Italians Have Hardly Cut Their Baby Teeth on Democracy

Article excerpt

My Italian cousin, visiting from Milan, was livid: the Economist was a dirty little rag, she screeched. The Financial Times was a waste of paper. Like so many of her compatriots, Francesca is fed up to the back teeth with the campaign run by foreign newspapers against Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's leading prime ministerial candidate. My cousin is no fan of the Cavaliere, who made a hash of being PM first time around, in 1994. His right-wing xenophobia has grown more strident, and dark tales about Mafia links follow him like faithful corgis. But she is furious that the only viable opposition Berlusconi faces comes not from his political opponents, the centre-left coalition led by Francesco Rutelli, but from the media.

I point out that the same is true here in Britain, where only the Telegraph group, Rory Bremner and a handful of columnists such as Nick Cohen and Mark Steel are giving Tony Blair and co a rough ride.

In Italy, though, media intervention -- whether national or foreign -- is more dangerous. British parliamentary democracy has long and strong roots, but in Italy politics has only just crawled out of the shadow of the Mafia, the secret deal-making of the Masons of P2 and a vast network of corruption that saw brown envelopes being passed around from one bureaucratic circle of hell to another. Britons may be weary of parliamentary politics -- but Italians haven't even cut their baby teeth on it. Admittedly, it's not an appetising prospect: parliament, Italian-style, has been allowed by proportional representation to become a pasta bowl of parties coalesced around such issues as hunting, anti-immigration and free love (who could forget Cicciolina?). This messy mob is ruled by coalitions that charge through the endlessly revolving doors -- never staying long enough to foster real allegiance or push through sensible policies.

As a consequence, Italians' indifference to politics is palpable in everything from tax evasion to television -- serious political coverage has shrunk to three programmes, even during election time. …