Italy’s unelected democrat

August 31, 2012

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

The technocratic government led by Mario Monti, distinguished economist and former European commissioner, has seen little of the beach. The elected politicians, free from the usual business of government or opposition, were active, too: The political scene is as boiling hot as the climate. The left remains fractured and struggles for alliances and unity. The new populists, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars movement, remain attractive to many because of Grillo’s attacks on a partly corrupt political class. Yet he calls for an end to parliamentary politics, having run a blog column with a picture of Benito Mussolini, the prewar dictator, that evoked with approval his description of parliament (which he dissolved) as “deaf and gray.”

In the center, a loose coalition of Christian Democrats and secular liberals invoke the spirit and memory of Alcide de Gasperi, Italy’s long-serving postwar premier — who presided over the rapid recovery of the economy in the fifties and positioned Italy as a founding member of what became the European Union. It seeks to tempt Monti into heading the Christian Democrats and running for elected office after his temporary mandate ends next April.

On the right, the immortal Silvio Berlusconi again dominates attention. The near-universal assumption, one that I shared, that his resignation last November, amid jeers and a collapse in the support for his Forza Italia party, meant his political end underestimated his will for power. Or, say the many cynics, it didn’t take into account his fear that if he does not retain some measure of political power he will finally enter the maw of the justice system, which has tried to nail him for a quarter of a century. He has been addressing the still-faithful around the country, secure (he says) in the love of the people and in his country’s need of him. He is on trial in Milan for encouraging underage prostitution, and this past weekend a German model, Sabina Began, told the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano that he had impregnated her, and that she lost the child in a miscarriage (he denies it). But this is still a country for old men, and at 75, this old man has the money and the media and evidently the stomach for another fight.

For the moment, though, Italy is Monti’s charge and care, and though he cuts and cuts, warns of hardships to come, and has no charisma in any conventional sense, he remains popular among an electorate desperate for him to succeed. And not just with the people: Both Moody’s and Fitch rating agencies lauded him last week, the latter saying he was “credible” and that if and when he leaves the scene, greater risks return. No hint of a scandal has attended him, and nothing serious of the kind in his cabinet, composed mainly of high-end academics. The political circus around him can look tawdry.

But the beasts in the political circus were chosen by the people. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main center-left party, Partito Democratico, said in an interview with Repubblica last week that Monti had done a fine job but must stand aside in the spring — for “if the idea catches on that politics is not able to take us out of the crisis, we will put ourselves on the margins of the democracies.” Bersani sometimes struggles to present himself as a credible premier if the left were to win the next elections, but he spoke well here. For Italy to continue under the tutelage of the professors would both further weaken the party system and raise deeper doubts than ever that it could produce an elected, efficient, clean ruling class.

But suppose the political class of any color really is incapable of taking the country out of the crisis? In a speech last week in Rimini to a Catholic youth group, Monti spoke about the need to restore Italians’ faith in the state — a faith that can be regained only if the many Italians who now cheat the taxman cease to do so, and others, including the public broadcaster RAI, stop regarding the avoiders as merely crafty, even admirable, for being so. The country, he said — in a rare flash of drama, even melodrama — was “at war” with the tax cheats. “We can’t broadcast, even subliminally, the degraded values which are destroying our society”

The belief that he seeks to invoke is less in the state and more in a citizenship where everyone exercises mutual responsibilities. This unelected, precise, rather lofty man presents the nature and obligations of democracy better than any elected Italian politician I have heard. Many of these will, indeed, share this thought, but the daily battle for power and attention in a political system as complex and fragmented as the Italian, which gives so many privileges to the elected, leaves too little time and will for the observance of democratic ideals.

Italy has put in place a dictator-expert to make politics safe for elected politicians once more. The paradox is that he is better at articulating democratic necessities than the latter have been. The capacity for these politicians to rise to his level and to make politics serve the electorate, through the bad times which will roll on after Monti, is the test of tests before this country — even, given its size and importance, before Europe. The signs that they will are, as yet, fragile: The shadows of doubts about the future fell across the scorching beaches this summer, and are likely to remain.

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