Italy votes

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Alas, I didn't go to Italy to cover the election April 9-10 as I did in 1996 and 2001. Too many other things pending, including finishing my book on the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and participating in a conference on April 7 at Claremont McKenna College and then on a panel April 10 at U.C.–Berkeley.

All the Italian polls said the center-right Casa della Libertà coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (actually, the official title is president of the Council of Ministers) was far behind the center-left L'Unione coalition of European Union head Romano Prodi. Old media in the United States was revving to write this up as a deserved defeat for Bush backer Berlusconi and for his market economic policies. Early exit polls showed L'Unione up by a significant margin. But then as returns came in, it began to look like a dead heat. Old media are going to have to find a different line—or just to drop the subject altogether. For the election looks like as close a thing to a dead heat as the 2000 contest for president of the United States.

If the figures are close to right—a fairly big if—this represents a significant comeback for Berlusconi and the Casa della Libertà. And if Berlusconi is able to form a government, that means the United States will continue to have a firm ally in Italy. It means also that support of George W. Bush is not the kiss of political death that old media would have you believe. Just ask Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel in Germany, John Howard in Australia, and Stephen Harper in Canada.

A few observations on the Italian vote.

First, opinion in Italy from election to election tends to be stable. The country is closely divided between center-right and center-left, with center-right tending to have a slight advantage. In 1996 a caretaker government took over when Berlusconi was forced out of office in December 1994 by the defection from his coalition of the Lega Nord (the Northern League, which calls for independence for northern Italy). The Berlusconi coalition ran equal in the proporzionale (proportional vote) for the Chamber of Deputies, but the rules awarded more seats to the center-left (it's too complicated to explain this late at night). In 2001, when the rules were changed, the center-right won a straight-out victory that gave it control of government for five years, as they cheered on election night. Three quarters of the members of the Chamber and the Senate were elected from districts, one quarter from the proporzionale lists. The failure of the Lega Nord to achieve the 4 percent threshold in the proporzionale required for seats in the Chamber meant that it didn't have enough votes to bring the government down by defecting.

These results apparently show the country once again almost precisely evenly split between the center-right and center-left. The strength of the center-left comes from the former Communist Party (now the DS) and from former Christian Democrats who reject Berlusconi's market philosophy. The strength of the center-right comes from Forza Italia, the secular market-oriented party created by Berlusconi, and from the Alleanza Nazionale, the former neofascists. Both the DS and the AN are now thoroughly and utterly committed to democratic politics, but the stigma of their parties' origins means that neither the center-right nor the center-left coalition has chosen a member of those parties as their candidate for prime minister going into an election. (Old media likes to point out the AN's neofascist origins but never points out the DS's Communist origins.)

This time Berlusconi's government changed the rules, giving a premium to the coalition that finishes first nationally for the Chamber and in each of the regions for the Senate. This was designed to help the center-right, and while it's not clear that the Casa della Libertà will finish first nationally in the votes for the Chamber, it seems likely that it will finish first in more regions with more votes in the Senate contests. Note that Forza Italia is strongest in Lombardy, Italy's largest region, centered in Milan, where the private-sector economy is strong and opposition to lo stato ladro (literally, the state thief) is fierce. Metro Milan, by the way, has more than twice as many people as metropolitan Rome.

One reason Casa della Libertà looked weak going into the election was that Berlusconi was unable to deliver on his promises to free up Italy's ossified employment law and government regulation. AN, with its base in the Mezzogiorno (the south of Italy), opposed getting rid of subsidies and guaranteed employment. Old media presented some voters' complaints about this in what I think was entirely fair coverage. That helps explain why the center-right's percentage is lower than in 2001. But its percentage was still high. A great many Italians hate what they call lo stato ladro and want to see it cut back. The establishment—many of the old statist Christian Democrats and the heads of the few big corporations and parastatal corporations (one of which Prodi once headed, I think)—don't want the status quo changed. So ironically a vote for the out party was a vote for the status quo.

Much is made in old media over Berlusconi's control of the media. He is the richest man in Italy, and he owns three of the six broadcast television stations, plus as prime minister he supposedly controls the three state broadcast television stations. But old media overstates its case. Two of Berlusconi's three TV stations present little in the way of news (that's why he made money on them), and the third, Canale Cinque, does not provide sycophantic coverage of Berlusconi. Rather to the contrary: I once saw its anchor, Enrico Mentana (who bears a suspicious resemblance to Fox News's Neil Cavuto), give Berlusconi a pretty tough grilling—reminiscent of the way Cavuto and Brit Hume ask tough questions of conservatives on Fox News. As for the three state-owned stations, RAI Uno historically was the province of the Christian Democrats, RAI Due of the Socialists, RAI Tre of the Communists, and all three are pretty solidly anti-Berlusconi. Think of the way ABC, CBS, and NBC cover George W. Bush.

As for the print press, Berlusconi owns Il Giornale, which features economic statistics showing the predatory character of lo stato ladro on its front page. But it's far less influential than Corriere della Sera and La Stampa, which present a variety of opinions but tend to reflect the outlook of Italy's anti-Berlusconi corporate elite. La Reppublica, based in Rome, is a left-wing hit-man sheet. L'Unità is the former Communist paper: Enough said.

If the final result is as close as the figures presented above suggest, the likelihood is that whatever government is formed will not last long. It is possible that the Senate will be organized by the center-right, the Chamber of Deputies by the center-left. If so, the potential for conflict is obvious. But even if one coalition organizes both chambers, it will be at the mercy of almost any of its splinter members. A defection could bring the government down. The way things are done in Italy, however, means this will probably not happen immediately. Italians like to have their elections held during good weather. April or May is ideal. September or October is not bad. So my guess (and it's only a guess) is that whatever government is formed will plod along through the early summer and then will fall, forcing elections in the fall. This time I'm hoping that my schedule will permit me to spend some days in Italy covering the election. In the meantime, I'm brushing up on my Italian.

A few more updates. The Telegraph says the Interior Ministry reported a big turnout, of 83.6 percent, with the center-right now leading. . Here's another report from the Times, speculating that President Carlo Ciampi may ask both sides to form a unity government or may call immediate new elections (presumably in early June, before it gets too hot). Here's the Washington Post's latest take. Their reporter doesn't see a new election coming until November; my guess is that it will come sooner, before the Mediterranean weather turns drizzly.