The main stream media is plastered with Italy-based panic mongering since the recent general election saw 20% of the vote go to comedian Beppe Grillo, and the majority of the vote go to anti-austerity parties. The EU imposed austerity technocrat Mario Monti meanwhile received only 10% of the national vote. But a closer look at the decline of Italy in the last two decades under Berlusconi, suggests this turn of the electorate might be more exciting than terrifying for those with an interest in democracy over austerity.
Italy Behind the Scenes
Italy has an excellent PR machine, but the reality is she has been trading off her vibrant history and culture for some time. Italy has decayed in ways that it is almost impossible to imagine.
Despite being at the heart of the European Union, in many ways Italy has fallen back into the leagues of the developing nations on a number of significant markers. It has been led by international joke and rogue billionaire Silvio Berlusconi for 17 years, before he was deposed by the EU and replaced by unelected technocrat Mario Monti.
The reason there was mass celebration, rather than outrage, at the removal of a democratic leader for a technocrat becomes clear when one understands Italy’s democracy was radically undermined by Berlusconi and a whole generation of political elite.
It makes sense that in the first exercise of democracy since his removal, that the Italian electorate are using their vote to fire a signal flare for change and real democracy into the Italian skies.
Italy has become a de facto non democracy thanks to some of the most egregious corruption in the world. Italy ranks 72nd out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. This puts the country below Ghana, Saudi Arabia and Lesotho.
Many outside the country are aware of 76 year old former PM Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga bunga parties, his litany of corruption trials, and bedding of a 17 year old Moroccan girl. However, Berlusconi is not the exception but the rule when it comes to Italy’s muck and mire political system.
The Italian parliament costs twice as much to run as Britain, Germany, France and Spain combined. I’m going to write that again, as it is mind boggling. The Italian parliament costs twice as much to run as Britain, Germany, France and Spain combined.
Italian politicians are also the highest paid in Europe, paid an average of £12,000 a month including expenses and perks, compared to French politicians on £4,769. The running costs of the presidential palace now run at four times that of Buckingham Palace and whilst public funding of political parties costs the German tax payer 89m Euros each year, it costs the Italian tax payer 270m.
These overpaid, over stuffed turkeys then proceed to have their allegiance bought by a mixture of corporate and organised crime interests.
In the last year alone, the following scandals broke:
The Calabrian mafia paid $260,000 for 4,000 votes;
The misuse of hundreds of thousands of pounds in party funds by centre right party officials in the Lazio region (surrounding Rome) to throw lavish parties, including one where party members scoffed while wearing pig masks and togas – having the costs reimbursed by the tax payer in expenses receipts;
At least 1.3m Euros of EU funds designated to invest in Italy’s tourist industry was found to have been blown by local officials restoring their villas and putting on lavish weddings;
Franco Fiorito, PDL leader in the Lazio regional government, was investigated by magistrates on suspicion of embezzling some 800,000 Euros.
This is a typical year in Italian politics. Whilst overseen by technocrat Mario Monti, the same old dirty politicians continued to use their position merely to enrich themselves and live lavish lives on the back of the beleaguered taxpayer, who was crushed under the foot of austerity policies.
During the same period, in the real world, Italian unemployment hit a thirteen year high of 12%, with youth unemployment at 36%. The economy has undergone four recessions since 2001, and contracted 2.2% last year.
Freedom of the Press
It is widely known that centre right leader and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns a startling proportion of the nations print, television and other media. Berlusconi’s holding company, Fininvest, controls Italy’s main privately owned television group, Mediaset, which runs the country’s three main private stations, and was among the majority shareholders in Mondadori, one of Italy’s main press and publishing groups.
Some 80% of Italians receive most of their information from RAI and Mediaset which, indirectly or directly, are controlled by Berlusconi.
It is less widely known that in Italy, defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a large fine or imprisonment. In 2004, Massimiliano Melilli, a journalist for RAI was imprisoned without parole for 18 months and given a 100,000 euro fine for criminal defamation for articles he wrote for a local newspaper ten years previously alleging that members of high society in Trieste were organising ‘red light parties’. He is not alone. There have been several high profile defamation cases seeing the imprisonment of journalists during the reign of Berlusconi.
Berlusconi’s government also passed a gag law in 2011, providing the corrupt Italian senate with yet further protections from journalistic enquiry. The new law allows the executive to shut down web pages without recourse to a judge as with existing defamation orders, it forces newspapers to ‘rectify’ what they wrote within 48 hours at the request of the offended individual, it includes heavy fines for newspapers that publish material leaked from the judiciary and imprisonment for ‘guilty’ journalists.
This creates a climate where censorship is either self imposed through fear of sanction, or state imposed through defamation and gag laws.
It might come as little surprise, given the chauvinism of former PM Berlusconi that gender equality in Italy is amongst the worst in Europe and the worst among its neighbours. It scored just 70 points, ranking it as LOW in the Gender Equity Index. The only area where the country scored an acceptable score was in education, whilst it bombed out on economic participation and empowerment in the country’s performance.
In January 2009, Berlusconi caused outrage when he said that although he was considering deploying 30,000 troops to Italy’s cities, there would never be enough soldiers to protect Italy’s many “beautiful girls” from rape. This was but one among many so called ‘gaffes’ which are just one more voice of misogyny in a nation with no policies to promote gender equality.
In Italy less than half of women are in employment. Women hold a tiny number of political positions, or positions of merit in law, academia or business. Meanwhile the mainstream media (owned by Berlusconi) is full of stereotypes, sexism and sexualisation of women further contributing to a social context which sees women as mothers, daughters, prostitutes and servants – but not surgeons, lawyers or professors.
Twenty thousand women took to the streets in 2011 to demand greater rights and respect as equals in Italy’s infamously unbalanced society. But for Italian women, gender equality is still even further away than it is for their European sisters.
Italy Rising From the Ashes
Despite all of the above, Italy has enjoyed membership of the European Union and a prominent place in global politics. Despite having one the worst debt to GDP ratios in Europe, Italy has been plunged into the same ineffective, catastrophic austerity policies as Greece and suffered similar unthinkable results.
On the news of the election result, ‘the market’ (big business) fired warning shots across the bow of the good ship Democracy. London’s FTSE MIB fell 4.9%, the FTSE 100 fell 1.3% and Frankfurt and Paris dropped by 2% each. The bond yield for Italy also rose sharply (big business saying – oh we might not lend to you in future). Major Banks shares fell 4% across Europe, and Italy’s fell 6-9%. Talk has set up about Italy sinking Europe into a further crisis by their ‘political deadlock’.
But, perhaps Italy’s patience with having its institutions, laws and aspirations manhandled by self interested politicians, corporations and organised criminals at home and abroad is at and end. Perhaps Italy was signalling not only No to Austerity, but no to the plague it has suffered for the last two decades and beyond. Perhaps Italy is determined to rebuild itself radically, in order to rise from the ashes of debt induced austerity. Perhaps.
The jury is still out. Some see Grillo and his Five Star Movement as a radical, exciting figure in Italian politics – here to shake an archaic system of patronage until it regurgitates some value to society. The BBC asked Grillo if he would make a deal with any of the existing coalitions to calm fears of Italy having no government. His response:
“No. This is an excuse. They all talk about having no government. But this country hasn’t been governed for years. They need excuses. And what’s the excuse? To finally strike a deal out in the open, between [ex-PM Silvio] Berlusconi and [Pier Luigi] Bersani, right and left. Now, they will find an accord, those two, to form this government. But those two are the ones who brought this country to its knees.
Today, in Italy, what will happen is what happened before. The right and the left will get together and will govern a country of rubble that they are responsible for. It will last a year. One. Maximum. Then there will be elections again. And once again the Five Star Movement will change the world.”
However, some argue that millionaire Grillo is simply another example of the unacceptable face of Italian politics and that his movement prevents rather than promotes a genuine political movement against austerity and in favour of democracy. The Wu Ming Foundation has led this criticism with a damning article in the Guardian claiming Grillo and his party had neutralised the indignation which has seen mass protest against austerity across the Mediterranean, extinguishing the flames of a real, young, vibrant, grass roots anti-austerity movement in Italy.
The results are yet to be seen. But if Grillo is not true to his word and Italians see no change and further austerity – then the Italian people most likely will join their Greek, Spanish and Portuguese counterparts on the streets. So this may well be Italian Parliaments last chance to deliver for the nation rather than themselves, before they are despatched by far less rarefied means.