Why Italy's political centre is a radical place to be

posted by Geoff Andrews at Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Financial Times, 9th January 2007

Romano Prodi has described 2007 as "the year of change ". The Italian prime minister intends to embark on "phase two " of reforming the country after the Berlusconi years. But, whatever happens, his main challenge will remain the same: holding together a disparate nine-party coalition. After a bitter fight, he succeeded in pushing through a new budget - the main purpose of "phase one " - but even that has done little to halt his slide in the opinion polls. Public trust in Italy's political class, weak enough under Silvio Berlusconi, is at a dangerously low level.

Early discontent with Mr Prodi's government has yet to do the opposition much good. Mr Berlusconi is an incapacitated leader, recovering from the heart operation that followed his collapse at a party rally. He has already let slip that he has no plans to stand at the next election, by which time he will be 74. Most of the House of Liberties coalition, which governed Italy for five years under Mr Berlusconi, recently mobilised for a morale-boosting rally against the budget. But it is clear that it struggles to find a common purpose.

For all Mr Prodi's talk of healing divisions, Italy has not been as divided since the fascist period. In last April's knife-edge election, the centre-left
took power with a majority of just
two in the Senate, Italy's upper chamber. Mr Berlusconi refused to accept defeat, declaring that he would make Italy ungovernable.

The acrimonious nature of Italian political debate has reached a new level of fear and loathing, with opponents routinely shouting each other down. In his new year message, Giorgio Napolitano, the Italian president, warned that unless there was dialogue between government and opposition, Italians would start to abandon politics altogether.

Even an unexpected World Cup victory last July did little to heal the nation's wounds. Long-standing divisions between north and south have become reinforced by the almost complete breakdown of legality in parts of Calabria and Naples, while the country has been split by a euthanasia case and whether to allow equal legal status for gay and lesbian couples.

But it is the finanziaria, the new budget law, that has been most divisive. Italy's economy has been in long-term decline, with its public spending deficit spiralling out of control under Mr Berlusconi. Bringing the deficit within the limit imposed by the European Union has been the priority of Mr Prodi and Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, his finance minister. Their workmanlike approach has kept them on course to meet this target.

Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody in Italy seems happy with higher taxes and reductions in public spending. One Friday in November saw three simultaneous demonstrations in Rome against the budget, organised by groups from within the governing coalition. One part of Mr Prodi's coalition urges liberalisation reforms, while the other wants more protection for employees on short-term contracts. Few seem to know where it is heading.

The great paradox in all this turmoil is that in spite of the disdain Italians reserve for their politicians, a majority believes that the government will survive and that the economy will improve during 2007, according to a recent Demos-Eurisko poll. After the populism of Mr Berlusconi there seems to be a desire for "normal " politics, based not only on careful stewardship of the economy but by rebuilding trust in Italy's decaying public life.

Yet, while they see differences in style between Mr Berlusconi and his successor, Italians are yet to be convinced by Mr Prodi's ability to bring about change.

Only in foreign affairs has the government sought a decisive break from the Berlusconi years, notably by distancing itself from US President George W. Bush and taking a new approach to the Middle East. Making Italy more competitive is another route to becoming a normal country, while reducing regional divisions is vital for national unity. These measures need not be contradictory if they are part of a clear agenda for reform.

Much will depend on whether Mr Prodi can turn his pragmatism into a virtue and win over the centre ground. In the Italian case, the "centre " can be a truly radical place to be, whether it is bringing the economy in line with those of its European partners, tackling the culture of illegality among public officials or fostering pluralist media. These initiatives have been earmarked for "phase two ". But first he must convince his squabbling allies.

The writer is the author of Un Paese Anormale (Effepi Libri 2007). He is staff tutor in politics at the UK's Open University.