Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The painful ways out of the Italian maze.

Italy faces difficult choices over the next few weeks and a tough reality for the next six months or more.

In two weeks time the new Parliament will assemble and will elect its new officers so there is already jostling over who should have the prestige and power of the speakers’ jobs. Formal negotiations for the new government won’t start till then but the informal bargaining has already begun with the leaders marking territory and putting out feelers.

Italy has “perfect bicameralism”, the two houses have equal power. In the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, the electoral system gives a majority premium to the overall winner, in this case, Pierluigi Bersani and the Democratic Party (PD) led coalition but in the Senate there is no majority. So in order to govern, even temporarily, Bersani will have to come a deal with either Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition of the People of Freedom (PdL), Northern League (LN) and right wing Fratelli d’Italia, or Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). The fourth player in the Senate, Mario Monti could easily reach a deal with Bersani but even together, they would not have a majority.

To achieve a majority, there are three alternatives, one difficult and two almost impossible.

A grand coalition of Bersani, Monti and Berlusconi would have the numbers and indeed was just the combination that governed Italy from November 2011 until now. But even then it was clearly an unstable and temporary alliance and the bruising electoral campaign combined with serious personal and ideological divisions mean that a repeat performance is highly unlikely. Above all, Bersani’s policies are likely to clash with Berlusconi’s agenda. Bersani has promised a serious conflict on interest law and a revision of last year’s toothless anti-corruption law. He would also maintain much of Monti’s austerity package. Berlusconi would be unhappy with all of these measures even though has been making some overtures towards Bersani, they are more for show than substance.

All the leaders are trying hard at the moment to seem “reasonable” and “open to compromise” because none of them wants to be seen to be responsible for preventing the formation of a government and the likely fiscal chaos that would follow.

The second unlikely scenario is minority government which lasts. Bersani could probably persuade the centre-right or Grillo to abstain at the vote of confidence (Grillo has said explicitly that he will give a confidence vote to anyone) and so allow him to form a government but then he would have to navigate between the two of them in order to pass each and every measure. The only hope that such a fragile arrangement might last is if the external pressures from the markets, the EU and th ECB are enough to dissuade Grillo or Berlusconi from bringing the government down.

The most likely outcome of the next month’s negotiations is a Bersani or possibly semi-political/semi-technocrat prime minister like Giuliano Amato governnment with a check list of measures and a date stamp on it. Amato did something similar 20 years ago in Italy’s last institutional crisis. He was a Socialist then and is still part of the broad left but has not been in party politics for years so has a faint aura of impartiality.

Whoever leads this hypothetical government would have to draw up a list of tasks starting with the election of the new President of the Republic and moving on to election reform, parliamentary reform and other measures which Grillo might support like conflict of interests, corruption and cutting the costs of politics.

Bersani has already started making overtures to Grillo both on the measures they might work on together and on positions. There has been a suggestion that a grillino might become speaker of the Chamber, even that it might be Marta Grande 25, the youngest deputy. There are echoes of the last wave of a new populist movement hitting Parliament. In 1994, the Northern League won 117 in the Chamber and 60 in the Senate (Grillo has 108 deputies and 54 senators) and the 31 year old Leghista Irene Pivetti became speaker.

Agreement on some reforms is not impossible and Grillo has already lowered his volume from his previous deafening mass rally levels to a calmer political comuniqué level. He has said that he will represent the Five Star Movement in the government formation negotiations that President Napolitano will manage as soon as the new parliamentarians have taken their seats. This means he is moving from rabble-rousing mode towards a pragmatic politician stance. He’s certainly not there yet but it’s a change.

The first deadline is the election of Napolitano’s successor a process which must start 30 days before the end of his mandate or 15 April. Both houses come together with representatives of the regional governments to elect the president, about a 1,000 people. For the first three ballots, a two thirds majority is necessary which in theory could come from Bersani, Monti and Grillo; not very likely. From the fourth ballot, a simple majority is enough Monti and Bersani. But the future president is very much part of the negotiation process.

Grillo could agree with Bersani to change the electoral law but it would not be easy to decide on what sort of reform. The other reforms, conflict of interest, corruption and cutting political costs are much more controversial and so more likely to be blocked by a Berlusconi opposition.

This means that the new government is likely to have a very short life, not much more than electing a new president whose first job would be to dissolve parliament and go back to the polls. At the earliest this could happen in July but much more likely in the Autumn or perhaps Spring 2014 given Italy’s tradition of spring elections and the inevitable inertia in parliament. The longer the uncertainty goes on, the more likely is some sort of debt crisis which will inevitably colour the next campaign. This time the possibility of having to take up the EU/ECB/ESM bailout package is much more likely.

The result of new elections will probably not repeat this week’s results as all the leaders will try to make up for their shortcomings in the last campaign. For better or worse, Berlusconi will have most of his pending court cases settled; Bersani will be flanked or replaced by Matteo Renzi the young mayor of Florence who wants a Blairite renewal of the party; Grillo will have had a short spell in or close to power and Monti will have to decide whether to carry on in politics.

It will be a bumpy ride for all of them and the rest of Italy.

A slightly modified version of this was published by the BBC Bumpy ride ahead for Italy after indecisive election

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


There is village near Agrigento called Kaos, made famous by a Pirandello short story. Now the chaos has spread from Sicily to the whole country and risks going beyond into the rest of Europe.

Opinion polls and reason both suggested that Italy’s best interest was served by a solid, not very imaginative and slightly less severe continuation of last year’s Mario Monti-led reformist government. One which would have led Italy out of recession into not quite green and verdant pastures but at least something more comfortable.

Instead, Italian voters rewarded the two great showmen of Italian politics, both populists and mystifiers, the 76 year old Silvio Berlusconi and the 64 year old Beppe Grillo. Starting more or less from the right and the left their promises and protests convinced more than half the population to vote for them. The electoral system means that the centre left which polled a mite more than Berlusconi will have a big majority in the the Chamber, the lower house but no one will have a majority in the Senate. So the country which most needs stability will not have a government that lasts for more than a few months.

Ethically, politically, ideologically and personally there is no way that a lasting coalition can be formed so new elections seem inevitable. The new Parliament will assemble on 15 March and elect their speakers. Then President Napolitano will consult with party leaders and go through the arcane ritual of government formation. Unless there is some very unusual alchemy between now and then, he will have to ask the PD’s Pierluigi Bersani to try to put together a majority in the Senate. He will not be able to so at best, he or someone else will act as caretaker to elect a new president (elected by both houses and due to begin on 15 April) who will then call new elections.

This is a revolution with two groupings led by a single man controlling the destiny of a country and indirectly a continent. Grillo’s Five Star Movement has now spokesman or clear mechanism for deciding on policy – it might dissolve in a few weeks, it might develop an independent statute or it might stay under Grillo’s direct control.

And when Italians go back to vote maybe in June, maybe in Autumn, if the older parties don’t succeed in addressing the issues, then the populists will do even better, the cost of Italy’s debt will spiral out of control and the whole euro system will be threatened. Chaos.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Twitter Conclave

It is not only Benedict XVI who has revolutionised the Roman Catholic Church with his resignation.

Next month’s conclave has already been conditioned by the scandals that Benedict was not able to clean up and which were certainly one of the reasons for his abdication. I was asked this morning (top left) what effects this would have on the Church and the conclave – difficult in a few soundbites, but a clear and short answer came a couple of hours later.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned as cardinal and as primate of Scotland because of allegations of what he called “inappropriate behaviour” in the 1980s. He was due to turn 75 next month so might have had to step down during the conclave just for age but because of the suggestion of sexual misconduct, he decided not to even take part in the conclave in order to avoid speculation and pressure on his fellow cardinals.

There is a hint of Agatha Christie in the pre-conclave moves. There were 117 cardinals with voting rights when Benedict announced his resignation. The Indonesian Cardinal Darmaatmadja, said he would not be coming for health reasons. Then O’Brien resigned… and then there were 115. We know that American catholics have been putting pressure on Cardinal Roger Mahony not to attend the conclave. He is alleged to have covered up sex abuse in the diocese of Los Angeles and it will be interesting to see if he continues to take no notice of his critics but O’Brien’s move must weigh heavily on him.

This comes after a week of speculation on a secret report by three cardinals on the Vatican scandals. Concita De Gregori wrote in La Repubblica that there was a homosexual lobby (it was not clear if the “lobby” was just gay or whether what was really meant was pedophile – perhaps not a huge difference in the Vatican but outside the difference between one and the other is 10 years in gaol quite apart from the social condemnation). Nothing was quoted explicitly from the report which in theory at least has only been seen by the three authors and the pope. Though as David Moynihan pointed out, all the witnesses knew what they said and almost certainly confered with each other.

Then came the Vatican’s condemnation of press speculation aimed at conditioning the conclave… a rather futile hope as there are more cameramen and commentators than tourists braving the rain and sleet around St. Peter’s today.

The Vatican and the whole of the Roman Catholic Church is going through its own clash of civilisations and clash of generations.

The heirarchy has always maintained a tight grip on information and the behaviour of its people. They were able to present the Paolo Gabriele case as “Vatileaks” as if the scandal was the leaks and not the content of the leaks. Shoot the messenger was the result even if Gabriele got off lightly. The only way to stop speculation is to publish the Three Cardinals’ Report and to discuss Vatican banking policy in public. But that is not going to happen.

At the same time, Cardinal Mahony is tweeting and blogging and the pope himself tweets (or at least has a Twitter account). They are using social media and all the other media to push their own message but baulk at the idea that other Catholics (or non-Catholics) can use the same methods. But they are already using these media – the sex abuse victims themselves use the web to share their experiences and work out what strategies to use.

So that even though the Vatican would like to have the Kremlin’s control of the media, they cannot match the Soviet Union’s firepower (or Putin’s for that matter). This means there is much scope for change in the form and substance of the conclave, and even more so in what will follow.

Another question this morning was what can the Church do to overcome its difficulties – the Curia has always run the Roman Church’s government but in the last 30 years they have had a much freer hand than before. For the first part of John Paul II’s reign he was more concentrated on his own Poland and the rest of the world, then his illness and decline meant that he had no energy for internal reform. Benedict started his reign with intentions to at least address the sex abuse scandals if not the banking problems (the two biggest issues) but he did not have resolve to get to the bottom of them nor the political ability to manoeuvre the Curia.

It will take an able and highly manipulative (in the good sense and bad) pope to put the barque of St. Peter back onto a clear course. There eminences will indeed be looking for a much more political and energetic man to take over and since all of them were appointed by conservatives, they will likely appoint another conservative. But he will have to deal with pressure from the Catholic faithful and the media, like Cardinal O’Brien.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Uncertain Italian Elections

The last few elections in Italy have been fairly easy to predict – not always the details but the big picture. There were two blocs and one was going to win; the only doubt was by how much and whether the winner in the lower house would have a working majority in the Senate.

With six players on the field, the geometry and the tactics become very complicated.

The first unknown is the weather. It is snowing in much of central Italy and more is expected tomorrow in the centre and the north. It is raining here in Rome and heavy rain and some storms are forecast for tomorrow for the south. This means that those who are politically less committed or physically less able might not make the effort to go and vote which will weigh more heavily on Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) whose voters tend to be both older and until December certainly, were more fed up than others. It will give an edge to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) whose supporters are extremely fired up and are younger.

Campaigning stopped at midnight last night, the idea being that voters should have a “day of reflection” today and go and vote tomorrow and Monday morning but there is plenty of comment on the web and in all the media.

The last day was marked by M5S filling piazza S. Giovanni in Rome. The crowd was thin at the beginning as candidates and councillors paraded across the stage telling the crowd what they had done or what they would do when elected, a sort of oral tweet which certainly did not allow any of them to show depth but did show how young most of them are and how little experience they had of the political game, qualities which the movement emphasises.

By the time Grillo appeared the crowd had swelled to fill the whole square; the organisers claimed 800,000 people, certainly it was a lot of people and full of adulation. They are talking of polling more than 20% and it is certainly extraodinary the sort of unlikely people who say they will vote for Grillo.The majority are indeed younger disillusioned left wing voters but there are a good number of older ex-Berlusconi people.

Once again, Italy has invented a new form of politics…

The other two closing rallies were damp squibs in comparison. Pierluigi Bersani held his in a medium sized Roman theatre with the only novelty being Nanni Moretti’s endorsement. Ten years Moretti had been the establishment left’s sternest critic when he publicly lambasted the then leaders Walter Veltroni and Massimo D’Alema. His presence was useful for Bersani but hardly an election-clincher.

Berlusconi didn’t even turn up to the PdL’s final rally in Naples pleading conjunctivitis.

The likely result is still that the PD and its allies will win the relative majority in the Chamber which with the electoral system’s premium will give them an automatic 55% of the seats (340/630) and will take the relative majority in Senate which will not translate in a majority of the seats because the premium is give on a regional basis. The bigger choice means that an absolute majority is much more difficult today compared to 2006 or 2008 as Roberto D’Alimonte explained yesterday. He shows that the PdL cannot win a majority in the Senate (they would have to win the “red” regions of the centre which is impossible) but that a PD or even a PD-Monti alliance would not necessarily guarantee a working majority.

The uncertainty and potential instablity are the product of the electoral system and some campaign bricks dropped.

Two days ago Mario Monti declared that Chancellor Merkel would not be happy with a PD victory. She leads a centre-right party and has an election later this year so it is probable that she would prefer not to have another centre-left government among the top European players… but she is not going to say so and indeed her spokesman corrected Monti saying, not surprisingly, that the Chancellor does not take sides in other countries. Monti was left with egg on his face or worse because if there is one thing that Italians (and the rest of Europe) cannot stand, it is being told that the Germans are running the show. Today Basil Fawlty would say “don’t mention the spread” or the Deutschmark… I mean the Euro. Monti’s share of the poll was already declining, the remark has pushed it down further but it is not clear who might gain: Bersani, Berlusconi, even Grillo, or more likely, the abstentions.

Another own goal came from the only real free market economic liberal, Oscar Giannino who was forced to admit that he had lied about an MA from Chicago and indeed about his Italian laurea. It should be obvious that someone who campaigns on a platform of honesty and transparency shouldn’t fake his curriculum… but apparently not.

The electoral system sets thresholds for entry into the two houses: in the Chamber it is 4% for a single party, 10% for a coalition of two or more. This means that Giannino is very unlikely to make it (and was fairly unlikely even before his lies were published). Rivoluzione Civica, led by Sicilian prosecutor, Antonio Ingroia, also risks not making the 4% minimum. Both are trying to persuade their potential voters that supporting them is not a wasted votes while the PD and PdL argue the opposite. Berlusconi has even tried to convince wavering centre and centre-right voters that Monti’s coalition will not make 10% so that too would be a wasted vote.

In the Senate, the thresholds are doubled which means that only the four bigger parties have any serious chance of winning seats. In both houses there is plenty of scope for tactical voting with a large number of voters still undecided. There will be a lot of reflection in Italy today.

The different scenarios have been well laid by The Guardian. And La Repubblica lays out its 10 alternatives.

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

Friday, February 22, 2013

Italian elections… some possible outcomes

A pessimistic reader, Jurassic Dark, (one who knows Italy well) sent me these questions after my last Electionwatch blog. The last few days have not changed their relevance, if anything, they have increased the worries:
The three scary questions are the following:

1. Is a scenario of the Italian Papandreou sitting in Chigi and the Troika sitting in the Via Veneto hotels (instead of The Grande Bretagne on Syntagma square) “straight jacketing the country into submission”... a likely possibility? and if not, why not?
2. What exactly is the red line that Monti and Vendola have drawn themselves for (not) getting into bed together?
3. Is the MPS v. Finmeccanica judicial inquiry the harbinger of a demolition derby between the Right and the Left fighting for the last bastions of liquidity for their campaign costs? What’s left after the smoking ruins?
If you dare answer, I will be reading!

They are indeed scary questions but the answers, I think are a little more reassuring though as election day draws near, my optimism is waning slightly. Still, there are cultural and structural reasons to think that the Greek Tragedy is not a model for an Italian one.

Despite the theatre of Italian politics (Berlusconi and Grillo are expert performers), much of it is just that, theatre. Berlusconi presumably does not take off his pancake makeup even when he goes to bed; Grillo doesn’t make up even when he’s on stage but stays in character on and off the stump. The others though are much more pragmatic and Bersani has said explicitly that he will mediate between Monti and Vendola.

To answer Jurassic’s question, the red line is “reform” on Monti’s side and “growth and job security” on Vendola’s, aims which are not incompatible and can be fudged. The threat of that EU troika holding court in Via Veneto will be enough to persuade both of them to come to terms. The troika itself (if it ever reached via Veneto) has far fewer reasons to “straight jacket the country into submission” as the debt is under control now just because Monti has already applied a straitjacket and Monte dei Paschi notwithstanding, the banks are still sound. This could change, though, if Berlusconi were to win or if no one were to win.

The most serious worry is not so much a red line imposed either by Monti or Vendola but one created by the numbers themselves. Monti’s share is definitely declining – Berlusconi tries to make out that he is in free fall, I doubt it but he is certainly closer to 10% than 15%. A Berlusconi victory was never a serious threat and now seems to be receding with some of the bootleg polls suggesting that he might even come third after Grillo. Certainly his rhetoric is directed more at Grillo that the others and my own very unscientific observations suggest that a lot of very unlikely people are considering voting for Grillo.

So the troika will not be on the first plane on Tuesday morning but a lot of European capitals are concerned for the moment.

The MPS and Finmecanica scandals are not closely and exclusively enough linked to single parties to make an all out war useful. MPS is on the centre-left in Siena but has connections with the PdL and other parties at the Tuscan and national levels. There are allegations that the PdL’s former coordinator, Denis Verdini was part of the power play over the bank and the bribe charges against the Finmecanica boss are also not well focussed politically. So there is unlikely to be slogging match between PD and PdL over the two organisations but there will certainly be major manoeuvres on party financing after the elections especially if there over 100 Grillo parliamentarians.

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

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

Berlusconi’s comeback, Bersani-Monti Coalition prospects and Grillo.

There are recurring questions in these elections. These were put to me by a Bulgarian journalist, Marin Dushev from Capital but many others have asked similar one:

Just a few months ago Silvio Berlusconi seemed to be all but a political corpse and it was believed that both he and his party were already history. Still opinion polls show that his coalition gains some considerable support of 28 % [some give the PdL even more]. How could this be explained? How much leverage will Berlusconi have in the next parliament?

Berlusconi's comeback is the stuff of political legend and the reason for his success is one of commonest questions asked and most difficult to answer satisfactorily.

But here are some answers. He was and still is a consumate showman; he has performed well and persuasively as a salesman, singer and politician. His message has faded as the promises have not been fulfilled but there are
still a significant number of Italians who are attracted by it. Very few of them seriously believe that their IMU property tax will be reimbursed by April (or ever). This morning Berlusconi sent a fake reimbursement form to 9 million Italians; it purports to give the bearer the right to a tax credit in a bank or post office but I doubt that many will actually try and use it. Nor do his supporters seriously believe he will build the bridge across the Straits of Messina (which he promised 12 years ago) or 4 million new jobs (it was one million 12 years).

A few of them, mostly men but even some women, like him for his lifestyle and example - the older he gets, the more hair he has, the few wrinkles and the more girls but the thick pancake makeup is ever more visible and girls
more tawdry so that message is not the main winner.

The one that succeeds is certainly not subliminal and is almost explicit. Berlusconi's Italy is one where the rules are flexible, at least of some, the furbi or smart guys. Tax rules, building rules, business rules. While Monti and Bersani are boring and threaten to make rules and apply them. Last week Berlusconi complained at prosecutors who arrested the Finmecanica chief for paying bribes. He said that in some countries bribes were an essential part of doing business. He meant India but could have been referring to some parts of Italy. Then he backtracked and said he didn't mean it… but the message was clear. Yesterday he called the judiciary "a cancer" - strong language but he had called some of them "a metastesis" in the past. He is convinced that he should have no bridle.

Three other reasons for his relative success - he is doing hugely better than his December polls of c. 15% but still way behind the 2008 poll of 38% - are Italy's solid conservative majority, Berlusconi's resources and the
division of the opposition.

For most of the 20th century and still today, the majority of Italians are tendentially conservative and only rarely have expressed a centre-left government. Berlusconi taps into the vein which is always there. In the past, he waved the "communist" frightener, today it is Vendola and the radical left.

Then he has immense media resources and uses them to great effect.

Finally, in the past and still today, the left, centre-left and centre have always been bickering and divided and in contrast, Berlusconi has been able to reunite the centre-right which without was even more fractious that the others.

As for leverage, Berlusconi needs a presence in Parliament to look after his media interest and to try and condition his trials. If there is indeed a Bersani-Monti coalition, he will have some power to condition parliamentary and government business but any serious wrecking tactics will be difficult because they would make him look like Grillo. And of course, if he loses, he will withdraw again and then the PdL will begin to disintegrate once again and they will go back to where they were before Christmas

How are the relations between the Democratic Party and Mario Monti's Block developing since he announced he will join politics? Will they be able to form a stable coalition?

Monti, Bersani and Vendola have been marking their territory and identifying their differences in order to increase their own share of the poll but they have been careful not to be too rude about each other so as not to make a coalition impossible after the elections. Monti has been careful to only exclude policies not people and leave the door open to a possible united programme of government.

Many say that PD's Bersani faces the risk of internal opposition from within his party if he tries to continue Monti's policies. How determined and how capable will the next Italian government to implement reforms?

The PD are in a similar position to the British Labour Party in the '90s. They have been in opposition for long enough to be prepared to make just about any effort not to rock the boat. Vendola for his part is a pragmatic politician who governs are difficult and diverse region, Apulia compromising where necessary (some say too much in his management of the Taranto steelworks where the environment has been sacrificed for jobs). There will be and is already opposition to some of Monti's measures from the PD's economics spokesman, Stefano Fassina but Bersani takes his strength from the primaries which elected him.

Has Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement reached its maximum in terms of public support? How have they developed in terms of party structure? How will they look in the next Parliament?

For the time being, they have certainly reached a ceiling - but we don't know exactly what it is. It could be as much as 20%. They still have no party structure and the only decisionmaking process is what Grillo himself thinks. In Parliament, they have three alternatives: they can give themselves a structure and rules and develop policies and tactics or they will do exactly what Grillo tells them to do or they will melt into the other Parliamentary groups (and Berlusconi has already hinted that he might be moving into the transfer business again). Since there could well be 100 of them, it is possible that they might do all three. The only thing that is is that initially, they will make a lot of noise in Parliament, they keep very, very close tabs on what their colleagues do and will be highly critical. The medium term, though, is impossible to predict.

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

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Girlfriend in a Coma" to be screened at the American University of Rome

the The Department of International Relations of the American University of Rome presents a special screening of

“Girlfriend in a Coma"


Annalisa Piras (Director & Writer) and Bill Emmott (Presenter & Co-Writer)

followed by a discussion

Auriana Auditorium, Via P. Roselli, 16, 00153 Rome
Friday, February 22nd 15.00 – 17.30

As part of its mission to encourage open debate and cross cultural discussion, the American University of Rome is happy to screen Bill Emmott and Annalisa Piras’ controversial documentary “Girlfriend in a Coma”. The film was due to be screened last week at Rome’s Maxxi Museum of Contemporary Art but the Museum president, Giovanna Melandri, cancelled the screening “in order not to host events with political implications”. We are fully aware that any discussion of social problems is "political" but nor the debate that has accompanied it is partisan towards or against a party or movement. Elections are a time of choice and this screening will be a moment when Italians and their friends can debate those choices.
Emmott and Piras will present their film and discuss it afterwards at the AUR Auriana Auditorium, Via Pietro Roselli 16, 00153 Rome at 15.00 on Friday 22 February. The screening is free but booking is necessary

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Winnie the Pope, The Most Revolutionary of Them All.

Even before he was elected Pope, Joseph Ratzinger never had a reputation for radical thinking or doing. In the 1960s he flirted briefly with some of the more liberal ideas that were in the air including those of Hans Küng but the phase soon passed. For the rest of his career as priest, university teacher, bishop and then pope he was steady and conservative, stolid, even.

He was billed as an intellectual with a sharp mind and fine intelligence. John Allen’s biography of Cardinal Ratzinger was subtitled “the Vatican’s enforcer” and it was easy to give him nicknames like Gottweiler (a variant on “Mastino di Dio” applied to various cardinals and crusaders). But in practice he was better known for the bricks he dropped like the 2006 Regensburg address or his handling of the Holocaust denying bishop Williamson in 2010. The internal Vatican divisions which became public with the Vatileaks affair showed how incapable he was in dealing with political shenanigans of the Roman Curia. At the beginning of his reign, he said he would clean up the Church after the scandals of pedophile priests and episcopal cover-ups but the cover-ups continue and the wound is still there. Some critics went much further “utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf and a protector of priests who abused children” wrote one American Catholic.

Benedict implicitly admitted his lack of political savoir faire in his speech at the Wednesday audience when he criticised ambitious and careerist priests and said explicitly that he was no longer up to the job.

More than God’s Mastiff, he is Winnie the Pope especially now that he has abdicated, he comes across as bumbling, well-meaning but ineffectual.

Winnie the Pooh was a “bear of little brain” because he had difficulties with the alphabet but he was extremely able to weave fruitful relationships with the other denizens of the 100 acre wood. Joseph Ratzinger in contrast, has every skill as a scribe but lacks the understanding and energy to see and then face the political difficulties inherent in the job of a Roman Pontiff (a feature which makes him all the more attactive, by the way).

This lacklustre pontificate, though, could well signal the most revolutionary moment in the history of the Church of Rome. Certainly since another humble German priest, one Martin Luther, nailed his theses to the cathedral door in 1517.

With his abdication, he has changed not just the face but the substance of the Roman Catholic church. Even though the possibility of a pope stepping down was introduced in a 1983 Canon Law reform, Benedict’s predecessor made it abundantly clear in his words and above all in his actions that the papacy was for life. John Paul’s illness and decline were extremely public; at no stage was he going to renounce his position even when he was no longer able to carry out its duties. There was a mediæval element to the final years of Karol Woytila’s pontificate which contrasted starkly with the modernity of his methods.

Woytila was the man who brought the Vatican and the papacy into the 20th century media. He made them global not just in followers and ideas which they had been since the 16th century but in image. He used the panoply of the media to project the message which in his case was a very conservative one. He was also contradictory in his political abilities; always a strong player able to control and lead the curia he lost all control by refusing to give up. At the end of his reign, paradoxically, he was completely unpolitical.

In contrast, Benedict XVI was unpolitical during his reign but his exit has made him a quintessentially political figure. By abdicating, he has broken the transcendental nature of the papacy. He is no longer God’s Vicar – instead he is a man with a job and in his case, an old and frail man who feels that his duty is to the job and the institution rather than to a unseen link with the deity based on faith. Paradoxically for a man who has written and spoken so much about Faith and who has designated this year as “Year of Faith”, he has behaved like an agnostic.

With that wall down, anything is possible.

This does not mean that there will be married priests by Christmas and women priests next year. The Vatican is a very conservative institution and all the men who will elect the new pope were appointed by two arch conservatives but Joseph Ratzinger has shown himself to be a subversive and there are certainly others out of the 117 cardinals who will assemble next month.

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

Friday, February 15, 2013

Who will rid me of those meddlesome magistrates?

In Henry II’s time it was much easier to deal with the other institutional powers in the country. The sovereign was indeed sovereign and a nod from him was enough to send four faithful knights off to Canterbury to kill Thomas à Becket, the “meddlesome priest” who argued that even the king was subject to law. Henry solved the political conflict but had to deal with his conscience for the rest of his life.

Italian politicians cannot solve their institutional conflicts quite so summarily but they manage to avoid the conscience hangover.

These last few days have seen a spate of arrests, indictments and verdicts involving politicians directly or people closely involved with the political parties. With just over a week to go before the elections, the predictable reaction has been that the judiciary is taking an active part in the campaign.

First the list, at least of the loudest cases.

On Tuesday, the CEO of Finmecanica, Giuseppe Orsi, one of Italy’s biggest companies, was arrested on charges of bribery and fraud in a helicopter deal with the Indian military. There are suggestions that both the previous government which appointed Orsi and Monti who confirmed him did not exercise due diligence over the publically owned business; the indictment argues that Finmecanica had developed a “culture of bribery”. Paolo Scaroni, the CEO another state owned company, SAIPEM, is being investigated for bribery in a gas deal with the Algerian government.

Yesterday, the film producer and husband of a PdL deputy, Angelo Rizzoli was arrested on charges of fraud and criminal bankruptcy. Today, the former president of Monte de’ Paschi (MPS), Giuseppe Mussari was questioned by Siena prosecutors. Mussari has been charged with various offences and the MPS has always had a close relationship with parties of the left.

Directly political, the outgoing president of the Lombardy regional government, Roberto Formigoni from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) has finally been charged with corruption after months of investigation. He is alleged to have taken expensive holidays and other favours in return for giving public health service contracts. Lombardy is the key region for the Senate election race as well as being the biggest and richest in the country.

And then there are two convictions.

One is not a party political matter but certainly concerns the relationship between state powers. The Italian secret service chief, Nicolò Pollari has been given a 10 year sentence for his part in the kidnapping and extraordinary rendition of the Milanese imam abu Omar in 2003. The CIA operatives who carried out the kidnapping have already been convicted in absentia. Successive governments have accused the prosecutors of disclosing state secrets but so far the tussle between government and courts has not been resolved definitively.

The other conviction is much more straightforward. The former PdL minister, Rafaele Fitto was given four years for taking a €500,000 bribe from Giampaolo Angelucci who was given health service contracts and who has already been sent down for three and a half years for corruption. Fitto is top of the list of the PdL candidates for Apulia.

Fitto’s immediate reaction was that his sentencing had been timed to coincide with the elections. Silvio Berlusconi condemned all the verdicts and investigations apart from MPS. “General Pollari’s conviction is alarming; it means that Italy can’t have a secret service which defends out interests… The normal relationship between the powers has blown up. The Magistrature is ruining Italy with Jacobin behaviour”. “Jacobin” is a favorite insult implying Robespierre and the guillotine. Yesterday he even went as far as saying that since paying bribes is normal in certain parts of the world, the judges were harming Italian interests by prosecuting Italians. His Northern League ally, Roberto Maroni condemned bribe taking and this morning Berlusconi backtracked saying that he did not support breaking the law but he has already suggested that he would re-introduce immunity from prosecution for members of parliament.

The nub of the problem is that there are just so many suspected cases of misbehaviour by politicians and and potentially illegal relationships between politicians, parties and business that whenever a prosecutor indicts a suspect of a judge passes sentence, there will always be some politician who claims that he is being targeted by judges. At most, what is happening now is that some magistrates might be shifting the papers on their desks just a little more quickly or more slowly than otherwise; the media then amplify what suits their political bosses. The whole, both the substance and the way it is spun, is not very edifying.

This week’s clutch of indictments and convictions is just further evidence of how problems are allowed to fester for years until the courts are the only institution left to intervene so the clash between the courts and politicians in the executive and legislature is inevitable.

Berlusconi makes no bones about wanting to be rid of the meddlesome magistrates but many others think it.

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

An Italian history lesson for Mali

Today we learn that the city of Gao which was supposed to have been retaken by French and Malian forces is still very much threatened by the insurgents and we have long known that the terrain in the north of the country is favourable to them.

Even before the Gao counterattack, there was been a lot of talk about how the Malian situation is going to turn into “another Afghanistan”… or not… Iraq, Libya and Syria are also invoked as possible models for understanding Mali and deciding on a course of action.

There is another precedent which should help us disentangle the Saharan conflict.

In 1911, Italy invaded the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Their initial military objectives were easily won as the Turkish forces were outnumbered, outgunned and out-equipped; they could not match the Italian navy so had difficulty sending reinforcements to the small garrisons.
The war on the coast against the regular army lasted less than a year with Italy annexing the two provinces. In the east, the leader of the Senussi, first Sayid Ahmed el-Sherif and his followers fought with the Turks and when they surrendered, he took to the desert and for almost 20 years he and his successor, Omar al Mukhtar (above left, after capture) made life very difficult for the would-be imperialists.

Despite overwhelming force and technical superiority, the Italians were unable to control more than a few outposts away from the coastal strip. They had aeroplanes, motor vehicles, machine guns, artillery and radio and there were usually ten times more Italian troops than Senussi. It’s the same old story from the original guerrilleros in the Peninsular war to the Boers to the Viet Cong. An overwhelming force of well-equipped troops is no match for small numbers of less well-armed committed fighters that know their terrain and have the sympathy of the civilian population.

Mukhtar was in his 60s when he took over command of the Senussi forces and as well as being a respected Koranic scholar, he was a guerrilla leader of genius. He was only defeated after Rodolfo Graziani began to use brutal anti-civilian measures. A fence was built between Egypt and Libya to close the escape route and prevent food and supplies coming through. Much more serious was the deportation and internment. The two most eminent historians of the Italian colonial experience in Libya, Angelo Del Boca and Giorgio Rochat calculated that around 100,000 were deported from Cyrenaica and Rochat uses the word “genocide” when he calculates the death toll as between 30,000 and 70,000 from a total population of 200,000 alone before the war and before these measures.

The uprising was only quelled in 1931 when Mukhtar was wounded, captured and then hanged. The French and Malian forces cannot afford to use Graziani’s methods.

In 1934, the two provinces were united with the sparsely populated desert area of Fezzan and together became the new colony of Libya.

The terrain and balance of forces make some comparison between Cyrenaica and Mali valid. The insurgents in Mali were able to outgun the almost non-existent Malian army but when faced with French forces, they dissolved into the desert without firing a shot. This is why David Cameron reckoned that the problem could be around for “decades”.

But there are many differences between the two campaigns. For a start, the insurgents are divided in Mali with local, Tuareg, Islamic radicals fighting alongside Arabs, mostly foreign. In the early days, after the coup in April last year, they were also fighting with secular Turaregs looking for their own state. Indeed, the new state of “Azawad” was proclaimed by the Azawad National Liberation Movement for but no one recognised it. At the time, our top student was a Tuareg, born in Mali but now stateless (“I am not Malian, I am Tuareg”) who was very excited and for a time was convinced that he and his people had a country. The secular Tuaregs could well provide desert knowledge to fight their erstwhile allies. In a classroom exercise a month ago, we solved the problem by devising a new Berber state made up of parts of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Libya. Then we came back to reality.

Worse for the insurgents, they are far from having civilian support as Omar al Mukhtar certainly did. Not only is there the division between Tuareg and Arab, and Berbers further north, between foreigners and locals, between sub-Saharan Africans and the northerners, there is also a division between the radical Muslims and the much more relaxed Malians.

But if the insurgents are divided, their opponents are even more so. Until the French intervention in January, Mali’s neighbours in ECOWAS were full of words but competed with each other as to who could put procrastinate better and longer. I was in Ghana with students then and our speakers from the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were very clear they did not want to get involved in the conflict and nor did their other ECOWAS partners.

On our side of the Mediterranean, there is little more unity. Barbara Spinelli recently noted Germany’s and Italy’s pointed silence on the Malian situation . The outgoing Italian government did want to at least give logistic support to the French operation in Mali but could not persuade the parties to declare themselves. As in the Libyan crisis two years ago, Italy has been much more quiet than its interests warrant. There is an historical lesson that the Italian experience can give the world but Italy too can learn from its own experience in the recent past and decide on a position.

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 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

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Memory and forgetting on the Italian-Yugoslav border

Today is the “Day of Remembrance” (Giorno del ricordo) in which Italy remembers the Italians either killed or forced to leave Yugoslavia at the end of World War II.

The ceremony was started in 2004 with a law supported by most of the Parliament and today has become part of the calendar with an accepted narrative based on two points: the communist Yugoslav partisans killed and expelled Italians and secondly, that for decades, the Italian mainstream of history, politics and education ignored what had happened.

Both are true, but they are only part of the truth and for the wellbeing of Italy and Europe too, the rest of the story (and history) should become part of the narrative too.

Today’s commemoration is itself a sleight of hand. It comes two weeks after the “Day of Memory” (Giorno della memoria) which commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz and the victims of the Shoah. The name and date of the commemoration implicitly evoke some sort of comparison. Some on the far right make it explicit calling the foibean Italian Holocaust”, an obscene piggybacking of horror which was also used to justify the very institution of the “Day of Remembrance”.

The then minister for Communications, Maurizio Gasparri spoke of “millions” being killed in the foibe, an insult not only to history but to the victims of the foibe themselves and the other victims of World War II.

For the numbers, the usually accepted figure for those who left is 350,000 and for those killed and thrown into the carsic caves, the foibe, the number is usually reckoned to be between 5,000 and 15,000.
By any standards, this was a massacre and an exodus.

But… and this is where the “Day of Remembrance” is specious apart from any comparison with the Nazi exterminations,… there had been other massacres, internments and attempts to remove “alien” cultures over the previous 25 years in what the Roman empire called the “Julian March”, the north-eastern borders of Italy.

Even before Mussolini came to power, liberal Italy started to “Italianise” the areas conquered in the World War I from Trieste to Istria and then to Dalmatia all of which had been culturally, linguistically and religiously very mixed. The bureaucracy, schools, even names and road signs became Italian. When World War II began, so did the round-ups, reprisals and concentration camps. In the whole of Yugoslavia, the war was particularly brutal. In the Italian occupied areas, civilians were killed as reprisals for the deaths of Italian soldiers and thousands were put in concentration camps. The two most notorious were on the island of Rab (Arbe) and at Gonars in Friuli. The internees were not just able-bodied men who were potential partisans but old men, women and children. The monthly death rate, based on Italian figures, was around 3%. One Slovenian historian and survivor, reckoned that some 7,000 died in Rab and Gonars.

Oblivion is not healthy for society but selective memory is worse. In 1987 when I was working on a documentary on Kurt Waldheim’s war record, I got in touch with Vladko Velebit, a former Yugoslav partisan, a comrade and friend of Tito’s hoping to get evidence of Italian and German reprisals and war crimes. He admitted that there had indeed been reprisal killings but did not want to talk about them and certainly not in a controversial way. Within two years of the war ending, as a diplomat, he had negotiated treaties with Italy regulating everyday matters like coastal access and fishing. He and his Italian opposite numbers wanted to rebuild their countries and the relations between them. Forty years later, he did not want to open any can of worms. The Italians too, Communists and Christian Democrats for different reasons did not want to rake over the past though the Istrian exiles and the extreme right kept the story alive.

Today, with one Yugoslav successor state in the EU, another joining this year and the others in the queue, we are all Europeans. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not actually help “reconciliation” but a recognition by the Italian authorities and inclusion of the Italian crimes in the Julian March in school syllabi alongside the story of the foibe and Istrian exiles, is not only overdue but would be another small step towards European integration.

As a good European, President Napolitano will have to do better than making a feeble mention of “the more complex business of the north eastern border” in his speech today remembering the Italian victims (“and all the foibe victims” he does admit that there were others but the Yugoslavs, Russians and others are not mentioned as categories).

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 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

Friday, February 08, 2013

Electionwatch 11. Tactics, polls and alliances.

It is unwise to learn your part when you are already centre stage… even unwiser to change parts. Mario Monti is too old to heed Polonius’ advice to his son “to thine ownself be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.

But he clearly is listening to Obama’s guru, David Axelrod, trying to soften his image and be a “man of the people”. This week, the austere technocrat-economist played the active grandad with children and crayons in a kindergarden and then cuddled a stray dog emulating Nixon and more recently Berlusconi – surely neither are his models?

For his part, Silvio Berlusconi sticks to his well-tried (and successful) character believing Hitler’s theory that people are more likely to believe the big lie than the small one. After promising “a million new jobs” in 2001, yesterday he promised four million but rather spoiled the effect by semi-retracting and saying it was just an “hypothesis”. The remark comes after his Sunday “shock announcement” that he would reimburse last year’s property tax, IMU, at his first cabinet meeting and cancel it in the future, at least for first houses. He has promised other “shock announcements” before the end of the campaign.

Another lie or at least a manipulation of the truth is his opinion poll that maintains he has reduced the gap between his own centre right coalition and Pierluigi’s centre left to less than 2% which if true would mean that he could win in the fortnight between now and the elections.

Other polls, less friendly to Berlusconi tell a different story. Renato Mannheimer in Corriere della Sera puts the gap at 7.5% (37.2 to 29.7 with Monti’s coalition at 12.9 and Bebbe Grillo’s Five Star Movment at 14.3) though Mannheimer’s data is inconclusive in the two key regions of Lombardy and Sicily which the centre-left must take to have a good chance of having a majority in the Senate. Ilvo Diamanti in La Repubblica is less optimistic for Bersani but still puts the gap at 5.5% (34.1 to 28.6 with Monti and Grillo both at 16).

The conclusion is that unless something extraordinary happens over the next fortnight, the centre-left will win the Chamber – their 32-35% will earn them 55% of the seats but will probably not win the Senate and so will need the support of Monti’s centre. A Monti-Bersani alliance was always on the cards but until this week, was never talked about out loud. As a minister, Bersani was far more of a reforming free marketeer than most of the centre-right; he shares much policy with Monti. Now they have taken the dangerous option of actually talking about a possible alliance.

To their left (Grillo and Ingroia) and to their right (Berlusconi) the message has always been that a vote for Monti is a vote for Vendola and vice versa. A Bersani-Monti alliance would give subtance to the message, a serious risk. The possible gain is that the policies and positions in a Bersani-Monti government are clarified and exorcised of their demonic undertones.

The PD’s economic spokesman (and probable minister), Stefano Fassina, has said that the economy is too crucial to be farmed out to a coalition ally – a personal and a party statement. But he is unlikely to prevent the formation of a government just because he is not given a cabinet post; in any case, there are ways of finessing both positions and policy. In the past, Italy had three economics ministries: budget, finance and treasury. There are still overlaps. There is space on social issues for Vendola; he would like to see gay marriage but would settle for civil unions and two days ago a senior Vatican official, Mons. Paglia opened towards the idea of legal protection for de facto couples though strenuously denied any opening towards gay marriage or even civil unions.

Will the odd couple of Monti and Bersani manage to maintain a government for more than a few months? Grillo has given them 6 months which is wishful thinking. My own guess is a little more optimistic though it too might be wishful thinking. External pressure from the markets, the ECB and the EU and internal ambition in the centre-left and fear of repeating the splits and collapse of the Prodi governments will hold the government together, maybe even for the full five years. Vendola is not Bertinotti whose ideological purity combined with internal bickerings brought down Prodi in 1999. Vendola is a pragmatic politician who has administered a big region pretty successfully on the whole and he is not going to blow his chances lightly.

On the other side, Monti is obviously not a man of the left and presumably his medium term goal is to establish a respectable Italian centre right, a 21st century Christian Democracy. At the moment there is some tension within the European Popular Party most of whose leaders have endorsed Monti but which still includes Berlusconi and his Popolo della Libertà (PdL). If the PdL does lose, then the most likely scenario is that Berlusconi finally steps down, the PdL fragments (as it was beginning to do in December before Berlusconi came back “onto the field”) with some of the rump going to Monti in time for next year’s European Parliament elections.

There is another question that seeks an answer as the campaign goes into the final straight: Grillo. The likely 100 or so grillini elected will have to learn parliamentary procedure very quickly (if I was an editor, I would assign a journalist to find out who the 100 will be and where they come from… maybe I should get a student to do it as I don’t think anyone else has done it). If they do not invent an institutional format quickly, they will dissolve quicker than the winter snows and it is not at all clear what form they might create.

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 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

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Censorship in Italy – “Girlfriend in a Coma”

In order not to “host events with political implications”, the director of Rome’s modern art gallery, the Maxxi, Giovanna Melandri has cancelled the screening a possibly controversial film.

The film is “Girlfriend in a Coma”, a new documentary by former Economist editor, Bill Emmott and the Italian documentary-maker Annalisa Piras. It is (apparently, because no one in Italy has actually seen it), an affectionate but damning picture of Italy’s decline over the last two decades. The guilty parties are many – the various governments of course, but not only… and whatever they say, it is hardly hot news.

Even if it was, the intention of avoiding controversy during an election seems somewhat misplaced. As Obama remarked of Bill Clinton’s protestations that he had smoked marijuana but not inhaled. “I thought that was the point”. I always thought that elections were the moment when democratic societies could and should let themselves go (sometimes excessively) and debate controversial issues. Isn’t that the point of elections? To compare points of view and responsibilities? And then decide.

Apparently not.

Before Christmas there was talk that the San Remo song festival (normally a hymn to banality) should be postponed because the hosts, Fabio Fazio and the comic, Luciana Littizzetto are notoriously critical of Berlusconi.

Just last week, a Milan court refused to postpone its hearings because the accused (Silvio Berlusconi) and his defence counsel (Niccolò Ghedini and Piero Longo) were busy in the election campaign… but the prosecution accepted the request. The court will go ahead with the hearings but has decided to postpone the verdict until after the elections. But wouldn’t the democratic process be better served if the Italian voters knew that a candidate for prime minister was either guilty or not guilty of creating slush funds for his companies?

In the case of the MAXXI censorship, there seem to be even less noble motives.

The museum president is the former Democratic Party minister of culture, Giovanna Melandri. She was appointed last year by the present minister, Lorenzo Ornaghi. The museum press release implies that it was the ministry that ordered the censorship something that the ministry has denied. According to La Repubblica, the British Embassy has become embroiled in the affair, trying to look after a Briton’s interest (Emmott) but also some European values like freedom of expression. The film presumably also criticises the left so could be embarrassing not only for Berlusconi. Il Fatto Quotidiano suggests that the ban is to protect Massimo D’Alema and other from the left from accusations of not having dealt with the conflict of interests issue.

The whole business smacks of rather petty covering of backsides and very petty politicking of favours.

But at the end of the day, it demonstrates why Freedom House rates the Italian media as “partly free”. We are a long way from North Korea but in the middle of the European Union, we shouldn’t even be thinking of that comparison.

I very much hope that Melandri will reconsider her decision, but if she doesn’t, the American University of Rome is more than happy to screen the film. Sadly, our campus was not designed by Zaha Hadid but our statute and mission not surprisingly, encourage controversy and debate.

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 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

Election Watch 10 – It’s not Cricket.

There is a spectre haunting Italy - the spectre of the Beppe Grillo, the Genoese comic turned populist leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S). For most of the autumn, the polls rated him as the second party after the Democratic Party (PD) and ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL), now he has slipped to third place as Berlusconi’s campaign has got into its stride but he maintains his lead over Mario Monti’s centrist coalition. An SWG poll for the RAI a couple of days ago gave Grillo an enormous 18% behind the centre-right’s growing 27.8, the centre-left’s sagging 32.8% and Mario Monti’s centrists stationary at 14%.

To add insult to injury, Grillo pipped the PD at the post to secure Piazza S. Giovanni for his final rally on 22 February. Pza S. Giovanni is normally the home of the left with great concerts on 1st May and mega-demonstrations for unions and the for the left wing parties. It’s the biggest square in Rome so Grillo risks looking silly if he doesn’t fill it but at the moment he feels the wind behind him and whatever else he is, he is still a great showman.

He’ll fill it and he terrifies the traditional parties. He has called his election campaign “Tsunami Tour” with the obvious implication that the tidal wave will swamp the traditional parties.

Grillo means cricket in Italian and the Italian association is with the Pinocchio character rather than the English summer sound of leather on willow. Beppe, though, is a long way from Collodi’s sage and cerebral character though he does reckon that he is telling the Italian people the home truths they don’t want to hear just like the cricket. Only he does it at full volume… all the time. Grillo’s stage persona was always over the top and if anything, his political persona is even more OTT.

He started off in politics in 2007 with a “Vaffa Day” (“Go fuck yourself day”), addressed at the political world. Hardly subtle. Yesterday for the first time he had to retract because he went too far; at a rally in Bologna he invited al Qaeda to carry out a surgical strike on the Italian Parliament “but before 25 Feb because we’ll be there then”. Moments later, he declared “I never said it”.

His definition of a dialogue is “I talk, you listen”. That goes for his rallies and for his blog. There isn’t much else; he is never interviewed and shuns television though now he has said that he might appear “but never on a talk show”. His management of the movement is more akin to the most centralised Communist parties. Rousseau’s “General Will” interpreted by Stalin.

When an M5S city councillor appeared on a talkshow last year, he laid into her furiously saying that she only went for a televisual orgasm. He added, without a hint of irony that “anyone who doesn’t like the movement, can leave”.

After the Democratic Party’s primaries, Grillo held his own. They were on line and the technical side was not open to inspection. There are no party rules, statutes or clarity in decisionmaking. The M5S already runs the northern city of Parma where the grillino, Federico Pizzarotti was elected mayor last year. They are the single biggest party in the Sicilian Regional Assembly. At their present poll ratings, they will have something like 100 members of Parliament (60-70 deputies, 30 senators) so they’re going to have to work out some sort of procedural rules if they want to have any effect.

Grillo and the M5S is only the latest of a long tradition of Italian populists from historical figures like Cola di Rienzo in Rome and Masaniello in Naples to the 1940s Uomo Qualunque (UQ), Everyman movement led by Guglielmo Giannini and more recently even the Radical Marco Pannella and the anti-corruption magistrate Antonio Di Pietro. They all set out against “the system” and “politics” but from very different starting points. Pannella and Di Pietro acted as the conscience of the political world. With 15% Grillo would be much more than a catalyst or yeast to the system.

A few weeks ago, when I said that Grillo came from the left, I got a shower of criticism from people of the left who baulked at seeing Grillo as an ideological bedfellow. But the M5S clearly begins with a criticism of the wealthy, the elite and the establishment with an aim to find a democratic and egalitarian consensus. Grillo appeals to those who are fed up with favoritism, clientelism and corruption, traditional battlecries of the left especially since the demise of the Communist Party.

But there is a right wing radicalism which Grillo also taps into. He has said that the “respectable” traditional politicians should thank him because the alternative is Hungary’s Jobbick or, worse, Greece’s Golden Dawn.
He made some moves to work with the neo-Fascist Casa Pound only to retreat rapidly but there were Casa Pound activists at yesterday’s Bologna rally. He has said that giving citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy is “senseless”. And last month he proposed that trades unions should be abolished and “we need a state with balls”. The remark sounds fascist but he qualified by saying that workers should own the businesses where they work. Journalist and sometime editor of Berlusconi’s papers, Vittorio Feltri one of the contrary court jesters, says that he will vote for Grillo.

This is the point (and danger) of Grillo. Like any populist, he has the ability to appeal to a wide swathe of the population. He is a child (and mirror image) of Silvio Berlusconi, born out of his television channels and their style; part of Italy’s digital populism.

Grillo’s technique is certainly not cricket and his style is hardly that of Collodi’s “talking cricket” but he does act like an angry Pinocchio, a little boy who won’t grow up.

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 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

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Monti, Tremonti and the Monte.

In Puccini’s La Bohème, the best aria for the philosopher, Colline is his farewell to his old coat, “vecchia zimarra”. He will stay below (and freeze) while the coat will climb “the sacred mountain”, the pawnshop, the sacro monte, or monte di pietà.

The oldest bank in the world, the once illustrious Monte de’ Paschi di Siena (MPS) began in 1472 as just that, a fund to help the city’s poor get back on their feet. It very soon became a foundation for the city’s wealth and for more than half a millenium the Monte has shared Siena’s joys and woes.

The Monte scandals now look like overwhelming the Italian election campaign and put Bersani and the Democratic Party’s victory at risk. They are also undermining Italian banks’ so far almost unsullied reputation for reliability.

The MPS is facing two major accusations both in the media and in the last few days also from prosecutors. The first is to have bought the Banca Antonveneta from the Banco Santander in 2007 at a grossly inflated price. Santander had bought the smaller Italian bank two months earlier for €6.6bn and sold it for €9bn, possibly more. There is a strong suspicion that a good part of the extra cost went in kickbacks.

The second problem is that in order to cover the cost of the operation, MPS went into high risk trading and filled its portfolio with toxic assets. These actions may or not be criminal but now a Roman prosecutor is investigating allegations that the bank illegally adjusted interest rates. One whistleblower has told investigators that there was a group of senior executives known as the “5% gang” because of the rake-off they took on the risky transactions.

There are now four prosecution offices looking into MPS, Trani, Rome, Siena and Milan with some high profile witnesses called. This week saw Ettore Gotti Tedeschi being questioned in Siena. Gotti Tedeschi was the president of the Vatican bank, the IOR until being forced to leave last year after allegations that the IOR was contravening European banking regulations. He was also Santander’s representative in Italy. After him was Gabriello Mancini, the president of the MPS Foundation, the actual owner of the bank.

President Napolitano has played fireman twice over the last couple of days, first with a long interview with the editor of the financial paper Sole-24 Ore and then in a ceremony with the Journalists’ Association. He wants to reassure the world and markets that Italian banking is sound and warn the media off from inflating the case. But it’s not an easy job.

The bank itself is in trouble so much so that it has been offered a government loan of almost €4 bn. This will have to be repaid with market interest rates and if it is not, all or part of MPS will be nationalised. The bank’s woes are a serious blow to the city where MPS had acted as a generous milch cow for decades. There wasn’t a social or sporting association or a contrada (the city’s 17 fundamental communities who compete in the twice yearly horse race but which focus the city for the whole year) which had not benefitted from MPS’s largesse. All that has stopped.

If the bank is rotten even partially, then the city’s political institutions cannot escape some taint. Like any public or semi-public institution in Italy, banks have a political colour. Siena has always been a city of the left, Communist and Socialist in the past, Democratic Party (PD) today. Not surprisingly in the middle of an election campaign, that whiff of corruption wafts way beyond the confines of Siena and has been used to hit Bersani and the PD.
For Italy’s banking system in general, if MPS is found to be full of toxic assets, there will be questions about other banks in a system where housing bubbles and junk bonds were supposedly non-existent. The Trani magistrates have already widened their investigations to include the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, BNP, Intesa Sanpaolo, Unicredit and Credem; they are looking into the possibility of fraud and usury. They are also looking into possible crimes committed by the regulatory agencies from the Bank of Italy and the Italian Banking Association (ABI) to the government and to the stock exchange regulator, the Consob. Even if the watchdogs are not guilty of crimes, there are certainly questions and doubts as to their vigilance and competence. Something untoward has been going on for almost six years and none of them picked it up.

Corriere della Sera’s Sergio Rizzo blamed all of them, including governments past and present, Mario Monti as prime minister over the last year, Giulio Tremonti as economics minister from 2008-11 and the regulators. This is why there has been a surprising silence over the whole affair. Tremonti sniped at his old antagonist, Mario Draghi who was Bank of Italy governor when the problem began but he could not cut deeply for fear of counter attacks about his lack of vigilance when he was in government. Berlusconi’s media swiped at the PD but he himself was silent and Bersani threatened that they would “tear apart” anyone who cast aspersions on the party “someone who abolishes the crime of false accounting cannot accuse others”.

For Puccini’s Bohemians, the “sacred mount” was a temporary salvation but there are problems when it is the Mount itself which is in hock and it will take more than a good aria and an old coat to save the MPS.

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 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