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My Home Sweet Rome - Italy's Slippery Slopes

Sari Gilbert

 

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 two weeks time 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.

The situation is further contorted by the fact that the usual contenders – the PdL party, dominated by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his erstwhile ally, the Northern League, some small centrist parties, and the large center-left opposition party, the PD – have been joined by some new challengers including a small, supposedly reform party led by a Sicilian magistrate, a tiny crusading group led by a respected but eccentric journalist and an austerity-minded grouping looking to the current "technical" prime minister, Mario Monti, as a future political leader.

But the outcome is expected to be affected primarily by the emergence onto the parliamentary stage by a particularly riotous formation, the Five Star Movement. Headed by a rambunctious former comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose hoarse-voiced shouting style is hated by many and adored by others, the new party is running candidates who are total neophytes in national politics. So far the Movement has only run candidates in last year's local elections and while it did well in several Italian cities, running a city and running a nation are two different things.

The Moviemento Cinque Stelle's platform, in the simplest of terms, is designed to bring back order and honesty to government, to drastically cut the high cost of Italian politics (salaries, reimbursements, cars, bodyguards, travel etc.) along with turning the economy around and finding jobs for the unemployed. The last polls that were published before a legally-imposed blackout on Friday, February 8th, suggest the exponents of the Movimento may wake up the day after the election with as many as 100 (yes, 100!) seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian parliament.

Grillo's program sounds like something everyone should be in favor of, and indeed versions of some of the many of the cost-cutting demands (shouted, in his case) that have circulated recently, such as reducing the Chamber’s 630 deputies by half, eliminating some or even all of the country's 105 provincial governments, the functions of which could easily be taken over by Italy's 20 regions, cutting perks, making parliamentarians eligible for pensions only after they have served for several legislatures etc.) have been put forward in recent months by more than one of the traditional parties. The problem is that it was all empty talk; they never got to them and are now going to pay the price.

The fact is that Grillo has been given an invaluable chance to capitalize on the widespread discontent of many Italians not only with the poor economic situation but with the innumerable scandals that have continued to emerge on every level of government, leading many people here to believe all politicians are dishonest. But this may not easily translate into effective government. Protest is not necessarily the best master for running a country and many observers here question whether these new politicians (Grillo himself is not a candidate) will be able to handle the intricacies and expertise required by modern government or whether their presence will simply make Italian politics more chaotic than it already is.

In other words, should this predicted overnight success actually materialize (Berlusconi, instead, continues to claim that he will be the winner), putting these things into practice may prove difficult, not least because the "grillini" – as they are being called – will need to form an alliance with some other group and it is unclear with whom this might be feasible.

Elections were already scheduled – for April or May of this year – when the current legislature would have come to the conclusion of its normal five-year term. But they were moved up after the situation precipitated in November, 2012 when the PdL (Berlusconi) unexpectedly withdrew its support for Monti, who had been brought in a year earlier when Berlusconi had been forced by the country’s crumbing financial situation to step aside. Monti's mandate was to enact a far-reaching austerity program that would assuage European concerns about the country's finances and enact reforms to improve the economy, and until three months ago he had been supported by almost all of Italy's political parties, including the PdL. Following the PdL's about-face Monti resigned (precipitating the current government crisis) and is currently heading a caretaker government.

Berlusconi's 360 degree turn-around ended speculation that the ebullient, real estate and TV mogul might have decided to leave politics for good, after dominating the scene for roughly 20 years. The 76-year old leader instead threw his hat into the ring once again and has been using his unparalleled communicating skills – except for Grillo he is the only politician on the scene with charisma – to more or less dominate the debate, promising voters that if he returns to power he will undo most of Monti's austerity measures. In particular, Berlusconi has pledged to refund the high real estate tax that homeowners paid last year on their primary residence (and which his party had voted for) and to abolish the Italian IRS' tax collection arm, Equitalia: he also claims he will create as many as four million new jobs, although he has not explained what happened to the one million he promised to create five years ago, and will build a bridge over the Straits of Messina to connect Sicily to the Italian mainland, something he has been promising – without a blush – for the last 20 years.

At a time when many Italians are hurting financially, such promises have great appeal, and indeed both the PD and the Monti group are climbing all over themselves also promising lowered taxes of one kind or another. But it is unclear what effect these promises will have.

The last pre-blackout published polls two weeks ago showed the PD and the rest of the center-left with 37% about seven points in the lead, Berlusconi and the League fairly close behind at almost 30%, Monti and friends at around 13 percent and the remaining groups with a total of about 20%, with the Five Star movement getting the lion's share of that. The problem is that no single group may be able to successfully form a government with those results, particularly because the current electoral system provides different voting systems for the upper house (Senato) and the lower house (Camera dei Deputati) that may make victory in both houses difficult for any single party. That would make a coalition government necessary but most of the alliances that are being speculated about appear likely to be shaky from the day "go", although, of course, as we all know necessity is the mother of invention.

The fact is that a shaky government would hold no good for Italy's immediate future which requires quick and thoughtful decision-making. There is no doubt that the economic situation in Italy is worsening. Growth is stuck at around one percent, no one is hiring, and many people are finding it hard to make it to the end of the month. Figures released the other day show that in the last six months, the overall unemployment rate has climbed to almost 12% and 302,000 jobs have been lost just since last July when the Monti government put into effect a new labor reform that was supposed to help employment but clearly did not.

The unemployment rate for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 has now risen to 36.6% which shows that last year's pension reforms, which upped retirement ages, have penalized the already struggling young. The economic turndown means that the social security office is also having to shell out millions of euros in compensatory unemployment payments. Figures released in early February showed that the number of hours for which workers were temporarily laid off in 2012 have risen by 61%, 55 million to 89 million hours, with the worst hit sector being commerce, followed by building construction and then industry. So a slippery slope is indeed in no one's interest.


My Home Sweet Rome is a series of articles on Slow Travel.

Sari Gilbert, a journalist and author who lives in Rome and operates Live Rome Like a Roman vacation rental apartment and writes the Stranitalia blog.

© Sari Gilbert, 2013

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