Sunday, March 31, 2013

Where to next?

The electronic tumbrils are beginning to roll. On Friday, the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) spokewoman in the Chamber of Deputies, Roberta Lombardi upbraided her opposite number in the Senate. He had addressed her as “Honorable”, the usual term for a deputy. Horror! Instead of M5S’s regulation “Citizen”.

We are still a long way from seeing real blood in the streets but the M5S does have plenty of revolutionary elements in its methods and aims. The brains behind Beppe Grillo’s throne, Gianroberto Casaleggio, believes that they have the answers to all our problems and can lead us there through well-manipulated web. In practical terms, this means doing away with the executive and leaving all power to the legislature which would run the country. Grillo has proposed either this, no government, or a government headed by someone proposed by him… but he’s not going to say who until he has the mandate.

This is a revolution. To be sure, it is very different from Paris, Petrograd or Tehran which did change the world, or more modestly, the ongoing changes in Tunis and Cairo where we still don’t know where they and we will end up; the Grillo revolution might fizzle out at the next elections or it might follow the Leopard strategy (“we have to change everything in order to keep things the way they are”) or it might genuinely change Italy and maybe Europe.

At the moment, it is only President Napolitano who seems to know what he wants and which direction the country should go in but even he is far from sanguine about his chance of success.

A week after giving Democratic Party (PD) secretary Pierluigi Bersani a limited mandate to form a government, Napolitano spoke again.

He refused Bersani’s request to test his strength in Parliament. Bersani wanted to challenge the other party leaders to prevent him forming a government and do it in the Senate where with a secret ballot and maneuverings to lower the quorum, he might just have won a vote of confidence. It was a very risky strategy but a courageous one in which success or failure would have been visible. Bersani is a man of integrity and honesty who actually has wanted to change Italian politics and did so within his own party but he is without enough appeal to win either the February elections or the vote of confidence he was looking for last week and probably would not have got.

But even if he had won, it would have been a very, very fragile government, something that Napolitano was not prepared to countenance.

The president knows that there has to be a reliable majority in order to protect the Italian reputation on the world bond markets and to protect the political system and he is not prepared to do anything which might upset the applecart more than it’s upset already.

His choice was to appoint two committees made up of “10 wise men”, to draw up proposals that a new government might implement. Four are to look after political matters (electoral and constitutional reform), six for the economy. They are all linked in some way to the old parties, worthy, certainly but neither original nor independent.

There are various reasons why Napolitano is cautious (the polite word – pusillanimous is the ruder one). First, he is the President of the Republic, an inherently conservative role and normally, purely symbolic. Secondly, there is his age, 88, not one in which people usually launch into uncharted territories. Thirdly, and most importantly, he spent most of his political life in one of the most regulated organisations of the 20th century – the Communist Party. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was far freer than most others but it was still a place where “anarchism” was as much anathema as freethinking was to Jesuits. Alongside the PCI was the Italian system which almost always chose a muddled compromise with spoilssharing rather than open battles. Finally, he presumably also has at least a touch of understandable conceit seeing himself as the last barrier before chaos engulfs Italy.

Next to these “big” ideological and psychological reasons are the short-term “small” political reasons for caution. The easiest way out of the swamp would be to call new elections but Napolitano is constitutionally barred from doing so because he has only six weeks of his mandate to run (the president may not dissolve Parliament in his last six months in office - the so-called semestre bianco, “white semester” unless Parliament had reached the end of its normal mandate). So if there are to be new elections, they will have to be called by Napolitano’s successor whose election process will begin on 15 April.

Then there is continuing stalemate between the three bigger groups in Parliament. They are still playing scissors-stone-paper with the country. Berlusconi and the PdL want some sort of guarantee for Berlusconi two of whose cases will come to verdict even before a July election (and if one goes against him, he might be barred from holding public office). They have said they are willing to make an alliance with the PD but not with a programme that includes a conflict of interest and corruption laws.

The PD have a programme but no allies (some Grillini might face Grillo’s wrath and vote with the PD on selected issues) and they know they face further losses in early elections if they ally with Berlusconi. And the cracks are beginning to show.

Grillo and the M5S are in difficulty because of their success. They either go for the least bad option (the PD) and lose the revolutionary charge, or they hold out against any of the old parties and risk increasing the effects of the economic crisis.

The elephant in the sittingroom is the revision of the electoral law – everyone agrees that the present law should be changed but no one agrees on what the new law should be.

Napolitano has chosen to delay the day of reckoning, a tactic which worked for Fabius Maximus, Cunctator, against Hannibal 2,200 years ago but is less suitable to quell internal strife today.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sisiphus Bersani

President Napolitano has finally spoken – almost four weeks after the elections. He took the only option open short of resigning himself (to allow his successor to call early elections) and that was to give a mandate to Pierluigi Bersani leader of the Democratic Party (PD). But it is a conditional mandate – not directly to form a government but to see if there is the possibility of finding a stable majority to support his government. Then Bersani must report back, probably before Easter though there is no explicit deadline on the mandate.

In an unprecedented speech after giving Bersani the job, Napolitano spoke at length albeit vaguely, about the need for national unity and the need to deal with the pressing economic problems rather than having devisive elections. It was a not very veiled appeal to Bersani to talk to Silvio Berlusconi (centre-right People of Freedom, PdL), to Beppe Grillo (Five Star Movement, M5S) to talk to Bersani and to Berlusconi to actually compromise.

The speech set the tone for Bersani to start the official part of his job (he’s been working on it unofficially since the elections).

His game plan is to end with the parties rather than start negotiating with them from the beginning. First he will seek declarations of support from civil society – the trades unions and employers both of whom want stable government – from associations, Catholic and secular, trade and professional who can also endorse his government. At the same time, he is putting together a lineup for a streamlined cabinet (15 rather than 18 in Monti’s) of people who are either new faces or older ones well outside the party nomenklature; people who are certainly not closely linked to the PD like the present minister of the interior, Anna Maria Cancellieri, the runner-up for the top employers’ federation (Confindustria) job, Alberto Bombassei for Economic Development.

The basis of his programme will be the 8 points he proposed immediately after the elections. As they stand, they are pretty anodyne but the PdL is concerned that new anti-corruption and conflict of interest laws are aimed at Berlusconi (which of course they are). Grillo says they are all within the M5S programme so ignores them.

Grillo’s game plan is not at all clear. Yesterday the M5S Senate spokesman, Vito Crimi first said that if the PD gave up all their public financing “we can talk” and in the evening said “we will not vote a Bersani government confidence motion – what language do you want me to say it in?” Grillo and the movement are in a catch 22 dilemma; they are like a dog that chases after a car and then doesn’t know what to do with it when it’s caught it. If Grillo negotiates with Bersani and comes to a compromise, the pure protest vote will cry “sell-out” and leave him. If he refuses to compromise and forces new elections, then the moderates will return to the PD. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. But for the moment, he holds the cards.

But if Bersani can present a cabinet of clean faces and a programme which matches at least some of the grillini’s main objectives, he might just persuade enough of them to walk out at the vote of confidence.

Silvio Berlusconi and the PdL are playing a double game. Yesterday, their spokesman, Fabrizio Cicchitto said that they were available to work towards a broad coalition to deal with the economy and national interests. Today, Berlusconi and (he hopes) half a million others will fill piazza del Popolo in a protest against the judiciary, a curious position for someone who proclaims himself only interested in national unity but entirely consistent with his previous record. He is at his best in an election campaign or at least at the centre of attention and at the moment he has neither. The PD knows that an alliance with Berlusconi is the kiss of death in an early election so keep him and the PdL at more than arm’s length. And Berlusconi knows that the longer a Bersani or “President’s” government lasts, the more chances there are of him being convicted again and possibly expelled from Parliament by a PD-M5S vote. Time works against him personally and against the very uncertain unity of the PdL.

So he has to return to centre stage either in a Grand Coalition or in early elections.

His allies in the Northern League (LN) say they will not come to a separate deal with Bersani but if Bersani can offer them a constitutional reform which creates a Senate for the Regions, then LN leader, Umberto Maroni might give partial support.

To succeed, Bersani has to translate conditional support into something solid and remove the reciprocal vetoes.

Sisiphus is maybe the wrong metaphor for Bersani. The founder of Corinth had to push a rock; whatever effort he put into the task would hardly damage it while Bersani has to put Sisiphus’s energy into the job but with the precision of a watchmaker. And if and when he completes the fragile structure, he has to persuade Napolitano that it is robust… at least enough to last till next year.

Unlike Sisiphus, though, Bersani is not condemned to an eternal game of government formation. If he doesn’t make it by Easter, as the comic imitator, Maurizio Crozza said in his sketch last night, “after the Easter holidays there’s a ton of bargain package holidays for you to take”.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Grand Old Duke of York in Italy or quer brutto pasticiaccio in Kerala

As every English schoolkid knows

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,

He had ten thousand men;

He marched them up to the top of the hill,

And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,

And when they were down, they were down,

And when they were only half-way up,

They were neither up nor down.
The Italian Defence Minister, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paolo has only two marines but they have been back and forth between Bari and Kochi in Kerala and Rome and New Delhi with as much uncertainty as the Duke of York’s men.

The two men are accused of the illegal killing of two Indian fishermen in February last year and have been the subject of very complicated wrangle ever since involving international law, national politics, diplomacy, corruption and multi-million euro deals.

After having told the Indian government very publicly on 11 March that Italy would renege on the deal by which the two men had been given a month’s parole, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Giulio Terzi decided yesterday to send them back to India to face trial.

From the beginning, the whole episode has been a chain of mistakes and misjudgments which have not enhanced Italy’s reputation as a world player.

On 15 February last year, two fishermen were killed by shots fired from the MV Lexie, a tanker flying the Italian flag with six Italian marines on board as defence against possible pirate attacks. The marines mistook the fishing boat for pirates. Two of them Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone were identified as being responsible for the killing.

Even after 13 months there is still some doubt as to exactly what happened and where the vessel was when the incident took place as no immediate report was made. The Indian coast guard brought the ship into Kochi and there are conflicting reports as to whether it was an “invitation” or an obligation. There is also confusion as to how the two marines were actually apprehended. They have said to journalists that they were tricked into leaving the ship. It is also possible that the Lexie was outside Indian territorial waters and outside the contiguous zone where India has a right to intervene.

If the ship was in international waters and the Indians forced it into Kochi and forced the marines to leave the ship then it was almost certainly an illegal act but no Italian protest was lodged at the time nor since then.

Once on Indian soil, clearly the federal and Kerala state authorities had the right to investigate an incident whose victims were Indian but the final jurisdiction of the case is far from clear.

Trying to maintain good relations with Italy, the Indian courts granted Latorre and Girone house arrest and then gave them parole for a Christmas visit. This allowed both Kerala and national opposition to accuse the government of favoritism due to Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins so the case became part of the domestic political game.

The two men were granted a second parole for a month to cover the Italian elections with the Italian ambassador standing surety for them. When Terzi said that they would not be returning, in effect jumping bail, the ambassador found himself in practice a hostage, prevented from leaving the country, his diplomatic immunity unilaterally removed. This is contrary to all the diplomatic conventions but then the modern world has not seen diplomats offer themselves as bail guarantors.

The decision not to send the two men back was seen by just about everyone here has a mistake which made Italy look very bad internationally, unreliable and two-faced.

It certainly has not helped the issue that the two men have been feted as heroes – met at Ciampino airport by the defence and foreign ministers and then received by President Napolitano.

Although there has been no statement from the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy Catherine Ashton, (apart from her spokesman putting out an anodyne hope that Italy and India resolve their differences) one can guess that she was in despair at both the Italian and Indian actions and put some discreet pressure on Terzi and Monti to keep their word.

And given the other area of tension between Italy and India where Agusta is accused of paying bribes in a helicopter deal with the Indian air force, Italy certainly did not want to risk the lucrative deal with a serious diplomatic row.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rule of the Law – Rule of the Outlaw

Yesterday consultations begin to see if it will be possible for Pierluigi Bersani or someone else to form a government. It is an arcane ritual dictated by the constitution in which all of the players in the political game and some of the former players are consulted. Leaders of minor parties, the Speakers of the two chambers an ex-President Ciampi went up to the Quirinal. Today it was the turn of the three big groupings and this evening or on Friday, we should know whether President Napolitano reckons that Bersani has a chance of winning a vote of confidence or whether he will ask someone else or whether we will have early elections.

In the meantime, there is a matter which colours the whole political scene, an issue which has been around since the early days of Bettino Craxi but like all chronic illnesses, it goes through acute phases and we are in a very serious phase at the moment. Are politicians above, below or just removed from the law…

On the day that former British cabinet minister, Chris Huhne and his wife Valerie Pryce were being taken off to serve 8 month gaol sentences for perverting the course of justice, the President of Italy said that the judiciary should not prevent Silvio Berlusconi from acting as the leader of a political party. The President’s admonition came immediately after Berlusconi had been given a one sentence for contempt of court in one case and after another court had sent the court’s physician to check his state of health after he pleaded conjunctivitis as a legitimate reason for not attending a summons.

The President is the titular head of the judiciary so is therefore supposed to act in their interest… or at least not against it. So it was very surprising to read the President’s statement last week expressing his concern at “the tension and contrast between politics and justice”. The comuniqué continued “It is understandable that the line-up that came a close second in the 24 Feb. elections is worried that its leader is guaranteed that its leader can adequately participate in the the complicated political and institutional phase that we are in” .

Like any democracy, Italy proclaims that it is governed by the rule of law and in every court, there is a grand proclamation “The Law is Equal for All”. Instead, the President admits that there is a contrast between “law”, the judiciary, and “politics” or rather one individual politician who has been prosecuted for a variety of offences and convicted on some (so far not to the third level of judgement).

Unlike any democracy, we have a former prime minister who came close to winning again last month who calls the judiciary “a cancer” and whose party secretary (a former Minister of Justice!) stages a protest in the Milan Palace of Justice along with a group of members of Parliament.

It was an extraordinary scene; these were not 1970s students or Red Brigades sympathisers or 1920s fascists with clubs and castor oil. But because it was Berlusconi and his supporters, the President felt he had to be somehow “even-handed”. It is an extraordinary position for the head of the judiciary which implies that politicians are equal to other citizens before the law.

One friend wrote last week: “Hopefully your next posting will look at Napolitano's craven statement yesterday essentially telling Italy's judiciary that Berlusconi has a right to be left alone for a while given how important he is to parliament. Incroyable!”

Only too believable; and as the days of judgement draw near, Berlusconi and his people (who are indeed almost a third of the population) are becoming increasingly desperate. The judgement in the “Ruby” trial (under age prostitution and abuse of power) has been put off but only for a matter of weeks while the other immediate problem for him, the De Gregorio case where he is accused of bribing a senator to change sides and bring down the 2008 Prodi government has been put on the normal track instead of the fast track. There are others and the noose is closing – not round his neck as he will not go to gaol if sentenced but a ban on holding public office is probable and Grillo has said that he would vote in favour of allowing Berlusconi’s preventive arrest.

His reaction has been to call for a demonstration on Saturday once again against overzealous judges and to make overtures to the PD to secure the Presidency presumably with an eye to delaying unwanted legislation and having literally a get-out-of-gaol card in the form of a presidential pardon.

Berlusconi has long complained that his cases were remote-controlled and timed to coincide with elections for maximum damage but he has so many prosecutions that one is bound to coincide with some elections. Instead, one of the reasons for withdrawing support from Monti’s government in December and provoking early elections was to have the campaign and vote before the Ruby verdict.

Not so much a rule of law more a rule of outlaw.

Monday, March 18, 2013

El Papa Porteño – faux naïf.

In one of the galleries of the Vatican, there are a series of stunning 17th century maps covering the whole world then known in Rome. They are an appropriate decoration for the Dicastery for Relations with States, Vaticanspeak for Foreign Office, MFA or State Department. But they obviously show some errors or lacunæ due to the then state of knowledge so in one of the rooms leading off the gallery a modern map was painted in the 1950s. The shapes of the continents are perfect and the names all in Latin (or Graeco-Latin). The capital of Bolivia becomes Paxia and of Chile Sancti Iacopoli. Even Canada’s Algonquin capital is Latinised to Octavia. But the most curious name for a place of diplomacy is the one found on the bottom left of the Atlantic Ocean “Insulæ falklandiæ”. I wonder if the next time I visit it will have become “malvinæ”.

Facetiousness apart, Cardinal Bergoglio did say that the Falklands/Malvinas had been “usurped” in a speech last year but the issue is hardly at the top of his papal priorities.

In the few days that he has been pope, he has confused many, endeared himself to most (believers and non-believers, clerical and anti-clerical) and probably frightened a few (in the Curia and maybe some comfy clerics).

So far, obviously, he has actually changed very little of substance but he has already made enormous changes in the form of the papacy. Starting with himself – he is the first non-European (since the 8th C), the first South American, the first Jesuit and first to call himself Francis. A part of the Church heirarchy changed just by electing him and he rose to the occasion, from what we have seen so far, just by being himself.

In his first homily, he refused the red stole embroidered in gold; he shocked everyone by going back to his hotel to pay the bill and went around without the papal escort. Seventy years ago it was the “vento del nord” the north wind of antifascist partisans that changed Roman politics, today the breeze from the other side of the Tiber is setting an example for politicians already struggling with Beppe Grillo’s tsunami. The new speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, went to the Quirinale yesterday for an official visit to President Napolitano; she walked and was without an escort. No doubt she would have done it anyway but she was certainly comforted by the Pope’s example. The concepts of “poverty” and “service” are part of the rhetoric on both sides of the river – if Jorge Mario Bergoglio can change his side, it will have an inevitable effect on the Italian side.

He wears the same worn black shoes that he wore as cardinal refusing the crimson papal slippers that were the satirists’ delight with Benedict XVI and he wears an iron crucifix rather than the golden papal one.

Some of his traits are reminiscent of Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII including his physical features (even if Roncalli was shorter and plumper). John XXIII once described Vatican rituals as worthy of a “Persian satrap”. Roncalli had an easy manner with everyone – his smile was disarming and so is Bergoglio’s. Francis presents himself as the simple and ingenuous priest when he is actually complicated, contradictory and it would seem, very much on the ball.

At Saturday’s meeting with the 5,000 journalist covering the conclave he was relaxed and outgoing, joking gently with them “you’ve worked a bit, haven’t you?” and then in stark contrast to his predecessor whose bugbear was “relativism”, his word for agnosticism, Francis blessed the journalists “in silence because some of you are of different faith and some have no faith”, the first time, I think, that a pope has acknowledged atheists in a non-hostile manner.

On the issues, for the moment, he has concentrated on poverty, admitting that this is a political issue – it could hardly be otherwise. He has worked all his priestly life to alleviate poverty, supported striking workers but at the same time criticised the liberation theology which his south American brethren did so much to develop and propagate. There are aspects which appeal to the left but he is far from being a left-wing pope which also should not surprise us. There is still some doubt about what he did under the Videla regime in the 70’s; there are some accusations that he reported two Jesuits to the authorities who then arrested and tortured them and counterclaims that he actually saved them. Now that he is pope the real story will appear through the fog.

There are conflicting accounts of what he did last week when he met Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of covering up pedophile scandals in Boston; he may or may not have told him to withdraw from his position in St. Mary Major.

On what is legal for the rest of the world, we can hardly expect any change; no to legal abortion, no to gay sex between consenting adults (and probably straight sex between unmarried consenting adults), no to married priests. Cardinal Bergoglio was a conservative, Pope Francis is not going to change in 4 days nor in 400 and probably not in 4,000.

But he will certainly work to reclaim Latin America from the evangelical Christians and secularisation and has already begun the job just by being elected.

The biggest question mark is on how he will deal with the Vatican’s administration – its banking and the Curia. This is a civil service that has had 1,500 years of experience (actually more like 2,500 as they are the heirs of the Roman Empire and Republican administration). They make Sir Humphrey Appleby look like a parvenu and many a would-be reforming pope has ended up being able to do little or nothing or being consumed by curial politics like Francis’s predecessor.

Vatican legend has it that John Paul I was removed by a spiked tisane – Il Fatto Quotidiano’s satirical supplement yesterday listed Francis’s positive features and concluded that the tisane had already been brewed. Whether it’s an infusion or just political poison, Francis will need all his own political skills to do what he wants to do.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Playing Chicken with a Country

Until yesterday, it looked very much as if Italy’s elected representatives were playing chicken with their country. In the original version of the game, two drivers drive at each on a straight road and the one that blinks and swerves is chicken. If neither yield, both die. It was a favorite metaphor used by game theorists in the ‘50s and ‘60s to analyse nuclear stand-off which would have led to the well-chosen acronym of the time MAD or mutually assured destruction.

For the first players, the risk was that two people would die, usually young males – Bertrand Russell calls them “youthful degenerates”. In the second the whole world might have been destroyed. Today’s Italian variety is closer to the first as the threat is not of physical destruction and affects only one country directly and the rest of Europe only indirectly. The players though, are far from “youthful”.

The challenges are various and linked – each one has the parties careering towards each other on collision courses and each crash avoided means another challenge tomorrow or the next day.

There are three big tournaments facing the political class.

The first was the election of the speakers of the two chambers which took place yesterday. The second is the formation of a new government which will begin on Wednesday and the third is the election of a new president of the republic which will begin on 15 April.

Each process has different procedures and electoral systems but apart from the lower house, no one has a clear majority anywhere. In a normal political set-up, the four groups would negotiate over sharing the positions and the policy points to pursue – a more or less equitable balance of pork and principle which is the foundation of any government in normal times… but we are not in normal times.

Until Friday evening, Pierluigi Bersani’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) had two worthy but very much old-style party apparatchiks as candidates. One, Anna Finocchiaro had been photographed (above left, caught by a Berlusconi gossip magazine) using her police escorts as porters in an Ikea shopping expedition. On the day that the Pope refused an escort, those photographs had become a serious liability. The PD has its own internal game of chicken as Bersani and the runner-up in party primaries, Matteo Renzi spar over who will lead the party in the likely elections in June or a year from now.

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) put forward their own candidates and said they would never support any of the traditional parties.

Mario Monti’s Civic Choice (SC) should have been Bersani’s natural ally but as Bersani tried to negotiate with Grillo, Monti started to play dog in the manger, putting forward his own name as possible senate speaker and wanting to resign as prime minister (and leave the country in the lurch). His lack of success at the polls seem to have instantly transformed him from the respected non-partisan expert to a mean and petty jobbing politician just out for short-term gain.

On the centre-right, Silvio Berlusconi’s first aim is to prevent any more of his trials coming to verdict. He and his People of Freedom (PdL) party are not going to support any government which has anti-corruption and conflict of interest measures in the programme as Bersani’s does.

The result until Friday was stalemate over the medium term negotiations. There was always going to a result of some sort as the PD has a majority in the Chamber and in the Senate after three inconclusive votes, they move to a run-off between the two leading candidates so someone had to win but it would not have been a consensus candidate. In chicken terms, the smash had just been postponed as there was no negotiation on the much more difficult and important issues of government and president.

Then between the Friday and Saturday ballots, the PD put up two new candidates, former UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Boldrini for the Chamber and former anti-mafia prosecutor and judge, Piero Grasso. (top left) Both were elected for the first time last month and have no odour of stale parties; Boldrini has been an outspoken defender of refugees and the weaker members of society and reiterated her position in her acceptance speech. She is a woman and relatively young at 51 and was elected in Nichi Vendola’s Left, Ecology, Freedom (SEL) party. By putting her up as candidate, Bersani made more than a nod to M5S and other protest voters.

The anti-mafia Grasso was faced by another Sicilian, the outgoing speaker, the PdL Renato Schifani, a lawyer whose firm defended mafiosi and who was himself indirectly implicated in mafia dealings. The result was going to be very close and there was a slim possibility that Schifani might have won. The M5S Sicilians knew they could not go home responsible for electing Schifano over Grasso… and they blinked. Twelve of them (more than just the Sicilians) voted (in a secret ballot) for Grasso and against Grillo’s dictat. Grillo himself threw brickbats at them from his Jupiter like position outside Parliament.

Bersani still doesn’t have a majority in the Senate but he is just a little stronger than he was yesterday. For the moment he will have to work alone, without open negotiations with the other parties – he will prepare a list of possible cabinet ministers, a good number from outside the PD or SEL and a series of measures which M5S might not support but will not prevent. Bersani feels strong enough to ask for a full mandate to form a government (rather a non-committal exploratory mandate).

If he gets that far, the next collision course will be the vote of confidence in the Senate and he knows that he changed course a little and M5S is far from monolithic.

Italy’s domestic MAD has been put off for the moment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mystification and Populism – the genius of Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo.

Yesterday a group of about 150 parliamentarians demonstrated outside the Palace of Justice in Milan. They then moved into the building to the office of prosecutor Ilda Boccassini. They were members of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party and were protesting against what they call the persecution of their leader by the judiciary.

When dozens of angry people, privileged members of the legislature, appear in front of an office, this is no longer a protest, it is a threat towards the individual and her institution even if there were no explicit physical threats.
Before the elections, Beppe Grillo quoted Cromwell’s dissolution of the Rump Parliament approvingly “Take away this bauble” screamed Grillo in January. Since taking a quarter of the Italian vote, he has been no less tender about Parliament and above all its political parties.

Italian institutions – the courts and the parliament are under siege and the easy description is “populism” but it’s not always an easy concept to define.

At the theatre, we grant the performance a willing suspension of disbelief. In politics, the successful demagogue forces us into that unwilling suspension of disbelief. This election campaign gave the stage to two masters of the black art of mystification which is at the basis of any populist movement.

The secret of mystification in politics is to present an argument and a narrative that our rational selves can see are true and then to embellish them in order to make non-logical deductions and reach false conclusions with a performance which obfuscates the faulty reasoning. Berlusconi and Grillo have the conjuror’s sleight of hand and hide the workings of their magic.

Berlusconi started from the premise that Italians who pay taxes get a lousy deal. So he promised to reimburse the IMU property tax either from the state or even personally implicitly suggesting that he is the state (or better and more generous than the state).

He promises “freedom” meaning freedom from taxes; freedom of religion meaning public support for Catholic schools; freedom of expression means his media may write or broadcast anything. But we all like “freedom” don’t we?

For his part, Grillo lies… about the past and he fudges the future. He attacked La Repubblica for claiming that he had invited al Qaeda to target the Italian Parliament and given them the coordinates. All La Repubblica had done (along with most other Italian media) was to put the clip of him doing just that on their site. (as I did too, for what it’s worth). For the future, like Berlusconi, he promised material support, a €1,000 dole for the unwaged, more than many Italians get by working.

Grillo also uses the hardy perennials of populism, targetting Jews, women and immigrants.

He has been rude about Jews in a spat with journalist Gad Lerner and Israel in an interview with Menachem Gantz and happily leaves extremely offensive antisemitic remarks on his blog. Recently he refused to even talk about the question to AP’s Frances D’Emilio.

In a different way he is as sexist as Berlusconi when he expelled Bologna city councillor, Federica Salsi after she had taken part in a television talk show. He accused her using the television as the G-spot for an orgasm.

He is against giving citizenship to children born in Italy to immigrant parents, he was at the very least unwise when he suggested that when carabinieri want to beat up a Moroccan, they should do in private and not in front of a camera. And he has made friendly remarks to members of the neo-Fascist Casa Pound.

Both Grillo and Berlusconi refuse dialogue. Grillo has never been on a talkshow and though he has been interviewed (rarely and only the foreign press), he has never accepted difficult questioning. Berlusconi had rarely been off screen but like Grillo refuses to face hard questions and often attacks the interviewer.

Berlusconi started his career proposing a “partito leggero” (the best translation I could come up with was “nimble party”). Grillo wants no party at all and wants to get rid of all political parties.

Their populism is defined by their unmediated contact with their followers. They refuse any form of reins, neither party nor parliament nor courts. Their power and authority comes from the their supporters. Berlusconi put it very clearly when he won the 1994 elections – he was “unto dal popolo”, anointed by the people, not elected or given a limited mandate within the rule of law, and like the king anointed by god, Berlusconi’s oil too, could not be washed off.

Grillo goes in the other direction – he talks about popular democracy, web democracy but he is still claiming Rousseau’s “General Will”. He is a Robespierre without the smart knee britches and thankfully without the guillotine.

Despite their methods which earned them the epithet clown from The Economist and the German SPD leader, Peer Steinbrück, they are as Gianfranco Pasquino said “political entrepreneurs” and very successful ones too. In their different ways, they have interpreted popular discontent and mobilised it

They are sirens or pied pipers. Both metaphors are valid. They seduce passersby with their songs and Berlusconi at least, has wrecked the country or brought Italy very close to sinking. Grillo might complete the wreck. And he more than Berlusconi promises to rid Hamelin of the political rats “tutti a casa… arrendetevi, siete circondati!” “everybody go home – you’re surrounded” he shouted at parliament.

Now his supporters are in Parliament and are trying to work out what to do while Berlusconi’s are threatening to boycott the place.

The Italian constitution is robustly constructed but its institutions have never been more at risk.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Our Man in the Vatican

Virgilio Scattolini was a man with imagination and an eye for the main chance… or at least an easier life. Before, during and after the war, he gave out (or rather, sold) information on what was going on in the Vatican. Given the crucial role that Pius XII and the whole of the Vatican played over that period, his intelligence found a ready market among journalist and spies of all sorts. When the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor) archives were opened in the Seventies, historians too lapped up Scattolini’s wisdom stored in Washington and now made more reliable by the “Top Secret” stamp.

The problem was that Scattolini was making it all up.

Graham Greene was in Rome at the time of Scattolini’s trial for fraud which was well covered in the Italian and British press (which punned on his name and called him “little boxes”) and I would like to think that he took Scattolini as his model for Jim Wormald, Our Man in Havana, the vacuum cleaner salesman who invents a Cuban weapons programme to keep MI5 happy.

Today, the world is a lot less tense and some cardinals tweet and blog and give interviews but the Vatican remains a very secretive place; the conclave is no ordinary election process. Even the recent transfer of power in China was done in the presence of party representatives. But nominally at least, Chinese leaders are responsible to the Chinese people, not the Holy Spirit.

This means that there are still a lot of latterday Scattolinis in Rome at the moment.

I doubt that any of them… us, I suppose since I’m also asked to explain the goings on across the river, actively fabricate stories like Wormald but the reliability of our information is always a bit shaky and the temptation to embellish is very strong. The stakes are high as always but this time, more explicit than during other conclaves: sex, money and power. And the spiritual aspect of the papal succession just adds spice to the story. No one expects the presidents of the US or China to be men of God. Only in Iran and Tibet is the leader supposed to have religious qualifications alongside the political. And then, at a much more frivolous level, no one can match the Vatican for pomp and ceremony: 115 scarlet-robed gentlemen locked into a chapel painted by Michelangelo in a square colonnaded by Bernini. It is difficult to beat as the show and the substance coincide. A British coronation or a presidential inauguration is just the showy part, the substance took place elsewhere. Here they are together which explains why there are almost more journalists staking out St. Peter’s than pilgrims and tourists.

On the issues, there seems to be agreement among the cardinals that speak that the new pope should be young and energetic enough to reform the curia though there is no agreement on whether an insider with experience of the workings of the Vatican government would be better than an untainted but inexperienced outsider. He must decide on what role the Vatican banking system should play, whether to fully integrate it into the regulated European system or maintain its status as a limited off-shore tax haven. And then he must deal with sexual issues both inside and outside the Church. These go from the “inappropriate behaviour” of Cardinal Keith O’Brien (which if it was gay sex between consenting adults is legally hardly a problem in Britain today) to covering up serious criminal acts of raping children. Finally the new man will have to address the declining congregation of Catholics across the world – to secularism in Europe and North America and mostly to the competition woth Christian evangelicals in the Africa and South America.

The spiritual qualities of Their Eminences are taken for granted by members of the college. In any case, if any of them think that one of their fellow cardinals is too worldly, they are not going to say so in public.

The job description is clear enough; the candidates much less so. Since all the cardinals were appointed by two very conservative popes, the new man is unlikely to be a liberal but the Thomas à Becket syndrome does sometimes take over. This is when an appointee decides his responsibility is more towards the job itself than to the person who appointed him. It happens now and then in the US Supreme Court.

So from external deductions, the profile of the new pope is youngish, active with some curial experience but not too much, from the developing world and conservative. But anything can happen in the secrecy of the Sistine Chapel and no Scattolini is going to reveal the cardinals’ game plans.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ratings and Spread

As the results of the Italian elections came in last week, it was blindingly obvious that the country was in for a rough ride economically. There is a contrast between the internationalists and “Europeans” on the one side and the “Italianists” on the other; there is another division which almost matches the first between supporters of a continuing austerity programme and those who would like to spend now in order to get us out of the recession (the terms are not quite right they will do as shorthand).

The reality of the Italian economy did not change with the results; businesses are closing (more than 100,000 last year) and unemployment continues to rise, especially among the young. The good news is that there is a primary budget surplus (income covers expenses before interest on the national debt is paid) and a balanced budget is not far away though precisely when this will happen is a matter of discussion between the Italian government and the European Commission.

The other good news for the time being is that miraculously, the traditional Italian “welfare system” has prevented the serious unrest that we have seen in Greece… the problem is that the “welfare system” is wholly informal, based on private savings, the family and the grey economy all of which may and indeed are changing for the worst.
So Friday’s news (after the markets had closed) that Fitch had downgraded Italian bonds to BBB+, just three rungs above junk was less than earth-shattering. Once again, the ratings agencies reflected a change that had already taken place rather than predicting future developments.

There is much concern in Italy and talk, again, that the agencies are in some conflict of interest because they work for banks and therefore cannot give independent advice. This is curious as the agencies actually work in a communion of interests. They do not pretend to be independent observers; their first clients are the banks to whom they try and give sound advicein their own interet in order not to lose the job. They do not work for us the taxpayers or governments. And sometimes they are catastrophically wrong as in the case of the Lehman brothers in 2008.

And at least partially because of those mistakes, their pronouncements are taken a lot more circumspectly today than they were five years ago.

Agencies are subject to what can conveniently be called the “lexicographer’s paradox”. Does the dictionary just reflect the way we use a word or is it normative and instruct us on how a word should be used? Both of course; and ratings agencies do much the same.

The Minister for the Economy Vittorio Grilli said yesterday that he was “confident” that the next round of Italian bonds would sell without any problems on Tuesday and Wednesday which seems likely but he was also said that there would be a new government “in the next few days” which is highly unlikely.

The Monti reforms encouraged by the EU and implictly by the markets are still in place and will continue to be applied until a new government takes office and decides to modify them so in the short term, the prospect is not rosy but not grim either. There is a serious lack of credit available to wobbling Italian businesses and, a problem which needs to be faced and the massive unpaid public sector bills to private businesses would be enough get the economy started again. So in the medium to long term, there is a need for structural reform in Italy and that will need a government, and a strong one too.

Italy is not Greece with a weak economy and spending and debt out of control but it is not Belgium either where the economy could support the country and public spending quite happily for 541 days without a government.