Monday, June 24, 2013

Ruby, Berlusconi and Bloomsday, on the day of judgement.

More interesting than the legal approach to the Ruby trial is the literary analysis, a week after 16 June, Bloomsday.

A couple of year’s ago, at a Bloomsday reading I was enthralled at the idea that the ever-prescient James Joyce had foreseen Berlusconi’s arrival and his friendship with Karima al Mahroug aka Ruby .
Berlusconi appears in Ulysses as the Commendatore Bacibaci Beninobenone, the doyen of the Friends of the Emerald Isle. The indication is almost explicit apart from the mistake in his title – Berlusconi is cavaliere not commendatore (a few rungs higher). But he is or would like to be full of kisses (baci) and for him everything is fine (benino) or even better (benone). Even the Friends of the Emerald Isle is full of significance (if you, like Joyce, have a dirty mind). FOTEI is the passato remoto of fottere (in Triestino as Joyce wrote Ulysses in Trieste, of course, which abhors double consonants), translated more or less politely as “I have screwed”.

As for the object of the verb, we have the reference in a book which Leopold finds Molly reading a book entitled
Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler's. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we'll break our sides. Families of them.

Berlusconi’s parties did not reveal any sado-masochistic pastimes (apart from a girl apparently dressed up as Ilda Boccassini, the prosecutor in the Ruby case), but a circus they certainly are as is the rest of the political scene. The double meaning of “ring” is something that B himself would appreciate but rather more crudely, and the “doped animals” are, I suppose, the longsuffering Italian electorate who are part of the spectacle. There are plenty of illustrations on the cellphones of the girls who took part in the parties and you can take your pick of who plays the “fierce Italian with the carriagewhip” or the “monster Maffei”. It could be the three defendants in the parallel Ruby case against the alleged organisers of the prostitution ring. Another performer in the circus is “Leo ferox, the Libyan maneater”, surely a reference to B’s erstwhile friend Qaddafi, who, according to Berlusconi introduced him to bunga-bunga. There is even a sinister reference to the end of Qaddafi “Block tackle and a strangling pulley will bring your lion to heel, no matter how fractious”

The conclusive proof that Joyce was referring to Berlusconi is in the passage where the members of the FOTEI have a fight (over whether St. Patrick’s day should be 8 or 9 March – after a major battle, they compromise on 17), the Commendatore is extricated from the wreckage and his “his legal adviser Avvocato Pagamimi” (a clear reference to his lawyer Nicolò Ghedini) gives “several hundred gold and silver watches” to the assembled company, a reference to Berlusconi’s habit of distributing Rolexes to friends and followers.

A couple of days after Bloomsday, Rupert Murdoch’s Irish Sun took advantage of the G8 north of the border to run their story, a scoop, they said, that Silvio Berlusconi is under investigation by the Garda for possible tax evasion. If that leads to a trial, we might have more Berlusconi in Ireland.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ruby – spinning in opposite directions

Tomorrow we will have a verdict in one of the two trials involving Karima el Mahroug aka Ruby. In one, the accused are the model agent, Lele Mora, the former journalist and anchor, Emilio Fede and the former Lombardy regional councillor, dental hygenist and lover of Silvio Berlusconi, Nicole Minetti. In the other, the accused is Berlusconi himself and this is the one that will come to judgement.

Last week, the Italian Constitutional Court turned down an appeal from Berlusconi which if it had been accepted would have prevented another case, the so-called Mediaset tax fraud case, from coming to judgement. If it does and if it goes against Berlusconi, he will be barred from holding public office for four years.

Not surprisingly, neither the Fede-Mora-Minetti trial nor the Mediaset verdict were given any coverage in the international media. In contrast, not surprisingly, the camera crews are already staking out the Milan Court, waiting for the Berlusconi Ruby verdict while most of the Italian media are not overly excited about it.

This is a reflection of media values and priorities and it’s a pity.

Obviously if an ex-Prime Minister of a major European, G8 country is convicted of abuse of power and having sex with an underage prostitute, it is a great story. Even if he’s acquitted, it’s a good story. It’s pretty straightforward; sex is sex after all (well, it isn’t, according to the law, but we can’t explain those intricacies in a 90 second piece, can we?) and abuse of power is just that, Berlusconi bullied a policeman into handing over Mahroug to a friend rather than the juvenile judge (that is what he accused of). We can be sure that whatever the verdict, it will lead tomorrow afternoon’s stories on most international sites.

Even if he is convicted, though, it will change almost nothing. Certainly it will be shocking to have a court say it explicitly rather than most people just thinking that he was a dirty old man but it is not as if Berlusconi had a serious reputation to lose. If anything it would confirm all the stereotypes held in Italy and abroad, in favour and against Berlusconi.

But it is the court of first instance and there are two more levels and may be five years to go and Berlusconi has always maintained that he is innocent until found guilty by the Supreme Court. We’ll have plenty more of Ruby. But for the moment, she is not going to influence the government.

The Mediaset case, on the contrary, is already exercising a very insidious pressure on the government. Last week one Berlusconi deputy threatened that there would a mass resignation of his party’s parliamentarians if the Mediaset verdict is upheld. The so-called doves in the party played down the threat but their good cop-bad cop routine is blatant. The nuclear option of bringing the government down and forcing early elections on the single issue of Berlusconi’s conviction is still there.

In the meantime, the negotiators are said to be at work; there is a real and ongoing overcrowding crisis in Italian gaols and the bill to deal with it is being discussed and there is another bill on security where an article might be added. One option is to include an article in one of these bills to raise the lower gaol sentence necessary for a bar on holding public office to be valid. At the moment, the bar to public office needs a 5 year minimum sentence (which is what Berlusconi has been given). If that is raised, then the bar on public office will lapse. Alternatively, some crimes (like for example tax fraud) might be removed from those punishable with a bar on holding public office.

There are rumours of more desperate measures like putting pressure on President Napolitano to make him a life senator though it is not clear how that would be different from being an elected senator as he is at the moment. Or some sort of special immunity law also with Napolitano’s complicity. Berlusconi and his supporters have until autumn to work something out.

It is of course, possible, just possible that he take the conviction on the chin and continue leading from outside Parliament like Beppe Grillo. But somehow, I doubt it.

So that is why Berlusconi’s Ruby trial really deserves a lot less coverage and Mediaset much more.
As for the other Ruby case, did you ever hear the one about the agent, the anchor and the dental hygienist providing underage girls for an insatiable old man? It’s actually a much better story, if you’re interested in that sort of thing…

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Turning up the heat.

It’s going to be a hot week in Rome; it was 33 today and we have 38 threatened for Thursday but that is nothing compared to the ordeals that Berlusconi is going to go through and because of them, the government and the parties.

Tomorrow is the most important day. The Constitutional Court will pronounce on the so-called “legitimate impediment”. In 2010, the Court of Appeal was hearing the Mediaset case where Berlusconi had been convicted of tax evasion and fraud. On 1 March there was a hearing and a cabinet meeting called by Berlusconi, then prime minister. He did not appear in court arguing that he had good reason (“a legitimate impediment”). The Court rejected his argument and proceeded to judgement, confirming the lower court’s conviction of 4 years in gaol and a 5 year bar to holding public office.

So Berlusconi appealed to the Constitutional Court which delayed and delayed trying to avoid handing down judgement in a politically sensitive moment. They are, apparently, very divided.

If they accept Berlusconi’s suit, he will be off the hook for the Mediaset case as there is no way that there can be a new appeal before the statute of limitations closes the procedure next year. If they reject it, then Berlusconi and the rest of us will have to wait until autumn when the Court of Cassation (Italy’s Supreme Court) will confirm or reject the Court of Appeal’s sentence.

On Monday, the Milan court will pronounce the verdict on the Ruby case where Berlusconi is accused of having had sex with an under age prostitute and of abuse of office. It’s a great media story and no doubt there will be plenty of coverage but politically it will have no effect if he is convicted. This is the court of first instance and there are two more levels which will take many years so the final conviction, if there is one, is a long way off.

Much more serious next week is the motion tabled by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement arguing that Berlusconi is ineligible to hold elected office. A 1953 law prohibits anyone who has a concession from the state (like a broadcasting licence) from holding elected office. For almost 20 years, the law was ignored but now the grillini want to apply it. It will be embarrassing for Berlusconi but even more so for the Democratic Party which will be forced to choose between consistency (they have accepted Berlusconi for 20 years) and legality and political expediency (they cannot be seen to be outflanked by Grillo).

Back in the courts, the civil courts, there will be the final verdict confirming or rejecting the judgement which awarded half a billion euros damages to Berlusconi’s archrival Carlo De Benedetti because of the fraudulent takeover of the Mondadori publishing house. Even for a man of Berlusconi’s substance, it is a hefty sum, all the more stinging coming in the middle of the criminal and political travails.

Although Berlusconi is no longer in government, he is still very much the power behind it. Prime minister Letta depends on the votes of Berlusconi’s PdL for his survival (though some members of the PD are trying to make a deal with dissident grillini as a sort of insurance policy). Whatever the results of the cases over the next days, even if they all go against Berlusconi, he is not going to pull the plug on the government quite yet. He has been playing the elder statesman blessing the Letta government one day and then playing the cheeky chappie saying that European fiscal constraints can be ignored the next.

He will continue to play that game for the next six months, one day threatening, one day feinting with the government and the court until the Court of Cassation delivers.

If they uphold his conviction in the Mediaset case with its bar on his holding public office, then we will see Silvio Berlusconi slip from the statesman role to the rabblerousing populist with uncertain and dangerous possibilities. He has already begun to deploy his "army", l'Esercito della Libertà. Not brown or blackshirts but blue, well-heeled and well made up, and disturbing.

What happens of the next 10 days will be a foretaste of both final court verdicts and Berlusconi’s reactions. Then the temperature might go down for a time.

Friday, June 14, 2013

New Italians, New and Old Italian Racism II

This is the second blog on racism in Italy, all the more relevant after a local councillor in Padua yesterday asked on her Facebook page why no one had raped Cécile Kyenge “I didn’t mean it” she said after the predictable explosion. The rest of the blog is an answer to a long, thoughtful and disturbing comment from an American friend contemplating a return to Italy. It warrants a careful answer and probably more evidence than I am able to present.

Kyenge has by now become a lightning rod for racist remarks bringing out the worst from the racists and sometimes forcing condemnation from people who otherwise might have remained silent. Yesterday’s remark came from a Northern League (LN) councillor and brought immediate condemnation from LN leaders as well as of course the rest of the political world. The incident serves as a good introduction to the observations that were put to me:

I saw you quoted last week in's exhaustive analysis on racism in Italian soccer. The whole racism scene in Italy deeply disturbs me. As you pointed out, so much has changed in the last 10 years. I left Rome in 2003 and have been trying to get back ever since. Now I'm wondering. Racism is spreading across Italy like typhoid. Even a Roman friend tried justifying the monkey sounds at Balotelli, saying they weren't making fun of his race. They were taunting him for being a jerk. Huh? Whatever happened to whistling? I told my friend he should ask Boateng if he thought they were only heckling Balotelli.

I had a very disturbing discussion about it with my Italian instructor here in the US. Yes, I've been keeping up with my Italian, which isn't easy in the Rockies. Our Italian neighborhood consists of a guy named Guido living off Lincoln Street. My Italian instructor, is from Campania. She said making monkey sounds at giocatori isn't racist in "a soccer context." I said, "But racists think blacks look like monkeys." You know what she said?

"Many blacks do look like monkeys."

How the hell am I supposed to react to that? She said, "John, if you can't handle racism, don't move to Italy?" James, is it that bad now? I can't handle racism. It's my number one deal breaker. Will every one of my new friendships break down when we discuss race relations? Is the "N" word becoming part of the Italian vocabulary? I understand the immigration issue. Italians are upset that immigrants come in and take jobs. I get it. But how many are actually hating them for their skin color?

But how uncomfortable are attitudes about race now? I have a Roman instructor who teaches me via Skype. He says it isn't that bad. It's just the ultras who give the city a bad name. What say you?
John makes two important points. One is the distinction between being racist and being anti-immigrant and the other is the role of sport – the suggestion that it’s just a few extremist football fans who are racist.

On the first distinction, for the moment at any rate there is almost no contrast since there is a near perfect coincidence between “immigrant” and “other race” (whatever that might mean) so it’s an easy excuse to say “I’m not racist, I just don’t like immigrants coming in and taking our jobs”. Except that it is a non-excuse – how many Italian citizens would be happy picking fruit or olives for €40 a day? There are immigrants in skilled jobs, a minority and normally well-qualified but certainly there are not enough of them for some complaining.

In any case, the near-perfect coincidence is changing; we are close to having enough sometime immigrants who are Italian citizens and then there is no excuse. The abuse then becomes explicit “there can be no black Italians” (first heard of à propos of Leone Jacovacci, champion middle weight boxer in the ‘30s ) and now against Balotelli. It’s tough for racist football fans when Balotelli wins games for Italy but many of them manage…

But as the number of Italian citizens with funny sounding names or different features or skin colour grows, there will be tensions between “new” and “old” Italians but probably less than in other European countries. There’s a scene in the “Deerhunter”, I think, where a doctor examines a dying soldier and says by way of banal introduction “Ivanovsky? That’s a Russian name isn’t it?” “No”, growls the dying man, it’s an American name”. Though it’ll be a long time before someone can say that Abdullah or Ionescu are Italian names (even if the second most common surname in Milan is Hu – after Rossi – and three out of the top ten are Chinese. The quintessential Milanese name, Brambilla is 30th). Of course surnames betray origins and accents, especially in Italy betray the place of upbringing; both can change with passing generations; skin colour does not. But the big migrations to the northwest in the ‘50s did integrate those from the south and the northeast so that today their children and grandchildren are almost indistinguishable from the “old” Lombards or Piedmontese. The same is likely and I think is already happening with immigrants from further afield.

On the question of whether racist language is limited to the football (or basketball) pitch, the answer, sadly, has to be no as yesterday’s incident showed. There are parts of the north where explicitly racist talk is part of political rhetoric. The loudest and most famous is Giancarlo Gentilini, mayor and deputy mayor of Treviso from 1994 until last week. The fact that he was roundly defeated and the fact that a “new Italian” (of Moroccan origin) was elected as city councillor is obviously positive but as long as senior figures and role models are able to use thinly veiled racist language (Berlusconi’s reference to a “suntanned” Obama or Milan as an “African” city), it will be difficult to keep more violent language out of the stadiums and the bars.

But it is happening albeit slowly. The much reviled politically correct movement is first of all good manners but it also a normative process which does actually change the way people think and act. By not using the N word, John, people are reducing the dehumanising effect of language. The firm position taken by the likes of minister Kyenge and football player Boateng (who stopped a match in January after racist chants) and the increasing support from their white colleagues are slowly changing Italy. The reaction to yesterday’s offensive remark might even bring something postive.

In another incident, a month ago, a LN city councillor for Prato managed to be racist and homophobic on his Facebook page but instead of being praised, he was roundly upbraided and removed the post .
There are parts of Italy where language is extremely offensive and sounds much more like Britain and the US in the early ‘60s but it coexists with an Italy which either welcomes or at least accepts the new found multiculturalism. So, John, you can and should come back to Italy – there will be moments especially in the stadium when you’ll be angry but you will witness a developing society and be able to contribute to that change.

Comments either to me for posting on the blog and/or directly to John has excellent press review reports some of the more unpleasant goings on and proposes countermeasures.
and look at The American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Migration and Racism in Italy

Thursday, June 13, 2013

New Italians, New and Old Italian Racism I

Racism in Italy has finally become a subject of debate – slow and limited and usually provoked by foreigners or Italians living abroad. This is one of two blogs which addressing some of the issues and trying to answer some of the questions.

Last month I wrote a piece on racism in Italy for a CNN blog – this is the full version with comment and response.

Italy has its first black cabinet minister, Cécile Kyenge who was insulted by the xenophobic Northern League within hours of her appointment. Last month, Roma soccer fans shouted racist insults at Milan’s Mario Balotelli, black but also one of the national squad’s top strikers. Kyenge has asked Balotelli to be the celebrity endorsement for a bill to give citizenship to the children of regular immigrants born in Italy. At the moment, they have to wait until they’re 18 and then apply for citizenship unlike the US where the 14th amendment gives citizenship to all those born in America.

Italy is having to come to terms with racism.

One of Italy’s old self-images was italiani brava gente – Italians are decent folk. Still, in 1938, Mussolini passed the Racial Laws (Leggi razziali an explicit endorsement of “scientific” racism) and the Italian authorities applied them. These discriminated against Italian Jews but in World War II, whatever crimes the Italian Fascists committed, they were small compared to the Nazis and many Italians worked heroically to save Jews so any Italians who thought about the issue acquitted themselves and the country. After the war, Italians looked at Mississippi and Alabama or Watts later, and then Brixton in London and complimented themselves on not being racist “like the Anglo-Saxons”.

That wasn’t quite true as southern Italians who moved to the north in the Fifties were treated every bit as badly as the Irish or West Indians in London over the same period; they were even referred to as “immigrants” even though they were as “Italian” as the Turinese or Milanese.

But it is true that there were no race riots or lynchings… but there were (almost) no non-whites in Italy. A surname, an accent, a slightly lighter or darker complexion proclaimed a person’s origin but all were Italians. The only non-whites were diplomats, actors or priests in Rome and the occasional businessman in Milan – all privileged people.

Then in the Eighties, Italy changed from being a country of emigration to having immigrants; a trickle at first, mostly from eastern Europe at first. In the Nineties the trickle became a flow, from neighbouring countries like Albania and Romania in Europe, from Morocco in North Africa. The overall numbers were low and the tolerance still fairly high. When a black woman was insulted on a bus in the ‘90s with a “get off the bus and go home!” (it turned out she was Italian), the mayor made a public apology. Carlton Myers, a basketball champion with an Anglo-Caribbean father and Italian mother was the Italian flagbearer at the Sydney Olympics.

There seemed to be very little racial tension, at worst an insulting insensitivity, like the Turin daily La Stampa referring to Japanese cars as “yellow” – they didn’t mean cabs. New terms were invented – extracomunitario, literally non-EU citizen was not used for a Swiss banker, a Norwegian or Texan oilman or a Japanese executive, it was a euphemism for non-white. Vu’ cumpra, the imitation of a street hawker’s “vuoi comprare?” “do you want buy?”, came to mean almost any black person while colf, short for collaboratore familiare or cleaner, usually meant Philippino. These were some of the politer terms used then and discarded by the 2000s.

Over the last decade or so, the number of immigrants rose dramatically, from just over a million in 2000 to just under 5 million of about 8% of the population today. Over half a million are the Italian born children of immigrants who cannot become citizens until they are 18 even though their first language is Italian (or more often Neapolitan or Bergamo or Bologna dialects). This influx was not so bad in an expanding economy (though even then there was the common refrain “wretched foreigners – why can’t they stay at home” followed by, often from the same individual, “why can’t I find someone to work in my factory/field”). The tensions started with two changes.

Since 2008, the economy has been in recession and jobs for all, especially the young, have become rarer and rarer. At the same time, many immigrants have integrated, set up businesses, become citizens and come to expect equal treatment. These two factors are threatening for those Italians who feel insecure either in their jobs or their social position, or, worse, those who like the Northern League politicans who want to exploit that fear.

To these people, a woman like Cécile Kyenge would be acceptable if she was a docile house servant on the lines of the Thirties Hollywood stereotype. The fact that she is a successful eye surgeon and now a self-assured cabinet minister is threatening for them. Even in the US, with decades of efforts to overcome racism, there were many who still found the idea of a black president very disturbing. They could not use overtly racist language so used substitute words like “socialist” while in Italy, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi referred to Obama as “suntanned” and complained that Milan now looks like an “African” city. His language gives a licence to others.

But the changes in the US and the rest of Europe over the last 40 or 50 years mean that the licence is not unconditional. Most of the rest of Europe puts a brake on some of the worst instincts and there is a part of Italy which is indeed brava gente but there is still a long way to go before a black cabinet minister is “normal”.

A colleague from the University of Aberdeen, Andrea Teti picked me up on a few points;

Andrea wrote: "James, my evidence is only anecdotal and personal, but I have to say I disagree about (anti-immigrant) racism emerging only in the last decade or so. As we know, Italy has always been deeply divided, and there has always been plenty of north/south racism (racism, not 'dislike' or good-natured name-calling: stuff like "entry prohibited to dogs and 'terroni'" (derog. for southerners). This racism is not news: southern football teams, for example, would be regularly subjected to deeply racist abuse and their fans assaulted - Neapolitans were regularly greeted to chants like "terroni," "Benvenuti in Italia" or "Tornate in Africa" (to this day, I know well-educated, and otherwise progressive northeners who don't see how insulting the term is and use it as a 'descriptor'). Racism towards immigrants in the North drew on this very well-established register (the 'tune' Balotelli is exposed to has literally not changed since the 1980s, when it was directed at southerners - monkey chants, for example). But since Italy became a country of net immigration (late 1980s/early 1990s), that racism has turned onto new Italians as well: it's no coincidence this is the phase the Lega Nord emerges in. Personally, I consider this particularly shameful for Italy because racism *towards* Italians abroad was/is such a recent historical memory. We complained (rightly) about being treated like dirt abroad, only to then turn around and virtually in the same (historical) breath do the same - and worse – to immigrants, to new citizens. It is shameful and hypocritical, a deep stain on Italy. Ironically, last year's data makes Italy a country of net migration once again, with young Italians leaving in droves again for Europe and the Americas."

Andrea. I think we agree in principle that there has always been a racist undercurrent in Italy – and CNN cut some of my remarks about north on south racism and I have added a little to answer your criticism. The point that more people are leaving Italy than arriving is well taken. But overall, I fear that you (and I) might be being too optimistic.

If you are interested in these issues, look at The American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Migration and Racism in Italy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Parsing Violence

As the world knew, the swearing in of the new Italian government in April at the Quirinale, the President’s palace, was brusquely interrupted by news of an attack at the Prime Minister’s office Palazzo Chigi. For a time, the city stopped as security measures went into overdrive. Then it became clear that there had been one lone gunman, Luigi Preiti, unemployed, with two broken marriages and a gambling habit. There were “only” two casualties, both carabinieri (one thankfully a superficial wound, the other risks paralysis). So the world and most of Italy too went back to normal and has forgotten the incident.

But even though Italy is a country where lethal (and non-lethal) violence is pretty low outside organised crime areas, the threat of political violence is never very far below the surface.

Three days after the Rome incident on 1st. May, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini was at Portella della Ginestra to commemorate the anniversary of the first massacre of the Italian republic. This is where 11 were killed and more than 20 seriously injured when Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on a traditional May Day trades union celebration. Giuliano was a young man who had become a bandit after killing two carabinieri who had stopped him for black marketeering. He then espoused the cause of Sicilian separatism – he hoped that Sicily would become the 49th state of the US. The mostly likely story behind the massacre is that Giuliano was manipulated by the mafia who were working with elements of the state. There are still more shadows than light and Boldrini appealed for a final truth on the massacre after 66 years as she laid a wreath.

In the 1960s, there were two attempted coups from the right and various forms of street violence from the left. The end of the decade saw the beginning of the terrorist phase, first from the right with bombs in Piazza Fontana (17 dead) in Milan in 1969 and ending with Bologna Station (85 dead) in 1980. The aim was to destabilise the country to create an environment where some sort of authoritarian government could be justified. There were links between them and maverick elements of the state but the institutions withstood the assault.

On the left, the Red Brigades, Front Line (Prima Linea) and various other groups kidnapped and killed, most dramatically, Aldo Moro but there were many others, trades unionists, carabineri and politicians; students were shot in the legs (studying business and therefore part of the capitalist system). They wanted to “colpire il cuore dello Stato” (strike at the heart of the state) and introduce some sort of Marxist-Leninist state. There, they failed but in their more modest aim to prevent any sort of alliance between the Christian Democratic party and the Communists, they succeeded. Their heirs continued into the 2000s killing academics and civil servants working on labour reform.

The mafia normally uses violence for purely commercial or tactical reasons; against business rivals or against overzealous police or judiciary but in 1993, they too used a more general type of political and terrorist violence when they put bombs in Florence, Rome and Milan.

More than a decade ago, the G8 meeting in Genoa was greeted with widespread street violence and the death of a protester. It looked as if Italy was moving towards a new season of political violence and possibly terrorism but 9/11 rendered the traditional Italian language unusable.

Briefly, in October 2011 there were again flames on the streets of Rome.

Violence which aims at changing all or part of the political system is no stranger to the country; it is a language which historians and older residents are sadly familiar with; we can read it and put it in an historical and political context.

But something has changed over the last year or so.

There is no sign of the recession coming to an end; unemployment, especially among young people (the most likely to turn to violence) is alarming. And yet what violence there is, is expressed in different terms.

The April gunman, Preiti, shot two carabinieri because he couldn’t find the politicians (any politicians) who he felt were responsible for his condition. He had no big plan, no ideology, and as far we know, no accomplices. His was an action which is much more familiar to Americans than Italians.

A few days ago a 17 year in Desenzano, on Lake Maggiore walked into school wearing battle fatigues and carrying his father’s shotgun in his guitar case. Luckily he was disarmed before he could do anything and it wasn’t clear if he was really going to use the weapon of if he just wanted to show off. But again, this was the language of Colombine or Newtown, not Lombardy.

In another resentment killing, two civil servants working for the Umbrian Regional government were shot by a local businessman three months ago. The man was owed money by the Region, he went to the office dealing with his credit, killed the two random employees and then killed himself.

There are protest suicides too, many of them.

A month ago, a couple of pensioners in Civitanova Marche killed themselves when they realised that they could not survive on her pension alone; the wife’s brother lived with the couple and when he found them, he threw himself into the sea and drowned. Three suicides in one of the most tranquil parts of Italy, a small town where everyone knows everyone and with a tradition of social solidarity.

Over the last year, there have been a number of businessmen committing suicide because they were failing or because they were not getting the support they felt they were entitled to. The latest was yesterday when a florist in Herculaneum covered himself in petrol, set fire to himself and then jumped from the balcony of the town hall.

All of these cases are a long way from revolutionaries from left or right, mafiosi or bent spooks killing to influence politics.

By now, these cases are statistically relevant though it is obviously not possible to say that one form of violence has substituted the other but something has certainly changed in the way violence is expressed.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Local Elections, Local Consequences

Normally in Italy, politicians and analysts examine local election results with the care that ancient soothsayers took in entrails and the flight of birds in order to foresee the national future. This time there is more detachment; these local elections are just that… for the most part, local.

Over the last fortnight, about 7 million Italians were called to vote for their city councils. On Sunday and Monday there were the run-off elections for mayor in most cities – those places where no candidate won 50% in the first round. The most significant contest was here in Rome but there were another 15 provincial capitals at stake. The centre-left won in all of them and is doing well in the first round of local elections in Sicily where they have already won Catania without needing a second ballot.

The other significant result is that the turnout has gone down even further; 11% less than the first round with 48.5%, a collapse with respect to 2008’s 77.2%. Rome was below the national average at 45.5%.

These are the two data that we will have to work out over the next few days.

It was a whitewash in favour of the Democratic Party (PD), not just still licking its wounds after the February defeat but still bleeding from self-inflicted injuries after the April presidential disaster. The victory should be an encouragement and so it was but no one is being triumphalistic about it. It is further proof that the PD has a much stronger grassroots organisation than any of the others and a much more stubborn electorate that goes out to vote even if they have to hold their noses. Very clearly the PD lost fewer votes to abstention than the others.

But the deep divisions in the party remain and will not be healed until the autumn congress which will either signal the definitive end or relaunch the party. It is significant that the the new mayor of Rome, a surgeon with Swiss, Sicilian, Genoese and US antecedents, Ignazio Marino, is an anti-aparatchik who distanced himself from the party during the campaign. His campaign slogan was "Non è politica, è Roma" (It's not politics, it's Rome". Like the new president of the Friuli region, Debora Serracchiani, elected in April, he was elected “in spite of” the party (and she said as much).

The PD has certainly not made a big enough comeback to want early elections. This is music for prime minister Letta. The centre-right PdL’s defeat is also balm for Letta because with their defeat, they too will hesitate before bringing the government down even though in an EMG poll published yesterday, they are still the first party at 28.1% (compared to the PD’s 27.8%).

Berlusconi’s family paper Il Giornale headlined today’s edition “No Berlusconi, no party” meaning that without Berlusconi, the PdL collapses. It was not quite true as Berlusconi did campaign for Gianni Alemanno the centre-right candidate in Rome but of course he himself was not a candidate and until the crucial court verdicts at the end of the month, he is keeping a fairly low profile. But it is true that without Berlusconi, the centre-right disintegrates more than the centre-left. A one-man party can work at the national level but when local contact is needed to deal with potholes, schools and streetlights, the Big Man is not enough. Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement also did very badly though despite visible divisions and bad press, they are still polling at 19.7% (down from 22.1% last week), certainly not a spent force.

The other elements of the centre-right did very badly. The heirs of the fascists and the “social right”, the Italian Social Movement and its successors have all but disappeared with their strongest leader, Alemanno taking a hammering in Rome.

In the north, the Northern League (LN) also paid the cost of internal divisions and loss of contact with their electorate. They are far from dead and could make a comeback if they can overcome the leadership struggle and get back to what they used to do well – serve and articulate local interests. It is significant, though that Treviso’s violently anti-immigrant mayor, Giancarlo Gentilini, was thrown out and among the new councillors is Said Chaibi (22), born in Italy of Moroccan parents. Italy is changing.

The low turnout is yet another symptom of how alienated Italian voters are and there is no consolation that “the Americans and the British have low turnouts and they’re none the less democratic for it”. For a start, they use different electoral systems and then, when the British turnout to the European Parliamentary elections goes under 30%, it is considered a vote of no confidence in the institution. This is the same old story – the parties will have to work very hard to regain some legitimacy and confidence. Locally and nationally.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Lemmings or Lemurs. Last One Alive Wins.

The New Yorker has a crowd of furry animals rushing over a cliff until one of them realises that they are lemurs, not lemmings (above left).

At the moment, the Italian political class seems to be in the same state. They are rushing to the brink and the one that holds back enough for the others to go over the edge will be the winner. For the lemmings it is the evolutionary race, for the politicians, much more banally, it will be the general election, possibly this autumn, more likely next spring and at the latest in spring 2015 but it will certainly be the fittest that survives: the one who realises that he is a lemur and not a lemming.

There are three main players (above left, from left to right, Letta, Alfano, Grillo, thanks to Andrea Branchi) and all three are at risk, the minor ones even more so.

Within the government, the Democratic Party (PD) is licking its wounds after the double election debacle. First they allowed what seemed to be a sure victory slip through their fingers in February and then they were unable to unite behind a candidate for the presidency… twice. Today it is a party without leadership and without a clear programme or even general principles. In practice it is no longer a party – rather, it is a tribute to the organisational ability of the long dead Communist Party (PCI) that the PD exists at all, more than 20 years and three name changes after the demise of the PCI. The victories in the local elections 10 days ago and the likely victories in the run-off elections on Sunday (particularly here in Rome) have papered over the cracks. The PD-led Letta government also provides a semblance of a united and functioning party and is certainly an encouragement to stay together. There is an extraordinary congress planned for the autumn in which they should elect a new secretary and refound the party but the knives are already being sharpened and will probably be used long before November. Lemming number one.

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) is the other pillar of the government. For the moment, they look pretty solid and united, if only behind the Leader. But even there, there are divisions. The hawks want to attack the judiciary on all fronts if Berlusconi is convicted in the crucial Mediaset case where the Supreme Court might confirm the Court of Appeal’s four year gaol sentence and five year bar on holding public office. “All fronts” means street demonstrations, refusal to pay taxes and elections with one issue – Berlusconi. The doves prefer the softly-softly approach within the law. The fissures which appeared before Christmas are still there as the different centre-right groups position themselves for the post-Berlusconi era so the PdL too risks an explosion. Lemming number two.

The final element within the government is Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (SC). Even though Monti hopes for a comeback either at the next Italian elections or for the European Parliament next year, they (and he) showed true lemming spirit in the simple act of going into politics. Mario Monti threw himself off the cliff before Christmas when he went into politics. As if to underline SC’s normality in the Italian political system, one of its senators, Aldo Di Biagio is being investigated as part of a €22m INPS (national insurance) scam.

In the opposition, the principal element is of course Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Even before their February victory, Grillo was very clear that there would be some wastage among the new parliamentarians. Some would be taken in by the siren songs from either Bersani or Berlusconi, others would not be up to the job. In the event, up to now, there have been no defections. Two parliamentarians, the first two are leaving today, more than three months after the elections with a possible couple of dozen to follow. It was also clear that the movement would have to give itself an organisational structure if it wasn’t just going to be a flash in the pan. They are working on the structure and their image – they now accept interviews and go on television. But like the PD and the PdL, they risk dissolution. Lemming number three.

On the edge of the opposition (opposition in Parliament, in regional government coalition with the PdL in the north) is the Northern League (LN). Last year’s corruption investigation was followed by the resignation of founder Umberto Bossi and his succession by Roberto Maroni left the party weak and divided. Over the last few days, Bossi has returned to the fray promising battle and possibly another party. Another lemming.

For those that don’t like animal metaphors, there is always the tontine. This was an 18th C. financial product (I suppose we would call it now), in which investors put in money to a common fund which then paid them an annuity. As the investors died, so the dividend would increase and in some schemes the last one alive would take the capital. Plenty of comic novels and films have been based on how to keep an ailing grandfather alive or cover up his demise – this could be the first political tontine. I understand (from Wiki, so it must be right) that the tontine takes its name from the Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Tonti; it’s not clear whether it is the politicians or the Italian people who are the tonti.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Ungovernable Italy?

Last week there was a flurry of Italian national pride when European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said that Italy, like Bulgaria and Romania, was ungovernable.

Oettinger: „Mir machen Länder Sorgen, die im Grunde genommen kaum regierbar sind: Bulgarien, Rumänien, Italien.“ Dazu komme, dass in vielen Ländern EU-kritische Bewegungen stärker würden. In Großbritannien regiere Premier Cameron mit einer „unsäglichen Hinterbank, seiner englischen Tea-Party“.
The slight was more being put in the same category as Bulgaria and Romania, but the question remains: is Italy ungovernable?

In a sense, whatever the answer, as social scientists we ought to be grateful to Italy and the Italians for providing us with an apparently disfunctional polity which allows us to test our hypotheses.

Two elections in three months can illustrate why it is and it isn’t.

The duration of the government or the time needed to form a new one are not prima facie evidence of ungovernability. From the fall of fascism in 1943 to 1994, a watershed year, often called “the first republic”, there were 56 “governments”, which last just under 11 months on average. Sometimes the “crises” were resolved in a day or two, sometimes it took more than three months. And yet Italy was far from being “ungovernable”. It was a period of great growth, for the most part, massive social change was managed, not always well but seldom disastrously and the “governments” did what governments are supposed to do: present, develop and implement policy. They did it in a muddled way but they did it.

The single individuals involved in government were the most stable class in the world, including the Soviet Union and even neighbouring Albania with Enver Hoxha. Giulio Andreotti outlasted them all.

Belgium, too, in its recent crisis (2010-11, 541 days needed to form a government) showed that a country could function quite well without a fully empowered government. The present Italian government was formed after a mere two months although some of the incompatibilities between the parties are as great as in the Belgian case. But forming a government in a tenth of the time the Belgians took does not equal “governability”.

The present difficulty, and the reason for Oettinger’s remark, are due to structural-institutional reasons and political-social ones.

The institutional reasons are easy to list. The electoral system and Italy’s perfect bicameralism.

The present electoral system, PR with fixed party lists, a national premium for the chamber, regional premiums in the senate, guarantees a working majority in the Chamber (the winning party or coalition takes 340/630 seats. Today the PD led coalition with 29.55% of the vote has 340 deputies or 54% of the seats, while the PdL led coalition with 29.18 has 124 or 20%). In the Senate, no party has a majority. The centre-left won 31.63% of the vote and took 113 seats (36%) while the centre-right won 30.72 and 116 seats (37%). Grillo and the Five Star Movement won 23.79% and 54 senators (17%).

These numbers would not be a problem if Italy did not have perfect bicameralism – unique, I think, in a parliamentary system. The theoretical nightmare which constitutionalists had been worrying about for years, actually happened in February. To form a government, a prospective PM needs the confidence of both houses and there was no way that Bersani could do it given Grillo’s absolute refusal to negotiate and his own refusal to form a coalition with Berlusconi’s PdL.

A solution is therefore to reform both these pieces of institutional architecture: change the electoral law in order to guarantee a working majority in both houses and/or dismantle the perfect bicameralism. There are moves to do both; yesterday President Napolitano again reminded the parties of their commitment to reform.

There have been other attempts; the present electoral law is the third since the foundation of the republic and talk of reforming the senate goes back to the 1980s. Letta gave himself and parliament 18 months from September to complete the reforms – he will be lucky if his government lasts half that time and even if it did, the chances of passing major constitutional reform in less than two years are very slim.

But it is the inhabitants of the constitution that are the real problem, more than the architecture. But we know that it is not the architecture which conditions the politics but vice versa. Italy itself has normally had coalition governments and when it didn’t, as with Berlusconi in 2008, the big majority did not guarantee his government’s survival. Even the UK has a coalition. Nor is the problem the fact that Italy is split three ways – there are plenty of countries where there is a three way division and they are able to govern effectively, starting with Germany.

The problem, or rather the symptom of the change is, or was until a month ago, that the three elements were unwilling to work together.

The solution that was reached is not a happy one and it is very fragile.

It was reached by President Napolitano pushing the powers of the presidency to the limit. He had made his support of a “Grand Coalition” between PD and PdL very clear from the beginning and so prevented Bersani from actually trying for a minority government. There was certainly no guarantee that he would have succeeded in creating a PD government with occasional but sufficient external support from Grillo to survive.

Instead, Italy has an uneasy coalition in which the minority component, the PdL, conditions the government’s survival and can pull the plug whenever they want. It is as fragile as a minority PD government might have been.

But in the meantime, Italy has been taken off the EU’s excess deficit blacklist, the difference between the interest rates on German and Italian bonds (“the spread”), is under control so there are positive signs even if they are the result of action taken by Monti and even by Tremonti in Berlusconi’s government.

Much more worrying is the precariousness of the government, vulnerable to even minor crises in the PD or PdL. In the local elections last month, the turnout hit record lows showing that Italians’ alienation of politics is still growing.

This means that the “government” has indeed great difficulty in doing what it says it wants to do. Oettinger was right.

This is a summary of a talk given to heads of departments from the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Oslo.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Presidents, Semi-presidents and Prime Ministers.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the foundation of the Italian Republic; in 1946, Italians voted in favour of a Republic rather than the constitutional monarchy which had governed the country since 1861. After choosing the republic, the Constituent Assembly gave the country a parliamentary constitution. This has a largely symbolic president and most power with a prime minister conditioned by parliament.

They had just come out of a 20 year dictatorship and five years of bloody war so there was every reason to create a system which limited the power of the executive. But government, especially democratic government is always a compromise between allowing to take decisions quickly and limiting power.

Madison put it elegantly

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

But the ancient Roman republic had worked it out more than 2,000 years before Madison. They knew they had to limit power. And with it the ability to take decisions.

Not for the first time, there are suggestions that the system should be changed and the flavour of this week is a French style semi-presidentialism.

Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-right have always been clear that they like the idea of a president with real power. On many occasions over the last 20 years, Berlusconi expressed his frustration at what he considered a disfunctional reining in of prime ministerial executive power. Most of the time he spoke out in favour of a presidential republic (with himself as the likely President). The impression one got is that he did not actually understand the severe constraints that a US president works under and that he certainly had never heard Harry Truman’s remark when Eisenhower won the elections:

“He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

Substitute "in business" for "the Army" and we have Berlusconi. The American separation of powers means just that. And it also means that since the parties in congress do not give a vote of confidence to a prime minister, they are even less disciplined than parties in parliamentary systems so that even when the president has a majority in Congress, they will not rubber stamp his bills.

The French system of course gives the president most of the executive powers of a president and a prime minister so that the president really is “the chief executive”. This makes it very attractive to Berlusconi and a populist right. The president is directly elected so has popular as well as party legitimacy and real executive power; unlike a presidential system, there is a prime minister but he or she normally just does the president’s bidding and can do it because the PM must have a majority in the National Assembly in order to be there. I suspect that the only negative aspect for Berlusconi is in the name – that “semi-” suggests that it is less than whole.

On the centre-left there are no lexical doubts and the political doubts are decreasing. On Saturday Prime Minister Enrico Letta said “The last presidential elections revealed the fatigue in our democracy. In my opinion we can’t elect the president using this system again”. There was an immediate response from Angelino Alfano, deputy prime minister and secretary of Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) “It would be a real proof of democracy to elect the head of state as they do in the US and France. We have always been in favour of the direct election of the president”.

Last week, one of the founders of the PD and longtime rival of Berlusconi, Romano Prodi wrote an opinion piece in Il Messaggero arguing that having a French-style semi-presidentialism would have “put Italy ahead of other European countries rather than being always on the edge of a precipice”.

The only person who argued in favour just using the rules of the game was Giovanni Sartori, doyen of Italian and international political science who has always argued in favour the system (and a similar one of his own).

But opposition has already started.

A good portion of the rest of the PD was overtly critical, starting with Rosy Bindi, party president until April. Others on the left, outside the party, like Stefano Rodotà and Nichi Vendola were even more explicit.

In an ideal world, the arguments in a debate on changing constitutional architecture should be based on logic and an examination of the effects of this or that electoral system… but we all know that political debate rarely works on those principles.

Not only is there a confusion over what alternatives are on offer – what do the French, the Americans, the British, the Germans actually do, to take decisions and control political power – there is also a confusion between the various elements: the electoral system, the powers of the legislature and the relative powers of the two chambers, and finally, the relationship between head of state and head of government. Put them all into a pot together and the result is a minestrone, not a constitutional reform. In any case, there has been some creeping, de facto, reform already.

Over the last two years, prime minister and parliament have lost prestige and decision making power because of their own incapacity and the president has taken up the slack (without doing anything unconstitutional). Letta, Prodi and the centre-right would like to see this position formalised in the name of governability (a buzzword in the late ‘80s when Bettino Craxi was searching for greater powers). The implicit message is that this increase in power should be almost unconditional – Berlusconi’s railing against the Judiciary is actually explicit. He feels that the only brake on executive power should be the people, in an unmediated relationship with the leader, something that Madison warned against 200 years ago. The Americans, the French and the British do indeed give wide albeit different powers to their leaders but they have trust in their institutions to prevent or at least limit any abuse. Italians do not have that trust so they would be ill-advised to give their leader too much power.

A “semi-president” could well end up with a lot more than "semi-power".