Open up the nicks

An Italian postscript. Here’s a post which originally appeared eighteen months ago (23/11/06) at the recently-revived Sharpener. I think it stands up pretty well: I got the importance of fragmenting the old Christian Democrat bloc, Prodi’s skill in knitting together ex-Christian Democrats and ex-Communists, and the lamentable importance of Clemente Mastella. (Who didn’t even stand in the last election – so it wasn’t all bad news.) What I didn’t anticipate was that the Right might be able to get a majority even after the UDC had moved into the Centre – but then, I didn’t anticipate Veltroni opting for electoral suicide on tactical grounds. These centre-leftists, they’re full of surprises.

The rising prison population isn’t only a British concern; it also makes the news in Italy. However, the comparison with Britain breaks down on at least two counts: firstly, because the size of the prison population is considerably smaller (in both absolute and relative terms); secondly, because the Italian government has taken the novel step of doing something about it. It’s good news for a lot of convicts, or ex-cons as they are now – including some of the crooks who were running Italian politics not that long ago.

In accordance with Catholic social teachings, it’s traditional in Italy for incoming governments to make a gesture of clemency: pardons, amnesties for illegal immigrants, sentence reductions, that kind of thing. The indulto (literally ‘pardon’) passed by the incoming Prodi government, earlier this year, cut sentences across the board. Thousands of prisoners were released as a result, and many more can look forward to an earlier release date. More controversially, several continuing trials have abruptly become rather pointless, as the maximum prison sentence the accused could now face has fallen below the level of the time they have already spent on remand.

As always, the devil is in the details. Should everyone be eligible for a reduced sentence? Sensing a possible outcry, Justice Minister Clemente Mastella stipulated that paedophiles and terrorists would not walk free as a result of his proposals. There was to be no amnesty for folk devils, in other words, only for ordinary decent criminals – like the man who was released midway through a sentence for attempting to kill his wife, and who promptly went home and attacked the poor woman again. (He’s now serving a fresh sentence.) But was that it? Were there no other ’special’ categories of criminal in Italian prisons (or in remand pending re-trial in Italian appeal courts)? What about corrupt politicians, convicted of taking bribes? What about corrupt business leaders, convicted of offering bribes? Shouldn’t those people serve their sentences in full – if only to encourage the others?

Mastella thought not. Di Pietro, on the other hand… but rewind. Think back to 1997, to start with: remember the wave of public revulsion against the extremism, corruption and cluelessness of the Tories; think how any Labour Party promising moderation, competence and integrity could have walked that election. And think of the Blair/Mandelson leadership, and their conviction that Labour would never get elected unless they appealed to the patriotic conservatism of Middle England. There’s a similar tension at work within Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition. As I wrote back in May, there are three great touchstone issues in contemporary Italian politics. There’s the choice between left/right alternation and the permanent occupation of government by a single party, with a revolving cast of partners. The latter is the old Christian Democrat model, but it’s a model Berlusconi still hopes to revive – and not only Berlusconi. Then there’s the question of Communism, systematically denied political legitimacy for most of the ‘First Republic’ (1948-93). Most actual Italian Communists ended up as ‘Left Democrats’, who are unimpeachably moderate these days – but they’re haunted by the extremist spectres of two minor parties, ‘Italian Communists’ and ‘Communist Refoundation’. Thirdly, and uniquely to Italy (for now), there’s the question of corruption, the question being not “did it happen?” but “does it matter?”. No one seriously denies that the main parties of the First Republic bought and sold seats in Parliament, directorships of state companies and votes by the bagful. On some parts of the Italian political spectrum, this history is regarded as a genuine scandal, which should never happen again and for which more heads should roll. Some parts; not all.

Prodi’s coalition stands for left/right alternation, inclusion of the former Communists and prosecution of political corruption; in these respects it stands in direct opposition to Berlusconi’s coalition. Or rather, parts of Prodi’s coalition stand for left/right alternation, inclusion of the former Communists and prosecution of political corruption. Prodi himself stands for all three policies, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm; most of the parties within his coalition are enthusiasts for one of the three, or two at most. The party with the strongest anti-corruption agenda is ‘Principled Italy’, led by Antonio di Pietro – formerly a magistrate with a leading role in the Tangentopoli investigations which brought down the First Republic. Di Pietro’s role in the current government is Minister for Infrastructure and Transport; the Justice Minister, as we’ve seen, is Clemente Mastella. Mastella is not only a former Christian Democrat but a former ally of Berlusconi; his tiny ‘Union of European Democrats’ has never shown much enthusiasm for any of the three touchstone policies – or for anything much, apart from the career of Clemente Mastella.

Putting Mastella rather than di Pietro in charge of Justice, and thus in a position to frame the indulto proposal, guaranteed a period of open warfare between him and di Pietro (not a Mastella fan at the best of times). At one point di Pietro even announced that he had temporarily resigned from the government, the better to campaign for an anti-corruption amendment; this earned him a rebuke from the Italian President (the highly respectable ex-Communist Giorgio Napolitano), who effectively told him not to be so silly. But it also guaranteed that the indulto would get enough support in Parliament to pass, and that Mastella would stay in the government rather than defecting back to Berlusconi – which, if di Pietro had been given the Justice brief, would have been a real possibility.

And this brings us to the great hidden theme of Second Republic Italian politics: the Christian Democrats. The party ceased to exist over ten years ago, but its forty-year occupation of the ‘centre’ ground lives on in many people’s memories. (The Italian ‘centre’ was oddly named, as it excluded large swathes of uncontroversial left-wing politics but included everyone on the Right who wasn’t actually a neo-Fascist. Nevertheless, many Christian Democrats sincerely believed themselves to be squatting firmly in the centre, stoutly defending Italian democracy against two opposed extremisms – for four solid decades.) Like the Americans and Russians divvying up Nazi rocket scientists, Prodi and Berlusconi each have ‘their’ Christian Democrats: the Right has the optimistically-named ‘Christian Democrats United’, the Left has the bizarrely-named ‘Democracy Is Freedom’ (a.k.a. ‘the Daisy’), plus Mastella.

Prodi and Berlusconi don’t have a great deal in common, to put it mildly. Last summer Prodi was caught by the press driving off on holiday, with his wife in the passenger seat and a few good books and a couple of jars of pasta sauce in the back; it’s hard to imagine Berlusconi replicating a single detail of that picture. What they do share is a pair of nightmares: the nightmare of ‘their’ Christian Democrats defecting to the other side; still worse, the nightmare of both sets of Christian Democrats abandoning their coalitions and rebuilding the ‘centre’. A reunited Christian Democratic party would reverse the Left’s stand on all three touchstone issues. Ironically, it would be no more welcome to Berlusconi, whom it would accept as a junior partner if at all – and without his disreputable right-wing allies.

Both Prodi and Berlusconi talk of forming a single party, welding shut the doors of the coalition and forcing their Christian Democrats to stay in line. Unsurprisingly, neither single-party project is making much progress. The next best outcome (for both leaders) would be for the other side’s Christian Democrats to come over to them; a good third-best would be for the other side’s Christian Democrats to defect and try to rebuild the ‘centre’ unaided, damaging their old partners but doing little harm to their former opponents.

In this game Prodi is faring conspicuously better than Berlusconi. The leftish ex-Christian Democrats of ‘the Daisy’ are resigned, if not positively committed, to an eventual merger with the ‘Left Democrats’; by contrast, Pierferdinando Casini of ‘Christian Democrats United’ periodically makes pointed comments about having his own electorate to represent and not wanting to be a follower of Berlusconi all his life. The dream of rebuilding the centre also seems more likely to damage Berlusconi than Prodi. One ‘centre’ splinter has already flaked off from Casini’s party: Marco Follini, Casini’s predecessor as party leader, now leads a tiny new party called ‘Middle Italy’. The chances are that Follini’s going nowhere, but his defection hasn’t helped Berlusconi.

There’s a certain kind of political operator whose sheer skill compels admiration, even if you aren’t entirely sure whose interests they’re ultimately serving (other than their own). There are an awful lot of operators in Italy – the hothouse factionalism endemic to Italian party politics is a forcing-ground for them. Prodi (who began his political career as a Christian Democrat) is one of the best. His commitment to the anti-corruption touchstone is genuine – he recently named tax evasion as a major problem to be addressed by government, a bold statement for any Italian Prime Minister. But commitments are one thing and strategy is another – and strategy requires the fragmentation of the former Christian Democrats to be maintained (or, if possible, exacerbated). So Mastella needs to be kept inside the tent; so di Pietro’s crusading zeal needs to be left to run into the sand; so bribe-takers and bribe-givers need to be allowed to benefit from the indulto, walking free alongside the ordinary decent thieves and murderers.

It’s frustrating to watch; as with Labour in 1997, you can’t help feeling that there’s so much more the Prodi government could do. But, unlike Labour in 1997, Prodi is walking a tightrope, having been elected by a margin of something like 0.1% of the vote – and it’s worth remembering that unchallenged left/right alternation in government is still little more than a pious aspiration in Italy. The Prodi government needs to be challenged and held to account; the coalition’s priorities are decided through a shifting balance of power and influence among its constituent parts, so there is no shortage of points where external pressure can be applied. But there are reasons for putting at least a critical trust in the Prodi project. Apart from anything else, if it succeeds, Berlusconi will have failed.

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