Democracy

Italy: the Very Idea of Democracy in Danger

For nearly a century, the Republic of Italy has maintained an ambiguous relationship with its democracy. Built on the ashes of the fascist regime, the cultural foundations of which it has yet to fully analyse, the Republic was immediately placed under the control of two schools of thought with a highly ideological connotation. At the height of the Cold War, in the image of the Soviet-US dichotomy on the international political scene, the majority of voters in Italy split for either the Christian Democrats or the Communist Party. Undoubtedly, one of the original sins of Italian democracy dates back to that period.  Despite the undeniable contribution that these movements made to the end of fascism, in a country where an overwhelming majority of citizens supported Mussolini the structural fragilities of the democratic system were never addressed. Nor were the formal fragilities that allowed extremist to march to power with ease, or the substantive fragilities that made it possible to capitalise on them for ends other than those of the general interest.

A system sustained with economic growth

As a consequence, between 1948 and 1994, the country experienced a period of blocked democracy. The Christian Democrats and the Communist Party found themselves in an electoral virtual dead-heat. However in a country within the sphere of influence of the United States, ideological and financial links to the Soviet Union precluded the Italian disciples of Lenin from being a part of government. Consequently, the Christian Democrats became the cornerstone of every coalition government. They held the reins of every government with no possibility of alternation of political parties. What’s worse, the two rival blocks had the effect of cancelling each other out, and of defending their cronies and a certain form of cultural hegemony, so that no substantive reform could be undertaken during this considerable period of time. The result: lagging economic development compared to other European powers, especially in the south of the country, and organised crime seizing an ever-increasing hold on whole swathes of society.

Two factors balanced out the negative consequences of this blocked democracy: first the number of hand-outs to cronies, and here the Christian Democrat and Communists were equally complicit, second, the Italian Economic Miracle. Major migratory flows from 1947 on meant a significant amount of available, predominately agrarian, labour. Some very buoyant industrial sectors – electronics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, nuclear, aeronautics, and telecommunications – with national capital and management, were churning away bringing unprecedented growth rates. This windfall offered the major political parties the chance to distribute to their cronies a considerable sum of money and public jobs. As the economic miracle began to lose steam in the beginning of the 1970s, so too should the crony largesse have.  Alas, this continued for another decade in acts of pure pandering to voters, essentially through the expansion of ineffective/inefficient national and local public bodies full of idle jobs. Public debt and corruption ballooned. Then came Operation Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), when the Italian magistrates, in an effort to trace illegal funding of political parties, decapitated the Italian political class. The Christian Democrats, Socialist Party (at the time in power with the Christian Democrats), the Social Democrats and the Liberal Party all disappeared burying once and for all the First Republic that had existed since the end of the Second World War.

Repeating the same mistakes

Once again, as in 1948, a new regime was born without scrutinising the fundamental weaknesses of the old one. Not once did the institutional establishment consider rebuilding the democratic foundations that had been gnawed away at by cronyism, corruption, amorality, and inefficiency. A government of technocrats was put in charge to save the country from bankruptcy, just as would that of Mario Monti twenty years later. Then, in a folly of desire for something novel, voters – in protest – turned to the Northern League and Forza Italia, whom paradoxically preached renewal while recycling a large part of the old discredited leading class.

Italy experimented with another deviation from democracy: something of a video-cratic, demagogic, pandering Peronism. The Berlusconian parable came with an ethical decadence that was particularly marked in political practices and for the first time since the end of the Second World War a return of the extreme right and a trivialisation of xenophobic discourse. Once again it was a case of perversion of the substantive idea of democracy and at no time of its formal rules. Then, Berlusconi’s long line of legal/political affairs, compounded by an economic crisis with never-before-seen devastating effects, lead once again to a change in regime.  Or to be precise, it brought about another period of transition. Lacking a broad enough political majority to be able to govern, Silvio Berlusconi was forced to put his government into the hands of the President of the Republic in November 2011.

Economically the country was on the brink and threatening to take down the whole Eurozone with it.  The cost of financing the country’s deficit,  amounting to nearly five percent of GDP, had the executive’s hands tied. The economy was in recession and purchasing power had hit all-time lows.  The impasse was politically and economically structural, yet the solution chosen by the President of the Republic did not emphasise a return to democratic fundamentals; au contraire.  The President of the Republic did not choose to dissolve both chambers and let voters go to the ballot box.  He did not choose to form a new majority government  –  from the ranks of the elected – with a political platform.  Under pressure from the western chancelleries, the European institutions, and international lenders, Giorgio Napolitano appointed a non-elected Economics Professor from the prestigious Bocconi University and former European Commissioner for Competition to lead a technocratic government. The government was supported by both the centre-right and centre-left coalitions.

History repeated itself down to the details. Formally, it was not a refusal of democracy.  No constitutional provision requires the President of the Republic to propose to Parliament a Government comprised of people from its ranks.   The Members of Parliament, who were democratically elected, entrusted the management of the executive for their term of office to specialists, excellent magistrates in the Aristotelian sense of the term. Again we had a substantive problem of forming a government of technocrats with the excuse of the emergency of a pressing economic situation, de facto suspending political debate in favour of a highly injurious consensus on the nature of actions to be taken.  The current Enrico Letta government, a left-right coalition formed after the 2013 elections, continues to pursue the purely economic platform that is for all practical purposes the same as that established by the Monti government.

Taking decisions without debate

This lack of reflection and of ideological vision is highly injurious to the very notion of democracy and is indisputably endemic to the administrative approach advocated by international institutions for more than fifty years. It also means that very political ideas, that should be different for each political group and based on their specific objectives and characteristics, have come to be perceived as identical – for all practical purposes – on the right, left (governing left that is), and in the centre, throughout Europe. That does not, however, reflect reality and contributes to the increasing feeling of disenfranchisement on the part of voters towards their elected officials (national and supranational).  Should citizens be led to believe that a societal platform is being imposed on them without their opinion really being taken into consideration; and without any real debate on the socio-cultural objectives that should inspire the policies to be implemented? It is almost as if a real-estate developer was given the task of building the same building complex based on the same architectural blueprint on diverse sites without considering the aesthetics, geography, and landscape of each.

From an economic standpoint, this platform has meant – for Italy – the immediate de-pegging of retirement benefits, even for the lowest brackets (one-third of retirees receive between €500 and €1,000 a month), compounding the effects of the recession; a tax on primary residence, which has effected essentially this same group of retirees; an increase in VAT tax spurring inflation of the cost of food and energy to the some of the highest levels in the Euro Zone. Similarly, funds to the cities and regions – in charge of some of the most inefficient healthcare in Europe – have been drastically reduced. And then there is the need to revamp the tax system to boost the competitiveness of companies, reduce wages, make hiring more flexible, and increase the retirement age. All of this is underway and yet the sovereign parliament, which in theory acts on the basis of a delegation of powers to it, has not had the opportunity to really analyse the merits of the arguments.

Where is the reform of the political architecture?

No reform of the political architecture, which is full of empty inefficient shells, has been undertaken to date.  The international organisations, that are fully aware of these grave problems, have never demanded such reform.  The wages and perks to the politicians haven’t been decreased, indeed according to Eurostat they are amongst the highest in Europe. The pension system of elected officials has not been significantly reformed. There has been no audit carried out on the €200 million spent annually in regional public expenditures, a big part of which greases the hands of corruption, as evidenced by recent cases in Lombardy and Lazio.  There has been no audit on the use of €140 million in public reimbursement to the political parties, a big slice of which has been used for other ends as was shown by the recent scandals surrounding the Northern League, Margherita, and Italy of Values parties.  There has been no audit of the €2.5 billion (a significant amount of which have been managed by parallel or criminal entities) in European funds spent to revitalise the regions in the south of the country that have crushed by unemployment. Nothing or virtually nothing has been put into place to privatise a part of Dantesque and parasitic machinery that has been eaten away at by corruption, nepotism and organised crime. Nothing has been done, in exchange for an increase in the flexibility of the labour market, to strengthen the protection of workers, when only four million of them are covered by the social safety net in the case of job loss.

Despite the unanimously designed roadmap that has been established for the country, nearly all of the economic indicators are still in the red. Youth unemployment is at 50%. Purchasing power is at its lowest in eighteen years. Household savings rates are at an all-time low. Consumption is falling annually by more than 4% and the economy is still in recession. Debt stands at 128% of GDP. Exports have fallen by 3 % and the country is 79th on the world list of least corrupt countries, just behind Rwanda. What’s more, 25% of Italians live in a family with serious economic insecurity. One out of five cannot afford to heat their home in the winter and 15 million pensioners have income of less than €1,000 a month. In 2012 alone, more than 80,000 Italians left their country in search of a better life.  This number is forecast to be higher in 2013.

Unable to pull the country out of the doldrums, the political establishment in Italy is undergoing major transformation. The two major coalitions are being reshuffled. A new essentially protest, but not just, Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement received 20% of the vote in last year’s election. It’s impossible to know how long Enrico Letta’s government will last.  But, the danger is elsewhere.  As we’ve just sketched out, the true crisis lies in the democratic system itself and it has existed for more than a decade, even threatening Italy’s very existence. The national and supranational institutions manage this crisis by neutralising it, but without any real drive to resolve it. They’ve de facto suspended the political debate- the only true hope for renewal of democracy – by establishing an administrative apolitical system in ideological concert. Yet, without a profound critical review of the system, will it be able, ad infinitum, to recycle itself to avoid its own demise?

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