Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Pope’s Voters

It was easy enough for Stalin to dismiss “the Pope’s divisions”, much more difficult for an Italian politician. There is another series of questions about the elections which is very popular – Berlusconi and the economic crisis are not the only topics in town. The Pope, present and future, has come into the Italian election campaign. Frances D’Emilio asked me and others How many votes is a photo op with the pope worth? and not surprisingly, the French Catholic paper, La Croix was also interested. These questions come from the Brazilian news magazine Veja.

Some experts say that Vatican controls every party in Italy and persuades them on moral and political issues. Is it true?

The first answer is that “the Vatican” or “the Roman Catholic Church” is not a homogeneous monolith. Roughly speaking, there are three big divides – the Vatican, the Church heirarchy in Italy represented by the Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI) and the faithful. Even within those categories, there are some major cleavages as last years Vatican scandals demonstrated. So, no, “the Vatican” does not control every party in Italy. But the Church in its various forms certainly does influence most parties.

The Church has material interests in Italy in its property (despite the 19th century confiscations, it is still the biggest single landowner) so obviously is very concerned about the extent of the Monti government’s property tax, IMU. It also has material interests as a provider of health, education and some welfare all of which is funded at least partially with public, Italian, money. Then there are the human rights issues mostly to do with health, sex and reproduction. Civil unions, stem cell research, issues around the beginning and the end of life (assisted fertility and the right to die), the legality of abortion and divorce.

In terms of electoral politics, it is the CEI which plays the biggest role both in organising the vote and putting pressure on government. It was the CEI which mobilised Italian voters to boycott the 2005 referendum which would have liberalised assisted fertility and stem cell research laws. It was the CEI under Cardinal Ruini which developed the Church’s position in the tourist industry and it was the present CEI head, Angelo Bagnasco who encouraged Italians to vote for parties which would continue the reform process, a very thinly veiled endorsement for Monti.

In 1996, the Church supported Prodi; five years later Berlusconi and in 2006 and 2008, there was no clear indication. Today they support Monti.

Do all the Italian parties maintain a good relationship with the Catholic Church?

Some are manifestly anti-clerical like the Radical Party and its successors; some are subservient or compliant like the Christian Democrats and their successors. Today, there are elements of the Church in almost all parties. Nichi Vendola, the gay champion of the radical left describes himself as a Catholic and in many ways he is as much as Monti and certainly more than Berlusconi. The PD has devout believers like their president, Rosy Bindi and I would guess that there are at least some Grillo supporters who qualify as “Catholics”.

Could the Pope's resignation influence the Italian elections next Sunday?

No, not really – only in a minor media way. For a few days, the elections did not lead newspapers or television. Monti’s photo-op with the Pope will have given him a few votes, but nothing significant.

Do you think candidates are trying to adjust their rhetoric after the decision?

No. There is the very old joke about the foreigner who asks the Roman if he is Catholic: “of course” comes the reply, “all Italians are Catholics”. “So do you go to mass on Sundays?” asks the tourist. The Roman looks quizzically at the foreigner “Aho! Cattolico, non fanatico”. This applies to most Italians, not just Romans.

Could the resignation eventually limit the chances Silvio Berlusconi has to win the polls? Why?

Only if the difference between Berlusconi and Bersani is so slim that Berlusconi’s defeat might be attributed to his not being able to overwhelm the airwaves while the papal news was leading.

Could Benedict's clear preference for Mario Monti be an important factor in voters' minds?

Not so much Benedict’s (he has not made any clear choices – he has just welcomed a foreign head of government) but Bagnasco’s and the CEI’s are a factor but not a crucial one. Practicing Catholics can vote for almost any party with a clear conscience.

May Pier Luigi Bersani's secular kind of ethical vision affect his performance in elections?

See above – the PD is the product of the heirs of the Italian Communist Party and the left wing of the Christian Democratic party coming together. It and before it, Prodi‘s “Olive” was the realisation of Berlinguer’s 1970s “historic compromise”.

Bersani's Democratic Party might win a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies? How about the Senate?

Whoever wins a relative majority in the Chamber, nationwide (which might only be 35%) is guaranteed 55% of the deputies. Only if that national relative majority translates into a relative majority in most of the 20 regions will one coalition be able to govern. There is a good chance that the PD and its allies will win the Chamber – they might win a majority in the Senate but from the last legal opinion polls 10 days ago, it is unlikely.

An eventual coalition between Monti and Bersani, with an emphasis on economic reform, may be successful?

Yes. The pressures first to form the coalition and secondly to implement economic reforms are so strong that a Bersani-Monti coalition could succeed. The European institutions (Commission, Council and ECB) are pushing. The markets would dump Italy and increase the spread if reforms are not introduced and domestically in Italy, there is a fear of rising unemployment and continuing recession that could persuaded the PD and the centre to bury their differences at least for a time. The alternatives are too frightening to contemplate. A Bersani-led government with a Monti minister of the economy (or similar) would give confidence to the markets and Europe.

What are the chances of Bersani ending like Romano Prodi, losing a vote of confidence in the Senate and watching his government collapse?

As above. Depends on the actual numbers but the disaster of 2008 is close enough to discourage a repetition of the Mastella vote or indeed the Bertinotti vote against Prodi in 1997

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a one day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

Follow me on Twitter: @walstonjames

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