Thursday, 13 February 2014

A little bit of politics... (and a new Prime Minister!)

So I figured that, given that I’ve been living in Italy for 4 months without writing about politics, it’s finally time to do so. I started a few days ago, but it’s especially timely to publish this given the developments of the last 2 days (at time of writing, it looks certain that Italy have will have yet another Prime Minister). The main reasons that I hadn’t until now were because I’ve had many other things to blog about here but also because I’ve become so depressed and downcast about the political situation here in Italy and also across Europe (it’s not that I’ve been any less active politically or that there hasn't been much to report in terms of developments). Today’s announcement that Matteo Renzi seems poised to become Italy’s latest unelected Prime Minister makes me even more disillusioned about Italian politics.

Just as Italy is 20 years or so behind the UK when it comes to immigration, integration and LGBT rights, 20 years after Labour elected Tony Blair as leader, its sister party (the Democratic Party, PD) did the same kind of thing here, electing someone who wants to break with 'the old left' and move towards the centre. But while Blair reached out to Gaddafi, Mubarak and Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, Renzi offered a hand to Italy’s very own rogue, Silvio Berlusconi, who he invited to the PD headquarters the other day. There, Renzi and Berlusconi – or Renzisconi – struck a deal to create an electoral law which increases their personal power and is bad news for virtually everyone else. Indeed, Renzi wasn’t the first but the third centre-left leader to resuscitate and hand Berlusconi lifeline. But critically, it came at a time when aged 77, hurting from the latest split within his party and ‘betrayal’ of heir-apparent Angelino Alfano and finally recipient of a binding conviction, Berlusconi was surely nearing the end of his political career. Yet Renzi and Berlusconi together put forward a new electoral system that has the worst elements of first past the post without any of its benefits.

The new electoral system involves:
-          A majority bonus for the largest coalition that is the highest in Europe and double that of Russia’s, meaning that a party with just 37% of the popular vote will command a whopping 52% of seats. This means each future Italian election result will be similarly unrepresentative to the UK’s in 2005, when Labour won 55% of seats on just 35% of the popular vote. But while that was something of an accidental symptom down to Labour’s effective vote distribution across the country, here this is not only encouraged but entrenched.
-          Closed party lists, meaning that voters will be unable to vote for a specific candidate so have to vote for a party and therefore support whoever party leaders like Renzi and Berlusconi choose to be their party’s candidate in that constituency.
-          Extremely high thresholds to enter parliament of 12% for a coalition and 8% for a single party outside a coalition to suppress smaller parties and seek to force them into merging into the biggest parties: those of Renzisconi. This has already worked for Berlusconi, who received a boost with the announcement that Pierferdinando Casini, leader of the ‘centrist’ UDC, would again support Berlusconi’s coalitions. With the UDC polling between 2 and 5%, Berlusconi has added 2-5% to his coalition’s total. Current polls show that were there an election tomorrow, Berlusconi and pals would win over 37% of the vote and command 52% of seats.
It’s partly because of that that the PD and Renzi running scared of an election that would most likely lead to defeat, launched today’s coup which will see weak and ineffective PD Prime Minister Enrico Letta replaced with the 39-year-old Mayor of Florence. I’ve never known anyone in politics sit on the fence as much as Letta and I can see why PD MPs were keen to get rid of him. But this almost misses the point. It should be down to the electorate, not the ruling class of the PD, to choose Italy’s next Prime Minister. Renzi will become the 5th out of the last 7 PM not to win an election.

Some understandably complained that Gordon Brown was unelected, which – aside from by his constituents and his party – he technically was. And every once in a while, maybe a coronation of that sort isn’t the end of the world. But for it to become the norm – for who should become Prime Minister to be decided by one party or backroom deals rather than the electorate – underlines just what a democratic deficit there is in Italy. And it helps explain plummeting turnouts and millions of votes for protest parties like comedian Beppe Grillo's 5 Star Movement.

One of the few positives about Renzi was that he had seemed to least want to move Italy away from this kind of politics – Prime Ministers chosen by backroom deals – which has characterised the country since unification. ‘No more grand coalitions’, he announced in October.  And yet now look where he is, about to head a government born without the the electorate having a say and full of centre-right ministers. I outlined some of his policies – even more austerity than Mario Monti, sweeping privatisations, weakening trade unions and so forth – in June. From a leader of a supposedly 'centre-left' party, the above are similarly astounding to his grubby ascent to power which has even surprised and disappointed his admirers – like The Economist’s Bill Emmott, a respected commentator on Italian politics who wrote one of my favourite books about Italy.

In case you couldn’t tell from the above, I want nothing to do with the Democratic Party and instead joined SEL, a left-wing, anti-austerity party which I’ve attended several meetings of and joined on demonstrations. In the autumn I went on a march against the American plans to build military bases in Sicily. Last week I joined SEL and trade unions in supporting call-centre workers threatened with mass redundancies. In SEL, I met the kind of like-minded activists like those I know in the Labour Party who are often the main reason why I’m still a member, even after frontbench support for Trident, social security cuts and a frontbencher breaking a picket line and not even being told off by the leadership.

One thing I’ve noticed about SEL meetings that gives me encouragement is the average age. I’ve been to my fair share of Constituency Labour Party meetings over the years and am always one of the youngest if not the youngest in the room. With SEL, the members that stick out are those who aren’t under 30.

But despite all this, not many Italians seem to see things the same way as us. We’re a small party and down in the polls, some of which give us as little of 2 or 3% of the vote. The Italian electorate opposed to the successive unelected governments have tended not to flock towards SEL but rather not vote at all or vote for the Five Star Movement, even though the xenophobia, misogyny and populism of Grillo is more reminiscent of Berlusconi and co. than an alternative. There was an excellent article this week about the outrageous insults from Grillo and others towards Laura Boldrini, the Speaker of the House and a member of SEL. Attitudes towards woman from a huge number of parliamentarians are shocking. As has been the racism shown towards Italy’s first black Minister, Cecile Kyenge, who has had bananas thrown at her, been likened to an ‘Orangutan’ by one MP and been called a ‘prostitute’ by a Deputy Mayor. Words can’t describe how embarrassing, disgraceful and shameful this all is. In short, it’s probably best if I don’t write much more about Italian politics during my year abroad, as I’ve been having such a good time here in Sicily otherwise, and Italian politics is one of the things that consistently brings my mood - and the mood of millions of Italians - down.

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