As Twisted as Spaghetti

By Parks, Tim | Newsweek, March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview
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As Twisted as Spaghetti

Parks, Tim, Newsweek

Byline: Tim Parks

Italy's politics are in complete chaos, as a comedian grapples with Silvio Berlusconi for control.

Imagine you need to get to the other side of a busy street in Milan. You go to the pedestrian crossing provided. Cars are obliged to stop when you step out onto the black and white stripes, but not before. It doesn't matter how evident your intentions, vehicles will not slow down unless you step right into their path. They are all traveling over the speed limit. Wise folks wait until there are no cars; at which point it's hard to see why one should bother with the crossing at all. The rash step out determinedly, provoking disbelief, swerving, fierce braking, insults. In the dry cleaners last week the nice lady said, "Signore! You should be more careful! Remember at the crossing yesterday? We would have knocked you down, but my husband recognized you were a client."

Drastically simplified, this is the tone of public life in Italy and the atmosphere in which the country's general elections took place on February 24. Yes, you do have rights, but only if you're determined to fight for them. It is always a little easier and safer if you are someone's client.

Essentially there were four players in this election. They can be categorized as on the right or left, or more usefully as having or not having balls. We suppose of course that people vote according to a combination of conviction and self-interest. But in these confused times, many Italians simply went where the energy was, where someone else had enough conviction and self-interest to launch himself determinedly into the traffic.

The Partito Democratico (PD) is Italy's big left-wing party, inheritor of the communist tradition. One expects the left to be reformist and radical, but PD is largely devoted to defending the rights of its clients, the trade unions, whose rights were won decades ago and are threatened now by the economic crisis. The party's problem was to look responsible and at the same time reassure core voters that they were not about to be knocked over at the crossing. Under their lackluster leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, they muddled through a dull campaign that mainly focused on their being nice people; leaflets stressed commitment to gay rights, help for immigrants, equality for everyone, fine principles that were never likely to galvanize voters in the midst of the worst recession in decades. After a center-right government under Berlusconi had brought Italy to the edge of financial chaos in 2011, causing the need for a "technical" government of sackcloth and ashes through 2012, PD was expected to win this election hands down with 40 percent of the vote. In fact they polled 30 percent.

The most recent of the now endless list of English words Italians use is "lo spread." Trotted out at every news bulletin, it refers to the difference between interest rates on Italian and German bonds in euros, thus telling us how much more it costs to service the Italian public debt than the German. It was when lo spread almost reached a critical 6 percent that economics professor Mario Monti was parachuted in to replace Berlusconi as prime minister and run a government of unelected experts to right the economy.

At age 70, Monti effects what Italians imagine is a typically British aplomb; he is serious, wry, and calm; after Berlusconi these qualities alone were enough to lower lo spread a point or two. For some weeks after his ascendance, while the catastrophe of an Italian exit from the euro seemed possible, Monti was in a position to take drastic measures. He let the chance slip, backing away from important proposals at the first sign of serious resistance. Nothing was done to curb the extraordinary privileges Italian politicians have voted themselves in the past, in particular the state subsidy parties receive for each vote cast for them, something that makes electioneering a profitable business.

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