Italy’s hopes of unity likely to be thwarted

posted by Geoff Andrews at Monday, March 10, 2008

Financial Times, 10 March 2008. Wolfgang Munchau’s argument that Italy needs a grand coalition to halt economic decline and drive through reform has been given greater weight in recent weeks. Walter Veltroni’s new Democratic party has begun to close the gap significantly on his rival, Silvio Berlusconi, ensuring another close contest in next month’s general election, while recent polls show a desire among citizens for both institutional reforms and more stability. Yet this new mood of national unity and renewal is likely to be thwarted by the private interests of Italy’s political class, for whom the costs of such change are high.

A year ago, I argued in these pages that Italy needed a radical centre able to deliver structural reform, modernisation of the economy and a new culture of legality and transparency that would revive a degenerate body politic. Italy is crying out for institutional reform of the kind that can be provided only by a new consensus across the political spectrum. Without this reform, which will need to include a change in the electoral system, more transparency in the running of public institutions and greater vigilance in tackling illegality and corruption, Italy will find it increasingly difficult to compete with its European allies.

Mr Veltroni has made the running on these questions, calling for a “clean slate” of candidates in a system that has a high proportion of politicians holding criminal convictions, and calling for less adversarial politics. His decision to replace Ciriaco De Mita, a parliamentarian of more than 40 years’ standing, with a younger candidate reflects his desire to embrace a new generation of politicians. His electoral programme, a mixture of increased security, targeted public spending, less tax but a stronger clampdown on tax evasion and a more efficient and meritocratic public sector, is designed to break with the past (he has so far refused a deal with the communists) and win over a new generation.

For Mr Berlusconi, the appeal of a grand coalition is rather different. As Mr Munchau suggested, heading another government with a small majority may no longer be an attractive option for the 71-year-old leader, who has made clear his future ambition to be president of the Italian republic.

With Italy’s electoral system likely to make it difficult for any coalition to win an overall majority, both he and Mr Veltroni have one eye on their own future legacies. To date, they have attempted a more conciliatory tone, mindful of the rancour and bitterness of the 2006 campaign. However, if the conditions now seem favourable for a post-election deal, there are two main obstacles that cast serious doubt on its future success.

First, Mr Berlusconi’s own journey from a salesman to a statesman able to unite the country in the national interest is fraught with problems. He is currently facing yet another trial for bribery, while he remains implacably opposed to attempts to bring errant politicians to justice through the courts. Mr Berlusconi is essentially a man of power. He will demand a big trade-off in any post-election agreement and previously refused to enter into cross-party discussions over institutional reform when President Giorgio Napolitano tried to set up an interim government. History has shown that on the occasions when he has negotiated with his opponents he always drives a hard bargain in which his own private interests are non-negotiable.

Second, the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), along with the smaller Christian Democratic parties, is likely to be important in any post-election deal. Pier Ferdinando Casini, the leader of the UDC, who has refused an electoral alliance with Mr Berlusconi, has been calling for a grand coalition for some time. He is attempting to position his party as the kingmaker in any subsequent negotiations.

Yet this is the party of the “old centre” that most closely resembles the discredited politics of clientelism, Mafia links and collusion with the Vatican. One of their leaders, Salvatore Cuffaro, the governor of Sicily, has recently been found guilty of “helping the Mafia”, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and banned from holding public office. Yet he remains an important figure in the UDC’s election preparations and the party’s refusal to accept the authority of the magistrates does not bode well for its role in any reform agenda. If we add the increasingly conservative interventions of the Vatican in Italy’s affairs, at a time when Italy needs a clear secular foundation to its reform agenda, there are few grounds for optimism.

Italy needs a new settlement involving institutional reform and economic modernisation. It can achieve this only via a grand coalition that builds consensus not only between different political parties but also through the participation of figures such as Luca di Montezemolo, leader of the employers’ federation, Confindustria, who has become an influential voice on Italy’s declining competitiveness and economic stagnation in recent weeks.

Another struggling government, presided over by a decaying political class, would spell disaster for Italy. Mr Veltroni has seized the moment of national renewal and seems to have captured a new mood for change. As the election race tightens there are likely to be more calls for a fresh start. Italian politics is not as easy as that, however, and we can expect the old conservative interests to close ranks. Do not hold your breath.

The writer is author of ‘Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi’ (Pluto Press 2005) and staff tutor in politics at Britain’s Open University