Promises, but no delivery
Mar 27th 2008 | ROME
From The Economist print edition
Silvio Berlusconi may be about to bounce back—but so too will Italy’s deep-seated economic problems
PRINCESS ALESSANDRA BORGHESE is no ordinary parliamentary candidate. A member of the family that produced the pope who finished St Peter’s, she spent years in the international jet-set, briefly marrying a shipping heir who later died of a massive cocaine overdose. Ten years ago, the princess discovered religion. She is a friend of Pope Benedict and author of such improving works as “Lourdes. My Days in the service of Mary”. Last month she announced that she would run for the Senate in Lazio, the region round Rome, in the election on April 13th and 14th, as head of the list for the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC).
“I want to contribute to the rebirth of this country,” she told a press conference. The princess may not be typical. But her noble (if perhaps ingenuous) reason for standing is espoused by many first-time candidates. There are more in this election than at any time since 1994, when the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi first burst onto the scene with a political movement composed largely of his executives.
Italy is a country in deep trouble. The Naples rubbish emergency (see article) is symbolic of a broader crisis in a country that, to use a word now much in vogue, is “blocked”: its economy is underperforming; its politics are stagnant; and all attempts at reform are apparently doomed to failure. Italy has also, however, been a country in profound denial. At least that is now changing.
There may be widespread disagreement over the causes of Italy’s difficulties. But there is a common acceptance of their extent—and mounting anger at the shortcomings of a cronyistic political class, made up largely of ageing white males, often referred to as “the caste”. In an attempt to satisfy the public’s appetite for change, the main parties have been outbidding each other to bring in new blood.
Of more than 300 lawmakers elected in 2006 who threw in their lot with the Democratic Party, the new movement on the centre-left, 134 have been ditched. The party leader, Walter Veltroni, astounded his longest-serving parliamentarian by replacing him with a 26-year-old woman. Around 30% of the party’s candidates for the lower-house Chamber of Deputies are under 40, and 42% are women.
Mr Berlusconi is insisting on new faces too. Characteristically, several belong to former showgirls. But they also include the leader of a Moroccan women immigrants’ association. Mr Berlusconi, whose People of Freedom movement now embraces the former neo-fascists, has told associates that women will have at least a quarter of the seats in his cabinet.
After years of stultification, there is a new spirit of openness abroad. Yet the chances of an “Italian spring” are small. The opinion polls suggest that, rather than elect the relatively youthful (52-year-old) Mr Veltroni, the voters will return his 71-year-old rival, even though Mr Berlusconi’s two previous governments (in 1994-95 and 2001-06) did Italy little good and much harm. This is a measure of the unpopularity of Romano Prodi’s outgoing centre-left government, and especially of the tax increases it imposed.
In the early stages of the ten-week campaign, Mr Veltroni sought to latch on to developments in America by depicting himself as Italy’s Barack Obama: the man who would surprise everyone by coming from behind. But, although demonstrably willing to innovate, Mr Veltroni has none of Mr Obama’s inspiring rhetorical skills. The latest polls give Mr Berlusconi and his two main allies (in the Northern League and a Sicilian regional party) a lead of between 6.5 and 9.4 percentage points over the Democratic Party. That is little different from a month ago. Depressingly for the centre-left, a poll in La Repubblica on March 23rd suggests that Mr Berlusconi has a clear edge, of more than five points, among voters under the age of 29.
Mr Veltroni’s hopes rest on two factors. One is the large number of voters who remain undecided and who, according to pollsters, are more left- than right-leaning in their outlook. The other is the idiosyncrasy of Italy’s electoral system. On the present polling data, Mr Berlusconi would get a thumping majority in the lower house, in which the winner earns a “victor’s premium” of extra seats. But in the Senate the picture is muddier. There, premiums are allotted region by region. And in five (out of 20) regions, the main parties are running neck-and-neck.
They are not the only ones in the race. The UDC, part of Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition until 2006, has split away. Its leader, Pier Ferdinando Casini, says he will not help make either main candidate prime minister. There is also a Marxist-Green alliance, the Rainbow Left, that would doubtless vote for Mr Veltroni if push came to shove. Like the UDC, it needs 8% of the vote in any one region to win seats. Polls give both groupings around 7% nationwide. Beyond the ballot box, then, rears the spectre of a possible stalemate, with one side controlling the Chamber of Deputies and the other the Senate.
That explains why both candidates have been urging voters to cast “useful” votes and hinting at a readiness to cut deals after the ballot. These are not the only points of agreement in a campaign that has been bland by Italian standards. To meet Mr Berlusconi’s attacks on the Prodi administration, Mr Veltroni is, like his opponent, offering to cut taxes. Both promise higher pensions. Mr Berlusconi has also promised to stop the planned sale of Alitalia to Air France. But with the world economy deteriorating and Italy lumbered with a public debt that still exceeds GDP, whoever takes office will find promises much easier to make than to fulfil.