In a seminar that I attended last year, there was a lecture on the problem of corruption in Serbia. When we got to questions and awnsers, an Italian professor made the following comment: “Well, at least you manage to get your garbage collected”. Far from dismissing my worries about the seriousness of the problem of corruption in Serbia, this comment made me reflect on how weak is the italian state and how fragile is italian democracy.
I think the political situation in Italy is not having the attention it requires. Italy is a fascinating country, and if I had to briefly define its main features, creativity would come on top. The italian society shows an extraordinary tendency for inovation, while being able to also keep its more traditional features. This caracteristic explains why Italy is such an attractive country, having a privileged image in the imaginary of western societies as a place where tradition and modernity stand side by side. This romantic image of Italy, with its fantastic monuments, cities like Florence and Venice, fashion, Ferrari, nice food, beautiful women and handsome men makes it easier to downplay the worrying signs that are coming about the erosion of democratic values.
Politically too, Italy has been on the vanguard of inovation. It was in Italy that fascism was invented. Although Mussolini never managed to have the degree of control over society that Hitler enjoyed in Germany, his defeat did not mean the erradication of the fascist ideology. The post-war political system was caracterized by a significant degree of disfuntionality, which led to the collapse of its party sistem, under the weight of corruption and the penetration of organized crime at all levels of society. The void gave the fascist forces a golden opportunity to emerge, and, since the appearence in italian politics of of Silvio Berlusconi in 1993, the pattern of italian politics is one of polarization between the radical right (with the moderate right having practically disapeared) and the left forces, which only manage to win by forming fragile negative coalitions, but seem to be powerless to respond to the challenged posed by the populist appeal of the radical right.
This became particularly clear with the victory of the neo-fascist polititian Gianni Alemanno, member of Alleanza Nazionale in the local elections for Rome’s city council, who vowed to expell from the city 20 000 roma immigrants. The problem of immigration is being used to exploit fear within the population and to make it less resistant to the erosion of key features of democracy. As usual, gipsies appear as a point of minor resistance, due to the prevailing prejudices among the population and their marginal existence. Blamed on the increasing levels of violence, they are now the target of extremist violence. The fact that Italy faces a serious problem with immigration is not at stake here. That problem is indeed being welcomed by extreme-right politicians whose power is built largely upon their ability to expoit fear and prejudices. Thus, it is not surprising that incidents like burning alive a homeless immigrant from India, to which my friend Max Spencer Dohner raised my attention.
From last year, the signs of how Italy is increasingly sliding into fascism are becoming more and more visible:
At the level of foreign policy, in Berlusconi fascination towards Vladimir Putin and Russia;
Internally, the recent emergency laws allowing the creation of citizen street patrols, after three episodes of rape that outraged italian society. Please note that, dramatic as these crimes are, they are not representative of a rise in crime, as it happens that the number of sexual assaults fell last year. Here, the fears associated with the crime of rape converge with xenophobia, as the alledged authors of this crime were immigrants.
The technique is to make use of a climate of sentimentalism and tension, induced, in great extent by the media, which Berlusconi as a media tycoon and Prime-Minister has largely under his grip. The right moment is seized, thanks to the disregard for the normal legislative procedures, to which I have already pointed out in the case of Eluana Englaro, where, through an emergency decree, the government tried to defy the sovereign decision of Italy’s highest court, thus also the principle of separation between legislative, executive and judicial power.
Berlusconi’s contempt towards democratic principles is also clearly patent in the aproval of laws granting the President, leaders of the upper and lower chambers, and Prime Minister (the four highest offices of the state) immunity from investigation whilst in office, just in time to avoid investigations to his own activities.
Now, it’s the right to strike that comes under attack, with the approval draft law to restrict strikes in the transport sector.
To this we could add Berlusconi racist and sexist comments, which reveal a deep comptemp towards equality and tolerance, but are very much in accordance with his style of (frustrated) ‘macho latino’, which makes him appealing to sectors of the italian society, still too much dominated by the tradicional patriarchical model.
The resemblances between the current political situation and that of non-democratic countries are growing. This is particularly worrying because, as I have said in the begining of this post, Italy stands out as a very innovative country in the field of politics, and it’s experiments sooner or later have an impact also on other european societies. In this sense, Italy can be seen as a ‘lab’ for political scientists and commenters in search of new and old fashion tendencies…
The question that this process raises in my mind is: in which point of decay does a political system stop being democratic?