Only the national genius for improvisation can save Italy now

By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 13/04/06):

The opera is magnificent. Pity about the opera house. Silvio Berlusconi, his very name suggesting a master of the burlesque, has for years added to the gaiety of nations with his histrionics, his bandanna and his off-colour jokes. In a theatrical cliff-hanger of an election, the colourful exchanges between the cavaliere Berlusconi and the professore Romano Prodi reminded me irresistibly of the Captain and the Doctor in traditional commedia dell'arte. Then the final coup de theatre: as the election result hangs in the balance, the capo di tutti capi of the Sicilian mafia, the Godfather, a real-life Don Corleone, is captured in a remote farmhouse near the small town of Corleone after more than four decades on the run. He says not a word. Life and art, fact and fiction become almost indistinguishable - as on one of Berlusconi's television channels. And all this grand opera is to be enjoyed amid the most beautiful landscapes and sublime architecture, in the company of the most elegant and amusing women and men, while eating the most superb food and drinking the best wine and coffee in all of Europe.

If everyone in the world had bought a ticket for the pleasure and entertainment that Italy has given them over the past five years, the Italian economy would be booming. Unfortunately, they did not. And so Italy, like the La Scala opera house, is in crisis behind the stage. Under a party called Forza Italia, its name derived from the football chant "Go, Italy!", the country has gone nowhere at all. Last year it had zero economic growth. Its total growth over the five years that Berlusconi has been in power is 3.2%, the worst of any EU member state. Youth unemployment is close to 25%. Gross public debt is more than 100% of the country's gross domestic product. Productivity and competitiveness have either stalled or declined. Every Italian consumer will tell you that shopkeepers exploited the conversion to the euro to hike prices for a beer, a pizza or that incomparable espresso.

The country has tumbled down the competitiveness tables, coping badly both with the demands of the one-size-fits-all eurozone and with the challenge of globalisation. The things it excels in making - textiles, leather goods - China and India can export for a fraction of the price. An ageing native-born population, underfunded pensions, ill-integrated immigrants ... you name it, Italy has it. All the glories of old Europe are here - and all the problems.

These have been compounded by a new electoral system, introduced by the Berlusconi government last autumn. I talked earlier this week to Peter Eicher, the head of the OSCE mission that has been observing the Italian elections. He praised many aspects of Italy's "healthy democratic environment", and would not be tempted into a comparison of the Italian elections with those in Ukraine or Belarus, but he did name two areas of serious concern. One was bias in the news coverage on the commercial television channels owned by Berlusconi and the public channels strongly influenced by him, as the incumbent prime minister. (In a 2005 report, Freedom House describes Italy as only "partly free" in respect of freedom of the press.)

The other was the way the electoral law had been pushed through without consensus between the major parties. Electoral laws, argues Eicher, are not like other laws: since they are the "rules of the game" between competing political parties, a higher measure of consensus is called for. As in football, the winning side should not simply change the rules for the return match.

Beyond the way that the rules were changed, there are the rules themselves. One conclusion drawn from the meltdown of Italian politics in the early 1990s was that the country needed a stronger majoritarian element in its electoral system, to produce more stable governments. Berlusconi himself benefited from the more majoritarian system in the 2001 election, and it helped him to stay the course for five years, becoming postwar Italy's longest-serving prime minister. But at the end of last year, he introduced this new one, based on proportional representation, applied slightly differently in two houses of parliament, each of which has the capacity to block the other. One of the authors of this law has famously described it as "una porcata", roughly translatable as "crap". Its likely effect will be to produce weaker rather than stronger government.

The Italian opera now moves into a curious interval. Once the Florida-style examination of spoiled ballots demanded by the reluctant loser Berlusconi has been completed, and assuming the results still give the narrowest of victories to the centre-left coalition led by Prodi, the combined houses of parliament then have, in mid-May, to elect a president to succeed the popular and widely respected Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. (I'm told that one possible successor is Ciampi himself.) Only when that president is installed can he call on Prodi to form a government - and act three will begin. As it looks at the moment, that government will have an adequate majority in the lower house, due to a "bonus" of extra seats provided for by the new law in order to avoid a hung parliament, but only a tiny majority in the senate. Prodi's coalition is broad and fissiparous, and the communists, who were the ruin of his last government, made a strong showing. As one newly elected centre-left senator told me: "In these circumstances, we will first have to negotiate every single little point inside the coalition."

So, on any rational assessment of probabilities, the incoming government is unlikely to be able to make the kind of deep reforms that Italy so obviously needs. It's unlikely to succeed, for example, in the liberalisation of Italy's labour markets, either by the Nordic route - through consensus - or by the British route - through Margaret Thatcher's use of a British prime minister's powers of "elective dictatorship". Italy therefore seems likely to stay with France and Germany in the slowcoach club.

There are many significant differences between the three core countries of the original EEC, but this much they have in common: vital economic reform is hampered by a democracy with too many checks and balances and a society that, in its majority, is still living too comfortably for it to accept the imperative of painful change. Since these three countries comprise nearly half the total economy of the EU, that means big trouble for all Europeans - Brits not excluded.

If I don't despair, then it's only for one reason: that reason has never quite sufficed to explain how Italy works. Perhaps the hidden ingredient is a genius for improvisation - as seen in the best of Italian football and, of course, in commedia dell'arte. That genius for improvisation will be needed today more than ever, faced with the changed rules of the game on three playing fields: the Italian political system, the eurozone and the world economy. Now that Forza Italia has been narrowly voted out, I, for one, will be shouting from the sidelines: "Forza Italia!".