For expats living in Rome, the general election that will take place in Italy next week is a confusing spectacle. In the US we have our own brand of political chaos, which is no less distasteful. But at least the two polar opposites define very clear battle lines and so our choice is relatively easy. In Italian politics there are dozens of parties and sub-factions forming dozens of shifting alliances, all vying for the great bulk of the votes near the center of the political spectrum. Being an expat, it is tempting to just turn your head away and avoid confronting this historical moment for your host country. But of course some people just won’t be ignored, no matter how hard you try. Yes, I’m referring to “him.”
Oh no, not again!
Once again we are reassured that Silvio Berlusconi holds firm to the adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” He has shown an incredible knack for drawing the spotlight away from the real issues with his Vaudeville antics and soap opera scandals—just as Italy was regaining international respect and credibility. Late in 2012, a Milan judge sentenced Mr. Berlusconi to four years in prison for tax fraud. A shallow victory for justice, because we all know that an army of lawyers are already planning to drag out the appeals just long enough for the statute of limitations to expire. Indeed, part of the judgment was supposed to prohibit Mr. Berlusconi from running for public office. Yet here he is again, like a reoccurring nightmare.
But that court case was last year, so just to make sure that the public eye wouldn’t wander too far from his tanned face, a few weeks ago—on the Holocaust Memorial Day—he stated that “Mussolini had been wrong to pass anti-Jewish laws but had otherwise been a good leader.” He makes these types of enormous public gaffs often enough that one has to wonder if it wasn’t a deliberate act of clever gamesmanship; shoring up support from the right while thumbing his nose at the people on the left who’d never vote for him anyway.
Then there was the conspicuous timing of the Mario Balotelli deal. Berlusconi recently sealed a contract for the young soccer phenom to play for his AC Milan team—and the very next day the former prime minister rose 3% in the polls. One analyst estimated that this single deed would directly translate to 400,000 votes. (Maybe more now that Balotelli has scored 4 goals in 3 games. I’m sure there’s an astute political scientist somewhere calculating a “votes per goal” ratio.)
Then there’s the anti-Berlusconi: Mario Monti. This is the guy that the E.U. wants to lead Italy. He’s a serious person whose personal life doesn’t make it onto the tabloid pages—apparently he’s too busy actually doing his job to throw bunga-bunga parties. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m going out for a night on the town with the boys, I’d be jumping in Silvio’s limo. Listening to Monti speak, on the other hand, seems like the cure for insomnia.
The international support for Monti has been unwavering, even if he’s been unable to fully realize the miracles needed to turn the Italian economy around in one year’s time. In the most recent issue of The Economist, the editors state in no uncertain terms that, “The best result would be for Mr. Monti to stay on as prime minister.” Sadly, however, he’s currently running in fourth place behind a clown, a comedian, and a communist.
For a very clear, in depth look at the electoral process (in English), check out this article: Italian Elections
It’s the economy, stupid.
So it’s not surprising that while Mr. Monti is highly-respected globally, his policies have been unpopular (to say the least) at home. Austerity measures have really riled the masses, particularly the powerful labor unions because he’s been obliged to do the dirty work that no politician has had the courage to attempt for decades. In fact, it has helped that he’s not a politician at all; he’s a professor of economics and the cold slap in the face that the country needed last year—and still needs. He didn’t cause the mess, but he’s been determined to clean it up no matter how unpopular it has made him personally. Let’s hope he gets the chance to finish what he started.
But the real problems go much deeper, into the entrenched gerontocracy that has been perfectly designed for maximum waste, epic inefficiency, and a tenacious resistance to any change. To cite The Economist again, “Italy has far too many protected economic interests, from notaries to pharmacists, and from taxis to energy suppliers. It also has too many layers of government: provincial, regional and local administrations that often duplicate rather than replace the activities of central government. A constipated judicial system makes contractual disputes impossibly long, costly and unpredictable.” And according to Sergio Fabbrini, the director of the school of government at Luiss University in Rome, the main obstacle is that, “Italy’s embedded politicians have still not acknowledged the reasons for Italy’s problems. And when the quality of the political elite is as low as it is in Italy, it is difficult to create the structural conditions for growth.”
Send in the clown (Act III)
Enter once again Silvio Berlusconi, the obscenely wealthy Milan businessman with the habit of placing his ex-mistresses into prominent positions of parliament. He fills the cavernous void of leadership with his charismatic buffoonery, looking every bit the clown after all the makeup and plastic surgery. Say what you want about the man, but you have to admit that he’s damn entertaining. Furthermore, he doesn’t appear to be burdened by a sense of accountability, which gives him another advantage. And makes him even more dangerous.
But Berlusconi’s slapstick routine isn’t going to get the job done when it comes to turning the country’s economy around. He’s had his chance(s) and all he can really claim to have accomplished is the furthering of his own interests. Italy desperately needs a serious, intelligent man like Mario Monti and not a clown. Unfortunately, it looks like we could be in for a third act in this ongoing tragic comedy of Italian politics.