Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The American elections seen from Italy.

On the foreign policy front, Italians should be very concerned about the results of the American elections. Syria is in the middle of a civil war and Lebanon is once again on the brink of one. The Mediterranean is a small place and what happens in one corner affect the others, especially when there are Italian peacekeepers in the region. Obama’s policies are cautious and interlocutory while despite a moderate Mitt in the last debate, Romney says he wants the US to be respected once again. A change in American policy will change the reality for Italy. A Romney victory would increase Italian security risks.

In the same neck of the woods, Iran is an important trading partner for Italy. Obama is seeking some sort of negotiation while Romney seems in thrall to Bibi Netanyahu. A military confrontation between Israel and/or the US would have serious economic repercussions for Italy quite apart from the major regional consequences.

Much closer to home is Libya where Italian interests are even more direct; before the Libyan crisis, Italy depended on Libya for 23% of its oil and 10% of its gas. An aggressive American Libyan policy would have greater effects on Italy. A Bush-style invasion would be disastrous while negotiations, reconciliation and an attempt to build a stable and democratic Libya (or at least one or the other) is the Italian aim and that of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed in Benghazi. Again, a Romney victory would have direct and immediate consequences for Italy.

But apart from the few specialist broadcasts and columns, the Italian media, and as far as I can judge, the Italian public are not thinking about even the direct consequences of the American elections for Italy.

The Washington Post put it very succinctly – most Europeans have still not realised that there is a serious competition in the US and that Obama might not win. The German Marshall Fund poll showed that Italians still massively approve of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, even though the approval is down from 91% in 2008 to 74% in 2012. In practice, in Italy, there is no question. Most of the country, right and left, think that “Obama is the best for us and Obama is going to win”. There has been precious little debate on what the two candidates have actually said and although Obama’s policies are certainly better for Italy than the probable Romney ones, this is a given rather than an argued point.

Not even the Italian far right has any sympathy with the Tea Party (they actually want more state intervention than the left, an anathema for the American right) and Obama is sufficiently centrist to satisfy most of the Italian centre and centre-right.

Even after the first terrible performance by Obama, the idea that he might lose hardly touched most Italians’ consciousness. “We know Obama, we don’t like him quite as much as we did four years ago, but he’ll do”.

The immediate economic problems facing Italians trump any concern about the future US leader. To the east, Greece sinks into chaos and to the west, Spain is on the verge of seeking help from Brussels. Italy might be next. With these problems at the door, the American debates over job creation over there, seem very detached from the real, Italian, world. After the risk of losing one’s job or having to pay more on a lower budget, the next most important item are the Italian elections and the crises engulfing the whole political system.

Italy will have a general election almost certainly in April. The Sicilians voted over the weekend for their regional assembly after near bankruptcy brought down the previous government and two of the other biggest regions, Lombardy and Latium will vote very soon after major scandals forced early elections. Some of the other regions are wobbling. There is a whiff of the US in the centre-left Democratic Party’s “primaries” (and now the centre-right too) but not many of the party activists really know how the Americans conduct their own primaries, but it sounds democratic.

It is curious that Le Monde has an “Elections américaines” link on their banner while no Italian paper has anything in such a prominent position; La Stampa has a link halfway down the home page. For the Italian media, it is not that interesting – a competition which has lots of colour and noise, interesting and fun to watch but not really relevant.

If Obama wins again, it will be business as usual. If Romney were to win, it would take some time for the real consequences to sink in.

A version of this was published in openDemocracy 29 October A spectacle, not an election: how Italians see the race

The American University of Rome will be holding an election night vigil starting at 22.00 and going on for as long as it take. We will also be holding a debate on the results soon after 7 November. For details of both events check our website www.aur.edu or write to internationalrelations@aur.edu

Monday, October 15, 2012


Almost four years ago, I went to the Terrorhaza, the House of Terror in Budapest. This is a museum which describes the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross and Communist regimes. It is housed in the building which was used by both as a prison, interrogation and torture centre for dissidents. There are the real gallows and films of gulags, the massacre of Jews in Budapest along with many other horrors. It is not a subtle exhibition and does not pull its punches about the human and humanitarian costs. The images both moving and still are graphic, the sounds which accompany them equally so and loud; many of the objects are gruesome. It leaves the visitor in no doubt about the regimes.

So it was surprising to find the following two entries in two separate visitors’ books which gave us an idea of what at least some people were thinking at Thanksgiving in 2008:

"Thank you for this fantastic exhibition. With the new Obama nation in the United States, soon [underlined] we will be a Communist nation. Please try and help us.
A New Yorker"
dated 25/11/08

same date but in the other book and in a different handwriting

"It is shocking and scary how similar the earlier days of the Nazis and the Communists look to the promises and plans of the Obama administration in the United States. All Americans should learn about what really happens under Communism and Socialism

The two people who took the trouble to write those entries were people who had travelled to Hungary, so do not fit the cliché of the isolationist, stay-at-home American. One was from New York, again, not the stereotype of the the rural redneck.

As we again approach the US presidential elections, I wonder how the authors of the two diatribes are feeling now. Have they realised that Obama was never a radical (even before he was elected) and the US has not been swept into a murderous Nazi or Communist gulag society? Or do they fear that in his second term, the “real” Obama will appear, fangs and all? Given the vitriol in those outburts, I suspect they still think that Obama is the personification of “European” political vice. Something on the line that if you start with a national health service, the SS and the KGB are not far behind.

There have been other American presidents who have evoked strong negative passions. Indeed, Obama’s predecessor made many Americans foam at the mouth at the mention of his name. But even if some hated George W for what he was, most found his actions dangerous and contemptible and once they stopped foaming, they would be able to articulate the reasons for their antipathy.

Among people like the Terrorhaza visitors, it is likely that Obama is feared for what he is not for what he does. He is international in his backround, he is an intellectual and very much part of a coastal elite, in many ways more waspish than real WASPs. And above all, as Silvio Berlusconi so subtly put it, he is “suntanned”. Berlusconi was too stolid to realise he was being offensive; the Tea Partiers and birthers are not that crass so they use other terms. They suggest that he was not born in Hawai; some of them would like to repeal the 14th Amendment which gives citizenship and full political rights to anyone born in the US, an irony in Italy where there are attempts to actually give citizenship to children born here. They claim that he is Muslim because of his name and because of his childhood spent in Indonesia, he cannot be a “real patriotic American”. All these red herrings should have been buried long ago and Obama should be judged on his presidential successes and failures and for most Americans, this will be the case.

But there is a hard core that still cannot accept the idea of a black president. And since overt racism is no longer acceptable in public in the US, they dress up their prejudice in distracting clothing. “Socialism” is a good starter; most Americans don’t have a very clear idea of what it means (ditto most Europeans by now, but that is irrelevant for the moment) but it is highly negative whatever it is. “Elitist” and “unpatriotic” are hardly less damning epithets.

No doubt there are some who genuinely dislike Obama for those reasons but Ta-Nehisi Coates in the recent Atlantic article “Fear of a Black President” quotes many scientific articles written over the last four years which show the electoral weight of racism against Obama in both numerical and geographical terms. He goes over the incidents when Obama either said nothing about racial issues or said something as in the case of the killing of black teenager, Trayvon Martin or the arrest of Harvard professor, Randall Kennedy and then had to face a backlash and accusations of “black rage”. It is a long, thoughtful and well-argued (and angry) article; he concludes “Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.”

The not-so-hidden racism does not only come from the white right. Last summer, Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “2016” was released arguing that Obama is motivated by an anti-British, anti-colonial ideology learnt from his Kenyan father. As a consequence, argues D’Souza, Obama is anti-American and only a little more politely says the same as the Terrorhaza jeremiads.

The contrasts in US society are striking. For all the tough talk in the presidential and vice presidential debates, they are extremely civil affairs but the undercurrents hide the dark divisions in the country which are anything but civil.

It is curious (and I hope encouraging) that of the four candidates, two are Catholic, one is Mormon and only one is Protestant (and he is not Episcopalian) but religion is not an issue in this election (though no doubt it will be when there is an openly atheist candidate). When the US has its first woman or Jewish president there will no doubt be similar questions. But partly because of the time passed and partly because of the depth of that bitter heritage of racism, the debate will not be as acute and will not provoke the reactions I saw in Hungary four years ago. In the meantime, the playing field is still not level.

On Wednesday and next week, we will be publicly re-screening the Presidential Debates at AUR at more convenient European times and will be having an all-night Open House on 6 November to watch the results come and discuss them.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

“Nanny knows best” – “Il Duce ha sempre ragione”. A question from England

Stereotypes die hard; and yet they often have more than a grain of truth.

An English journalist called the other day to seek support for a piece he was writing, arguing that Italians still had a yearning for a strong man in power and that Monti was just a modern day Mussolini, an unelected leader, this time without the black shirt and the extended jaw.

Thirty five years after Basil Fawlty told us “don’t mention the war” and then goosestepped past his German guest with his right arm raised, there is still an English temptation to see wannabe fascists in every trattoria. There are even some on the Italian right who have the nerve to make the connection.

But Mario Monti does not bring on that temptation.

In both style and substance, he as at the antipodes of anything fascist. Mussolini and his emulators were full of bombast and empty, albeit aggressive rhetoric. Fascism was for show; the fancy uniforms, the rallies, the plywood façades built by Cinecittà set builders to impress Hitler on his state visit. Its slogans set the tone: “Il Duce ha sempre ragione” (Mussolini is always right) or the fundamental “Credere! Obbedire! Combattere!” (Believe! Obey! fight!). In substance, thankfully at least for the French, the British, the Greeks and the Yugoslavs, there was much less. Soldiers were sent to high Alps and the Russian winter with cardboard boots, munitions were substandard due to corruption and military planning flawed because men were promoted for fascist loyalty rather than military skills. Mussolini himself, far from being the firm decider, wavered at crucial moments.

In institutional terms, however malfunctioning, Italy today is profoundly democratic which it certainly was not in 1922 when Mussolini came to power. Even more important, Italy is part of the EU which acts as a brake on dictatorial trends.

So even if Monti did harbour Mussolini-like dreams, he would have difficulty putting them into practice. But in any case he doesn’t as we know from his time as prime minister and before. In style, the main criticism is that he too drab (or put politely, “sober”). In substance, he has limited aims, only partially achieved and has certainly not overstepped his mandate. He showed his respect for the rules when he was European Commissioner and his ability to play them in order to achieve his ends and he is doing the same now.

“Ah, but…” my journalist friend says, “the Italians like him and prefer an unelected strong man to weak and corrupt politicians”. It is true that opinion polls still give Monti high ratings despite his having made most Italians suffer, much higher than party leaders. But that is not fascism.

There actually is a consistent minority of Italians who still have an admiration for Mussolini and that number is probably growing as the living memory of fascism fades. There are dangers of a populist right in Italy as in other parts of Europe (but less precisely because of the fascist experience), but Monti is not part of it. Basil Fawlty can sleep easily in whatever retirement home he has moved to.

But… and there is a big but, there is indeed an accepted tendency in Italy to rely on outsiders to clean up local political messes. Institutionally, the Ministry of the Interior can send a senior functionary to take over a local administration (city or region) if the elected representatives are incapable of governing. If they cannot form a local government, this is done voluntarily; if, as in the case of Reggio Calabria last week, the council is shown to be under mafia control, it is done by order of the Minister. The term is commissariamento. The “commissioner” has a mandate limited in time and often in scope too. At the end of the mandate, the administration goes back to the politicians.

In business, a receiver can be sent in to clean up; in politics, it is rarer but in Italy, the practice has a long pedigree. In the middle ages, when local factions could not agree on how to run a town, they accepted an outsider of proven honesty (and who had no connections to local families) to run the place, a podestà straniero (“podestà” usually translated as “chief magistrate”, “straniero” is “outsider” rather than the more usually “foreign”). Monti has used the term to describe himself; he is an outsider in political terms and his mandate has a date stamp on it.

The ancient Roman Republic too, had an institution which gave supreme power to a single man in an emergency, the dictator whose mandate was for a year. Fabius Maximus (left), the Cunctator or delayer, was dictator when he defeated Hannibal. More than 2,000 years later, Garibaldi appointed himself dictator in Naples as the temporary ruler. It was only in the 20th century that the word took on its negative connotations.

So there is an Italian tendency to call in a grown-up to clean up the mess; it is closer to the very English “nanny knows best” rather than the peremptory “Mussolini is always right”. But a caricature of Monti as nanny (or perhaps in Italy, “la mamma”) does not make as good a headline as Monti in a black shirt.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Elections Watch 5. Disintegrating regions.

Every day brings new revelations about scandals in the cities and the regions. I have had to put the title in the plural; we have known about the Sicilian regional elections since the summer (they are due on 28 Oct.) and Rome elects a new mayor and council in the Spring, on schedule. The general election has to be in spring as well, on schedule probably 7-8 April. Last week, the Latium president, Renata Polverini resigned with one member of her council accused of embezzling €1.3m. At the moment, there is talk of elections on 16 Dec. but Polverini is trying to dig her heels in.

A couple of days ago, a member of the Lombardy regional government, Domenico Zambetti (left with Regional President, Roberto Formigoni), was arrested, accused of having paid the ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia very well established in the Milan, €200,000 for 4,000 votes. Twelve other members of the 80 member council are under investigation . The majority are centre-right, PdL or Northern League but there is also Filippo Penati, a close associate of PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani. The president of the region, Roberto Formigoni has stubbornly refused to even countenance resignation despite ample evidence of his close links with Pierangelo Daccò a fixer who has just been given a 10 year sentence for fraud and other crimes. Instead, he promised a regional government reshuffle and scheduled elections in 2015. Today, the his Northern League allies have threatened to withdraw their support and said that the government should resign next year and go to the polls at the same time as the general election.

In Latium, an IdV (Di Pietro’s Italy of Values) counsellor and member of the former regional government has been accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of euro. The city council in Reggio Calabria has been suspended by the Ministry of the Interior because of ndrangheta infliltration.

The only difference with the 1992 scandals is that this time most of them are local but the vision of structures crumbling is the same.

The national politicians meanwhile carry on almost as if nothing was happening. An anti-corruption bill gathers dust in Parliament and it is not even the Draconian measure that the parliamentarians’ critics would prefer. They continue bickering over the new electoral system. At the moment the bill would still have a portion filled by a fixed party list (chosen, therefore, by party leaders like today) and there is no agreement about a threshold to exclude the smaller parties. It includes preference votes by which voters can choose one or more candidates from a party list. This is genuinely democratic and encourages voter choice but it also encourages clientelistic practices – candidates distribute the pork in return for the preferences. Or failing that, they buy them from the ndrangheta. Whichever way they turn, they immediately get covered in sleaze.

The party system is reeling. Berlusconi continues to waver though he has said that he will take a step back “to preserve the unity of moderate Italy and save the country from the left”. He has stopped calling the PD “communist” but continues to present himself as the paladin of the “moderate” centre-right except that he only has a few diehard supporters left. The real right, heirs of National Alliance (AN) are ready to split off again while the real centre feel that Berlusconi would be the kiss of death. And he is clearly not convinced himself. He has been shuffling around yet another party, convinced that re-branding is the answer which it isn’t any more.

The centre-left have just agreed on the rules for their primaries even though they do not yet know what sort of electoral system will be in place for actual election. They will vote on 25 November to find a leader of the coalition; if no one wins a majority, the ballot will be on 2 December. Voters will have to register and candidates will have to gather 20,000 signatures in order to stand.

The irony of all these elections is that opinion polls continue to show that Italians have less and less confidence in the system and half still will not vote. So we risk having elections and no voters.

The other Italy appears on the streets demonstrating against job losses and in support of public schools. Monti and his government mediate and project optimism but time is getting short.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 a month before the likely date of the elections.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Primaries – Italian style

Yesterday, the Democratic Party (PD) was supposed to have unveiled the way that they will choose the leader of the centre-left coalition for the next elections due in spring. Instead, once again, they put off the final details, promising them in the coming week but the two main candidates did agree on a couple of fundamental points.

Party secretary and obvious frontrunner, Pierluigi Bersani and his main rival, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi decided that there should be a register of voters for the primaries and in the event of no candidate winning an absolute majority, there would be a run-off.

The primary problem is that imported political plants do not grow in the same way as they did in native soil.

The Americans invented primaries long ago to choose candidates for most political offices but an institution which seems simple, straightforward and effective is actually a mystery even to most Americans apart from the most dedicated political wonks. For the rest of us, the word and the process only hit our radar every four years and only then for the choice of presidential candidates.

It is a process which has developed over more than a century to meet different needs in different places and times. It is not regulated by the federal government and on occasions, even state governments have little to do with them. There are not quite as many versions as there are states, but almost.

Most foreigners (and a good number of Americans) think that voters from a party decide which candidate they prefer and that the one that wins goes on to face the other candidate.

It’s not quite like that.

Some states don’t even have primaries – they caucus, which is a polite way of saying that a few interested people get into a huddle and reach some sort of consensus. There may be no procedural rules or they may be very flexible.

The states that do have primaries each organise them in very different ways. In some, only registered members of the party may vote (“closed”), in others anyone may vote (“open”) meaning that a registered Democrat can vote for the least likely to win Republican or vice versa or the one most agreeable to him. In others, registered independents or undeclared voters can vote in either Democratic or Republican primaries (“semi-open” or “semi-closed”). The weight of results is also highly variable; in some states, the winner takes all the state’s delegates, in others, the delegates match the proportion of votes.

[For a detailed account up to 1997, see James Davis’s U.S. Presidential Primaries and the Caucus-Convention System: A Sourcebook. My thanks to Marcella Morris, UMd, for pointing this out to me].

There are a few PD members who understand the dark arts of primaries but most just think of the results they hope for. But as with the much more serious question of the national electoral system, the first question to answer is “who do we want to win?” Or on the rare occasion that an electoral system is changed without ulterior motives, “what principle do we want to uphold?”

In the beginning, in Italy, Romano Prodi needed legitimation for his leadership; he had no party and because of that in 1998 was rudely shafted. Before leading a new coalition, he wanted support which came from the electorate and not the parties. The operation succeeded at least until one of those parties withdrew their support.

Walter Veltroni had the same reasons when he launched the Democratic Party in 2007; a popular vote would give him at least a façade of support or at best a real power base.

Primaries seemed a good way of raising party and personal profiles. The problem and big difference with the US is that it was never clear whether the primary was to chose the leader of a party or a coalition of parties. All the Italian electoral systems in practice demand coalitions so the primaries rapidly became mechanisms for choosing the coalition leader and the problems began when the “wrong” people (ie outside the nomenclature of the biggest party, the PD) starting winning the primaries for regional and city elections. The other big difference is that there is no party programme that conferences have debated and candidates have to stick to.

The PD leadership did not prepare the ground for next year’s elections; the scent of victory was so intoxicating that they did not realise that the old guard would have to justify its hold on political power and the privilege (not right) to lead the victorious coalition. That primary genie was out of the bottle and will not be put back.
The PD hoped to use the primaries as a way to mobilise potential voters and they are certainly doing this but they had not thought through who was supposed to win or rather how Bersani was supposed to win and by setting the rules now, they risk being accused of manipulation against his main rival, Matteo Renzi. Some of the party leaders have accused Renzi of being an upstart pipsqueak or, worse, being a friend of Berlusconi’s (who has expressed his appreciation of the young Florentine, a real kiss of death, reinforced by an article in the Berlusconi family Il Giornale by arch supporter, Giuliano Ferrara).

For a year now, Renzi has been saying that the oldies should be traded in (rottamare is more brutal – “scrapped” or the American “cash for clunkers” are both more direct but no one is offering the electorate financial incentives if they dump the old guard). There are other candidates and despite occasional whinges about lack of choice, there is a very real choice.

If the US is the model, then the complaints are misplaced. At the moment there are five candidates. Four men and one woman; three from the north, one from the centre and one from the south. Two are over 60, two over 50 and one under 40. Three are within the PD, one to the left and one to the right. Three are or have been regional presidents and one is a regional councillor. Two are Catholic, three are secular; one is gay. It’s actually a pretty good spread to choose from compared to say, this year’s US Republican candidates.

Nonetheless, instead of acting as a window for the party and a launching pad for a leader, the primaries still risk seriously dividing the centre-left.

Their greatest hope is that when the centre-right tries to choose a leader, it will be even more divisive.

Declared Candidates.

Pierluigi Bersani (PD, male, 1951, party secretary, MP, former minister, former pres. Emilia-Romagna, Emilia-Romagna), Matteo Renzi (PD, male, 1975, mayor of Florence, Tuscan), Nichi Vendola (SEL, male, 1958, president Apulia, Apulian), Bruno Tabacci (UDC (ex DC), male, 1946, MP, former pres. Lombardy, Lombard), Laura Puppato (PD, female, 1957, Veneto regional councillor, Veneta).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Monti bis - a question from Greece.

I received this question from Irini Mitropoulou of To Vima, a Greek broadsheet:

"Do you think that he will stay on for a second term? Who would want him to stay, and who wouldn't? Is there any reliable political alternative? And what is the prevalent mood in the italian society? Are the italian people willing to make more sacrifices,«for the good of the country»?"

This was my answer:

Monti's strength is as a leader who is not directly linked with any political party or leader. He is manifestly a Catholic, a limited free-market liberal centrist but if he puts his name to any of the parties which match that definition, he loses his independence and that strength. Italians are fed up with politicians, not necessarily with policies. They are largely accepting Monti's painful medicine precisely because it is not coming from the traditional parties.

But Casini (UDC) and Fini (FLI) and Montezemolo (Italia futura) would like to have his name and prestige and are trying to bring him on board - hence the manoeuvres of the last few days. Berlusconi and Alfano would like to have him as an ally so as not to lose by too much but Monti has played hard to get with them and the others.

The only alternative, at the moment with the present polls is a a centre-left government led by Bersani and the PD (or whoever wins the PD primaries) with perhaps Monti as Economics minister after the elections.

But all predictions are conditioned by the lack of electoral law. The teams are lining up for the match but they don't know if they going to play football or rugby or basketball.

The anti-Monti elements are clear and declared: the present opposition, left (IdV and SEL) and right (Lega Nord) have said that don't like him or his policies. The PD and the PdL are much more equivocal - they want some of his policies and they still need him as a shield to do the dirty (and unpopular) work for them.

For their part, the Italian people are punch-drunk. They are not yet angry enough like a good proportion of the Greeks, to go out an protest but they don't have a plausible alternative. If there was a serious proposal, they probably would accept further sacrifices but no one has managed to convince them - and every scandal makes it less likely that they might be convinced. They know they don't like "politicians" and half of them say they will not vote.

Greece is already in the trough - Italy is still on the brink.

Published 7 October 2012 Μόντι: Βολικός αλλά ανήσυχος