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Polls open in key Italian election PDF Print E-mail
Feb 24, 2013 at 08:02 AM

ImageA few hours ago, the polls opened in Italy and a lot of people, me included, will be (figuratively) holding their breath. I've lived through a lot of elections in Italy but this may be one of the most crucial. It is no longer a Cold War kind of election, of course, when people in Rome - and Washington - sat around gnawing their fingernails, worrying about what kind of incursions the powerful Communist party would make in the political universe; for decades now (despite what Berlusconi says) the communists are no longer communists and Italy has been firmly anchored in the West. But what is at stake is whether this country can keep on being a viable member of the European Union and retain its status as one of the world's major economies or whether it will continue a slide - Greek-wise - towards near financial ruin.

Anyone in this country with half a brain knows that major reforms are needed in a plethora of sectors: taxation, of individuals and even more so, perhaps, of companies, must be revisited; tax evasion has got to be curbed; pensions and overall labor law must be re-examined; unemployment (and, in particular, youth unemployment) has to be dealt with; infrastructures and bureaucracy must be improved if foreign investment is to recover; and schools, hospitals and the justice system (currently there are 5.3 MILLION civil cases pending) if life here is to be improved for Italy's citizens. Above all, spending cuts must be enacted for the public administration at large and, in particular, in the political sector given that Italy's members of parliament - on both national, regional and the European level - earn far more and have far greater perks than their counterparts elsewhere.

To do these things what one needs is a solid majority headed by a thoughtful leader capable of drawing on high-level human resources. And should either the left-of-center Partito Democratico, or - but this is less likely - the group backing caretaker prime minister Mario Monti emerge as the most voted, Italy would have a thoughtful leader.

But neither of these leaders is expected to be strong enough to govern alone and the two would either have to join together in an alliance or find someone else to govern with. But this may prove difficult not only because the vote may be highly fragmented but because all the pre-vote polls suggested that when Italians wake up on Wednesday morning they may find that one fifth of the people sitting in parliament are first-time MPs elected on the protest ticket of an obnoxious (but effective) former comedian who has been able to take advantage of the widespread discontent here both with the economy and the people who have been governing them.

If former premier Silvio Berlusconi should emerge as the most popular leader than Italy, to my mind, is in really deep doo-doo. None of the governments headed by Berlusconi since he first entered politics in 1994 has made any significant progress in dealing with any of Italy's major problems. Despite what he says, he has kept none of his promises to Italians except those aiding and abetting tax evaders and people who are guilty of illegal construction of one kind or another. With his various antics and his generally tawdry life style he has also helped Italy become and international laughing stock.

One would hope that Italians would no longer be taken in by this man, but I am not sure we can count on this. And Berlusconi, who as Italy's second richest man has unlimited resources, clearly thinks he has a chance. Last week he spent what must have been hundreds of thousands of euros sending letters to nine million voters promising them that if he becomes prime minister again he will reimburse them the stiff real estate tax that the Monti government (supported by Berlusconi and others) put into effect in 2012. "If they don't get hteir money back, they can sue me", he said.



Italy’s slippery slopes PDF Print E-mail
Feb 09, 2013 at 05:32 PM

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Berlusconi Bersanti Monti

This is the time of the year when many Italians, at least those not deeply affected by the current economic recession, are enjoying their winter holidays, best known as the Settimana Bianca, the “white week”, since the most popular destination is, as the term would suggest, somewhere snowy. However, not all of those who are frolicking in the country’s mountain resorts – and no doubt celebrating Carnival with confetti and fancy-dress costumes – will be able to forget that in a few days they will be called to the polls to decide on Italy’s immediate political future.

As is well, known, mountain slopes are slippery and many ski vacations end in unhappy skiing accidents. The downhill political race now in progress may end similarly, with a parliament that is ungovernable, that is one which is unable to produce an effective and long-lasting government. Despite various attempts in recent years to adjust the Italian electoral system so as to make the Italian political arena more of a bipartisan one, today as usual there are close to two dozen parties competing for control of the two-house Italian parliament and attempting – although this now appears highly unlikely for anyone – to conquer a majority enabling it – alone or in a coalition – to govern this turbulent, troubled country.

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Shame! 1000 would-be Italian terrorists? PDF Print E-mail
Jan 20, 2013 at 01:20 PM

Prospero Gallinari, a Red Brigades terrorist with at least three murders to his credit and who was among the jailers of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped and subsequently murdered in 1978, died on January 14th at the age of 1962 and frankly I couldn't care less. However, close to 1000 other people apparently did care. They showed up for his funeral and burial (in a casket covered by a red flag bearing the communist hammer and sickle) in the small cemetery of Coviolo near Reggio Emilia and shouted slogans and sang militant songs.

Several of the participants were other former Red Brigades members, people who here are termed "irriducibili", the unrepentant ones, and most of whom, thanks to the vagaries of Italian justice, are no longer in jail despite the hundreds of murders and woundings for which they, along with other terrorist groups, leftwing like the Red Brigades, or rightwing, were responsible during the so-called "anni di piombo", the years of lead, that is bullets. Who the others might be I don't know but think is very worrisome that there should be so many people in Italy today who either have forgotten the damage the terrorists did to this country or else think they were on the right track. Golly.

Berlusconi on the campaign trail PDF Print E-mail
Jan 17, 2013 at 11:08 PM

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Well, you have to hand it to him. Whatever you may say about him, at 76, a cancer survivor, and out of power for a year, Silvio Berlusconi has a hell of a lot of what the Italians call "grinta", determination, and he is in the midst of what appears to be a major media blitz* designed to keep his name afloat and to convince the more credulous of Italians that the current financial crisis is not his fault and that, if re-elected, he will make everything better.

This of course is nonsense. But last Thursday Berlusconi appeared on a talk show (Servizio Pubblico) on La 7, a respected television channel (that by the way he does NOT own or control in any way), and which is conducted by a well-known (and generally obnoxious) leftwing moderator, Michele Santoro, with whom he has been at odds for years and whose contract on Italian state television he was successful in blocking at one point during his prime ministership.

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Monti to Resign PDF Print E-mail
Dec 09, 2012 at 12:42 PM

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Monti has decided

Well, Silvio Berlusconi has gotten his wish and one can only hope that it will totally backfire on him. Indeed, some observes here  believe it already has. After meeting Saturday afternoon with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, prime minister Mario Monti has announced that just as soon as the economic austerity package currently before parliament is approved, probably before Christmas, he will resign. "The situation has become untenable", Monti said yesterday after he left the Quirinale Palace. His pre-emptive move made the attempt by Berlusconi's party, the PdL, to fire a warning shot over the Monti government's bow appear ridiclous.

Monti's resignation, however,  will clear the way for the dissolution of Parliament and the setting of a date for nationwide elections, either  in early February or early March. Opponents of Berlusconi accused him, loudly, of acting irresponsibly by forcing out of office (see the following article) a government that has been doing its best to pull Italy out of the economic and financial quagmire it found itself in last year or at least to ameliorate it.

The new development is sure to send a very negative message to Europe about the country's commitment to ongoing if bitter reform. Italians would do well to look across the Ionian sea to Greece where inefficiency, ineffectiveness and downright lying by that country's leaders have reduced the nation to the direct economic situation it has known since after World War II. But while blindness is not catching, the political variety is a real danger.just two days earlier. 

However, Europe should be aware that for the time being there is no immediate danger. Monti is likely to stay at the helm of a caretaker government while elections are held and while a new government is being formed. And since in the midst of all this, the new Italian parliament will have to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano, whose seven-year term ends this spring, Monti is likely to be arund for another four months. And maybe longer. One newly emerging coalition sees him as their future prime ministerial candidate, while others feel he might be a good successor for Napolitanoìs job. But it really is too soon to tell.

Heeeeeee's back! Berlusconi, A man so shortghted he cannot see beyond his own EGO! PDF Print E-mail
Dec 08, 2012 at 06:00 PM

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The puppet and the puppeteer
  Silvio Berlusconi, once again reversing his on-again, off-again decisions to leave politics, appears now to have decided to try and pull the rug out from under the feet of Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, and has convinced his party, the PdL, (the one he said was leaving) to back him in this endeavor by abstaining on a key economic decree currently before Parliament. If he succeeds, the Monti government - a technical (unelected) government in power now for 13 months - may fall, opening the way for new elections that will be hotly contested between Berlusconi and his allies and the center left. Italian president Giorgio Napolitano appears to have convinced the PdL to take it slowly, so that several key economic reforms will get passed before parliament is dissolved. But the new development is nevertheless unsettling.

At the moment, the PdL is far behind in the polls compared to the PD, Italy's major opposition party, but Berlusconi seems to be convinced that between now and elections (the most probable date is March 10-11) he will be able to turn the country's mood around. Most observers think he will be sorely disappointed and personally I hope they are right. Not only did he repeatedly make a laughing stock of Italy by his antics - in both private and public life - but his failure to address the storm clouds gathering on the economic horizon deserves a lot of the blame for many of Italy's current problems. How it can be that there are still voters who believe Berlusconi ought to have a chance at being prime minister again, is beyond me. But there you are. There is no accounting for taste (or stupidity).

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Corruption rears its ugly head. Again. PDF Print E-mail
Nov 13, 2012 at 04:07 PM

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Franco Fiorito
 

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Roberto Formigoni

Italy is not the only country in the world where corruption exists, but when some 60 billion euros a year are reportedly lost to the legitimate economy because of corruption, this is not much of a consolation. Again, we ordinary mortals have no idea how the experts arrive at that figure of 60 billion. But it certainly makes you stop and think, particularly at a time when the economy is in deep trouble, some people have lost their jobs, more than a third of young people cannot find jobs, and most of the rest of us are being asked to make sacrifices by paying higher taxes.

The 60 billion euro figure came out of a report last January by the Italian Corte dei Conti or Court of Accounts, a European-style top-level audit institution the major function of which is to audit the executive branch of power with controls regard incoming revenues and public expenditures. But most international indexes also put Italy high up on corruption scales as compared to most other European countries.

This is not a new discovery; there is widespread awareness among observers here that corruption in the public sector - especially when combined with bureaucratic delays, inefficiency and bad management -- are seriously compromising economic growth. But in the last few weeks, several new major scandals have burst upon the scene, highlighting just how bad the situation has gotten and leading most pundits to conclude that the Clean Hands investigation of the early nineties has had absolutely no impact on the behavior of most Italians.

Twenty years ago, the Italian political system was turned on its head when a major criminal investigation led to the disintegration of two of Italy's major postwar political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, many of who leaders were charged with illegally financing their parties through bribes, kickbacks and other forms of graft. The results included jail terms, several suicides and voluntary exiles, the formation of new political parties such as Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and national prominence for the magistrate who headed the investigation, Antonio Di Pietro (now currently under a shadow of his own).

It seemed as Italy was going to change. But recent events show this is now the case. In fact, if anything, things are worse. Back then, the focus was on the illegal ways of finding political financing which, yes, may also have enriched certain individuals but that was not the main point. Now it has become clear that the new class of politicians who steal do so primarily for themselves. In certain parties and in certain areas, ideals have gone the way of the trash can with the new pols seeing politics primarily, if not exclusively, as a fairly easy way to get rich.

In September of this year, a scandal erupted in and around the regional government of Lazio (the area which includes the Italian capital, Rome) when it became known that a regional lawmaker named Franco Fiorito, a member of the PdL party founded by Silvio Berlusconi, had embezzled something like 1.3 million euros of party money, sending part of it abroad and using other parts of it for luxury travel, the purchase of three cars and a seaside villa.

Fiorito was arrested on October 9 but his wrongdoings - which reportedly included his paying himself 31,000 euros a month for his job as the administrator of the PdL's regional parliamentary group - pale beside the system that he revealed during interrogations by investigating magistrates and which was so shocking that the regional president, Renata Polverini, elected with Berluscni's support, although she originally came from the far right Alleanza Nazionale party, was forced to resign although she herself is not under investigation. New elections are expected to be held in February or March.

Fiorito revealed that the 17 regional MPs belonging to his party had submitted almost receipts for six million euros in alleged expenses of which at least half were false or fraudulent. Over a year, the group had allocated to itself something like 21 million euros, an incredible amount given this country's financial problems, that were supposed to be spent on regional or party expenditures and that each MP had been given an extra 100,000 euros a month above and beyond their already outrageously generous salaries, far higher than any of their conterparts elsewhere in Europe. The revelations focused so much attention on the situation of regional councilors that reforms (see below) were called for by all and sundry and may actually be put in place.

Shortly thereafter a similar scandal erupted in the northern Italian region of Lombardy where Domenico Zambetti, a regional MP who is also a member of of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, was one of 20 people arrested by police in Milan on October 10, for allegedly buying votes from the 'Ndrangheta mafia syndicate. Zambetti is accused of paying two mobsters 200,000 euros for 4,000 votes (at 50 euros each) in the 2010 vote at which he was elected. Zambetti was relieved of his duties by Lombardy Governor Roberto Formigoni, himself under investigation for a different scandal involving bribery for contracts in the health care sector. But no one seems to have asked themselves who are these 4000 Italians who in the year 2010 were willing take money for selling their preferential votes. Shame, shame!

Zambetti's arrest and the accompanying corruption probe brought the number of councilors in the Lombardy regional executive and assembly who are under investigation up to 14, including Formigoni, who was first elected in 1990 and clearly has been in power too long.

Formigoni successfully resisted calls for his resignation after coming under investigation last year but on October 26, given the insistence of the Northern League, one of his former backers, agreed to dismiss the members of his government and replace them with temporary commissioners until new election are held sometime early next year. He will not be a candidate although reportedly he is (unbelievably) thinking of tossing his hat into the ring for primaries to choose a successor to Silvio Berlusconi as PdL leader and, thus, as a candidate for the premiership of Italy.

But reform appears to be on the way. According to a decree, which President Giorgio Napolitano signed last month, the number of regional councilors throughout Italy would be cut by 35% and local bodies who do not stay in line with budgets will face central-government funding cuts of 80%.

Mayors who do not keep their accounts in order will not be allowed to stand again, the premier said. The pay ofregion al presidents (who for the last few years have been called Governors, although it is not clear to me who started this), local and regional councilors will be cut sharply to the level of the "most virtuous" region, while stipends will be eliminated and all local officials will have to make public, and have certified by the Audit Court, the money they get. The pension age of local officials will be raised from 50 to 60 or 65 and will be authorized only when a councillor has served two terms, that is 10 years.

Another anti-corruption bill passed earlier this month is expected to be followed by a codicil that will determine the eligibility (or non-eligibility) for office of officials convicted of crimes or, perhaps, even under investigation. Watch this page.....

Italy’s major opposition party hoping for a new lease on life PDF Print E-mail
Oct 31, 2012 at 05:21 PM

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The Partito Democratico, Italy's major opposition party, is hoping that next year's elections will bring it back to power. The PD, as it is called, is feeling greatly encouraged by the election in Sicily this past weekend that elected its candidate, Rosario Crocetta, to be the new President of the Sicilian Region. Equally encouraging was that in same election, the PD's primary opponent, Berlusconi's PdL, saw its share of the vote plummet to only 12 percent from 33.5 percent only four years ago.

Never mind that Crocetta did not get enough of the vote to form a government without allying himself with another of the island's political parties. Never mind that his predecessor, Raffaele Lombardo, who resigned last year after being accused of collusion with the Mafia and one of whose principal backers was the PdL, was elected President four years ago with 66% of the vote. Crocetta's victory is still seen by the country's major center-left party as an excellent sign.

But it is not going to be enough. The PD, which over the last 30 years has gone through a remarkable and seemingly unending series of name changes and transformations, is the heir - but many times removed - of the powerful postwar communist party and has gradually morphed into a left-of-center group that has absorbed former communists, socialists, social democrats and liberal catholics. But because of this mix, it still has to find a true identity. It was last in power in January 2008 when it was part of the Ulivo coalition headed by then premier Romano Prodi.

The PD's leader, or "segretario" as the Italian say, has changed several times over the last four years and the current head, Luigi Bersani, is to face a major challenge in primaries scheduled for November 25th. Keep in mind that these primaries have little to do with the kind we have in the U.S. but are more like popularity contests in which to vote all you have to do is pay two euro and sign a sort of affidavit (but not binding) saying you support the party's objectives. A recent ruling by the part also decided that even non-Italian, legal residents of Italy, that is, people (like me) who cannot vote in an Italian election because they are not citizens, can vote in the primary, which personally I think is ridiculous.

The biggest challenge to Bersani, 51, a three-time cabinet minister and a former president of the Emilia-Romagna region, is coming from the young, outspoken PD mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, 37, who says it is time to "scrap" the party's "old guard" and make a break with the past. So far, only one former party leader, Walter Veltroni, who in the 1990s was mayor of Rome, has taken his advice and announced he will not run again for parliament.
Also running for the post of party leader is the somwhat out-of-the-box president of the Puglia region, Nikki Vendola, who is further to the left than the other two.

Two other candidates, neither of whom are given any real chance to win, are Laura Puppato, a Venetian businesswoman and politician, and Bruno Tabacci, a former Christian Democrat with substantial business and economic experience. The outcome will be interesting as at the very least it will give an idea of how united the party is, or is not.

In December, the PdL is also holding primaries of the same type, ostensibly to replace Silvio Berlusconi has head of the party and chief candidate for a future government, should the PdL manage (doubtful) to hold on to its current position as Italy's largest political party. But more about that another time.

Whither Berlusconi? Who knows? PDF Print E-mail
Oct 28, 2012 at 05:45 PM

Image So when Silvio Berlusconi made a video the other day to tell his followers he would not be a candidate for premier in next spring's elections, did he perhaps know he was about to be sentenced to four years of prison and be barred from public office for three years? Who knows? But the fact is, it it doesn't really matter - for two reasons.

One, the sentence handed down Friday by a Milan court is only the first of three levels of Italian criminal proceedings, which means Berlusconi isn't going to jail any time soon. Two, Italian papers' idea of journalism these days is little more than acting as an overlarge, non discriminating bulletin board for politicians, so it wasn't surprising that despite the fact that Syria was burning, the euro trembling and the US is getting ready to go to the polls, Italian newspapers all ran banner headlines that day saying "Berlusconi says he will not run", as if this were really news.

In reality, almost everyone here knows that the Italian magnate has made such proclamations before and that there was absolutely no reason to believe that he might not change his mind, not a month later but....after only two days!
Yep, that's right. Just a day after his sentencing, and three - or was it two? - days after his withdrawal statement, there he was back again, saying (oh so boringly, once again) that Italy is in the hand
s of a dictatorship of magistrates, and that for this reason he was forced to throw his hat back in the arena to defend Italian democracy.

Most worrisome - but he will probably backtrack here, too - he threatened to withdraw his party's so far, pretty staunch support for the "technical" government headed by economist Mario Monti (that has been in power for almost a year) and without whose restrictive austerity policies Italy would now be in deep doo-doo. Yes, Italians are getting frustrated as the demonstrations yesterday on the ridiculously-named No Monti Day indicated. But the TV coverage also showed that most of the people marching (or throwing eggs) were union members, who have indeed been deeply affected by some of the Monti government's decisions, young people whose shaky employment (or better yet, unemployment) situation is indeed hard to bear( but not Monti's fault), and radicals who hate anyone who is in power. The middle classes stayed away.

Getting back to Berlusconi, anyone who knows Italy at all should have known that Mr. B's words last Wednesday meant next to nothing. Embarrassingly, only the New York Times seemed to take his statement literally, running a story that said the former premier's decision to leave power, "is leaving new chaos in his wake". The Times said Berlusconi's decision to step to the sidelines (ha!) could precipitate the demise of his party and "radically reshuffles the political deck".

 Actually, Mr. Berlusconi's party - the PdL has been in chaos for months, more or less ever since was forced to resign a year ago by the disintegrating financial situation - and began supporting Monti. The party's current disarray had worsened sharply in recent months because of two major corruption scandals in the Latium and Lombardy regions, both of which have been governed for the last several years by coalitions in which the PdL played a leading role. I will be posting further on the corruption scandals later this week.

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