Italy Locked in an Impasse

posted by Geoff Andrews at Monday, April 05, 2010

Geoff Andrews, Financial Times

Last week’s regional elections in Italy provided an opportunity for a change of direction that could lead to a new season of reform. The elections followed months of uncertainty, with Silvio Berlusconi’s troubles escalating with almost daily allegations about Mafia association, sex scandals, media interference and bribery charges. Yet, not only did he come through the elections relatively unscathed, the official opposition made virtually no impact; the main “victors” being Umberto Bossi’s regionalists and small protest parties. This means that a country that desperately needs political reforms to revitalise an ailing economy remains locked in an impasse.

There were several reasons why Italy needed to demonstrate a new commitment to reform. First, after all that has happened to Mr Berlusconi, his European allies hoped for some hint of a change of leadership: some sign of the stability that could halt a rapidly declining economy. Second, political and constitutional reform is crucial in order to make the country more transparent, meritocratic and competitive. Third, there needed to be some indication that the “dirty” politics of widespread fraud and corruption in Italy’s public life, which has had a significant effect on attempts to deal with public debt, could be addressed by a new vision of a cleaner and more trustworthy political class.

At an Open University conference in Birmingham in February we looked forward to an Italy in a post-Berlusconi era. We asked politics professors, commentators and policymakers what questions they would like to put now to Italy’s opposition party. The resulting “Ten Questions to the Opposition” asked how it would go about making Italy more meritocratic and open to young people, which political reforms it would prioritise and what would be done about Mr Berlusconi’s conflict of interests between his media ownership and political role. Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the Democratic party, the main opposition party, gave some encouraging answers in La Stampa on increasing opportunities for young people and on reducing the numbers of parliamentarians to end the privileges of politicians, who benefit from better salaries and expenses than their European counterparts.

Yet there was little indication in Mr Letta’s article of the political will to deliver the reforms, which require changes to the electoral system to end party control and more transparency in selection of candidates. The opposition rightly questions Mr Berlusconi’s choice of showgirls as parliamentary candidates, yet its own candidate lists are still dominated by the same personalities and party interests.

Reducing the number of parliamentarians is necessary for reform but less important than finding a new generation of leaders, including more women in a country that has the fewest women parliamentarians in Europe. Unfortunately, as the electorate seems to have confirmed last week, the official opposition is now widely regarded as sharing some of the characteristics of the political class as a whole; namely overly protected by party interests and finance, complicit in corrupt practices and difficult to remove from office.

Last week the Italian electorate decided there is still no clear alternative to Mr Berlusconi. A low turnout was matched by votes for unlikely rebel groups, including the magistrate Antonio Di Pietro’s “Italy of Values” party, the comic Beppe Grillo’s citizens movement and the leftwing candidate Nichi Vendola in Puglia. These three disparate figures represented, in different ways, a cleaner and more transparent politics. However, they remain marginal protest voices.

Mr Bossi’s Northern League benefited most from voter discontent. It now occupies a powerful presence in Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy and present a serious challenge to Mr Berlusconi from within his own coalition. However its own reform package, which combines greater federalism and anti-immigrant legislation, does not address political transparency and economic modernisation. Mr Berlusconi, for his part, has promised more reforms of the judiciary and the constitutional system, even couching his arguments in the language of liberty and democracy. However, as we know from the recent past, the main objective of such reforms will be to consolidate his power and neuter his opponents. Italy is no nearer to finding its way out of the impasse.