11 April 2006
There is, indeed, such a thing as being too smart for your own good. Yesterday's Italian elections, in spite of an amazing, improbable comeback engineered by Berlusconi in the last few weeks of the campaign, gave the Center Left coalition a victory that far exceeds, in seats, the infinitesimal margin of votes by which it edged the Center-Right. For the Left, the sweetest of ironies is that its majority in both chambers was manufactured by the features of the new electoral law that were designed to inflict the most damage to it. When a rambling Romano Prodi emerged from his trailor at 3 o'clock in the morning - after already having cancelled two victory speeches - he said, rather crudely, "they even changed the electoral law to make us lose, but we won anyway." Quite so.
In the Chamber of Deputies, the new law turned a 25,000 vote (or 0.07%) margin into a 340-277 seat majority. Berlusconi's people expected a close result all along, but were banking on the expectation that they would edge the opposition - if narrowly - and could then profit unduly from the majority premium that confers upon the largest coalition 55% of the seats. They gambled and it blew right in their faces. In the Senate, the victory of the Left was engineered, in another ironic twist, by a post-fascist - Mirko Tremaglia - who after years of lobbying finally found someone foolish enough to listen to his argument that Italians abroad should be able to vote, in no small part because they are widely believed to be more right-wing than the Italians living in Italy. The result? At the end of the night, when only the seats within the national territory had been assigned, the Right led by one seat: 155-154; the next morning, when the votes from all over the world had been counted, the Right had won only 1 of the 6 outstanding seats reserved for Italians abroad. Tremaglia's cleverness gave away the majority to a blundering Left that ran an entire campaign on the catchy slogan "seriousness in government". Had Berlusconi only given the Left enough rope with which to hang itself, he would have found them to be only too happy to oblige. But Berlusconi, who could have had a victory or at the very least a tie if he had only played it straight, couldn't resist the temptation of tricking his way back into the premiership.
For the country, the distorsion introduced by the majority premium is quite possibly a blessing. After this kind of a campaign, a tie in seat shares would have in all lilelihood failed to produce any workable government. For months, Left and Right exchanged the most brutal and grotesque of insults. Along the way, Berlusconi has called Romano Prodi "a useful idiot," leftist politicians the heirs of the Chinese cultural revolution - during which, he added, "children were boiled to make fertilizer" - and leftist voters "coglioni" (important components of the male anatomy). For good measure, during a televised debate with a homosexual, leftist politician, the reliably classy Alessandra Mussolini cried: "I'd rather be fascist than gay." And the Left's ad hominems weren't that much more restrained. Prodi compared Berlusconi to a drunk and defined his government's economic policy "criminal." A Communist politician even went on record to spout that the 20 Italian servicemen killed by Iraqi insurgents in Nassiriyah "had gotten what they deserved." Indeed, this is hardly fertile soil for a grand coalition of the kind that the far more civilized German parties have recently put together. Not that we should put jumping the fence - always a popular sport among Italian politicians - beyond anyone, especially Christian Democratic politicians that still harbor the not-so--secret dream of piecing together the shards of the Democrazia Cristiana, shattered by corruption scandals in 1992.
Whatever the case may be, the Left must figure out what to do with Berlusconi's gift, now that it has won the election in spite of its own best efforts. Again, a babbling Romano Prodi offered some disturbing insight into the state of the soon to be governing coalition during his barely more than half-hearted victory speech last night. He announced that after winning national and local elections, the Left will now turn to stopping the constitutional reforms introduced by the Right in the last two years. Only then, he said, "will our work be done." Done? Prodi's gaffe might well have been due to exhaustion, but it is quite indicative of the fact that the only goal the Left could agree on was to get rid of Berlusconi and whatever he happens to stand for. Now that this objective has been accomplished, it remains to be seen, in the first place, how long a coalition "uniting" the clerical with the anti-clerical, Communists with Catholics, the Greens with the business community, the Euro-enthusiasts with the Euro-skeptics, and the Kennedy left with the street fighters of the anti-globalization movement can stay together. Even more uncertain is whether they will waste their time - and ours - hanging on and muddling through, or whether they will really get to work to implement the reforms of which the Italian economy, government, and educational system are so desperately in need.
Posted by Federico Ferrara at April 11, 2006 9:31 PM
As with Kerry v Bush, I can't help feeling this is one election the Left might have been glad to lose. I give Prodi six months (of which the first three months will probably be spent trying to prise Berlusconi out of the Prime Minister's chair).
Posted by: Oscar Wildebeest at April 13, 2006 5:07 AM