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As The Romans Do?

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Message Carlo Ungaro

Rome ,  September 26, 2012

The Regional Government of the Lazio Region -- which has Rome as its capital -  has been rocked by  one of the many squalid scandals which periodically emerge on the Italian political scene. This would normally have gone almost unnoticed, save for the customary, obligatory, and totally insincere expressions of indignation and disbelief on the part of the country's political leadership. A stage has been reached, however, in which even Italians appear shocked and appalled by the snowballing spate of such grubby events which seem to pervade all sectors of public life from the deep South (stereotyped as fundamentally corrupt, unreliable and scandal-prone) to the "puritan" North, with its quasi-Protestant attitudes and ostentatiously Manichean or neo-Albigensian views on the distinction between "Good" and "Evil".

A detailed explanation of  the latest  episode of Roman  squalor would be of scarce interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that the regional administration has spent about one million Euros of public money in luxury holidays, sumptuous meals, lavish parties, and even, more unassumingly, grocery shopping for the "Nomenklatura". The statuesque Governor of the region, Renata Polverini, a real "Pasionaria" of the Catholic right  - of course, one of former Prime Minister Berlusconi's protà gà es - has vehemently proclaimed her innocence, and, very much less credibly, her ignorance of any wrongdoing in her administration. 

She therefore adamantly refused to resign until forced to do so under pressure from various sources, including the Roman Catholic Church. It is interesting that in the culture that created the principle of "culpa in vigilando" (i.e. guilt in vigilance), whenever there is evidence of malfeasance or thievery in public affairs, the men and women at the top always affirm their innocence and usually find a convenient scapegoat, among the lower officials, whose resignation is then reluctantly accepted.

There are some arresting aspects to this case, however, which deserve notice, and which could have a deep influence on Italy's political future.

At the time of her election, Ms. Polverini had the total support of the Italian Episcopal Conference, to a point then judged excessive even considering the less than limpid record of Roman Catholic Church intrusion in Italian political life. It is therefore extremely interesting to notice the unusual firmness of the same Episcopal Conference's reaction and condemnation of the event, a fact made all the more wounding by its immediacy on the part of an organization which has always taken its time to react, but which never reacts without careful reflection.

All this gains further relevance because it is taking place at a moment in which the Pope's personal interference in Italian politics, after many months of virtual silence, has made itself extremely evident and heavy-handed. The Holy Father, in fact, in the space of a few days has received both the Prime Minister, Professor Monti, and the rather equivocal leader of the "centrist" political party, Pier Ferdinando Casini, who has long been tagged as the future king-maker in the approaching "post-Monti" years. All this has stolen much of the thunder from Silvio Berlusconi's carefully rehearsed act in which he tries to keep the public in suspense about his possible Parusia (even though, in his case, it would be a fifth and not a second coming, dispensing with the uncomfortable need for death and resurrection).

Political parties in Italy have been used to this type of "Commedia dell'Arte", which has been tolerated by the electorate. They are only now sensing, however, that attitudes have changed, that Italians are no longer amused at seeing lavish dinners paid for by public money. And, that they no longer listen to the empty, repetitious words heard every evening on Television.  This could be the triumph of what has been called the "anti-politica", and has opened the way for populist movements which are gaining momentum in spite of coming constantly under fire on Public and Private TV Channels and by most of the leading press.

The political parties which now support this "technical government" -- which, it needs to be said, has probably saved Italy from financial, economic and social disaster -- are quite obviously terrified at the idea of general elections which, however, will have to be held at the latest next April.

It appears more than likely that in the real corridors of power, arrangements are being made even at this early stage, with no need for electoral manipulation or fraud.

It does not matter who will win the next elections, which will be held with the lowest voter turnout in Italian history, because there will be no alternative to a repetition of the present "unholy alliance" among formerly contrasting parties, this time in favor of a Catholic-oriented centrist government bolstered by a large and compact parliamentary majority.  There is even talk of confirming Professor Monti as Prime Minster or of offering him the more prestigious position of President of the Republic at the expiration of Giorgio Napolitano's mandate.

This would be the worst possible outcome for  the solution of the never-ending Italian crisis, with Parliament and Government  becoming fortified citadels in which the people who have brought about the  ruin of Italy will continue to lead privileged lives, feigning   non-existent rivalries, and leaving  an even greater  force of action to ever more dangerous forms of populism.

Carlo Ungaro

Rome, Italy

(The author of this submission, Ambassador Carlo Ungaro, is a former -- now retired -- senior Italian diplomatic officer)

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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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