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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.

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