Friday, March 15, 2013

The Italian Election- Part II

The People Have Spoken

And what exactly did they say? They said “Va fannculo”, which more or less translates to “Go fuck yourself” or “fuck off”. This was the campaign slogan of the populist ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, who frequently exhorts his public to say it while flashing a “V” sign with forefinger and middle finger. My apologies for the language but that's Grillo, whose sensibilities run parallel to those of the late George Carlin, never one to use a polite word or phrase when there was a more off-colorful option. Grillo's new party, the Five Star Movement (M5S) led the field, getting 25.5% of the votes for the Chamber of Deputies, leaving 25.4% for the pre-election favorite Partito Democratico (PD), 21.4% for Silvio Berlusconi's Polo della Libertà (PDL), and 8.3% for Mario Monti Lista Civica.

Italy has 20 regions and each has a proportional election to select a bunch of Senators and another to elect a bunch of members of the Chamber of Deputies. Nobody gets to vote for a person. You vote for a party with a list of candidates. Here in Umbria, one of the 20 regions, we had thirteen lists competing for seven seats in the Senate (curiously divided into twenty-two national voting districts) and sixteen lists competing for nine places in the Chamber of Deputies (even more inexplicably divided into twenty-six voting districts) Those seats are apportioned more or less in proportion to the percentage of votes the party receives but clearly most of the smaller parties or lists get no seats at all. The small parties tend to team up with the larger parties, presumably to agree on policies but, if I understand correctly, also to share in the number of seats awarded to the group. How candidate lists and the apportionment of seats are determined remain mysteries to me and, I suspect, to the majority of Italian voters. Thus, while the M5S got a high percentage of votes throughout Italy, the PD, which had the higher totals in central Italy, and the PDL, which won decisively in the northern regions, both took far more seats in both Houses of Parliament than the M5S. That was due in part to their having three or four smaller lists affiliated with them, while the M5S ran alone.

The election rules threw the Va fannculo back in Grillo's face, as you can see from the following:

In the 2013 voting for the Senate the results were:
Grillo's M5S, with 23.8% of the vote, got 58 Senate seats, (19.2%)
Bersani's PD and allies, with 31.6% of the vote, got 113 seats (37.5%);
Berlusconi's PDL and allies, with 30.6 %, got 114 seats (37.8%) and;
Monti and friends, with 9.1 %, got 16 seats (5.2%) for a total of 301 Senators, not counting a small number of Senators for Life, a sort of golden parachute program for respected senior citizens.

In the Chamber of Deputies the breakdown of votes and seats went like this:
M5S 25.5% 110 seats (17.8%)
PD+ allies 29.7% 340 seats (55.1%)
PDL+ allies 28.9% 121 seats (19.6%)
Monti + allies 10.6% 46 seats (7.4%)
617 seats

All this adds to a robust total of 617 deputies deputies in the highest paid parliament in Europe and perhaps in the world. (Note: The charts showing the pre-election division of seats show 291 senators and 580 deputies as opposed to the new totals of 301 and 617. We don't know if the discrepancies represent delegate creep or just that the newspapers have just lost track of how many MPs there really are.)

While we have similar discrepancies in US elections between the numbers of votes cast for a party's candidates and the number of those elected, this result would seem to exceed the wildest gerrymandering dreams of Karl Rove and Scott Walker. The American system confers two Senate seats on each state, whether they be the size of Rhode Island, or of California. In the US House of Representatives the disproportion is even worse, based mostly on gerrymandering, i.e. the manipulation of electoral districts to bundle like-minded voters into a few districts while defining other districts to include just enough of the traditional partisans of the gerrymanderers to assure their control. However corrupt this may be, Americans at least get to vote for a person with a name and a face against another known person. In Italy if you mark a ballot with the name of a person on a party's list, that ballot is annulled. Other than family and friends, nobody in Italy has any idea of who these people on the lists are or how they got there.

Following the election results, all the pundits, parties and newspapers declared Italy ungovernable. Grillo was to meet with Mario Monti, the unelected head of the recent government of technocrats, i.e. bankers, rather than career politicians, whose aim had been to impose on Italy some of the currently fashionable austerity, which has done so much to restore the virtue, if not the efficacy, of governments in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and the UK. Grillo apparently would support an interim government headed by Monti to pass measures limited to two areas, election reform, and anti-corruption reform, before new elections would be held.

His objectives start with his party's own rules for the election:

  1. All candidates on his list must not have had past affiliations with existing political parties.
  2. All M5S candidates had to agree to accept no more than 25% of their parliamentary salaries, with the rest going to a fund to promote small businesses.

Among his more dramatic and attention getting getting proposals are:

  • referendums on Italian adherence to NATO, the EU, the Euro and Free Trade Agreements.
  • A citizenship salary of €1000/month.
  • Default on the public debt.
  • Nationalization of the banks.

However, he also calls for a vast number of measures to save energy, reduce corruption and make the government more responsive to the electorate. Among them are:

  • Abolition of provincial governments and the combining of comunes (townships or counties) with fewer than 5000 residents.
  • Abolition of governing funding of the election expenses of the (many) political parties.
  • Limits of two terms for elected officials.
  • Elimination of special privileges for Parliamentarians, including their pensions after two years served.
  • Prohibition on parliamentarians from holding outside jobs, or additional political offices, while serving in Parliament.
  • Parliamentary salaries to be brought in line with national norms.
  • People found guilty of serious crimes shall not be eligible for elective office nor for managerial positions in publicly listed companies. (Many convicted felons, besides Mr. Berlusconi, occupy high office in Italy, although he represents a pinnacle of sorts.)
  • All laws must be self-financed when enacted.
  • New laws must be published on the internet three months before taking effect.
  • Referendum results must be enacted into law regardless of the percentage of voters participating in the referendum. At present they are advisory and non-binding if less than 50% of the voters participate.
  • Free internet access for everyone.
  • No one person shall be allowed to own more than 10% of any national publication or TV channel.
  • There will be only one public TV channel and it shall have no advertising.
  • Executive salary limits on all publicly traded corporations and for those with government participation.

How successful Grillo's populist efforts will be remains to be seen. We do have strong doubts about the likelihood of any of the three other competing groups getting anything done to resolve Italy's major problems. The Italian press, and even more the international press, writes of both Grillo and Berlusconi as buffoons unworthy of consideration. We're pleased that, unlike the US, where politicians all seem bent on creating false problems, crises and deadlines while ignoring real problems and running the country into the ground, Italy seems to have at least one political leader who is proposing bold solutions where they are needed.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Italian Election- Part I

The Silvio Critiques

On February 24, 2013, the day of the Italian national elections, Frank Bruni published an article in the NY Times on the elections, and in a fit of pique, I responded to it. My comments are logged around noon of Feb.24. Having suggested that it would be befitting for Americans to keep quiet about Italian politics, I will now ignore that prescription. Silvio Berlusconi is the target of many foreign commentators such as Frank Bruni. His position can best be understood by non-Italians by comparing his role to a number of other public figures. It takes many of them to give a full picture and while I do not wish be seen as a defender of Mr. Berlusconi, it must be admitted that he doesn't fare too badly in some of the comparisons.

Berlusconi, the self-made man, came from a prosperous Milanese family and like Donald Trump, another son of a moderately wealthy family, used his entertaining manner and driving ambition to build a large personal fortune. Berlusconi started out as an entertainer on cruise ships then used his friendship with Bettino Craxi to build a real estate empire in Milan before turning to building even larger empires in media and politics. The Donald also had a good deal of success in real estate but at the end of the day, he got into the casino trade in Las Vegas and New Jersey, and starred on a cheesy reality show, whereas Berlusconi has managed to control roughly 90% of the media in Italy, becoming its richest man and, in a manner of speaking, turning it into one big casino.

Silvio Berlusconi is seen by the American press and most politicians and diplomats in Europe as a buffoon. His dealings with Angela Merkel and other European leaders are filled with gaffes and insults, intended or not, to a degree very similar to those of George W. Bush. Silvio's comments are often crude, rude, and insulting, but occasionally amusing. Those of Bush were often also funny, but the comedy was mostly due to his unprecedented mangling of the English language. There have been many books and calendars dedicated to his malapropisms. The major distinction between these two buffoons is that Berlusconi started neither wars nor major recessions.

As amoral, sexual predators go, JFK may have been the real thing. Bill Clinton got the label but, like so many others, from Ike and Wilbur Mills to Gary Hart and John Edwards, he succumbed to the allure of ambitious young women, themselves seduced by the proximity to power. Where others have denied their involvements, Silvio has, except when under indictment, bragged of his exploits, perhaps creating a womanizer image magnified out of all proportion to reality. Whatever his perceived sins in this area, he has never approached the hypocrisy of a Newt Gingrich, who publicly attacked Clinton for his sexual peccadillos while informing his cancer stricken wife in the hospital that he was divorcing her to marry his mistress.

With regard to conflicts of interest, it's more difficult to find anyone with a comparable issue, since Berlusconi's interests are so vast. Collectively the entire US Congress comes to mind. They are paid base salaries of $176,000  with generous benefits for working 126 days per year to represent the American public, but a large majority appear to be more richly rewarded by corporations for representing their interests in Congress. The ruling majority of the Supreme Court, which declared money speech and corporations citizens, seems to enjoy similar conflicts. Clarence Thomas's wife is highly paid to lobby for organizations dependent on favorable outcomes of SC decisions but we don't recall Justice Thomas (or his radical right brethren on the Court) reclusing himself on any such cases.

Being tall is a big advantage in politics. Both Presidents Washington and Lincoln towered over their peers, physically as well as metaphorically. It's virtually impossible to imagine Mitt Romney getting to run for any office if he stood at under 5'-8”. However, small men, from Napoleon to Michael Bloomberg, driven by ambition, talent, intellect, arrogance or presumption, have striven to make themselves great, sometimes with mixed results. Silvio Berluscono fits that mold.

The closest comparison to Berlusconi by any one man would have to be with that other media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch. Both men are active in numerous countries. Murdoch started in Australia, expanded into England and then metastasized into the US. Both have taken respected publications and turned them into trash. Berlusconi's operations have also expanded outside his native Italy. Although it did suffer setbacks in France, his TV empire has stretched into Spain and other European countries. Both men have successfully maneuvered to expand their media holdings, in opposition to anti-monopoly laws, to further their their political goals and personal fortunes. In their TV programming both have used attractive young women to bolster their ratings. Berlusconi's mostly appear semi-nude and dance, while Murdoch's blonds dress well and read Goebbels-style propaganda in the guise of news. Just imagine Murdoch buying up the NY Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, Time Magazine and the Dallas Cowboys, then starting his own political party from scratch, calling it “America's Team”; then taking over Congress and getting himself elected President, and you get some idea of Silvio Berlusconi's place in Italy.

Richard Nixon faced scandal as Vice President, serving under President Eisenhower, but he managed not only to extricate himself from that scandal and survive an unsuccessful run against Kennedy, but to come back from the political graveyard to be an almost two term President, before his paranoia-driven propensity for criminal activity terminated his presidency. Italy's own Comeback Kid has faced prosecution on many charges, been convicted on several, but has always managed to use Italy's bizarre rules regarding appeals and statutes of limitation to keep him out of harm's way. Last Fall, after his conviction, he announced his withdrawal from politics, but by February's elections, he was back in the fray, leading his party to a third place finish.

Karl Rove comes to mind as the only other present day political figure comparable to Berlusconi in wanting to win at any cost. The most recent charge against Berlusconi is that he paid several million Euros to a politician to switch to his party. He's also been known to bring expensive-to-defend lawsuits against journalists who have reported too accurately on his activities. Rove tends to favor raising obscene amounts of political “donations” to support chosen campaigns. He also is expert at inventing voter suppression measures. Both men suffered setbacks in the past year. We're unaware of any other achievements of Rove, but should they team up, he and Berlusconi could be a dangerous team.

Finally, in the New Face of the Year category, there are many candidates, but the best match I can come up with for a comparison to Berlusconi's penchant for spending vast wealth on cosmetic surgery of dubious value would be Jocelyn Wildenstein. The pictures speak for themselves.