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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear mr. Walston,

your articles on italian politics are as always interesting.

I have an objection, though, on the use of ms. Finocchiaro picture in which her police escorts is labeled as being used by ms. Finocchiaro as "porters".

First, leaving apart any political symphaty one may or may not have with ms. Finocchiaro, her party (and the specific current in the party she belong to), it has to be said that police escort to ms. Finocchiaro is not a "status symbol" one, as often happen with italian politics.

Before being a MoP Ms Finocchiaro was a judge involved in mafia related cases, and her safety coud be very well at risk, so she can't just renounce to a police escort.

About the escort policemen holding the shopping cart, that was not using them as porters, it was, as clarified by everyone, an act of mere courtesy: it would just be natural, in many eyes including mine, that if there's a bag or a similar item to carry, a man offer the woman to carry it for her, expecially if they work and walk together.

It's completely fine that this could not look natural at other eyes, though: it could be just a matter of cultural differences.

With best regards,