Saturday, August 11, 2007

Italy's Misruling Class


Senator Gustavo Selva was running late. With downtown Rome blocked off for President Bush's one-day visit in June, the veteran Italian lawmaker had to cross the capital to get to a live television appearance. Selva confronted the challenge with all the brio — and arrogance — of a man of his station: he phoned for an ambulance and had it dispatch him to the address of his "cardiologist," which, of course, was that of the TV studio. Once on air, Selva, a former radio news executive, proudly dished out the tale of his own resourcefulness, hailing his ruse as "an old journalist's trick."

Maybe there was a time in Italy when Selva's smug insouciance would have earned him points for Latin style. If so, it's passed. Instead, the episode fueled disgust over the mind-set of Italy's decidedly unservile public servants. Selva, 80, submitted his resignation to the Senate in a bid to quell public outrage. But when the matter was finally put on the legislative calendar on July 17, he announced that he'd changed his mind. Saying that his sin hardly compares with those of Senate colleagues accused of such crimes as bribery and drug dealing, he withdrew his offer, and is keeping his seat.

To many disillusioned Italians, Selva's ambulance stunt was just another act in the absurd pantomime of the country's politics. Only 15% of the population expresses trust in political parties, and it's no wonder considering how maladroit Italian pols can be. On July 30, for example, Lorenzo Cesa, leader of the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), had this response when a deputy resigned over a tryst with a prostitute in a Rome hotel: Cesa called for what he dubbed a "family reunion" stipend so parliamentarians can afford to spend more time with their loved ones. "Loneliness," he explained, "is a very serious thing." Meanwhile, not to be outdone, some center-left leaders have been sullied by leaks of intercepted phone calls with prominent financiers mired in a market-rigging scandal.

When 15 months ago Romano Prodi's government unseated that of Silvio Berlusconi, whose tenure as Prime Minister was marked by frequent allegations of conflict of interest, there were the usual promises of a new era of accountability and efficiency. But Italians have a gnawing sense that not much is changing. "Society appears to be stalled," says Maurizio Pessato, ceo of the SWG polling institute in Trieste. "Italians see a growing Spain, a dynamic Britain, a recovering Germany, and even France has a new enthusiasm with Sarkozy. We are the only ones sleeping."

Bolstering that impression, a new best-selling book, La Casta (The Caste) by journalists Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, details how Italy's politicians have used their institutional muscle to pile up a glut of privileges. They enjoy the highest rate of chauffeured cars among European governments, the President's headquarters cost four times as much to maintain as Buckingham Palace, and there have even been indignant demands for better gelato at the Parliament cafeteria. Adding to the public's sense that politicians are not to be trusted, 16 of the Italian Parliament's 630 members are convicted felons. All this is feeding a mounting frustration with the institutional pillars of Italy's democracy: the parties and the system for electing representatives.

Though there has been some good news on the economic front lately, with unemployment dipping to 6.4%, its lowest since 1992, tough questions for the country's future remain unresolved. Italy is hobbled by a chronic lack of economic and social mobility, an unsustainable pension system and public debt that stands at 106% of GDP. Illegal immigration is exploding while birth rates are among the lowest in Europe. Intractable poverty and organized crime remain endemic across the southern half of the country.

Yet Italy's political class seems more concerned with self-preservation. "The word accountability doesn't exist in the Italian language," says Ivan Scalfarotto, 41, who left Italy in 2002 for a banking career in London. Before the 2006 general election he tried to break into Italian politics by running against Prodi in what was billed as an open primary for leadership of the center-left Union coalition. But despite his rapidly spreading support among young people, the center-left establishment shut him out of any future role for having tried to spoil what was intended as a coronation for Prodi. Scalfarotto sees the immobility of the Italian workforce mirrored to especially ill effect in politics. "Whether you win or lose an election makes no difference," he says. "None of the ruling class ever goes away."

That inertia has a history. Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari says Italy has still not recovered from the implosion of the major political parties in the early 1990s in the wake of a nationwide bribery investigation. "It was a moment of crisis, like at the end of a war when you need a brave response. That didn't happen," says Cacciari, who is also a noted philosopher. "Since then, we've had an infinite transition, a continuous passage into the next phase."

During Berlusconi's high-drama reign, the billionaire's oversized personality and the much-debated conflicts of interest between his political career and his business concerns used up a lot of oxygen. But as center-left leaders and foreign observers obsessed over what they called the Berlusconi anomaly, they lost sight of the more fundamental anomaly that divvying up power seems to be both the means and ends of Italian politics. Berlusconi, who came to office promising to liberalize the economy in his own image, was reduced to cutting backroom legislative deals to keep his allies from jumping ship. His five-year hold on power reflected his masterly survival skills rather than a compelling vision for change. From Day 1, Prodi showed a similar focus on survival — for example, by including a record number of ministers and undersecretaries in his government in a blatantly wasteful attempt to keep all nine parties of his coalition content.

With the public's sense of disillusionment deepening, the ruling coalition's approval rating plummeted 12 points to 34% in June. Since then, multiple threats of government crisis have come and gone, the former chief spy has threatened to spill 30 years of state secrets, and the government's bumbling attempt to privatize failing state carrier Alitalia has disintegrated. The government points to its attempt to open the market for taxi drivers and other autonomous workers as a great achievement in the face of wildcat strikes and street protests. But the purported reform has been so watered down that it has yielded almost no additional working licenses in the targeted sectors.