, threatening revelations about her (centre-left) predecessor and just about everyone else. All guilty except her.

This could be the key moment for the Berlusconi era, the so-called Second Republic; the moment when the trends of the last 20 years stop and change direction and Italy reinvents itself again. Or it could be just another little glitch in the inexorable political, economic and moral decline of the whole country.

It takes time to understand which are the watershed moments – 14 July 1789 only became the founding moment much later and whether today is really a Bastille point will depend on the people of Latium and the rest of Italy plus prime minister Monti, president Napolitano and Brussels.

My own guess is that the tumbrils will not roll tomorrow and that some of the more unpresentable characters like er Batman and Polverini herself will try and recreate themselves in time for the elections which will take place early next year. She is already preparing the part of the injured innocent victim and we can be sure that Franco Fiorito, er Batman, now being investigated for embezzling €1m (it was €800,000 two days ago) will also play the victim.

But the knock-on effect will be devastating. Formigoni and Lombardy are wobbling and probably will be the next to go; the Campania governments are being investigated and promise another juicy scandal. But all the regions are under the microscope, both public and judicial. Regional government in Italy will have show that it does more than sponge off the taxpayer. The centre-right is under serious pressure but the centre-left is far from innocent which leaves Monti and his policies almost alone on the field. This means not just a change of parties and leaders but a change in the way Italy is governed.

Still, this is not the resolutive moment that Italy needs but it will be the beginning of a process which does actually change Italian politics.

Latium Follies – i nuovissimi mostri

As a film genre, commedia all’italiana, is now close to dead. One of the best was Dino Risi’s “I mostri” (literally “the monsters” but called “15 from Rome” in the English version) (1963) which spawned the sequel “I nuovi mostri” (called “Viva l’Italia” in English) (1977). But the ongoing political reality shows amply make up for its demise and should be called “The newest monsters”.

In this version, there are still the regional stereotypes along with caricatures of physical and character types which vary between the mean and cynical bad guy and the way over the top bad guy with, occasionally, the flawed bad guy who tries to reform. There are men and women in lead parts The locations are far more varied than the “house” or “island” of other reality shows and most of the players are not acting (at least not all of the time).

A year ago, I wrote that politicians didn’t get it, a point that could have been made any time over the last decade and I fear for some time to come. This week we have had the drama of the Latium regional government which make it very clear that the political class as a whole is a long way from understanding the contempt that most Italians feel for them. But Latium was not the only show on offer.

There were other sideshows. The Chamber of Deputies turned down a proposal from the Speaker that parliamentary party groups should have their accounts independently audited. They said this would infringe parliamentary sovereignty… for once they were persuaded to rethink and the following day a revised motion was passed.

But their meals are still subsidised. Half is paid by the Chamber to the tune of €3.5m p.a.… but this will stop… in 2014. This comes after similar revelations last year that the Senate meals were heavily subsidised. The prices went up but the Senate is still hardly a model for hardworking, efficient politics.

On Thursday, their discussions on a motion on violence on women were stopped because the deputy speaker due to preside was in Sicily and his plane was delayed. He blamed the Ministry of Transport. The other deputy speaker who was actually presiding, got up and left saying that she had pressing business. The Speaker himself was at a meeting promoted by another senator to save abandoned beagles but he did at least come back to the Senate when he was told. This is apparently the first time that a Senate sitting has been suspended because of no one to chair it. But even normally, they only sit for three days a week.

But it was the regional government here in Latium that stole all the headlines and most of the judicial proceedings. Italy has 20 regions which make up its middle level of government between the cities (comuni) and the national government. Most importantly, they manage the public health service but have many other responsibilities (but have much less power than a US state or a German Land) and since they began in 1970, their budgets have grown exponentially with many of them spending millions to support political parties and electoral expenses, even now with cutbacks on public services.

We learnt this week that the erstwhile leader of the majority party, Berlusconi’s PdL in the Regional Assembly, had been one of the biggest beneficiaries. His name is Franco Fiorito (picture above). He’s a big lad so has the nickname, Francone (big Franco) but is also known as er Batman, no one quite know why; perhaps because of his taste in eclectic cars; he bought a Smart but could not fit into it so gave it away and bought a BMW. He has properties in his native Anagni and abroad along with various bank accounts. At the moment he is accused of embezzlement to the tune of €800,000 though the figure is expected to rise. He has already said that he will give back €400,000.

A toga party thrown by another regional councillor masqueraded as an electoral meeting. Some of the invitees wore pig masks (picture top of page) drawing the easy jibe “they didn’t need masks”. There was much reference in comments to Trimalchio’s feast in Petronius’ Satyricon – nouveaux riches showing off – crass enough in the first century but not very original today.

To make matters worse, there is a fair chance that a good deal of these expense are probably actually legal. If the prosecutors cannot prove that the invoices were false, or that funds were siphoned off to private foreign accounts, then many of the parties were probably not theft or embezzlement… so no conviction and no political sanction either. In Britain, when MPs were caught restoring their duck pond or an MP’s husband charged £30 for a porn video, the [innocent] Speaker resigned and most of the MPs’ careers ended with the last elections. Here, President Polverini refuses to resign saying that only she can clean up the mess though she is wobbling at the moment.

Her party secretary, Angelino Alfano, even has the nerve to say that the PdL is a victim of the scandal because a rotten apple has damaged the party’s reputation. I have always argued that chutzpah is actually and Italian word which yiddish only borrowed.

It is not only Latium that is bubbling – for months now, we have had the chronicles of how the president of Lombardy, Roberto Formigoni, enjoyed luxury holidays paid for by fixers working in the public health service. The Sicilian government had to resign in the summer because of their out-of-control debt and now investigators have started on Campania.

The laughs are all very well but they leave a very bitter taste. The scandals undermine what remains of public confidence in the lower levels of government and present a real risk that devolved powers will be curtailed or withdrawn completely, another reduction in Italian democracy. The more sensible alternative would be for all levels of government to have to generate their own income from taxes as the Americans do.

This particular scandal has a personal sting for me – two years ago the Region granted us €25,000 to support two development projets we are working on with partners in Ghana. Part is for a market garden for the Cape Coast School for the Deaf, an enterprise which supplies food for the kids, a little income and training in animal husbandry and vegetable cultivation; the other part is to support the Ghana School Bag project of our Ghana partners, the Kokrobitey Institute which recycles plastic advertising posters into satchels for school kids as well as making fashion items from recycled material. The work was which was given the grant was completed more than six months ago but we are still waiting for the second tranche of the grant, €9,000, a sum which hardly covers some of the er batman’s aperitifs but which goes a long way in Ghana. Ironically, the product that we are due to present president Polverini with at project completion is… a purse made from recycled publicity material.

Hundreds of companies who have done work for the Region (Latium and the others) are in a much worse state than us; many small businesses have been forced to close because public institutions have not paid the €10, 20, 30,000 owed. All this while the elected councillors were spending hundreds of thousands of euro on toga parties or actually stashing it away in private accounts. Twelve hospitals have been closed in Latium over the last couple of years as ways of reducing the budget. Those are the real follies.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Election Watch 3 – Monti succeeds Monti? The temperature rises. Berlusconi again, “The White Thing” and left in disarray.

The buzz is all about what sort of government Italy will have after the elections and the very unsecret consensus is that it will be Monti again – either as prime minister or heading another ministry or as a deus ex macchina leading the government’s policies.

For the rest, as is often the case in Italy, there is uncertainty.

The Americans know exactly when they will vote for their next leader and for the last few months, they have known the choice of individuals. The two men’s policies are less clear but over the next month we should have a better idea.

Here in Italy, we’re pretty sure about the policies but we do not know what sort of choice of leaders the Italians will have, nor which parties and their alliances, nor what sort of electoral system they will be using. We are not even sure when they vote – it will most likely be April but it could just be March or May and it might just be in November.

A second Monti government is top of the business community’s wish list along with the centrist UDC. At the annual meeting of economic leaders at Cernobbio, a straw poll was taken and 80% of those questioned declared themselves in favour of what is called in Italian, a Monti-bis. (“bis!” is the cry for “Encore!” in a theatre of concert hall as well as being “twice” in Latin.)

The man himself has said explicitly, once again, that his job (as prime minister) ends with the elections. Others across the spectrum have reiterated the need for an elected government.

There is, of course, another job up for grabs next year: the presidency. Until two months ago, it was clear that Napolitano had greatly enhanced not only the prestige of the presidency but also its power. Constitutionally, the Italian presidency is mainly symbolic, but its powers and influence expand as that of other institutions wane. The new president might have expected to step into a more than ceremonial role. But because of Napolitano’s clumsy effort to protect himself and the presidency from judicial investigation, his and the presidency’s reputations are under discussion.

As for candidates, right from his nomination as prime minister last November there has been speculation that Monti might take over from Napolitano in the Quirinale. This is still a possibility but former Italian prime minister, European Commission president and leader of the Italian centre-left, Romano Prodi has also been put forward as a possibility though he has denied interest. No doubt Silvio Berlusconi still dreams of finishing his career on “Rome’s highest hill” as the Quirinale is often called in a political rather than altimetric epithet, but that is not on the cards.

If presidential hopefuls are keeping their powder dry, the real politicals are even more careful about their own ambitions, at least until we know what the electoral system will be.

As we move closer to elections and towards a Monti-bis with or without Monti, the space in the political centre is becoming more and more crowded with undeclared wannabes. Corrado Passera went to the centrist UDC’s summer gathering, expressed his sympathy and redeclared his technocratic neutrality. Another media-positive figure, Emma Marcegaglia, has said she is a definite undeclared for politics. She was the first woman to lead Confindustria, the employers’ association and was popular and successful. Another definite maybe is Montezemolo but he has been hovering on the edges of politics for years now so even in the country of uncertainty, he is perceived as too indecisive. The prospect of some new, centrist, post-Christian Democrat (DC) party appears and disappears like a ghost at the party: la cosa bianca, the “white thing”, an as yet undefined successor to the old DC’s epithet of “white whale”.

On the right, they all wait with bated breath to see if Berlusconi will stand again or not, the Great Unknown. He is due to appear as the star act on a cruise organised by one of his family papers, Il Giornale. Obviously, there is intense speculation that this will be the launch of his new candidacy. Whether he goes centre stage or not depends entirely on the opinion polls. He is unlikely to win outright but he does not want to crash (anything less than 20%). Berlusconi’s candidacy is a heady mix. There are his interests, financial and legal. He needs to keep political power to maintain Fininvest’s role in the media and publicity and to condition the courts and law reform to protect himself from present and future prosecution. Then there is the psychodrama of the almost 76 year old who needs to show himself and the world that he can still make it; Europe’s answer to Chavez and Mugabe.

The centre-left does not have quite the theatre, but they are trying hard. Within the Democratic Party (PD), the debate is more about leadership than policies. The Italian left has a vocation for seizing defeat out of the jaws of victory and they are trying again now. For the last year, opinion polls have given the PD with or without allies, a clear advantage over any other party. Now they are fighting over primaries in which from the party establishment’s point of view, the wrong person might win. The “wrong person” in this case is Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi, a bumptious youth (he actually 37, a respectable age for leadership prospects in most countries but in Italy, hardly out of political nappies and now definitely guilty of lèse nomenklatura). He might just beat PD party secretary, Pierluigi Bersani if the party can decide when to run them and with what rules.

Outside the PD, there is continuous sniping between them and Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement (M5S) which picks up most of the protest vote, mostly on the left but some on the right too. Bersani has accused Grillo of using “fascist” language and Grillo has called Bersani a “zombie”. At the moment at least the PD is ready for an alliance with the left wing Nichi Vendola’s Left-Ecology-Freedom (SEL) party and has given up an alliance with Antonio Di Pietro’s Italy of Values (IdV) but this geometry could still change. Grillo’s M5S is also riven with dissent over uncertainty of the leadership and policies, with members criticising Grillo’s concentration of power.

It is as if electoral politics had become an almost irrelevant sideshow while Monti and the grownups, above all the other Mario, Draghi and the European authorities are dealing with the euro crisis. The rest of the government is addressing but not solving the Italian employment crises.

For the moment at least, the political parties are as far away as ever from regaining public confidence.