Sunday, May 25, 2014

2014 Politics: Europa/Italia, Pt. 2

Sorry, I have to return to this topic again, with a focus mostly on Italy's participation in the European Parliament elections.

One of the more difficult tasks for understanding Italian culture from the outside is the editorial cartoon. I simply don't get a lot of them--they often involve wordplay on slang, or dialect, terms that are unfamiliar--and many of the ones that I understand I still don't "get".

So, I'm happy to report one I read yesterday in "La Repubblica" that I liked (translated):
Person 1:  The "Grillini"  (n.b., followers of Beppe Grillo, the populist Five-Star Movement) are preparing seriously for the work waiting for them in Europe.
Person 2:  Yeah, they've learned to say "vaffanculo" in 27 different languages!
I have to say that pretty much hits the nail on its head. I went to see a rally for the Cinque Stelle with Beppe the other evening in Milano's Piazza del Duomo.  Let's try some pictures:
The above is the famous Duomo (Cathedral) of Milano--its square is the heart of the city (when there's no soccer game going on, anyway)....
This is a video of Beppe waxing passionate about wages and income, ending with the inevitable "ma va fa in culo".  Hope it works for you (the video transmission, not so much his suggestion).

The rhetoric heated up tremendously in the middle of the week, then cooled substantially.  The rules require one-day without rallies before the elections; also, there were no political ads on TV, except public service ones reminding people what the EU is about and reminding people of the "right, and civic duty" to vote.  Clearly, these are characteristics I wish the US would copy.  I had it a little wrong about the voting days; the requirement was just that countries hold their elections "by May 25"--some of them preferred to do it earlier, or over more days, but in all cases there was a rule not to disclose actual or exit poll results prior to the completion of the voting in all the nations.  Italy's polls will not close until 11 p.m. tonight, so it will be a late one as they watch the results come in and discuss them, no doubt at length.

So, a few words on each of the major parties and issues, my fearless predictions, and then a brief comment on the rather infelicitous choice of the Ukraine to hold its Presidential election today.

Pd (Partito Democratico--allied with the European Socialists and Democrats) - The Democratic Party is the offspring of the Socialists, some of the leftward leaning Christian Democrats and Liberals, and those of the Italian Communist Party who were more committed to reform than revolution, when all those parties collapsed in the early nineties in the great scandal about parties embezzling money from the government.   They--very narrowly--won the most votes in the last elections, which earned them a huge bonus of delegates in Parliament, and they have been trying to justify themselves and their oversized representation in Parliament since then, with limited success.

Matteo Renzi is the leader of the party, and since February, the Prime Minister of the national government. He promised much, and was seen, and portrayed himself, as someone who could lead the country out of its current "crisis", which has taken the form of an economic slump combined with a lack of direction and confidence.   Here is a picture my favorite Italian mag, "L'Espresso", put together when he took over:

The face is his; the reference, of course, is to Napoleon, the Man on the White Horse.  Italy has a soft spot for charismatic leaders, and that's what they thought they were getting when he took over, perhaps because of the sudden nature of his rise to leadership in the party and the Machiavellian nature of his coup to remove the existing Prime Minister (Enrico Letta, also of his party) and move in.  What they are getting is something more Obamaian:  he has only had 80 days, and his argument is that he has accomplished a lot in that short time, but really only has gotten one measure through:  a rebate of 80Euros a month for working people in the lower-middle-class and below. It's true that he has had some headwinds, and that the other parties (besides the two smaller ones in his coalition) haven't cooperated, the 5-Star Movement spectacularly so, but, you know, he should have known it was going to be like that.   He has run a low-key campaign, he has succeeded in bringing in the other leaders of the party to support the party's campaign, and very honorably has refused to trade insults with Grillo and Berlusconi.  This will prove to be the best strategy if he is not humiliated in today's voting; he may want to try to get their support for big changes in the future.

M5S (Movimento Cinque Stelle --non-affiliated) The "Five-Star Movement" is headed by Grillo and his eminence grise, the long-haired introvert Roberto Casaleggio.  The party has risen meteorically in the past three years, from nothing to the verge of being the leading party in the country, and it has ridden on the back and on the hoarse, shouting voice of Grillo.  Grillo is something unique in politics, as far as I can think, a comedian gone big time:  I would say his style is a mix of Lewis Black and Bill Maher (for my American readers); he has put forward some good ideas (particularly about a 21st-century style of politics using websites, blog, etc. as a means of democratic discourse) but they are pretty much drowned out by his provocative public image. The correct way to view his party is as populist, non-ideological, and basically a protest movement centered around his personal popularity as a troublemaker.

There has been some talk in the past week--principally from Berlusconi--comparing Grillo to Stalin, then to Hitler.  The Stalin part came because the M5S expelled a number of members of Parliament from its party (some resigned, some stayed without the party backing) because they objected to the way Grillo rudely treated Renzi when the two had a semi-public "confronto" (which actually just means "meeting") in the early days of Renzi's government.  Basically, the argument which caused them to be expelled (by vote of their active members, on their website) was "get with the program, or leave"--the program being, no cooperation with Renzi, we're going to beat them in this election.

So, in short, that's the aim of M5S today; to finish first in the popular vote (the PD has hedged--they said, pragmatically, that they would call it a victory if they have the most seats in Parliament from the country, which suggests less confidence about the popular vote and more in their consistent showing across the five regional constituencies which will proportionally elect the representatives).  If that happens, Grillo promises to recall President Napolitano (loosely from the PD, who has chosen the last three "unelected" Prime Ministers) and require new elections.  He has no power to do that except, possibly, popular support in the form of mass marches.

So, to get back to the Hitler/Stalin, Grillo broke his longstanding ban on TV talk show appearances for his group to go on the most popular one this week and show that he was not Hitler, not Stalin, that he could talk without yelling (but apparently, still unable to stop to take a breath or drink of water), and discuss, in a fairly reasonable way, his program.  It includes an informal trial (think of "Reconciliation Commission") for all the politicians, journalists, and financiers responsible for this mess, and, if the Europeans don't listen to him, a referendum (whether legal or not) on withdrawal from the Euro.

This last one has gotten him a lot of criticism, justly, for a lack of coherence:  he wants the central bank of Europe to issue bonds on a cross-national basis, but isn't committed to staying in the Euro?  Anyway, a lot of other parties in Italy want these Eurobonds, so it's not original, though it is logical and a very concrete proposal to test Germany's good faith that will be put to the test soon.

FI (Forza Italia, allied with EPP, European Popular Parties) -  This is Silvio Berlusconi's personal political machine.  "Go, Italy!" is how I would translate it.  This is essentially his Last Hurrah campaign--one more time, to stop the Red Peril of the PD (not so much Renzi, whom he likes, but the Communist redistributionist program he is supporting) and the dangerous Grillo (the one of the Hitler/Stalin allusions).  To me, Berlusconi is just about as ridiculous as ever, though he knows how to push the buttons of the Italian people.  His program is totally confusing and confused:  for example, attacking the German banks, though he is politically aligned with Merkel's party.  He has been able to make some hay with his complaint (that he shares with Grillo) about the last three unelected governments; it has come out during the campaign (through Tim Geithner's new book) that there was a bit of a conspiracy to overthrow Berlusconi's last government in 2011, during the crisis of bond prices in the Southern European countries, to put in a government more amenable to fiscal austerity (which conspiracy was, in fact, successful). I think they are starting to realize that his day is past, though, and I expect his party's results to be underwhelming.

Back to Hitler/Stalin/Napoleon for one last moment:  the real allusion that makes sense in the Italian political moment, and I think it applies both to Grillo and to Berlusconi (but not at all to Renzi), is to Mussolini. The surprising thing to me is that I have not heard anyone comment on it, at all.  American readers may be surprised when I say that I think the reason no one says it is because it would be a characterization that would be ambiguous, not wholly detrimental nor wholly positive, so no one really wants to go there. Many Italians feel the country was better governed by Mussolini and the Fascists than those since then, with Benito's real problem being a bad choice of allies and war strategy (I would add, not knowing when he was beaten the first time; if he hadn't come back with the infamous German-run Republic of Salo, he might have survived the war and been making trouble politically, probably indirectly through his contacts, for a long time thereafter.) Basically, Berlusconi's historical role, of which he is very proud, was to stand up to the Red Menace (the united left parties) in the early 90's and defeat them, which he has done repeatedly (though not every time), which was Mussolini's original appeal (once he had left the Socialists, that is). The appeal to national pride, to the Catholic voters, etc.--all of this was a lot like Mussolini's basic appeal to the middle class and above when he struck in the '20's and took power, though of course Berlusconi used the modern means--TV (of which he owns a great deal of the national broadcast spectrum) and money (plenty of that, too).

As for Grillo, it's his style--personal, charismatic, confrontational--that recalls Mussolini, plus his opportunist selection of political stances, his willingness to disregard any law, convention, or cultural norm that stands in his way.  They--Mussolini and Grillo--are both bullies, at heart, though Grillo has taken pains to point out that his movement is, in fact, nonviolent, but if you see him in any verbal exchange, you will see that he doesn't listen to anyone who doesn't agree with him.

NCD (Nuovo Centro Destro, affiliated with the EPP) - This is the group of former Berlusconi supporters which broke with him by supporting the PD governments of Letta and Renzi.  The split was a pragmatic decision and basically finalized about the time that Berlusconi was expelled from the Italian Senate after having been definitively, finally, found guilty of malfeasance with campaign funds (surprisingly, Berlusconi seemed to be having some financial troubles at one point).  It is headed by one of Berlusconi's strongest one-time supporters, Angelino Alfaro of Sicily, the current Minister of the Interior in the Italian government (so he has been well rewarded for his "betrayal" of Berlusconi), who is well-spoken, speaks very positively of  Berlusconi on all occasions (Berlusconi does not return the favor), and has with him some other decent, respectable leading figures of the "center-right", as the party's name indicates.  Theirs is a battle for survival; Berlusconi would like to swallow them back up if this election does not go well (in particular, if they don't get to 4% nationally), which could mean curtains for the Renzi government. On the other hand, if they do suprisingly well, this could accelerate the clearly observable decline in Berlusconi's fortunes and they could end up swallowing Forza Italia in a couple of years.  NCD's program is pretty straightforward:  if you're a moderate, and not of the left, vote for us.

LN (Lega Nord, affiliated with EFD) - The Northern League is devoted exclusively to the interests of Northern Italy; they have played around with secessionist ideas, but mostly to the idea that the North should stop subsidizing the thieves in the South and that there should be less immigration into their part of the country.  Their leadership is recovering still from the loss of Umberto Bossi, their original star, to scandal and stroke (he's still alive, but inactive). In the European Parliamentary elections, they have taken a clear stance for withdrawal from the Euro, and they will ally with the U.K. Independence Party, Marine Le Pen's French National Front (so far, she's officially unaffiliated, but should come around to this group), and other parties strongly opposed to the EU.  Their position on Italy has been a little less clear in this campaign, as they would like to get a few votes from other parts of the country, to help ensure they get past the 4% mark (nationally) required for any representation in the European Parliament:  what I've heard their leaders say this time is that they want "true federalism" in Italy (and I was thinking that "true federalism" was where Europe would be going!)  They still have a lot of support in Lombardia (Bossi's region) in the northwest and Veneto in the northeast, and should secure their 4% fairly safely.

AET (L'altra Europe Lista Tzipras, affiliated with EUL-NGL) This strange bird ("The Other Europe--Tzipras List") is made up of the remnants of a bunch of Italian left-wing parties which refuse to be co-opted by the Social Democrats (PD).  They have chosen to ally themselves very clearly--by name--with Alexis Tzipras, leader of the left-wing Greek Syriza party, and there are a number of other left-wing parties around Europe that are allied. (The European formation name is something like "United Europe of the Left and Nordic Group of the Left", in some language.)  The head of their Italian party is Nikki Vendola, who is close to the Communist unions, is broadly popular among the left, and wears a hoop earring--he has kept an extremely low profile in the campaign, and their spokespersons have mostly been non-Italian.  They have been active in my (college) neighborhood.  Their purity has kept them from a couple of alliances that might have helped them, like the Greens, and it will be close to see whether they make the bar of 4%.

FdI (Fratelli d'Italia, affiliated with the possible EAF group).  EAF is European Alliance for Freedom, which means extreme right-wing parties. Fratelli d'Italia (Italian Brotherhood, maybe?) is the survivor of the MSI, the neo-Fascist group which grew quite strong under the leadership of Gianfranco Fini in the late '90's--early '00's and was included in the Berlusconi governmental alliance. Fini has pulled back from active involvement; they have an eloquent leader, Georgia Meloni, who made herself available to all the talk shows.  It sounds as though FdI wanted an alliance with Lega Nord and Marine Le Pen, but Le Pen was trying to change her positioning and didn't want to be associated with the Fascists.  Their positions are based on some very acute criticism of the prevailing parties and have a nationalist agenda (which is probably a bit more coherent than their rivals from the Lega Nord). They are also on the borderline of the 4% level--I think the LePen snub was also due to a possible expectation that they wouldn't make it.

I think that covers all the lists that have a real chance at 4%.  There are five other lists:  one is the South Tyrolean People's Party, which due to its status as a minority language party is guaranteed one seat.  Next is Green Italy, which is going it alone in the European Parliamentary elections--there is a significant Green caucus, but Italy's is unlikely to be represented in it for lack of votes--really they should ally with the center-left or left in Italian elections.   European Choice (SE- 'Scelta Europea") is composed of three responsible, centrist, minuscule groups which together will draw a minuscule share of votes--they are the ones most directly held responsible for the decision to adhere to the hated Fiscal Compact in 2011 (one of their members, Mario Monti, was Prime Minister at the time) and they will continue to be punished--their name for the elections suggests they recognize their credibility on the national stage is finito.  Italia di Valori (IdV), which correctly translated is Italy of Values, not Italy of Valor, is a party founded by Antonio di Pietro, who was a senior judge who became really angry with the regular parties and founded one that is basically non-ideological and anti-corruption:  How little he seems to understand the Italian political system!  He should find another party that's clean enough and ally with them, but will probably die wandering around in the dark with his flashlight.  Both IdV and SE are allied with the European Liberal Democratic group, ALDE, which means they should get exactly 0 representatives from Italy.  Finally, there is one that is called Io Cambio-MAIE:  when I heard them introduced for their turn in the Press Conference (each party got one-half hour, except M5S which refused it), I heard "Io cambio maglie"--I change shirt--which makes sense, actually. Anyway, Io Cambio ("I Change") is a split-off from Lega Nord, and MAIE is an alliance of Italians who live in South America--they have full right to vote and polling precincts there.

Prediction on Italian popular vote:  PD 31%, M5S 29%, FI 16%, LN 7%, NCD 6%, AET 3%, FdI 3%, Others 5%.
On Italian representation:  PD 26, M5S 23, FI 14, LN 5, NCD 4, South Tyrolean Peoples Party 1.  I am least confident about whether FdI would make the threshold, which would give them probably 3 seats and take them away from some of the leaders' numbers.

European Parliament projections--these might take some days or weeks for the numbers to firm up:  EPP 210, S&D 205, ALDE 57, Left 47, ECR 39, EFD 63 (including National Front), Greens 44, Non-affiliated 91.  Those results would make it very tough for the leaders, EPP, to form a majority without some sort of agreement between with the S&D, or at least with the Greens and some Indpendent types, which would probably include the expected relaxation on fiscal austerity and reduction of Euro-federal bureaucracy.

Ukraine Votes!-- OK, but what's the hurry?  I have the feeling this was a decision by the Euro-oriented faction, to show that they are part and gain solidarity, but they won't get any attention by picking this day.  Instead, the best they can hope for is a clear decision (apparently a respectable oligarch, over the more prominently anti-Russian Julia Timyoshenko), generally peaceful results, and for Russia to back its promise to respect the results.  Lately, President Putin has backed off his aggressive tone, pulled the troops back:  essentially he got what he wanted out of this crisis:  1) more respect from the Ukraine, an acknowledgment of their legitimate interests; 2) to remind them they owe lots of money to Gazprom and better pay it, realizing they have few alternatives; and 3) Crimea, which apparently has some hidden natural gas reserves, probably discovered by Russian submarines snooping around near their base awhile ago.  Oops!  There wasn't much else about Crimea to recommend itself from what I've heard, frankly.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

12:54 a.m. 30% of the votes in Italy are now reported, and the result is shocking to all: Renzi's PD has gained 40% or more of the popular vote, and a clear lead in all 5 regions. Grillo has lost decisively, Berlusconi has fallen (to the level I expected), and two parties--the Left, and the NCD are fighting to hold the 4% level (Lega Nord is safely above, in 4th).

This result gives huge legitimacy to Renzi's government; it will no longer be questioned, and should lead to some significant domestic successes. It also catapults him to the first rank of European leaders, and will give him huge influence in the conduct of European affairs, which he clearly needs to take by the scruff of the neck if he wants to maintain his enormously strong position within Italy. Congratulations to him, and I daresay he has earned the vote of confidence he has received from the Italian voters.