March 06, 2006


        The following is the latest in a series of occasional dispatches fromItaly_map  DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, longtime ex-pat journalist Judy Harris, former Italy columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who has lived in Italy for decades. In this dispatch, she paints the political ambiance leading up to next month's general election in Italy:

Few study the influence of taxi drivers over foreign correspondents, but every traveling reporter knows that what the taxi driver has to say sneaks into the finished report. And so, with Italian general political elections looming April 9 and 10, I listened hard yesterday when my sullen, unshaven, middle-aged Roman taxi driver launched into a political panegyric.

It was definitely a bumpy ride, and I triggered it. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (right) livesBerlusconi_mad_grin  in the building next door, and as we drove past the machine-gun toting guards by his doorway I made a rude noise. This triggered the driver¹s soliloquy, from which I have eliminated the cuss words, this being a family blog:

"The whole world envies us having Berlusconi. He¹s the only one who has ever addressed the U.S. Congress. He¹s the only one here who talks in public without reading from a script somebody else wrote. Every woman in Italy dreams of sleeping with him, my wife first of all. This place is crawling with Commies. They are all over the place. I just wish we¹d had Berlusconi for the last thirty years." And so on and so forth, for half an hour...

Can we ignore this? Put another way, is it safe to assume that no one in his/her right mind would vote for Berlusconi and so Berlusconi is sure to lose? Since voters in Italy have elected him before, dare we to assume that voters have now come to their senses?

Here we have a premier (technically, president of the Council of Ministers) whose run-ins with justice are daily fare, so frequent that simply tracking them would be a full-time job. Only the most recent scandal swirls around David Mills, the husband of Tony Blair¹s ultra-faithful cabinet minister for culture, Tessa Jowell (think of her as Honey in

Tessa_jowell Here¹s the story: In 1997 Jowell (left) co-signed a 400,000 pound loan deal against the London house she owns with her husband (right), anDavid_jowell  international lawyer who has represented Berlusconi and his myriad, complex financial interests. The loan was allegedly repaid in 2000 with a 350,000 pound "gift" (so Mills has termed it) from Berlusconi. An irate Jowell declared that she knew nothingof the "gift." Upshot: as of March 4, Jowell is sticking with her boss rather than with her man, and the couple have separated.

The two traditional pillars of the Italian economy, metal-mechanics and textile-apparels, have long been in the doldrums because of competitors from rivals with far lower labor costs. More recently the scandals in the foods industry (Parmalat) and banking (the forced resignation of the Italian equivalent of Alan Greenspan) have brought a serious lack of prestige. The Mills affair is another nail in the coffin.

At about the same time in mid-February as detectives submitted Jowell¹s ministry Berlusconi_nude office to the indignity of a raid, Berlusconi was comparing himself alternately with Napoleon and with Jesus. Then Berlusconi, whom I personally would have compared in this instance to Nero, went on national TV to sing pop songs of his own composing. Dulcis in fondo, Berlusconi (right) informed all those still tuning in that he would abstain from sex until after the April election (later, we are pleased to reveal, he said this was a "joke").

Luxuria In such a madcap campaign, how can Vladimir Luxuria -- a drag queen who is a well-known gay rights leader, and who is running for a Parliamentary seat from Rome with the backing of Fausto Bertinotti¹s far-left Rifondazione comunista -- hope to compete? Eliminated from the media in Italy, which are almost entirely either owned outright or controlled by Berlusconi, Luxuria suffers a virtual blackout.

It¹s nothing personal. As the Oscar-winning actor-director Roberto Benigni Begniniput it: "Berlusconi is the only show in town. Berlusconi is the protagonist, ever and always. In Church he is the pope, at a wedding he is the bride, at a funeral he¹s the guy in the coffin.  Naturally, as a comic I love Berlusconi. Who can laugh at Prodi? But five years are enough, have pity on us."

Alas, Benigni is right about Romano Prodi being no laughing matter. Romano_prodi_3 Berlusconi heads a center-right coalition of five or so rightist parties, and Prodi (left), his foremost rival, is the leader of a center-left coalition of eight parties. A professorial economist from the Italian red belt around Bologna, Prodi rides around on a bicycle and is on occasion a mildly rebellious Catholic. But, as Benigni points out, he is no fun at all, totally uninspiring and with an unfortunate five o¹clock shadow. By comparison, Nixon¹s cheeks were a baby¹s bottom.

Last Tuesday, Fausto Bertinotti (right), leader of Rifondazione communista, receivedBertinotti_3  a delegation from the united organization called Movimento GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisex, Transex and Queer), which claims to speak for two million potential voters out of perhaps 35 million. It was a stormy session. Bertinotti¹s party platform includes a brief forumula regarding de facto unions which stipulates, "To connotate a union, gender is not decisive, and sexual orientation is not relevant."

The GLBTQ movement was divided over how to react. For Luxuria, Rose_in_the_fist something was better than nothing, but others, considering the formula far too timid, withdrew backing from Bertinotti to support, instead, the revamped Radical party, now known as Rosa nel Pugno (Rose in the Fist -- logo at left --which it create with a smaller junior partner, the SDI (Italian Democratic Socialists). . Like the Greens, and with about the same share of the polling count, the Rose in the Fist is faring poorly in the polls, at less than 3 percent.

So what are the prospects? Week afer week the independent polls continue to give Berlusconi_sneer Prodi and his team a healthy lead of around 4 or 5 percent. But in reaction, Berlusconi (right) hired his own American polling company, which promptly announced he is in the lead. And indeed his personal appeal remains subtantially higher than that of any other single politician. The pollsters hone in on two reasons: first, he is able to speak to people better than anyone else and, secondly, he is credited with being the one who can ride herd best on coalition partners for the longest period.

In other words, the taxi driver was about on target.

Berlusconi_bush Berlusconi¹s personality ratcheted up another notch when he lit out for Washington, D.C., last week to meet President Bush (left) and address the U.S. Congress. These media events were duly, which is to say unduly, celebrated on Berlusconi-owned and ­controlled networks in defiance of pre-election equal time regulations for candidates.

And although the most recent poll at this writing gives the center left 51.4% against 46.8% for the Berlusconi coalition, more than one out of four potential voters (26.4% according to the Demos-Eurisko pollsters March 1, still claims to be undecided.)

As the campaign merrily teeters forward, the serious issues at stake loom in
the background:

1.   The Italian economy is completely immobile. Accordingly to statistics released by the government office ISTAT Wednesday, Italy¹s rate of growth is exactly zero, and 100,000 jobs have been lost in the past twelve months.

2.   The election rhetoric has focussed not on energy (of which Italy has precious little) and its costs, nor on the appalling lack of investment in education and basic research, but on how much of a premium should be paid to families giving birth. The reason: otherwise there are too many immigrants, too few "real" Italians.Italian_flag

3.   A new election rule to be applied for the first time in April does notpermit voters to choose a candidate by name, as has been allowed since 1947.Voters can solely select a party label, to the extent that they can sort these out in an over-blown field of 174 political parties. Party chiefs and their coteries alone choose which  candidates will be elected. The voters have less say than ever, in every party.

4.   The environment and the arts are simply ignored.

In addition, to quote the woman president of a conservation movement, "No one seems to care. The apathy, the sense of frustration, is enormous."

        "This is the Titanic," pronounced La Repubblica¹s editorial writer
Massimo Riva....And it is full speed ahead.

P.S.     On Sunday (yesteray), the elderly Pope Ratzinger (a.k.a. Benedict XVI) threw himself into theRatzinger_5  notably strident election arena by announcing he will receive, in private Casa_delle_liberta_logo_house_of_freedom audience,Berlusconi and several of his "House of Liberty" fellow travelers in the center-right alliance. For the record, Berlusconi puts down his ceaseless problems with the law to persecution from Communist magistrates. Nevertheless, two weeks ago a group of Italian priests had circulated a petition asking the pontiff to refrain from receiving the premier prior to the elections April 9-10. The petition seemed to follow Church ethical teachings. Plainly referring to the  political-religious intertwining of Islamic fundamentalism, the Pope had announced only weeks ago that theRoman Catholic Church must remain outside politics.

Furthermore, senior Italian clergymen had more or less surreptitiously intimated to their flocks that the way to dodge a vote for Berlusconi was to vote for either a Pier_ferdinando_casini_1 specifically Catholic center-right candidate such Pier Ferdinando Casini (right, leader of small party composed of elements of the old Christian Democrats, a party killed by corruption scandals) or the Catholic leader of the center-left, Romano Prodi. But even this brought problems within the Churchf, since Casini is divorced and remarried. In addition, even as public opinion polls showed the Italian public as increasingly hostile to what they see as papal interference in the private sphere, last week Benedict went on record warning that God "does not distinguish an embryo from an adult."

Baby_gives_finger_2 The pontiff's phrase appeared in a greeting to a Church-organized international conference on the embryo. Speakers included Jean-Maire le Mene', member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Openly addressing Italian voters, le Mene' declared that "to vote in favor of a candidate whose convictions do not respect the embryo constitutes complicity in the homicide of this embryo, and hence a grave lack of charity." --  from JUDY HARRIS in Rome

Read Judy Harris's previous LETTERS FROM ROME for DIRELAND: October 1, 2005, "Italy--The Church Re-Enters Politics." July 22, 2005-- Judges On Strike Against Berlusconi; June 13, 2005 -- Italy's Referendum a Fiasco; June 11, 2005 -- Italy's Referendum: It's Really About Abortion

BLASPHEMOUS CARTOONING -- I got some juicy hate mail for my position on the Danish caricatures of Mohammed (see the piece I wrote for Open Democracy, "The Right to Caricature God -- And his Prophets.") Since, as one of the proudly godless, I am an equal opportunity blasphemer, here is a delicious Jewish cartoon that Jan Herman posted today on his blog for the Arts Journal:


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In this very interesting article on Berlusconi, you don't comment on two items that appear to me to be of exceptional importance.

The first is Berlusconi's support to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Is there no response in Italy, not only regarding its own soldiers, but the lies about WMD, the creating facts to fit the policy, the torture, etc., etc.? And isn't Berlusconi linked to this?

The second is somewhat esoteric. It would be helpful to explain why Berlusconi's coalition has switched from the Winner-Take-All district (U.S. term) vote back to Proportional Representation. To me the reason is clear. If it looks like you can beat your opponent, then go for Winner-Take-All. Since only one is elected from a district, just a slight majority gets you in office. If the more popular party gets a slight majority everywhere, sometimes the winner comes close to wiping out the opposition, which under a fair system such as PR would still give the minority or minorities their fair share.

With proportional representation, you elect approximately the same number as your percentage of the vote. Since Berlusconi figures that he will probably lose, proportional representation means that he won't lose by as much and he and his followers will still hold a significant number of offices.

Posted by: Brian Shannon | Mar 7, 2006 10:02:45 AM

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