posted by Geoff Andrews at Monday, September 08, 2008

8 September

Before the Italian general election in April commentators were talking up the benefits a new period of consensus politics could bring for the Italian economy. Some even talked of a grand coalition, where much needed institutional reforms – including a change in the electoral system – would be the basis for a more stable economy. However, the bickering and continual crises which made Italy virtually ungovernable under Romano Prodi, has been replaced under Silvio Berlusconi by regressive top-down rule, increasingly dependent on the emergency powers of the state and given a free ride by a weak and effective opposition.

Part of this is undoubtedly the result of Silvio Berlusconi’s brand of authoritarian populism. As the classical populist politician, he has once again appealed over the heads of politicians in directly addressing the fears and emotions of many ordinary Italians – this time on immigration and law and order. This has already seen him use the courts for the protection of his private interests, while his government’s policies on immigration, including finger-printing of the Roma community, have come close to breaching EU laws on racial equality and the free mobility of citizens.

Yet this is only part of the story. Walter Veltroni’s Democratic Party, formed last October, was to be a new vehicle of reform and consensus. Veltroni positioned himself as the modernising force his country was crying out for. In the April elections he distanced himself from the left and aligned instead with Antonio Di Pietro, who fifteen years before had led the ‘Clean Hands’ reforms of Italy’s public institutions and was now in charge of the small ‘Italy of Values’ party. Veltroni himself had been a popular and progressive mayor of Rome and was keen to haul Italy into the European mainstream, favourably quoting Barack Obama and Tony Blair along the way and promising to replace ‘anti-Berlusconi oppositionism’ with cross-party consensus and dialogue.

The initial reaction to Veltroni’s April defeat was tempered by the view of some commentators that he had at least isolated the hard left – which failed to get a single MP elected - making possible a period of normal bi-partisan politics. Some Italian think tanks welcomed the return to clear majority government and, with a moderate and reforming opposition, predicted that there was now a real prospect of the country getting back on its feet and embracing much needed structural reform. Veltroni even announced a British-style shadow cabinet able to scrutinise policy and participate in ‘mature’ cross party negotiations.

In fact what has occurred is that Berlusconi has reverted to type in defending his private interests through parliamentary immunity and, by allowing the anti-immigrant Northern League and post fascists National Alliance to set the agenda, has embraced more divisive solutions. Soldiers have returned to the streets of Italian cities in a display of intent and bravado and a state of emergency has been declared on immigration. The culture of illegality, largely attributed to Berlusconi’s impact on Italian politics, has seemingly been strengthened with more parliamentary immunity legislation and several leading politicians linked with Mafia association. The economy shows no sign of improvement with spiralling inflation and little prospect of economic growth this year.

Veltroni meanwhile has failed to make any impact. He has not learned from the previous strategy adopted by Berlusconi’s governments of pursuing his own interests and rejecting constitutional niceties and as a result has been left stranded. Though he talks a new language of reform, he has not broken from the old world of Italian politics, and remains deferential to leading Christian Democrats like Francesco Rutelli, while publicly falling out with Di Pietro who has been virtually a lone parliamentary voice in galvanising opposition to Berlusconi’s latest attempts to escape the courts. Veltroni’s criticism of Di Pietro and the growing civil society movements has not convinced and it has been left to the European Union and others outside Italy to make the running in questioning the legitimacy of government policy. The Economist’s post-election claim that Veltroni was effectively appeasing Berlusconi and providing a ‘phantom’ opposition has surely proved to be correct.

With inflation rising to its highest in over ten years, Italy’s lack of opposition is likely to bring further disaster for its flailing economy. The disappointment of its beleaguered citizens, who have put their hopes in another Berlusconi miracle, is likely to increase with the prospect of further backlash against immigrants and opposition to new mosques is the latest campaign by the xenophobic Northern League. Italy is a country which does not understand but sorely needs immigration. It is also in need of strong and effective opposition which can defend legality and transparency and push for institutional reform.