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How the mighty do fall but……don’t count him out yet! PDF Print E-mail
Oct 08, 2013 at 08:08 PM
ImageFormer Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has had a few very bad days, and things may soon be getting worse. Last week Berlusconi's attempt to bring down the coalition government in which his conservative party, the PdL, shares power with the left-of-center Democratic Party and another small right-of-center group failed miserably because of a mutiny led by his hand-picked number two, Angelino Alfano. Then, despite three months of bullying and threats of dire consequences by his party, a majority of the members of a Senate commission went ahead and voted to deprive him of his Senate seat. And now, the 77-year old communications magnate and politician is reportedly resigned to asking to serve his coming one-year sentence for tax fraud by performing socially useful activities or some other kind of community service under the supervision of a branch of the Italian judiciary. The alternative, given his age, would be house detention. But the rules of that kind of regime would severely limit the freedom of movement of a man who has dominated political life here for the last 20 years and who surely, in his heart of hearts,has no intention of giving up.
The Unending Silvio Berlusconi Show PDF Print E-mail
Sep 14, 2013 at 10:31 PM

Image"Convicted felon holds an entire town hostage." Since "paese", the word for country in Italian, is often used to signify "town", when I read the above it was hard not to think of one those horrid events in the United States, when one or more gun-toting individuals take hostages and terrorize an entire area.

Instead, the headline, in a left-leaning Italian daily, was referring to the current situation here, one in which the political debate continues to revolve primarily around the future of only one man, former premier Silvio Berlusconi. Recently convicted by a court of last resort of tax fraud and he is destined, sooner or later, to lose his seat in the Senate. However, not a day goes by that Berlusconi and one or more of his party cohorts threaten to bring down the coalition government in which they currently share power with the left of center Democratic Party, unless some kind of solution can be found to ease their leader's inevitable exit from politics.

And this regardless of the fact that the Italian economy, despite a few encouraging signs for the near future, is still terribly weak and that there are myriad other burning issues to deal with, including a new electoral law and related constitutional reforms, taxation and tax evasion, reorganization of the justice system and a renewed wave of boat people, this time mostly from Syria, reportedly more than 3000 in the last week alone.

Trying to cut Italian judicial costs PDF Print E-mail
Sep 02, 2013 at 01:19 PM

They say no, I say yes!
Despite appearances, Italy is trying. On September 13, a two-year process of rationalization of the Italian justice system will get underway with the closing of some 943 judicial offices, almost 48% of those now in existence.
Putting an end to the rampant decentralization that in many cases goes back to the unification of Italy in 187' and which at one point must have seemed like a good idea, does not mean anyone will lose his or her job. But 7,300 civil servants and 2,700 magistrates will be transferred to somewhat larger administrative centers reportedly at a total savings of 80 million euros a year, not counting the savings in water, electricity and gas bills.

But cutting costs is not the only reason to explain the new measures, which were decided on over a year ago but which have been largely ignored. This is partly because Italian reforms otfen remain on paper. But it is mainly because when it comes to the justice system, attention has been almost totally focused on the personal problems of former premier Silvio Berlusconi who was recently convicted of fiscal fraud and should soon start serving a one-year sentence, albeit - because of his age - in domiciliary detention; the press has been writing about little else over the last eight to ten weeks.
The principal idea behind the re-centralization is to improve efficiency in the justice system and increase the specialization of magistrates and tribunals.

This cannot but be a welcome development since at present in Italy there are more than five million civil cases pending. But it does not mean that there will be smooth sailing ahead. A majority of Italy's lawyers (who will have to travel further in many cases) are opposed to the new reform and there is also bipartisan political pressure to slow things down, although the reasons are not clear. In the meantime, however, Italy's Consulta, or Constitutional Court has rejected 98% of the suits filed to block the changes. And Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has spoken out in favor of the new system.
The Minister of Justice, Annmaria Cancellieri, has however signed 42 proroghe or delays that will allow the smaller tribunals to keep their offices open for an additional period, purportedly to facilitate the reorganization and then transfer of archives and the like. When all the offices and courthouses are empties they will be used for some other function such as schools, nursery schools or other public buildings.

Of course, the public will also find some of the changes inconvenient. I am lucky since one of the delays involves the Justice of the Peace office in the small town of Montefiascone, meaning the third and last hearing (scheduled for December) in a suit I am involved in ( Dreaming of Judge Judy) will still be heard there, 20 minutes from my weekend house, as opposed to the much larger and far more chaotic city of Viterbo, an additional 20 kilometers away. But if it means better organization most people will no doubt find that the additional travel is worth it.

Berlusconi conviction upheld! PDF Print E-mail
Aug 01, 2013 at 08:31 PM

Judge Antonio Esposito reading the sentence
After weeks of waiting that had brought political activity here almost to a standstill, Italy's highest court today confirmed an appeal court's conviction of Silvio Berlusconi for tax fraud and his four-year jail sentence, although the 76-year old politician and entrepreneur is not expected to go to prison but, because of his age, will most probably serve his time (three years of which will be forgiven because of a recent amnesty) under house arrest or, should he prefer,  doing socially-acceptable work for the prison system's social services department. In contrast, the court rejected a second sentence, that of a five-year interdiction from public office, and ordered a Milan appeals court to re-examine the session.

Observers said the high court's decision was a sharp blow for Berlusconi who has always bragged that despite all the trials in which he was a defendant he had never  actually been convicted of a crime. However, the ruling also means that for the time being, and unless a parliamentary commission rules against him. Berlusconi can retain his seat in the Senate and still participate, even if at a distance, in politics. What is not clear is what kind of an effect today's even will have on the stability of the current coalition government in which Berlusconi's party, the right-of-center PdL shares power with the center-left opposition, the PD.

There should, of course, be no connection whatsoever between the judicial and the political; as in most of the world's democracies, there is a clear separation of powers in Italy keeping the judicial, the executive and the legislative parts of government separate from one another. Nevertheless, some of the most radical of Berlusconi's supporters have said repeatedly that if his conviction were upheld they would resign their positions in the current cabinet and therefore bring down the government. Berlusconi himself has said this would not happen, but his words rarely can be taken to have any lasting value.

On the other hand, the re-affirmation of the sentence may also make the more anti-Berlusconi group within the PD less willing to share power with a group whose leader is a convicted tax evader. In other words, at the moment there is no way to tell what will happen and it is useless to speculate. The main problem is that Italy's drastic economic situation - sky-high unemployment, rampant business failures, growing poverty - means that more than anything it needs a working government capable of making important and possibly painful decisions.


In the Street of the Dark Shops: How things change PDF Print E-mail
Aug 01, 2013 at 05:53 PM

ImageSeveral decades ago I made Enrico Berlinguer, the then leader of the then powerful Italian Communist Party, laugh. Although he seemed to be dour and unsmiling, he actually had a good sense of humor and was amused when I told him I had dreamed that the party's huge headquarters building in central Rome had been turned into a very capitalist department store.

Image Was I clairvoyant? Probably not. But I was amused when I read the other day that the Botteghe Oscure, as Communist headquarters was referred to because of its address, 4, Via delle Botteghe Oscure ( the street of the Dark Shops, because many buildings there had few windows) , has now been bought by ABI, the Association of Italian Banks, the apex of Italian capitalism.

ImageThe party, which is now no longer communist (after several metamorphoses it has become the left-of-center Partito Democratico, which also includes a never-Marxist Catholic faction) sold the massive building with its reddish façade (red for Reds?) more than 15 years ago and moved to other premises. But for anyone who followed Italian politics here in the 70s and 80s as I did, the Botteghe Oscure (see the pictures of a rally in the street and of Berlinguer on the balcony) was a major political landmark and its sale to ABI means that an era has definitively come to an end.

Milan Court Convicts Berlusconi (again) PDF Print E-mail
Jun 24, 2013 at 10:53 PM

Image A Milan court today convicted former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on charges of prostitution with a minor and for abuse of office for successfully seeking to suborn the decision of a magistrate regarding the minor, sentencing him to seven years in jail and a permanent interdiction to public office.

Lawyers for Mr. Berlusconi, who was not in court and who decried the ruling as an act of political persecution, said they would appeal the decision. The conviction and the sentence will become final only at the final stage of Italy's three-level court system which goes from the regular criminal court, to the Appeals court, and - should one or both of the parties request it - on to the Court of Cassation, the Italian supreme court. In the meantime, the Milan tribunal of three judges, all women by the way, has announced it will be seeking perjury charges against a significant number of people who testified in Mr. Berlusconi's favor, this group reportedly including a number of young women who attended the parties in question and may have been offered financial inducement to alter their testimony.

The big question of most people's minds this afternoon was, therefore, what - if any - effect the case's outcome might have on the stability of the three-month old Italian government, composed of cabinet ministers from both the center-left Partito Democratico (PD) and the center-right Popolo della Libertà. Mr. Berlusconi's party PdL). However, should the latter, which insists most of Milan's judges are politically-biased left-wingers, withdraw its support from the government at a time when urgent economic measures to deal with the country's ongoing recession are under consideration, it would leave itself open to charges that it is putting the interests of its leaders ahead of that of the country as a whole. And furthermore, it would change nothing. Several weeks ago, Mr Berlusconi was also convicted (and sentenced to four years reclusion) by another Milan court on corruption charges and the government did not collapse at that time.

Although Mr. Berlusconi insisted this afternoon that he had expected to be acquitted, the conviction had been widely anticipated by most people here. Although there appears to be some doubt that the Italian political leader actually had sexual relations with Karima El Mahroug (known as Ruby), a Moroccan exotic dancer who was 17 at the time she participated in a series of parties at Berlusconi's mansion, there appears to be little doubt that when she was arrested for theft in May 2010, the then premier telephoned a minor child tribunal magistrate who had decided to entrust her to the custody of an approved lodging for minor children and pressured her into releasing her into the custody of a regional parliamentarian who also is believed to have had sexual relations with Mr. Berlusconi and who is currently under investigation for encouraging prostitution. At the time, Mr. Berlusconi reportedly told the magistrate that the young woman was a relative of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek. He claims that he truly believed that; others insist he knew full well that was not the case.

It is hard to know exactly where the truth lies but there is little doubt that Mr. Berlusconi's careless and cavalier management of his private life repeatedly has jeopardized his political reputation and besmirched his country's standing.

Rome has a new mayor PDF Print E-mail
Jun 16, 2013 at 10:17 PM

New Rome mayor Ignazio Marino
 As of Monday, June 10. Rome has a new mayor, Ignazio Marino, a former transplant surgeon at a major Pittsburgh hospital and a representative of the left-of-center Partito Democratico (PD). In a run-off election with the former right-of-center mayor, Gianni Alemanno, Marino won by a more than respectable 63.9 of the vote to the outgoing mayor's 36.07%. He had also led in the first round two weeks earlier.

Marino's victory was part of what appears to be an overall comeback by the PD, which in fact won in all 11 major cities where the mayor's post was up for re-election. At present, the PD is in a national emergency coalition with the PdL, Alemanno's party and that headed by former premier Silvio Berlusconi, 

Alemanno being consoled by a friend
 but the results of the election appear less to be an endorsement of the party's national policies than hope that the new mayor will be willing and able to improve the overall inadequate living conditions in Rome's capital, currently afflicted by streets and sidewalks that are dirty, badly-paved and filled with potholes, graffiti everywhere, even on centuries-old buildings and monuments neighborhoods afflicted by rats along with unchecked late-night noise by young drinkers run amok, neglected monuments and so on and so forth.

Of course, running a major urban conglomeration anywhere is hardly easy, but there is a special responsibility when you are dealing with a city with 3000 years of history to protect. And so far Rome's governors have been doing a pretty bad job. I just got back from ten days in Paris, a city with about the same number of people as Rome in its downtown area, and the streets were much cleaner than those in Rome and I did not see one illegal street vendor while I was there, whereas my neighborhood in Rome, Trastevere, is full of them. I am sure that anyone living in Paris full time sees many more defects than a visitor would and probably has much more to complain about. But even visitors to Rome notice the dirt and the graffiti, and maybe other things as well.

In the weeks separating the first election from the run-off, the city government finally got around to repaving the first 150 years of my street, Via della Scala, 

Ignazio Marino in bici
 where the cobblestones were in such bad shape that breaking a leg, or the front wheel of any two-wheel vehicle, was more likely than not. If it was a last ditch election-ploy by the Alemanno administration, it did no good.. But probably, it was just coincidence. Anyway, good wishes to Marino who turned up at the Campidoglio to greet cheering sell-wishers on a red bicycle and whose first efforts will be dedicated to putting together a good team. The big problem, however, may turn out to be figuring out how to get the wheels of Roman bureaucracy - and this includes the local police -- turning faster than in the past. 

Habemus governo! PDF Print E-mail
Apr 28, 2013 at 11:19 PM


Napolitano swown in (again)
As of today, Italy has a new government; a 21-member cabinet led by Democratic Party (PD) deputy leader Enrico Letta but including members of Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PdL), was sworn into office on Sunday, making this government the first ever since 1947 in which right and left have been coalition partners. In 1947, a largely destroyed postwar Italy had just abolished its monarchy, written a new constitution, and had to had to bring all forces (Communists, Socialists and Christian Democrats) together until the first national elections on April 18, 1948.

Today, instead, an economically troubled nation has been kept from functioning by an unprecedented political stalemate triggered by the ascendency of a rabble-rousing protest party, the Five Stars Movement, that since electing 163 people to parliament has refused to ally itself with anyone.

The last elections in February were basically a three-way tie among the Democratic Party, the PdL and the Five Star Movement, with the former considered of the three the winner because of several tens of thousands of more votes that gave it a majority in the lower house although not in the Senate. For most people, the logical thing was for the leader of the PD, Pier Luigi Bersani, to form a coalition with the Five Star movement on the basis of a strongly reformist package. But despite Mr. Bersani's pleading and cajoling, the Five Star leader, Beppe Grillo, refused to budge from his purist, noli mi tangere stance. The only alternative was a coalition with Berlusconi's party, an idea that caused a major revolt inside the PD by party members who despise Berlusconi and blame him (rightly so) for the country's current economic disarray. The chaos was such that Mr. Bersani resigned and soon will be succeeded by another party leader, possibly his Letta but Matteo Renzi, the dynamic mayor of Florence who lost to Bersani in the party's primaries last fall, is also a contender.

That was how things stood until it became obvious that in such a context it was proving impossible for the Parliament to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano whose seven-year term was to end this month. Although there is no constitutional bar for the re-election of a sitting Italian president, no Italian president has ever served two terms and Napolitano had said repeatedly that came what may, he would not stand again. He is, after all, 88 years old . But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

 After three days of inconclusive ballots, on April 2oth, a joint PD-PdL delegation went to the Quirinale Palace and begged Mr. Napolitano to reconsider. He gave in, telling them however that they had to put their enmities aside and form a credible government, otherwise he would step down. When he was sworn in last week his speech to the 1000 members of parliament was an angry one telling them to make sure this time they pass the reforms - economic, fiscal, labor-related and structural - that everyone knows the country needs. Mr. Napolitano, who started political life as a Communist party and Marxist has turned into a widely respected political actor and in so doing has given the Italian presidency more oomph than it has had in years.

Today, the new government was sworn in and has more than one thing going for it. At 46, Mr. Letta, a former leftwing Christian Democrat, is the second youngest prime minister in Italian history and has considerable government experience. A prominent Bank of Italy official is the new economics minister and most of the people in the cabinet are new and younger names. One third of the 21 cabinet ministers are women, two of whom are foreign born and one of these is black, a veritable first for this largely homogenous country. Looming over the government, however, is the shadow of Berlusconi whose protégé, Angelo Alfano, is both interior minister (police) and deputy prime minister. Many observers believe that if Berlusconi does not get his way on certain issues, he may decide to bring down the government which, since Napolitano is bound to make good on his threat to resign, would mean that the coming months may prove to be worse than the last two or three.

Sede Vacante (twice over?) PDF Print E-mail
Mar 02, 2013 at 03:54 PM

Beppe Grillo

On Thursday, I spent much of the evening watching live coverage of Pope Benedict XVI leaving the Vatican by helicopter for Castel Gandolfo where he will live for the next two months, before retiring to a monastery inside the walls of Vatican City. I am not Catholic, and am also one of those people who has reservations about church policies both worldwide and in Italy itself, nevertheless I was moved. Even more than that, I was aware that I was witnessing a historic event, one which may well change the centuries-old papacy forever.

Conservative Catholics and some prelates have been rushing to say that this should never happen again as the knowledge that a pope may not be pope for life will undermine his authority and that of the Holy See. But others, like me, feel that Benedict's nearly unprecedented act (certainly unprecedented in recent times) will go far to bringing the papacy into the 21st century and by making it more responsive to the pressures and needs of the present will go far to making it more relevant.

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