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All eyes are on Greece and Spain, but is Italy the real "Sick Man of Europe"?

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Rome , August 8 , 2012

ALL EYES ARE ON GREECE AND SPAIN, BUT IS ITALY THE REAL "SICK MAN OF EUROPE"?

In the course of this long, hot, and  extremely tense summer,  pessimism and hopelessness are gaining momentum on the Italian political scene, as the electorate's honeymoon --  at times encouraging, but never easy -- with Professor Monti's  "Technical Government" appears to be coming to a premature and largely disappointing end.

Europeans,  and Italians are no exception, often appear as  unwitting victims of their history. In Italy, political chaos has been a constant reality from the early years of the Holy Roman Empire to this day, and the trend shows no sign of abating.

 From the  Teutonic  Caesars down to Mussolini and the post-war Italian governments, many of those whose ambition it was to govern the Italian people came to the conclusion that the task was impossible, or as Mussolini himself allegedly said, "useless".

When Mario Monti took over as Prime Minister in November of last year, the situation appeared  absolutely desperate. A corrupt and inefficient Government had been unable -- some  actually thought "unwilling" -- to face the immense tasks which appeared essential to bring Italy back on track, and  it was forced to resign after some  extremely deft manoeuvring on the part of the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano. For a while, the illusion was created that the "Technical Government", having, figuratively speaking, bludgeoned the main  political parties into  acquiescence, would actually achieve  its very ambitious but essential goals. The inescapably entropic nature of the Italian political process however soon emerged, and, at this stage, although the  parties  forming the massive majority supporting the Government keep swearing  formidable oaths of loyalty, it is clear that all the leaders, even as they  speak in solemn tones about the need for stability, are, in reality, nudging and winking at one another, in a desperate attempt to emerge from this experience with the least possible damage.

Professor Monti and his Government are not tied to specific political interests and, therefore,  appear to have  a greater freedom of choice in the implementation of unpopular programmes. The same, however, cannot be said of the three major  parties who have given their support to the government, and without  the consent of which measures could not be turned into laws. In recent weeks  the feeling has taken hold that this  experimental government is being caught up in the traditional Italian political quagmire, and that even the public  behaviour of the Prime Minister, considered blameless until now, is adapting to the devious tactics practiced by  his predecessors. On their part, the political parties  who support his government are giving signs of  nervousness and seem to be returning to their  traditional, negative  habits, neglecting to take  into account the growing ill-feeling and mistrust of  large sectors of Italian opinion. .

It would be tedious, and of no immediate interest, to enumerate or attempt to describe the various phases of  rising  disillusionment on the part of the Italian electorate, or the sometimes farcical, often irresponsible posturing of the parties. It has to be said, however, to their partial exculpation, that they are facing epochal problems of survival  in the presence of  a growingly indifferent, sceptical and critical public.

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It is  amazing that, in a country which  until recently considered an 80% turnout at elections as disappointing, reliable polls show that about 35% of the electorate  appear inclined not to vote at all, while about 20% are divided between those who are "undecided" or who state that they will cast a blank or invalid ballot. Even the announced return of Mr. Berlusconi on the political scene has caused scarcely a ripple in the  opinion polls, and this could indicate that  he might be losing what was left of  that peculiar charisma which allowed him to remain in power for the best part of the past twenty years.

The parties  who support the Government, having formed what people call "The Odd Majority", face a truly fundamental dilemma. As the Government is forced to  adopt  measures  which meet growing hostility on the part of the general public, they sense  a further decline in their popularity, and  feel a restless urge to put an end to this anomalous situation, withdraw their support to the Government, and  force the President to call early elections, to  be held, possibly, in early November. A growing number of influential  political figures are urging their respective parties in this sense, because they feel that the passage of time operates in favour of the more populist opposition groups or movements, who would present themselves to the electorate untainted, as it were, by the Government's unpopular  decisions.

The situation, however, is complicated by the state of disarray  which has devastated  the  majority party, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and which, according to recent polls, would  have difficulty reaching  20% of the vote. The opposition Democratic Party, though in a more favourable position, has to cope with a number of problems, some of which  appear of a subtlety so Machiavellian to leave even  the best informed political analysts quite visibly puzzled . Nor can the traditional rivalry  between its  Catholic and secular  components be ignored, and the Catholics  at times  seem ready to abandon ship and join the Centrist party which, although small, is in a King-making position and  is forging ever closer ties with the Catholic Church.

 The better known leaders, on all sides of the spectrum, keep appearing, albeit more subdued than  before, on the innumerable television "talk-shows" which, in earlier days, were their favourite stage from which to propound their ideas. They, however, have quite obviously lost a great deal of their bluster and don't  go much beyond reaffirming their "full confidence" in the wisdom of the electorate. What will happen is anybody's guess, also because all the parties vow that they will remain loyal to the Government until next Spring and that, in any case, the present electoral Law is unsatisfactory and needs to be changed. Fears prevail, however,  that either the Law will not be altered (for, in reality, it suits those very leaders who claim that it needs to be changed), or that it will be modified into something even worse, designed to  handicap those opposition  parties which are the sole beneficiaries from this intricate state of affairs.

The Month of August will be decisive, and much will depend on the  direction taken by the International financial and economic crisis. In the present circumstances, however, the future does not bode well for Italy, and even the close ties  forged between Monti and the German political leadership seem to be weakening, thus leaving him in a dangerously isolated position.

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Most of the responsible commentators seem to agree that  elections held before the end of the Government's mandate would probably have a disastrous effect, but there are signs that this solution may well  turn out to be inevitable.

The politicians, meanwhile, keep playing their old games, in the style of the traditional Italian "Commedia dell'Arte", bashing one another with large clubs, only to emerge smiling and pose for group photographs. They appear, however, to be only dimly aware that they are playing to a thinning house.  Many feel that, as the clown Canio exclaims at the closing of Leoncavallo's Opera "I Pagliacci", for them, at least, "La commedia è finita" (The show is over).

Carlo Ungaro

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).

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