An insult to a smart nation

By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 12/04/06):

LET IT NEVER AGAIN be said that Italians are indifferent to politics. By rights, they should have stayed at home. For two months, they have had to put up with an election campaign that was a travesty and an insult, one that pitched a snake oil merchant against a peddler of soporifics.

On both sides of the political divide, they were kept almost totally in the dark about what the winning coalition would actually do with power. As Italians know by now, the ebullient Cavaliere Berlusconi does not deal in reasoned political programmes; the record of the past five years is of half-measures and missed opportunities to push through the market reforms that he promised back in 2001 would restore Italy’s prosperity.

But the alternative, a turgid 289-page election manifesto that exposed little more than the gossamer-thin nature of the centre-left “consensus”, was hardly more compelling, certainly no more enlightening.

As became evident during the campaign, even supposing that Romano Prodi were capable of producing anything except pompous platitudes, he was not going to let the leftwingers in his hydra-headed coalition find out.

There were vote-trapping bribes in profusion, notably Berlusconi’s out-of-the-blue declaration that he would abolish the Italian equivalent of council tax, and the Prodi camp’s absurd pledge to repeal the timid centre-right pension reform requiring people to work until 60 rather than (yes, really) 57. But no hint about how, or by whom, the bills for such fiscal lunacies would be met.

The campaign would have felt like an eternity, had not the Cavaliere’s calculated buffoonery kept the nation entertained and shocked in about equal measure, though that “joke” about the Chinese boiling babies into fertiliser prompted even his fans to worry about the sound of rattling marbles. Portly as he is, Prodi wouldn’t make waves if he fell out of a boat; and Italians have little time for bores.

Worst of all, the voters had to put up with pundits telling them — before the campaign had even begun, throughout its length and even as they emerged from the polling booths — that they had long ago made up their minds to send the Cavaliere packing. On that front, at least, they have had their revenge. They turned out in their millions — more than 83 per cent of the electorate voted, a record in modern Europe — to prove that Italians can never be taken for granted. Defying the complexity of ballot papers with the names of 20 different parties, some little more than groupuscules of activists and special interests, and the impersonality of a party list system that severs any link between voters and their supposed representatives, they delivered a result so finely “balanced” that it unbalanced the entire political establishment.

This has been the very opposite of a caucus race; no one has emerged with a prize. It was a just and mature verdict on an election that both sides deserved to lose. Berlusconi lost his shamefully cynical gamble that because the Prodi coalition includes so many tiny parties, the more cohesive (though barely more united) Centre Right could scrape back if he repealed the 1993 electoral reform establishing first-past-the-post voting for 75 per cent of seats, and returned to the deservedly discredited Italian habit of proportional representation.

As for Prodi’s “serene” complacency, it has been deservedly rebuked. He started with a four to five-point lead in opinion polls and has seen it whittled to a tenth of 1 per cent in the Lower House, while in the Senate, the Centre Left scraped a majority only thanks to the seats allocated to Italians overseas. That is hardly victory.

Prodi has seized the palm and will probably get to keep it for a few months; but already it has a withered look.

This is, of course, being described as a ghastly national crisis, and in the short term it may so prove. At best, nothing much will get done. Yet if Italians entertain doubts about the wisdom of this Cromwellian public rebuke to the political classes — and after a sleepless night, many do — Prodi’s lofty refusal to admit the existence of a problem should set their consciences at ease. The former President of the European Commission, the man who as Italian leader in the 1990s squeezed the Italian economy by crook as well as hook into the euro “family”, declared the electors’ verdict to be “a profoundly European result”. It says something about where the man’s loyalties lie — and about how out of touch he is with a country where the euro, and increasingly Brussels itself, are dirty words.

Being “European” is hardly what Italians think about day and night. With growth almost non-existent, factory jobs vanishing in the direction of Central Europe and Asia, and a swollen, corrupt bureaucracy that is as burdensome as the worst Asia has to offer, they have worries much closer to home than Brussels — worries that they no longer believe membership of the European Union will resolve. They need the homegrown remedies of reasonably efficient government, lower tax burdens and more private investment, and above all a State that learns the light touch and broadens economic opportunities by easing the stranglehold that organised labour exercises on the job market.

Berlusconi has been punished for promising much on these fronts and doing too little. Even if Prodi were not addicted to compromise, his coalition would still constantly have to appease the hard anti-capitalist Left, notably the Communists. Hence that lunatic pensions pledge; hence, too, Prodi’s assault on the single most important Berlusconi reform, the partial liberalisation of Italy’s hidebound labour laws, which he threatens to sabotage by forcing employers to pay extra payroll taxes for temporary employees. Hiring and firing will get harder, not easier, so the grey economy will expand. It is this hardworking country’s safety valve, but it also accounts for the gaping chasm in its tax revenues. That way disaster lies.

Subconsciously perhaps, in impatience without doubt, Italians have engineered the crisis from which decisive leadership may be forced to emerge.But it won’t happen overnight.