Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Clearing the Wreckage: What I Wrote a Few Days Ago About the Italian Primary Elections, Before All Hell Broke Loose

Archival: I begin these new posts with an outdated essay, something I wrote just a week ago on December 2, but it seems like months. The Italian Democratic Partyprimaries had just ended with Pier Luigi Bersani's anticipated victory over Matteo Renzi. After following the rise of Nichi Vendola for a year or so, my interest intensified after his first round elimination because he seemed poised to exert considerable influence on what followed. That is still true, as further posts will show.  So I wrote about Bersani, Renzi, and Vendola, not knowing that within days Berlusconi would return from the grave, Monti would resign, the Center would not hold, Berlusconi would change his mind about running, again and again, and Monti would play Hamlet, as they say, about his own political intentions. All that since last Friday, and Barenboim at La Scala and Napolitano at the Quirinale, and all eyes suddenly on the Italian election, shaping up a little sooner than anyone imagined.

So I reprint this article, still largely correct, I think, in its expectation of a Bersani-Monti face-off that may define the orientation of Europe. And in its attention to Vendola whose ideas of ecological and social justice reach an ever larger stage, and may tip the election one way or another.  After posting this article overrun by events, I'll turn to the daily catch of news and comment.

Clearing the Wreckage: A Fresh Start for Italy’s Troubled Politics? [3-5/12/2012]

The Italian Democratic Party primaries, in two rounds on November 25 and December 2, drew a surprising turnout of three million voters in this land of dysfunctional politics and disenchanted voters. To no one’s surprise Pier Luigi Bersani, the party’s veteran secretary, emerged victorious. But Bersani’s nomination to lead the center-left into next spring’s national election is a small part of the drama of an election cycle that witnessed the emergence of an odd couple of younger challengers, apocalyptic weather, and a constitutional dog-fight between the current premier Mario Monti and the Italian judiciary over the fate of Europe’s largest steel mill. At the bottom of this strange brew astute readers of European tea leaves may discern the precarious fate of Europe’s Left as the EU totters through an endless series of crises.
“The Wrecker”
By most measures the star of the primaries themselves was the 37-year-old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Explicitly channeling Barack Obama’s improbable 2008 nomination campaign, Renzi emerged as a national figure while crisscrossing the peninsula in a camper placarded in red-white-and-blue with his vapid slogan “Adesso!” (“Now!”) Handsome and athletic, Renzi was dubbed  “il Rottamatore” (“the Wrecker”) by Italy’s sensationalist press as he repeatedly insisted that the older generation of Italian politicians should be hauled off to the junkyard. In the final round Renzi’s campaign of “rottamazione” fell short as Bersani won 61% to Renzi’s 39%, but Renzi’s glib, post-political centrism, all sizzle with little at stake, left its mark on Italy’s general election voters, who say they prefer him to Bersani by nearly ten points.
  Meanwhile one of Italy’s least likely political figures, Nichi Vendola, governor of Puglia in the southeast corner of the country and leader of the affiliated Left Ecology Freedom party, lost in the first round of the primaries with 16% of the vote but may still win the war for the soul of the center-left. Like Bersani, Vendola grew up in the Italian Communist Party, and like him he moved toward the center when the Party collapsed in the early 1990s. Unlike Bersani, though, Vendola is quick to claim “communist culture” as his own along with his devout Catholicism; he likes to cite the reformist cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan along with Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci as his twin mentors. Vendola is also Italy’s first prominent openly gay politician, immensely popular in a region known for its macho mores, and an uncompromising environmentalist in a nation desperate for jobs. Against all odds he has twice been elected to Puglia’s top job.
One of Vendola’s most dogged concerns is to bring environmental justice to Puglia, home to the massively polluting Ilva steel mill. Immediately after his first election in 2005 Vendola began painstakingly documenting the emission of dioxins and benzopyrene that were causing notably elevated rates of cancer around the plant’s home base in the city of Taranto. Those efforts were undermined at the national level as the well-connected owners, the super-rich Riva family, found a protector in Italy’s notoriously corrupt premier, the “Cavalier” Silvio Berlusconi. Finally last July, after Berlusconi was sidelined in favor of the technocratic government of Mario Monti, a court in Puglia ordered the plant to be closed until it could comply with environmental regulations. Nearly twelve thousand direct jobs, and many more secondary ones, were thrown into the balance against the health and safety of Taranto’s residents.
Lightning Strikes—Twice
In November, just as the primary election was heating up, the Monti government moved to vacate the court order in order to keep Ilva’s workers on the job. Taranto’s streets were filled with workers marching for their jobs, but also demanding that the company be held accountable for the billions needed to clean up the plant and the region. Vendola hinted that nationalization might be the answer, just as France’s Socialist government was threatening to take ownership of its own floundering ArcelorMittal steel mill.
Then on November 28, just after Bersani and Renzi ran one-two in the first round of the primaries, a tornado blew up in the gulf of Taranto, and the Ilva plant was struck by lightning. A smokestack was shattered while floodwaters threatened the city. Though neither flood nor fire developed into the full-blown catastrophe many feared, Taranto was seized with the drama of a 29-year-old crane operator, Francesco Zaccaria, who was blown into the water and drowned, his body irretrievable for several days. Suddenly the threat of impending ecological disaster had a name and a face, and Vendola’s environmental politics began to look more inevitable than extreme.
Monti’s government nonetheless issued its promised decree on November 30 authorizing the plant to resume production. Environmental Minister Corrado Clini insisted that the plant had already been substantially modernized, and was on an acceptable path toward compliance with EU rules. Premier Monti declared that the Italian economy couldn’t withstand the loss of jobs, not just in Taranto but in a number of other factory towns that process the Ilva steel. Patrizia Todisco, the magistrate who had issued the stop-work order back in July, stood her ground, backed by the higher courts. She also has the full support of Vendola, who called Monti’s decree a “slap in the face of Taranto.” As of this writing it remains unclear how this constitutional standoff will be resolved.
Whither Europa?
Many uncertainties hang over the Italian national election, including the date. Will it be March? April? The ever-dysfunctional Italian Parliament has been unable to decide. More substantively, it has yet to resolve whether to leave in place the “Porcellum” (a neologism for “dirty tricks,” with overtones of piggishness), an electoral system whereby the leading party gets a disproportionate premium of seats to give it ballast. On the parliament’s decision hinges much strategic planning about electoral alliances as Italy’s dozen or more parties gear up to compete. Equally unclear is whether the 76-year-old Cavalier Berlusconi, still endowed with a core of admirers, vast personal wealth, and media ownership, will return to the hustings despite a corruption conviction, numerous outstanding indictments, and a string of retirement announcements. In spite of the best efforts of earnest straight-arrows like Vendola, Bersani and Monti, Italian politics still retains much of its opera buffa character. Witness the persistent popularity of anti-politician and stand-up comic Beppe Grillo, who may be Italy’s most popular national figure and whose Cinque Stelle movement—Italy’s version of a ‘Pirate Party’— could render any future parliament ungovernable.
A more serious unknown are the intentions of Mario Monti, a formidable figure whose austerity policies have made him more feared than loved, but have gained him grudging respect even from Bersani’s Democrats. When Monti launched his unelected government of technocrats last November, it was understood that in return for bipartisan support he would stand down … when the time came. He was in fact made a senator for life, a position that in the judgment of head of state Giorgio Napolitano makes him ineligible to run for premier. But that was then, and now Monti has begun to hint that il Paese may need him to serve another term after all. Napolitano’s ruling came with a wink: Monti can’t run for the office, but he can confer with whomever he likes, as Napolitano broadly suggested, and if the center-right parties win a majority and designate him their choice for prime minister, he would be free to serve. So Monti’s path is slightly circuitous, but he can’t be ruled out, and may turn out to be the front-running non-candidate.
Such is the enormously complicated field of play on which Bersani, nomination in hand, sets out in search of a governing majority. In its unpredictable, disorderly, and multi-faceted splendor it is a quintessentially Italian configuration. And yet the future of the European Union, so delicately poised between collapse and consolidation, may well hang on what happens in these elections.
Bersani’s first move is to placate Renzi’s more centrist following, and his victory speech included a promise to open up the party to “the young.” Indeed, the Florentine mayor has already made conciliatory gestures in support of Bersani. The Democrats will need to reach even further to the center, perhaps drawing on the Christian Democrats of Pier Ferdinando Casini, or the republican Italian Values party led by star anti-corruption prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro. But through all these efforts at coalition-building Bersani has suggested that he will insist on the frankly leftist social values he shares with Vendola: first of all, a tempering of Monti’s austerity policies to promote employment and growth; secondly, greater emphasis on sustainable economic strategies and renewable energy; and not least, full support for women’s equality and gay marriage.
Just as Candidate Bersani must walk a fine line to draw support from the center while keeping faith with Vendola on his left, a Bersani government would have to find a way to implement its social policies without displeasing the bond markets. Monti has renewed the faith of those markets, as declining rates bring cheers to the lips of business investors and financiers. While Bersani and Vendola are both strong supporters of the European idea, they are no friends of the austere consensus around Angela Merkel, the FANGs (Finland, Austria, Netherlands, and Germany), and the European Central Bank.

Could a Premier Bersani become the leader of a different Europe, the ‘social’ one European leftists have put on hold for twenty years? It is worth recalling that the charismatic pragmatism of Matteo Renzi, so strongly reminiscent of Tony Blair, failed to win him the nomination but showed signs of a much broader popularity across Italy beyond the precincts of the Democratic Party. In one symptomatic maneuver Renzi declared himself ready to follow the US lead by opposing the UN’s recognition of Palestine in a vote that took place on the same day as the final Bersani-Renzi debate. Bersani, on the other hand, proposed to join his neighbors across southern Europe in supporting the Palestinian request. Might that position—admittedly on an issue of secondary importance to most Italians—prefigure a broader alliance with the ‘southern tier’ of EU neighbors including Greece, Portugal, and Spain, but perhaps Socialist France as well?
Of all the possible outcomes of the Italian election, that might be the most surprising one of all. Can Pier Luigi Bersani, a plainspoken party functionary better known for his contorted metaphors than for soaring rhetoric, rise to the task of leading Europe back to its social democratic legacy? Can this modestly educated son of a village auto mechanic outmaneuver the powerful bankers in Frankfurt and reorient the EU’s priorities to favor workers’ rights, growth, and full employment? Can he gather a ‘United States of Europe’ around that vision?  It may be a long shot, but building a stable, progressive Italian government on the ruins of Berlusconi’s failed state would be excellent preparation.


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