“The only thing that keeps the ruling coalition together is the loathing of Berlusconi,” Sylvia Poggioli, NPR’s veteran Rome correspondent, told me over the morning coffee last week, “and the fear that after the next election they’d no longer be in power.” In other words, the leftist l’Unione coalition government of “il Professore” Prodi may last longer than many observers expect—its minimal majority and ready-to-read obituaries notwithstanding. Fear of wilderness and loathing of opponents traditionally provide firmer cement to Italy’s political alliances than such outmoded concept as economic ideas or political principles, let alone cultural “visions.”
In practical terms this means that the government’s greatest achievements to date have been to declare a major amnesty of prisoners that boosted crime rates by over 100 percent in some areas, to encourage competition for the entry into certain professions (e.g., lawyers, pharmacists and taxi drivers), and to give 50-70 extra euros a month to the legions of pensioners.
At the same time education, health care and transportation remain starved of the much-needed investment. Prodi’s promises that helped him gain power last year—judicial reform, a law on the conflict of interest, new electoral rules—remain stalled. Even the modest increase in retirement age, from the current ludicrously generous 58 to 61, has been put on the back burner. To keep 14 coalition parties and groups happy, however, Prodi the would-be reformer increased the number of ministries to 26 and the number of junior ministers to 87. Each qualifies for a Lancia with a driver and an office with a secretary—and the glittering prize of a state pension is an added incentive to keep the show on the road. The mega-racket known as Italian politics is mercilessly depicted in The Caste, a book recently published by journalists Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. The “cost of politics” is an overhead far greater in Italy than in any other major industrialized country, and there is no change on the horizon.
The three main leaders of the center-right opposition—Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia), Gianfranco Fini (Alleanza Nazionale) and Umberto Bossi (Lega Nord) are hardly the faces of “change.” Earlier this month they met with the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, expressing concerns about “the government that doesn’t work” and political situation in the country, but Berlusconi stopped short of calling for a new election.
The secret of Romano Prodi’s survival is in Berlusconi’s unwillingness to retire from politics and let Gianfranco Fini take over the leadership of the opposition. Millions of Italians would like to see Prodi ousted, but only provided that Berlusconi is not the one who will replace him. For as long as the multibillionaire maverick remains the leader of Italy’s opposition, Prodi’s coalition will linger on by default. It may keep “avoiding Waterloos,” as Justice Minister Clemente Mastella memorably put it after last month’s local elections, but it can neither rule nor reign.
Many ordinary Italians as well as political analysts are saying that the country is ready for a “man of action” who can fill the void created by the demise of the Democrazia Christiana—someone who can combine responsible economic liberalism (rather than Berlusconi’s perceived graft) with social and cultural traditionalism that could counter the onslaught of cultural Marxism with its “civil unions” and “asylum-seekers’ rights.” “In Italy we have two lefts and two rights,” explains Fabrizio Maronta of Limes bimonthly journal, but neither the center-left nor the center-right have significant political parties or leaders at the moment. On the center-right a potential contender to watch is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president of Confindustria, who denounces “the self-referential nature of political power, which smothers any impulse toward reform within both the right and the left.” On the left, Prodi’s stated ambition is to create the new “Democratic Party” out of the heirs of the Communist Party (the Democratici di Sinistra led by Piero Fassino) and the neo-Christian Democrat Margherita. The experiment is an expression of the desire to marginalize the far left, such as Comunisti Italiani and Rifondazione Comunista, both of which have disproportionate influence at the moment.
In the meantime, northern industrialists will go on developing their business strategies, southern bosses will go on misusing public funds, the courts will continue being strong with the weak and weak with the strong, some taxes will continue to be paid and others will continue to be evaded. Whatever happens in Rome, Italy will retain an impressive capacity to continue functioning regardless of politics and politicians.
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