Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Who Rules in Rome?

Candidate I:  The New Pope
Pope Benedict's most interesting move as Pope was his last--choosing to abdicate.  There seemed not to be a rule against it, but no pope had left vertically from the job in 600 years or so. I have heard all the gossip about the supposed "real reason" why he left--gay intrigue, financial shenanigans, cover-up of whatever.  They may all be true, but I don't believe any of them is the reason he is leaving:  he saw how his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was reduced at the end and didn't want to go out that way.  I give him credit, and I recommend his example to future popes who can see their faculties irreversibly slipping away.

Pope Benedict's term officially ends now, and the conclave of Cardinals of the church will begin to select a new pope. I do not pretend to have followed the politics of the Vatican enough to be able to guess on whose feet will be fitted "The Shoes of the Fisherman", ready or not, but I do think the rest of the world (and not just the Catholics) has an interest in their judgment.

I do not have any expectation that the new pope will be any kind of an innovator, one who will change the current state of papal bull. What I have read is that all of the current voting cardinals have been appointed by Pope Benedict or by his predecessor, and that means it is unlikely that the next pope will be even slightly inclined to change things, or that even any of those who will be voting will be so inclined.  That means no prospect of female priests, no change to celibacy rules, no change to policies on contraception, etc.
That being said, there are some things that could change, and selection of the right Pope could help with them. What I am looking for above all is a change to the Eurocentric, even Italocentric, focus of the papacy and of the College of Cardinals. There are many more Catholics in Latin America than in Europe, and if one adds the Catholics from Asia, Africa, and North America to those in South and Central America, one realizes that 100% of modern popes (in the last ten centuries or so) have come from the continent of 25% of modern Catholics. The last two popes were not Italian--so the Italian cardinals think they are due, no doubt--but the previous fifty or so were, and of course Italians represent a much smaller, steadily shrinking, percentage. The origin of the cardinals themselves has been broadening; a non-European pope might assist that process, which--since the church is such a hierarchical, patriarchal organization--might lead to those in the rest of the world feeling a little less like second-class Catholics.  More likely, I will be disappointed at the end, as I was when the current pope was chosen.

Candidate II: The New Prime Minister
Italians went to the polls this week to choose a new Parliament.  The results were shocking, but not very significant. How can this be true?  To answer this, we must delve a little into the morass of Italian politics, one of my favorite subjects.

Italy is a true multi-party Parliamentary democracy, one of the purest in the world (Israel is another).  Unlike Great Britain, where the parties are stable, with long history and hereditary patterns of membership, Italian parties come and go, burning brightly then burning out, and, even more so, the groupings of parties are short-lived.  Credibility is the big issue for Italian parties; in order to come into governing coalitions, parties bend their principles out of shape until no one believes their platforms anymore. Then, the parties, or their leaders, usually do something which confirms peoples' worst impressions of them. 

It's been going on for more than six decades, since WWII, and it went on for several decades before then, from independence through WWI. The one party which remained true to its principles, in many Italians' minds, was the Fascist party of Mussolini.  That was the good part, the bad side was that most of their principles, in fact, were ugly, repressive, and self-destructive.*

The Italians made an effort in the last decade to develop something like a two-party system.  Their (excessively) proportional representation was revised to give a sizable bonus of seats in the lower house to the party winning the most votes.  Two big groupings formed, one around "The Cavalier"--Silvio Berlusconi, multimillionaire industrialist, media magnate, and self-imagined ladies' man--and one called "The Olive Tree" of all the groups which couldn't stand him.  Of course, Italian politics being what they are, both groups fractured within a few years.

The elections this month occurred in a more typical fragmented environment, but there were really only four major parties contesting the election.  The first two were the renamed remnants of the Berlusconi coalition and the anti-Berlusconi one, Berlusconi's we will refer to as "center-right" and the other "center-left".  The center-left coalition's largest group is the Democratic Party (PD), which is really the former Italian Communists and Socialists of the postwar period (both of their parties self-destructed).  Italian Communists are like no other Communists in the world:  they have a long tradition for clean government, support of labor unions, using the rules of electoral democracy to achieve their ends, and responsible, bourgeois bureaucracy. The leader of the PD for this election was Pier Luigi Bersani, another in a series of former Euro-Communists with impeccable democratic credentials. Berlusconi's supporters are middle-class patriots, businesspeople, and a significant bloc of Northern Italians sick of subsidies in favor of the relatively poor South of the country, 

As you might imagine from the descriptions above, your average non-special interest, free-thinking iconoclastic Italian hates both of them.  The third force is made up of the technocrats who rallied behind central banker Mario Monti, Prime Minister of the last governing coalition (destroyed by the tidal pulls of austerity), while the fourth is a unique Italian phenomenon, the Five Stars Movement of comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo ("grillo" means "cricket", and I'm assuming that is not his real name).  Grillo is anti-everything, and particularly anti-Berlusconi and anti-EuroCommunist, and in his long career his humor has been satiric, vicious, and often vulgar. 

 In Italy, organization is everything, and the many who hate politics and politicians have organized, and their  man with a megaphone is currently Grillo, who has been very adept at using the Internet, cell phones, and flash mobs to create a political movement of the disaffected.   Grillo is the latest in a unique Italian tradition which I would call the "vafanculo" party. The one I would compare him most to is Marco Pannella, head of the new-Left Radicals of the Seventies through Nineties.  Pannella and the Radicals accomplished much--through hunger strikes, referendums, political organizing for issues--but never went into the government.  Eventually, time passed them by, and now these random elements converged on Grillo, who made a late run.  Bersani's coalition had a sizable lead, but it shrunk by the day.

The final results were a very narrow popular vote victory for the center-left coalition over the Berlusconi forces (29.5% to 29.1% in the lower house; 31.6% to 30.7% in the Senate).  Grillo's M5S (Movimento 5 Stelle) came in a very strong third, with 25.5% in the lower house and 23.8% in the Senate, while Monti's group finished fourth, around 10%, but still high enough to get a strategically-important slice of representatives.

Thanks to Bersani's narrow win in the lower House of Deputies and the bonus he received, the only conceivable choice for Prime Minister, really, is Bersani--his party has an absolute majority in that house with 345 of 630 seats.  (Results, and some of the background are from the online version of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.) In order to be confirmed in office, though, his Cabinet will need to be approved by both houses, and in the Senate his party has only 123 of 315 seats (Berlusconi controls 117, Grillo 54, and Monti 19).  The immediate reaction was that no government can be formed, a hasty judgment, and one that does not give full credit to the Italians' creativity, though it does recognize their ability to dispute endlessly.

Anyway, Bersani will surely get the initial chance to form a government, which will be granted by President Napolitano, an aged former PCI and WWII partisan leader, who was quoted on a visit to Germany this week calling both Berlusconi and Grillo "clowns".  Subsequently, he walked back his comment, saying it was "out of place"--but not mistaken, for surely it is correct.  Italian politics is nothing if not a stage play with its leaders as dramatic actors, and the role these two play are that of  "pagliacci"  for sure (sorry for the opera reference).  The amusement factor should be multiplied, though, now that there are two clowns at the very  front of the stage beating each other over the head with rubber bats.

If no one can put together a government--the Italians call that not-unusal situation a government "crisis in the dark"--eventually the President would call for new elections. One alternative that I saw mentioned in my research is the possibility that new elections might be called for just the Senate--I didn't know that was possible, and it might not have the desired effect.  My reading of the math is that Bersani--who would normally be able to count on Monti's group for support and to fill responsibly key positions in the Cabinet--will have to deal with either Berlusconi or Grillo.   Berlusconi's price might well be to make Monti the PM in a unity government; Grillo's might be to water down the austerity in exchange for his willingness to abstain in a vote of no confidence in the Senate.  In any of these outcomes, the answer to the title question will be:  Nobody.

But, Really...

It is a debatable proposition which authority has more influence, the secular government of the Republic of Italy, or the presumed holy one of Vatican City. The Italian central government has always--since the nation's unification in the 19th century--been a relatively weak one, hardly able to manage the disputatious and endlessly politically creative Italian people. Both before and after the Risorgimento, Italy was a land in which the Roman Catholic church meddled, often, frequently in a decisive way, and not necessarily to the benefit of the native population.
The current equation governing power in the Italian peninsula was worked out during the rule of Mussolini, and it has survived both his fall and the Italian monarchy that was in place at the time.  Basically, Italy--the secular state--has agreed to leave the Vatican alone and sovereign within its walls, and the Vatican agreed to stay out of domestic politics.  The formula has worked to allow the Vatican to project its power worldwide, probably more effectively than it had for centuries, and the state has eliminated a messy distraction from its many obstacles to effective government.

Italy now has a new distraction, one that overpowers the relatively puny efforts of its central government and the regions, provinces, and comuni (the localities).  The relatively impotent European Community government provided a neutral battleground for Italians to exercise their volatile political arguments but didn't rule their world, but the European central bankers responsible (mostly to the various national governments, and especially to Germany's) for safeguarding the Euro have not been able to leave Italy alone in the past few years.  Italy entered the Euro under somewhat false pretenses, not really meeting the requirements for government debt or budget-balancing, but the European Community needed Italy in the deal.  And, they still do:  while Greece is a relatively small appendage to the Eurozone which could be excised if it were done before its corruption spread to the rest of the body, Italy is a pound of flesh too near the heart.

So, I would say that the near-universal perception in Italy (I will confirm it this summer) is that the shots are being called by the Eurobankers, on behalf of the "tedeschi" (Germans).  This is different from what I often experienced in the past, when the Italians were convinced their country was controlled by the CIA (and they had plenty of evidence of such conspiracy), but this would not be a system of order that will appeal much, either.  Economically, they may not have any better alternative, but a lot of Italians have very little invested in the globalized national economy, relatively successful though it appears.

In summary, a very combustible situation; one could conclude that there is the potential for massive, even revolutionary, upheaval, but that is often the case in Italy and it occurs much less frequently than would seem possible.

*Another group remaining true to its principles--even now-- that I discovered in my research is the Italian Republican Party, which dates back to the 19th century.  It has always stood for respectable, democratic government and has produced many of the leading figures of modern Italian history--though I don't think it has ever attained more than 5% of the vote in postwar Italy.  The leader of its leading fragment (there was a PRI list that got about 5000 votes nationally) now is Oscar Giannino, his party is called "Fare" (to do/to make) and its slogan is "to stop the decline".  It got about 1% of the vote (300,000 or so) and no seats in Parliament.  Draw your own conclusions.

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