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New and old: Italy at a crossroad

By Claudio Mazzola Ph.D.
Division of French and Italian Studies
University of Washington
Posted March 18, 2007


There are many stereotypes and only few certain truths about contemporary Italy.  It is safe to say that good food, art treasures and unstable governments belong to the second group.  Everyone knows how good Italian food is, how many art masterpieces are preserved there and that the average life of an Italian government is less than a year.  Then it should not even make the news that last February the center left coalition led by Romano Prodi, that was running Italy since last May, fell.  The rather large international echo that the Prime Minister’s resignation had is indicative that this was not just another crisis.  In fact, Italy was, and still is, at an important crossroad, probably the most important since the end of World War II.  In order to understand why this moment is so crucial for the future of the country we must look at what generated this crisis and grasp what is going on inside the two opposing groups. 

The government collapsed on a matter of foreign policy, specifically two senators from the center left coalition (who belong to far left parties) were ideologically opposed to continue supporting the Italian mission in Afghanistan.  It may sound rather strange that, at a time when the political agenda of all parties is more determined by pragmatism than idealism, a government collapses because of what we can call, using a typical cold war phrase, an “opposition to the US imperialistic view of the world” (that is how left wing parties see the UN led mission in Afghanistan).  It is a fact that Prodi, not only has a very thin majority at the Senate, but that he is also leading a coalition that is strongly ideologically divided.  Such a fracture is the inheritance of the old division between Communist ideology (mainly represented today by Rifondazione Comunista) and the Catholic ideology (once represented by the Christian Democrats and now by the UDC).  On the other hand, the center right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi is in no way more homogeneous, but the four parties that support it have given up any ideological belief.  Even Alleanza Nazionale (that counts many supporters from Movimento Sociale Italiano, which is the name used by the former fascist party after WWII) gave up their original rigid belief in law and order and their strong nationalistic ideology.  If Prodi’s coalition is constituted by so many parties linked to an old fashioned way of making politics, we are brought to believe that Berlusconi represents the new.  In reality, more than the new, Berlusconi represents the change, that socio-cultural change that globalization brought to Italy in the mid ‘90s and that Berlusconi helped spreading with his powerful commercial TV stations.  His populist rhetoric is addressed to an audience that is culturally TV oriented.  That is why he had a relatively easy time convincing the Italians that he was the real Messiah, the savior of the country from communism.  Some of his speeches recall in fact the superficial anti-communism dialogues of some American movies made during the McCarthy era.  

The reality is that, since his arrival on the political scene in 1993, Berlusconi has short circuited the political arena with unconventional behavior and unconventional politics.  He is not your typical adversary, whom you can fight with the usual rules of the political game.  Amidst embarrassing statements, stupid jokes and vulgar remarks, Berlusconi made the Italians believe that he was just like one of them. He then made them believe that there was nothing to worry about the future, because the country was economically stable, that he was the victim of a communist conspiracy and that even the magistrates who were inquiring about his shady television business were part of that conspiracy.  A year ago he almost succeeded in making them believe that Prodi stole the elections.  Berlusconi rode a sort of carpe diem of politics, in which his motto was “the left wants to make you suffer and is stealing your money, let’s enjoy the moment, we are doing so well that it would be silly to think about the future.”  During his tenure, Berlusconi did not face some of the most pressing issues of the country (like balancing the budget and taking care of the incredibly high public debt) and the laws that he passed (like the reform of the university system, immigration, role of public TV) were marred either by the attempt to impose and protect his private interests or simply by sheer ignorance.  The perfect example that actually combines self-interest and ignorance is the electoral reform that the Berlusconi government approved just six months before the 2006 elections.  It was supposed to help the struggling center right coalition to gain some votes but in the end it turned out to be just the opposite, and it actually sealed the victory of the center left coalition.  Interestingly enough, the senator who sponsored this law (Calderoli) defined it, in his own words, a porcata (a shitty law).

At this point, it should be clear why Italy and the Italians should be scared by what happened to Prodi.  If he does not succeed in keeping his government alive, Italy is facing general elections with a law that everybody believes is not suitable for the country at this moment.  With some major, hot issues like the expansion of a US military base in Vicenza and the question of gay marriages just around the corner, it does not take a political genius to imagine that when the Parliament will discuss these issues Prodi has to throw what in football would be called a “Hail Mary pass” in order to keep his coalition alive.  Before the last play of the game, though, the old Communists and the old Christian Democrats should take example from the opposition and wonder if it is not time to face the reality of XXI century politics: what matters is to win, not to participate.  Prodi’s coalition must be bold, cynical, and maybe even arrogant; they must be sure of their means and have faith in their goals.  That is how great teams win.  A victory of the center left is for the future of the country because despite the old fashioned ideologies the various laws promoted by Prodi in nine months of government are putting Italy back on the map of Europe as a modern and fiscally responsible country.  Unlike Berlusconi, whose constant skepticism about Europe risked isolating Italy from the rest of the continent—as only happened eighty years ago—Prodi is trying to move on, to look ahead and to do away with anything that keeps Italy anchored to the past (old forms of nepotism, groups’ interests and favoritism).  That is why Prodi represents the new and Berlusconi the old.   



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