February 26, 2007
Letter from Rome: PRODI'S CONTRADICTIONS
The following "Letter from Rome" was written specially for this blog by DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris, a veteran expat journalist in Italy, and a former staffer there for TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal:
Rome - Anyone who has seen the Lars von Trier film "The Boss of It All" (DirektØren for det hele, 2006 - poster left), can recognize, in its protagonist, Italy's once and probable future prime minister Romano Prodi (right). In the grotesque Danish flick, a mysterious factory manager hires an unemployed actor to play the role of an absentee big boss. This boss has never been seen by the employees, but, as it turns out, has written endless notes that sow confusion, to the point that a secretary believes he loves her. Gradually, as factory life falls to pieces, the actor rebels, becoming the real boss.
A week ago Prodi unraveled his own patchwork government, which was elected only last April. His resignation was triggered when a handful of parliamentarians among his own far left allies balked over a motion supporting the government's deployment of 2,000 troops in Afghanistan and authorization of a large new U.S. fast response base in Vicenza, in addition to the U.S. air base that has been there for decades. The new base -- the deal for which was originally made by Prodi's predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi -- is seen by analysts as a key part of any U.S. attack on Iran, and some leftists simply couldn't swallow this bitter pill inherited from the previous right-wing government. In the Senate vote, where the governing coalition's majority is razor-thin, the Prodi government received two less than the 160 necessary for approval. (Above Left, a student demonstration in Vicenza against the new U.S. base -- the banner demands "a popular referendum now!")
Prodi's own fast response was to resign. In the past eleven months of frustration it must have been for him a next-to-last straw to watch Oliviero Diliberto (right), the leader of one of Prodi's allied parties -- the small Party of Italian Communists, a split-off from the Rifondazione Communista -- march at the head of an 80-thousand-strong demonstration against the government-approved Vicenza base, amid a sea of red hammer-and-sickle flags straight from the Italy of the 1970's and banners reading "Shame on you Prodi!" Diliberto's defection over the base was all-the-more stinging because, in 1996, Diliberto had resigned frojm the Rifondazione to protest its bringing down of a previous Prodi government, which ushered in the Berlusconi era.
Predictably, Prodi was tapped by the former Communist (yet most definitely pro-American) Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to succeed himself with a possibly reshuffled cabinet. So far so good: although some Italian crises have stewed along for as many as thirty days, this has been swift so far, and tomorrow at 5 pm Italian time Prodi, in his role as Premier-Designate, goes before the Parliament to lay out a twelve-point program and ask for a vote of confidence that will bring his turbulent, center-left coalition back into power for another round.
Anything is possible, but few save for Prodi's ever-loquacious rival on the right, Silvio Berlusconi -- the richest man in Italy and former premier -- expect a flop when the votes are counted late Wednesday. One reason: in a surprise gesture, the allies backing Prodi include, for the crucial Senate vote, a promised "yes" from none other than the much-indicted, elderly but still able and wily former Christian Democratic premier Giulio Andreotti (above left), the living symbol of Italian political corruption, who explained his support as a call for "continuity."
In other words, Prodi moved swiftly because he was tired of the political blackmail from a few of the far left, and because he was betting that he could terrify them into voting for him again, once they considered the alternative, a return to the Berlusconi years. It has worked: in recent days Rifondazione Comunista boss Fausto Bertinotti (right, now Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies) has tried to clamp down on his usual rebels. And indeed a smattering of hard-line leftists are also expected to vote for the government after some hasty rethinking.
But that is hardly the full story. The real question is whether, in the generally predicted round two of the Prodi center-left government, he will remain an actor, or will he actually become the big boss before Italy unravels? Can he start behaving like a premier?
The fact is that the same conflicts which exist theoretically between Berlusconi and Prodi continue to exist within Prodi's own supporters. In addition to the foreign policy problems that brought down the government, here are just three of the numerous issues of conflict within, not outside, the coalition:
--Non-marital civil unions: a supposed Prodi platform plank, but opposed by a suddenly aggressive Italian Church and by Prodi's Catholic coalition allies while supported by his allies on the left. Never since 1973, when Italy voted in favor of permitting divorce, has the Church so meddled in domestic political affairs, as countless experts on constitutional law have remarked. (Ignoring this, one Northern city has permitted two couples, one of them a gay couple, a formal partnership.) Prodi's climbdown on legal equality for same-sex couples was interpreted as a huge victory for the Pope.
--Environmental concerns: a high-speed train line, the TAV, has been approved by the government and will connect Lyons to Turin. Prodi officially approves it, but boisterous local and environmental groups oppose it.
--Pension reform: Prodi's financial advisors say it is essential for the country's welfare-and it is, in a country where so-called "baby pensioners" could begin collecting a lifetime pension at age 36 after just 18 years of work. But the unions balk.
Prodi's many supporters point out, however, that he is a stubborn long-distance runner, not a sprinter. Veteran commentator Giovanni Sartori (left), writing in the prestigious Milan daily Corriere della Sera (a centrist newspaper that opposed the war in Iraq and supported Prodi's election), said that, "The truth is that the center-left has always survived in the Senate with an uncertain and fragile majority--uncertain because the lifetime senators [Note: Andreotti is one of these] are independent and have the right to vote each time as they please; and fragile because in the extreme left there exist square heads that don't reason the way the round heads do, or perhaps do not reason at all."
The essential dilemma remains: without those whom Sartori disdainfully dismisses as "square heads" (others would call them utopian leftists who vote on pure principle rather than as political tacticians) plus a freebie vote such as Andreotti's, Prodi cannot head a government; but with them, with such unlikely bedfellows, he cannot govern. He remains an actor, never becoming the real big boss.
For those of us in the audience, this performance is unpleasant to watch. There is little joy in witnessing Italy's vibrant society fade, its brightest young people seek work abroad, its schools run short of computers, its hospitals kept in a dangerous state of filth, its judges' offices lacking in pens and paper. -- JUDY HARRIS in Rome
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PIER PAOLO Today is the anniversary of the birth of the great Pier Paolo Pasolini (right), the polymath Italian poet, novelist, essayist, critic, film-maker, and the towering figure in post-World War II Italian culture, whose tragic murder three decades ago has never been satisfactorily elucidated. For an in-depth look at Pasolini's life, work, and assassination, see my article for the L.A. Weekly, "Restoring Pasolini." And for a taste of what you're missing if you've never read any of his stunning poetry, you can read a first-ever English translation by poet Norman MacAfee of Pasolini's moving "Victory," a poem which DIRELAND was privileged to publish on this blog exclusively. Buon compleanno, caro Pier Paolo!
Posted by Direland at 06:17 PM | Permalink
This is a fine summary of what's been happening over the past few weeks but I think it needs to be said that Prodi was brought down not only by two of his own senators voting against him but also by Andreotti, a life senator, reneging on an earlier promise to support the government on the crucial foreign policy vote.
Andreotti has made it perfectly clear that his failure to support the government had nothing to with his views on foreign policy but was designed to put a spoke in the wheel of civil union legislation (DICO), which he continues to refer to as 'gay marriage', despite the extreme modesty of the proposal.
Posted by: Charles Lambert | Mar 16, 2007 11:13:50 AM
Congratulations to Judy Harris for presenting a clear and comprehensive picture of what we are going through in Italy. But some observations: Is it really utopian to insist upon the secular basis of the Italian state? Also, Mr. Prodi is not known for being particularly courageous or a strong defender of liberal policies. Witness his rather lackluster presidency of the European Commission, which, under his watch, moved the EU to adopt increasing restrictive asylum policies. Unfortunatly, in Italy, he's the best we have as a defense against Berlusconi/Fini/Bossi. Not a good situation.
Posted by: Bruce | Feb 27, 2007 4:58:47 AM
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