Italy’s summertime for democracy

Italy’s scandal-ridden and corrupt form of democracy should be raising alarms for Italians and the European Union.

Enrico Letta accused Silvio Berlusconi of attempting to topple his government [AFP]

Summers in Italy are usually warm and very pleasant. Festivals, food, and music are all mixed with a taste of art, culture, and beautiful landscapes, from its famous coastlines to the many little borghi. Summer is also the period when Italy’s often-colourful politics usually become silent. Yet, something interesting may also happen. The Grand Council of Fascism, for example, dismissed Benito Mussolini on July 1943. This undermined the fascist dictatorship, and then provoked many changes within the international community.

Silvio Berlusconi’s recent trials and verdicts also generated many storms over Italy’s summer skies, with implications on the democratic structure of the country. It led to the predicaments that the coalition, led by centre-leftist Enrico Letta and supported by the media tycoon’s own party, finds itself in. Surprisingly, in the past couple of months, all the main international political and economic actors have not been particularly concerned about this. They all seem delighted that Letta’s government is continuing and prefer to believe that Berlusconi has been defeated and will stay away from power. Stability and willingness to implement reforms are the key points in this age of austerity.

On August 15, the day of Ferragosto, a summer (electoral?) campaign was started to rescue the media tycoon’s political career. Since the fascist years this holy day has been characterised by Italians, especially the lower and middle classes, taking short trips to various tourist destinations. In August, some tourists found leaflets and pamphlets backing Berlusconi, along with airplanes flying banners supporting the former prime minister. This, in truth, is a small example of a number of bizarre acts promoted by the Italian centre-right, including an enduring propaganda to dispute the judicial system and save Berlusconi. This has been backed by many of the same politicians who recently apparently opposed their own famous right-wing leader.

His close allies and sympathisers, in fact, gathered in Rome to protest against the July verdict on tax fraud and the ban from politics. This meeting in front of Berlusconi’s residence mirrored a previous one organised in March by some senior politicians to somewhat “occupy” the Milan court to protest against the famous prostitution-related Rubygate trial.

Another incongruous argument is also that politicians can surely be prosecuted and convicted in other nations because foreign judges are not actually dangerous communists and influenced by the centre-left like the Italian ones.

Fascist democracy?

Some mainstream Italian media outlets supported the thesis of politicised judges and the demonstrations to back the convicted leader. (This again showed the odd links between the media and political power in some Western countries.) Peaceful protests are always acceptable, yet, “marching” on the capital and against other state powers is a very different matter, and not merely because this happened in the nation which experienced another march on Rome in 1922.

If someone who is convicted by a high court and banned from public office can enjoy such popular support and political benevolence, then people, and especially the EU, should start enquiring about what type of democracy Italians are experiencing, and, peculiarly, keenly supporting, rather than exclusively looking at public debts, fiscal reforms, and labour flexibility. The proper workings of a democracy should be a requisite also to avoid political corruption and waste of public funding.

What is also interesting to note is that decades after the so-called Bribesville investigation and the Clean Hands scandal, which highlighted a system of corruption and pulverised a generation of politicians and the domestic political system, judges are again under criticism for investigating an allegedly untouchable political class. The usual paradoxical reasoning here is evident: votes = power = immunity. Another incongruous argument is also that politicians can surely be prosecuted and convicted in other nations because foreign judges are not actually dangerous communists and influenced by the centre-left like the Italian ones. Quite worryingly, all this generates a sort of pre-modern understanding of democracy and institutional order – where there are no balance of powers, controls, or equality. In sum, the cores of some basic liberal and democratic principles are sadly delegitimised.

Italy therefore seems to live in another out-of-the-ordinary era. Unemployment and economic crisis are seriously hitting its social and industrial fabric. Yet, Berlusconi, his pride and honour, his old and novel parties, amnesties, and the calls against a sort of judicial “mafia” and takeover, has been, instead, all that mattered. Meanwhile foreign investors are ready to buy, “on sale”, some key domestic assets – Alitalia, Telecom, and many other medium and small companies. Indeed, Syria, the German elections, and the EU austerity all became secondary and often irrelevant topics – mostly due to the provincialism of some local media.

Peculiar notions of governance

In which other country could this happen? Where do senior political figures talk about rebellion and reaction? The point is that part of Italian society really believes in these peculiar stories and the significance of these priorities. This would put them out of the democratic order in a number of other nations. This is the result of all the years of pitiable political talk shows, pin-up girls, ignorant elites, lack of meritocracy, emigration, disregard of institutions, and cultural impoverishment. Private interests are, in many ways, triumphing over collective and public needs. The same Letta cabinet, for some, has to exist to cut taxes – to please Berlusconi and his past and future electoral promises – and protect the mogul. Indeed, the decision made by a parliamentary commission to dismiss Berlusconi from his seat (which also means less immunity for the other trials, and a blow to his image) counted for more than everything else – with the tycoon, as we saw, threatening the existence of the government.

We are all sons of Berlusconi.

by - Minister Nunzia de Girolamo

If the United Nations and other international bodies were rightly worried about some cases of xenophobia towards Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, one should wonder why they are not uneasy with the current challenge to the ideals and workings of a democracy. The EU and the European Central Bank, along with a few world leaders and the pressure of financial markets, were all keen to dismiss Berlusconi in November 2011, when Italy was in dire financial trouble. What do they think of this government so influenced by Berlusconi, which, for example, flaunts rules by cutting some taxes without European approval?

The Italian economy is not really florid these days. It was highly hypocritical to back Letta because his government is pro-EU and it did not, in truth, question the Brussels-led politics. Events proved that the coalition had little stability and it was not honestly supporting any financial growth. Berlusconi, in fact, forced his ministers to resign and his loyal colleagues were ready to kick the government out. The well-known story is that some rejected his plans, and he then surprisingly backed the government in full view of a good part of the Western world, including the British ambassador who attended the vote in parliament. These politicians are considered as some sort of saviours – though people in Italy and abroad tend to forget that they backed all of Berlusconi’s actions so far.

This includes Angelino Alfano, the vice prime minister, who is presently trying to take control of the centre-right – even if one should wonder who would finance the party if Berlusconi does not lead it. He is, nonetheless, internationally known not for his political capabilities, but for the bizarre deportation of the family of a Kazakh dissident. Another one is  Minister Nunzia de Girolamo, who after the confidence vote, in order to overcome the party’s disunity, said, “We are all sons of Berlusconi.” Indeed, all of them criticised the parliamentary commission’s decision to dismiss their leader, and will probably vote against it, and will continue believing that the judicial system is one of the main sectors to be reformed.

Yet many foreign political actors prefer to overlook all these facts, and the fact that Berlusconi may again influence Italian politics. In this critical democratic phase, more attention should be paid to national political behaviour. It seems, instead, that the international media are the only ones truly willing to monitor the state of Italian democracy.

Andrea Mammone is a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book “Transnational Neofascism in France and Italy” will be published by Cambridge University Press. He has written for the International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, and New Statesman.