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April 29, 2008

ROME TURNS RIGHT: Berlusconi Chalks Up His Second Victory This Month

Silvio_berlusconi The following article was written specially for DIRELAND by this blog's Rome correspondent, veteran expat journalist Judy Harris:

ROME – This Sunday and Monday 5.8 million Italians were asked to return to the polls for a second time this month for a run-off among candidates for mayor and administrators in 44 townships and five provinces. Rome was the toughest battleground, where the vote was being viewed as a litmus test of the relative strengths of the two main parties that slogged it out at the polls two weeks ago, Silvio Berlusconi’s victorious Popolo della Libertà, or People’s Liberty party (PDL), and Walter Veltroni’s moderately progressive Democratic party (PD). And in the end, Berlusconi's candidate won, by 53.7% to 46.3%.

For the past fifteen years Rome has had a center-left government, headed alternately by Francesco Rutelli and Veltroni himself. Especially during the past three years the citizens’ tolerance has been sorely tried by Rom squatter camps, slow and jam-packed public transport, filthy and dangerous commuter train stations, immigrant hawkers and beggars blocking sidewalks, graffiti-sprayed buildings, drunken violence in the downtown historic center by night, and garbage-strewing hordes of tourists by day. Streets in the center are still hand swept daily; shopkeepers literally scrub sidewalks, and cleanup crews wash building walls, but old hands revisiting Rome are shocked at the sheer extent of  il degrado, the degradation of this unique and uniquely beautiful city with its heritage of history, religion and art.

In addition, in past weeks an unaccustomed crescendo of violence attributed to untrammeled immigration—rapes, murders, drunk drivers who kill children and the elderly—has given the Rome campaign a raw edge, heightened by the success of the anti-immigrant Northern League two weeks ago.

With this as the background, the PD candidate was the acting Culture Minister (and Gianni_alemanno_berlusconi former mayor) Rutelli, who faced off against Gianni Alemanno (right, with Berlusconi), representing the Berlusconi alliance. Two weeks ago Francesco_rutelli Rutelli (left) won almost 46% of the vote in Rome as compared with Alemanno’s under 41%, but the positions were reversed when all the votes were counted in the runoff in what was considered an upset victory for the right.

The Rome result was also a personal victory for Gianfranco Fini (right), theGianfranco_fini  former neo-fascist youth leader and head of the modernized "post-fascist" former Alleanza Nazionale (now merged with Berlusconi's PDL), who had turned out personally to campaign for Alemanno.

Challenging immigrant hawkers in one of Rome’s outdoor markets this week, Fini asked to see their work permits. When those he questioned proved to have their papers in order, and chummily photographed him with their cell phones, Fini grumbled, “They probably bought their papers.”

Fini himself has been a nudging hawker. On April 14-15 Umberto Bossi’s Northern League walked off with 8.4% of the vote and hence has more clout with Berlusconi than does Fini himself. Alemanno's victory in Rome bolsters the otherwise overshadowed Fini.

Rossana_rossanda In the general elections he won at the beginning of April, Berlusconi, described by former Communist party intellectual Rossana Rossanda (left), the god-mother of the left-wing daily Il Manifesto, as leader of “the coarsest right wing in Western Europe,” felt certain enough of victory that he scarcely campaigned at all, saying languidly, “They know me. If they want me, they’ll vote for me.” So they did, giving him a comfortable majority of 98 seats in the 630-member Chamber of Deputies and, in the Senate, a majority of 44 seats out of the 315 elective seats, or 16 more than needed in a vote of confidence. (The votes of the seven more senators for life are divided.)

Who is to blame? In two unedifying years in office Premier Romano Prodi (right)Romano_prodi_on_tv_good  was unable to weld a functioning team. His coalition literally disintegrated in Parliament into something like seventeen separate, miniscule parties. EU regulations obliged the government to improve Italy’s state finances, but  this came at the price of unpopular tax hikes. A promised model labor contract never materialized, nor did the promised law permitting same-sex marriage and civil partnerships, dropped as Catholics imposed a discussion of abortion.

Nevertheless, on the plus side, this was also a watershed election, and what many hoped will happen has begun—the creation of an Anglo-Saxon-style bi-party system of alternating parties in government. Between them, Berlusconi and Veltroni began it.

That said, it had its peculiar elements. Both Berlusconi on the right and the center-left sloughed off votes to the League, and even Berlusconi’s wife Veronica has admitted to being her household’s League sympathizer.

Umberto_bossi As a result, Bossi (left) has new authority, reflected in tough early skirmishes with Berlusconi. Besides four ministerial slots, Bossi wants a League party boss appointed deputy premier, but at least on this Berlusconi out-talked Bossi, and the forthcoming cabinet will have no deputy premier. Yet other tough political battles within his alliance loom because Bossi and Fini  represent diametrically opposed constituencies. Bossi is usually described simplistically as “anti-immigrant,” but today his party has moved from its early rustic populism toward a more sophisticated brand of federalism, especially fiscal federalism, code words for keeping tax money in the regions where levied. If enacted, public funds would less likely flow from the full-employment North down to the troubled Italian South—but that South, and especially the Campania Region around Naples and the Puglie on the Eastern Coast of the peninsula, is just where Fini’s movement is strongest, and also where Fini also risks challenge by the vestiges of the far right associated with the otherwise lame group around Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Duce.

Attempting to keep everyone happy, Berlusconi is promoting three major state projects that promise something slushy for everybody. The first is, in the North, completion of an exceptionally costly Alpine tunnel for high-speed trains connecting Italy and France, touted as useful even though train traffic between the two countries declines year after year. In the South he has called for construction of a gigantic bridge linking Sicily to the mainland in order to bring wealth to Sicily, although no cost accounting has actually been done, according to economists here. His third proposal is to resolve somehow the Alitalia airways financial debacle, which is costing taxpayers well more than a million euros daily. When Vladimir Putin dropped by Berlusconi’s Sardinia villa for a few days of Berlusconi_putin togetherness just after the elections (right, Putin and Berlusconi), the guessing became that Aeroflot might step in to help resolve the problem in a deal involving gas supplies from Russia, even though any expansion of Russian influence over EU energy policy is decidedly unpopular in North Europe.

It is therefore hardly surprising that observers, predicting that Berlusconi will govern for the next five years unchallenged, are taken aback “Mama mia!” exclaimed the Economist on its front cover with a picture of Berlusconi. “Here we go again.”

Walter_veltroni If so, it is less because Berlusconi won than because the left lost, shedding a total of three million votes over the results of just two years ago. Walter Veltroni (left) is congenial and friendly, and in his campaigns makes constant references to Jack Kennedy and Barack Obama, but he has neither the rhetorical powers nor the charisma of either of these. Veltroni is also accused of having hastily tossed together a new political party without allowing sufficient time for its launch. But of course it was not Veltroni who precipitated elections three years ahead of schedule; it was a disgruntled member of outgoing Premier Romano Prodi’s own coalition, Clemente Mastella, his Minister for Justice from May 17, 2006, through Jan. 17, 2008. Mastella resigned, bringing down the Prodi coalition, after magistrates put his wife, Sandra, Clemente_mastella President of the Regional Council of the Campania, under house arrest on allegations of corruption; Mastella (right) accused the government of not having avoided this.

Another Prodi ally, Antonio Bassolino, President of the Campania Region, could not avoid being blamed by citizens in the region he governed for the stinking garbage and odor of the Camorra overwhelming Naples. Prodi’s Foreign Minister, Massimo d’Alemma, won no Brownie points by declaring at a PD rally at Pompeii that, yes, Naples had “a few stinking garbage bags.”
The traditional left has traditionally been bolstered by the trade unions, but their management is aging, and their leadership has become overly centralized and, they acknowledge, overly politicized and out-of-touch with the concerns of the rank-and-file. That rank-and-file has also shifted from the metal mechanics workers of the Seventies to the bureaucrats in state employ who today are the backbone of the unions. Post-election studies show that many of the union votes formerly destined to the center-left shifted to the Northern League.

In addition, the trio of parties known as the “left of the left” running together under the Arcobalena (Rainbow) banner lost their pot of gold, failing to elect a single member of Fausto_bertinotti parliament. The soul-searching has been painful, especially in Rifondazione comunista, whose popular leader in Parliament, Fausto Bertinotti (left), announced he will retire from politics while the head of the party has resigned, and a new party congress has  been convoked for July. “We’ll be licking these wounds for as long as we have tongues, and maybe longer,” was the mournful comment of Alessandro Robecchi, in Il Manifesto.

     Meanwhile, the right's victory in Rome has some quite fearful. Last night as we walked by the Capitoline Hill, where the mayor has offices and the city council meets, supporters of the Alleanza Nazionale faction of Berlusconi's outfit were feting their victory. Among them was a group of young thuggish far rightists raising arms in Fascist-style salutes and yelling, "Duce, Duce!" as the middle-class Berlusconi backers hushed them and said, "One mustn't do that, the TV cameras are watching." The mood among the losers here is apprehensive. There is also fear in the gay community that there will be bashings to come, fear among the law-abiding immigrants of a harsh clamp-down, and fear in the Jewish community that the Nazi deportation of a thousand Romans will be forgotten or worse. Sign of the new times: on Sunday night a plaque to Auschwitz victims was hacked out of a wall in an Eastern Rome suburb. -- by Judy Harris in Rome

Judith_harris_large DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris (left), is a veteran ex-pat journalist who used to write from Italy for TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and now writes for ArtNews. She's the author of the recently-published book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery. You can visit her website by clicking here.

Read Judy's previous recent dispatches for DIRELAND: "Prodi's Contradictions," February 26, 2007; "Rome's Anti-Gay Family Day," May 12, 2007; "An Agenda for Bush's Italian Visit," June 8, 2007; "Rome's Gay Kiss-in Protests Arrests," August 3, 2007; "Italy's New Left Party, Old Divisions," October 23, 2007; "Pope Charged With Heresy by Rome University," January 17, 2008; "The Ghosts That Haunt Italy's Elections," March 16, 2008; "Aldo Moro, the Ouija Board, and Romano Prodi: New Revelations About Italy's Most Significant Political Assassination," March 26, 2008; "Italy's Elections: Viagra for the Doldrums?" April 4, 2008

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