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Italy. Professor Monti's first year in office. The end of "Videocracy"?

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A year ago, to the bemused scepticism of the principal  European leaders, and to the relief of a growing number of Italians, Silvio Berlusconi's dangerously inept government was deftly eased from power, and the unenviable  task of forming a "technical" (i.e. non political) government was bestowed, by the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano,  to Professor Mario Monti,  who set himself the seemingly impossible aim to restore Italy's international credibility and to halt the country's irresponsible and apparently inevitable path towards  economic and financial disaster. Like the rest of his team, Professor Monti has never   been involved in political life, and, ostensibly, owes allegiance to no political party, and this has enabled him to take unpopular decisions with no fear of future electoral problems.

On the  anniversary of Monti's rise to  power, an assessment of  his government's achievements and shortcomings, as, indeed, an attempt to  analyze  possible future trends in Italian politics seem appropriate, particularly in view of the national elections which will take place in the early Spring of 2013.

An assessment of the Monti government's activity over the past year would have to be, by and large, positive, both in terms of regained international respectability and also for the painful, but necessary steps being taken towards economic recovery,

No such feeling of optimism is aroused, however, by a glance into likely future political developments in Italy. With elections of  possibly epochal importance round the corner, the Italian Parliament has not solved any of the Country's basic political problems, sweeping them, instead, under the carpet in the apparent hope of some miraculous  outcome. This "miracle", according to a growing number of  Italian observers, could be a repetition of the Monti experience, with, perhaps, the addition of some political  personalities, from a wide spectrum of parties, in the new government. Of course, the Professor himself could prefer election to the Presidency of the Republic, a post which, just as the position of Prime Minister, will be vacant  in the Spring, but this would not  greatly change the picture and another similar figure could be found to govern with the approval of a vast, albeit heterogeneous and docile, parliamentary majority.

There is no doubt that  the present government has had  much greater success than any of its predecessors in persuading Parliament to approve measures which imposed  noticeable sacrifices to the  population.  The going was made easier in the initial months of the  government's mandate because of an unprecedented attitude of obedient passivity on the part of a Parliament  which seemed to have understood that it was totally discredited in the eyes of the electorate. Only in recent weeks have the traditional political parties  regained some of their original energy and  found the courage to contest some of the latest measures suggested by the Government, but the electorate does not appear to be impressed and continues to show its disdain. 

This was clearly shown, most recently, in the very important Sicilian regional elections which saw a voter turnout of under 50%, and a resounding victory by the newly formed, extremely populist  "Five Stars" political movement, created by a successful  stand-up comedian, Beppe Grillo.

The situation in Italy today appears rather unique, with the main political parties obviously dreading the idea of being called upon to wield power. For this reason, with only a few months left before the next elections, Parliament appears to be preoccupied mainly with  the need to manipulate the electoral law (a practice which, in the imminence of elections, is much frowned upon by the European Institutions) in a way that would discourage the formation of a  regular Government with a credible majority, thus guaranteeing the result of a hung Parliament, and a continuation of something akin to the present situation.

A corollary to the paradox of the  self-immolating political parties  is given by the fact that in poll after poll, in spite of the  increasingly tough and controversial austerity measures taken by the Government,  Mario Monti, after a year in office, still gets an astounding 43% approval rating among the people, who, obviously, have understood his basic message and appreciate the lack of showmanship which really distinguishes him from his predecessor.

A general assessment of this first anniversary  of the Monti Government would have to conclude that the  rather audacious experiment carried out by president Napolitano has, until now, succeeded in steering the country away from the brink of disaster, and that the Italian government has regained, after  long years in Limbo, a measure of international respectability and credibility.. 

Those who felt that a pause in  political activity would give the parties  time and incentive to regroup and to strive to present new options and programs to the electorate next Spring have instead to admit their disappointment, and, apart from the low  voter turnout, the results of the forthcoming elections, instead of marking the exit from a period of  incertitude could  signify its indefinite prolongation. This "technical" interlude,  deemed acceptable only because of its temporary character thus risks being transformed into a  long term stage of political stagnation and deterioration. A  "Monti-bis" government, as it is already cheerfully called, might satisfy those who feel that it would give Italy some further years of stability.  But in reality, it would only serve to cover the festering sore of Italy's political reality with a neat bandage, no concern being given to the underlying  infection, and to the political void that has been formed  in the course of the past two decades.

This, of course, leads to a consideration of how Italian political life has evolved to this stage, ever since a well known, and rather popular business man from Milano, Silvio Berlusconi, entered the political arena and, by operating a permanent  media  blitzkrieg campaign, was able to remain a pivotal presence on the scene, fundamentally  altering the delicate balance which had until then prevailed between a subtly managed power structure and an ever suspicious, but basically satisfied public.

In the course of the past weeks, Mr Berlusconi, who many consider definitely out of the running,  formally declared his retirement from political activity, only to reverse his decision a day later, after being sentenced  to a prison term for tax fraud. The contradictory announcements, greeted at first with incredulous relief and, finally, with derision,  are an invitation  to analyze both his brutally uninhibited use of  the Media  to enhance his presence and appearance, as well as his rapid fall, to the point of becoming an almost pathetic figure.

The term "Videocracy",  coined  by Italian film-maker Erik Gandini, was the title of a controversial 2009  documentary which described and explained the  ruthless use made by Berlusconi of the many TV  outlets he either directly or indirectly controlled.

The subtitle of the film, however,  "basta apparire" ("It is enough to appear") is  even more noteworthy and illustrates  the growing need for constant visibility.

An appearance  on  a TV program, any program, no matter how insignificant, vulgar or unintelligent, had become essential to satisfy career ambitions and, in particular, was seen as a very likely  introduction to positions of responsibility, especially in the glitzy political  world  characteristic of the Berlusconi years.

Significantly, a considerable number of teen-age girls, when interviewed about their  ambitions for the future, put, as a first (and  sometimes only) choice, participation and victory in a beauty contest, any beauty contest, as long as it was televised. Indeed, many Italian  female parliamentarians, and a number of particularly glamorous and inefficient cabinet ministers in Italy's self-styled "second Republic" began their careers either as beauty queens or in similar pursuits.

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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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