There’s just three days to go until the big Italian election. As someone who is (hopefully) becoming a citizen of that country in a few months, I’ve been taking a keen interest. But it isn't just me. All the capitals of Europe are looking to Rome apprehensively, wondering if Italy is ever going to fix its government problem.
Let’s not mince words, the country’s political system is a mess. Since World War II it has seen a revolving door of governments that continually collapse and reshape. In its first 50 years of democracy Italy had 50 different governments. In fact the controversial conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, who served as prime minister for five years before the current Prime Minister Romano Prodi unseated him in 2006, was the longest-serving Italian prime minister ever. Now Prodi’s fractious alliance between the center and far left has fallen apart in typical Italian fashion, the government was dissolved when the communists walked out and a new election was called.
Now Berlusconi is polling as much as nine points ahead, and Europe is bracing itself for another period of hard-handed rule by the media tycoon, who many people see as a bombastic demagogue. Disliked as he may be, many Italians now see him as the only solution to Italy’s chaos. But while he might bring stability, it would be hard to argue he will bring progress. His reign was marred by media censorship, economic stagnation and corruption scandals. Under his leadership Italy’s debt grew ever higher than its GDP and the promises of economic improvement he had made failed to materialize. However during the brief Prime Ministership of Romano Prodi, Italy's budget-deficit-to-GDP ratio fell from 4.4 percent in to 2.4 percent.
Almost comically, Berlusconi is now promising a "month of freedom" from taxes, using the newspapers he owns to spread the word that if he is elected every Italian citizen could get a month of no tax. Yet almost in the same breath he admits, “we probably won’t be able to do it: it would cost too much." No kidding Silvio, really? So why even put the idea out there at all? "It shows we don’t lack the imagination to solve the problems," he says. Naturally, it takes a great imagination to suggest impossible ideas.
Europe holds its breath
It would be easy to dismiss Italy as some backwater that is unimportant to the rest of Europe, and indeed I often hear many of my Northern European friends expressing this sentiment. In Europe the most frequent images you see of the Mediterranean nation are of trash piling up on the streets after garbage strikes, mobsters ruling the streets of Palermo, or the consistent delays and cancellations of trains, planes and automobiles.
But the fact is that Italy is centrally important to the EU. It is a founding member, contributes the third-largest sum to its budget, is the fourth largest economy in Europe and has an incredibly influential seat in the Group of Eight. Even beyond that, its geographic location makes it a natural bridge to Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, making it a virtual outreached arm of diplomacy for the union. But with Italy’s economy in trouble and its politics in seemingly unstoppable disarray, Brussels should be very antsy.
There is no denying that Brussels is very concerned about this election. Not only is Berlusconi a rightist leader with an aggressive streak and hostility toward the rest of Europe, but also his European Union presidency (which rotates to a new country every six months under the pre-Lisbon Treaty system) in July to December of 2003 was a complete disaster. Berlusconi compared a German MEP leader to a Nazi-era concentration camp guard, said Israel should be invited to join the EU, and made some of the most outrageously sexist and profane comments about women made by a Western leader in the last four decades. He also has an extreme protectionist streak and is hostile to EU reform.
Veltroni pleads with the centre
The person running as successor to Prodi and challenging Berlusconi is former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni. But rather than trying to recreate Prodi's fractious coalition, he has cut off ties with the communists and formed a new party called the Democratic Party, uniting social democrats and centre-left liberals. In many ways Veltroni is trying to recreate what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did in their countries in the 1990’s, reforming their parties to lean more toward free-market centrism. But so far the idea doesn’t seem to have grabbed ahold of the Italian imagination.
Earlier this week Europe’s socialist parties issued a statement endorsing Veltroni, saying that only the Democratic Party can give the country a fresh start. "Italians have so much vitality and creativity, but they have been badly let down by the political system,” wrote Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the European Parliament's Socialist Group (PES) and former prime minister of Denmark. “They need a new hope."
However if polling data is accurate it seems Italians may be feeling too anxious to gamble for a ‘new hope.’ After all, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Berlusconi may be unlikely to deliver political or social progress, and he may be incapable of navigating Italy though the upcoming global economic turmoil, but Italians know his strongman leadership can at least keep the revolving door of governments in check for awhile. His leadership may have been unsuccessful and embarrassing, but at least it was long. I suppose you’d have to be Italian to understand that logic.
Veltroni has three days to push his message across and convince Italians he’s worth taking the chance on. Italy goes to the polls Sunday and Monday.