The Neverending Sack of Rome

Italy has been attracting attention from the whole world since last summer, when the credit spread (i.e. the difference between the interest on the Italian debt and that of the Germany) rose to more than 400: the threshold beyond which the economy of a country is considered seriously compromised.

This situation has led to the formation of a new government, led by Professor Mario Monti, whose task is to save the Italian – and the European – economy. What most people may not know is how Monti’s government was formed, and this is central to understanding the Italian situation.

The Italian constitution states that citizens vote just to compose the two legislative chambers (the Parliament and the Senate). The winning party then has the right to suggest a Prime Minister (PM) to the President, who must give his approval to the nominee.

Upon approval, the new PM (currently Prof. Mario Monti) starts choosing the other ministers which then comprise a government given, once again, the approval of the President (who is currently Giorgio Napolitano) and of both the Parliament and the Senate (who vote on their “trust” or "confidence" in the newly-formed government).

Should the government face a crisis, and should it be clear that it does not hold a majority in both chambers anymore, then the PM may resign by sending a letter to the President. At this point, the President has two options: he may choose to call for elections, or to try and form a new government (which will still require a vote of confidence by both chambers to start working).

While the latter option has rarely been exercised under the 65-year old Republic, even if government crises are normal — no government has ever remained until the end of its office — it gives the President the margin to call for a temporary “technocratic government”, i.e. a government in which none of the ministers are politicians. Prof Mario Monti’s government is the second technocratic government ever formed, the first being Lamberto Dini’s in 1995, for a year. However, it should be noted that Dini himself was a politician, while Monti was not. To try and make things more “normal”, Prof Monti was appointed Lifetime Senator by the President a couple of days before being asked to form a government.

The idea of a technocratic government may trace as far back as the ancient Rome, to when the Romans would “suspend” democracy in favour of a temporary dictator every time circumstances required fast actions — the term, dictator, acquired a negative connotation much later, the 20th century.

The interesting question is: should we consider Monti a dictator, in the Roman way?

After all, he was not elected by the people, and his presence was somehow an imposition of foreign countries. The New York Times reported a phone call last fall between Merkel and Napolitano, in which the German Chancellor tentatively suggested the removal of Berlusconi for the sake of Europe. While the details of the phone call remain sketchy, it would be the very first reported case of a European country imposing a government on another European country in 60 years.

However, on the other hand we have seen that Prof. Monti was put in charge by completely constitutional means, and it wasn’t even the first time that such an exception happened. In addition to that, we should consider the fact that none of these ministers was elected, forgetting that neither of the previous ministers were, as the current Italian voting system doesn’t allow voters to express the name of a candidate. We Italians can just vote for a party, and then the party will choose its men — though Monti will probably change this. The ministers of the previous government were appointed by their party, they were not chosen neither as ministers, nor as MPs. The ministers of the current government have received the same approval from the chambers.

There is another aspect of this government that is worth greater reflection. As I mentioned, the Parliament could not change without enforcing elections and therefore all observers who think that Berlusconi’s power has been diminished are completely wrong.

The current government is sustained by the highest majority ever seen in Italy: when the Parliament voted to approve it, it received around 90% consensus. All parties voted for him, except the Northern League. However, the men that voted for him in that episode are the same that supported Berlusconi and, even worse, are the same men appointed by him because, as we mentioned, Italians may not choose directly the people they want as MPs.

What this means is clear: the pressure that Berlusconi may put on this government is massive, as he still has the power to make it collapse at anytime. This was made clear in a few notable instances.

The first instance involves television. Berlusconi’s main strategy has always been to control information, and Mediaset, his company, is the owner of the three major TV networks in Italy. In addition to that, he has used his political influence to control the State channels, RAI. This resulted in a major problem concerning the neutrality of information, but is currently also raising economical concerns. This is due to the fact that some frequencies were freed and could therefore be put up for auction (worth at least 1 bn€, experts say). Yet, instead of creating an auction for the highest bidder, the previous government has created a so-called “Keynesian beauty contest” in which the entry requirements are so high that only RAI and Mediaset can satisfy them. Hence these Berlusconi-owned and influence bodies were going to get frequencies almost for free.

However, the current government blocked everything and stated the frequencies will be sold to the highest bidder. This did not last: the government had to fall back on its decision and could only “freeze” judgement for 90 days (starting from the 20th of January) due to pressure received from Berlusconi’s MPs.

The second instance involves justice. One of the major priorities of the previous government has been to limit the power of the magistrates, because they were considered too powerful in respect to democracy. Berlusconi’s followers claim that one must be considered innocent until the very end of the judicial process, which goes through three degrees of trials, and consequently may take years to pursue. Until then, even if there is strong evidence that an MP is corrupt, the MP does not need to resign, because that would, according to Berlusconi's supporters, “betray” democracy (since he or she was elected by popular will).

For this reason, Berlusconi's MPs had proposed several laws in order to reduce the power (and sometimes the autonomy) of magistrates. For example, they had proposed to set the prescription limit to 4 years, which is less than the average length of Italian trials. It should also be noted that the Italian case is already peculiar in this regard since lawsuits and trials must be ended, rather than started, within such a time limit (NB: this applies only to criminal proceedings). This makes it effectively possible to avoid a guilty sentence by delaying the trial long enough for the time limit to expire.

Another idea was to hold magistrates personally accountable for their decisions, and viable to be sued in case they make a mistake. This idea received strong opposition from magistrates, since it would make their job impossible; in every trial, there is always somebody who will be unhappy with the decision, and if he could sue the judges, the judges would be intimidated and their judgments biased.

This idea has been recently resurrected, voted on and approved by the Italian Parliament, with the government's opposition. This is the greatest proof that Berlusconi’s power remains strong despite his removal from the premiership, and that the government, supported by an apparent consensus of 90% of the Parliament, is merely a brittle façade for a Parliamenta that has yet to change.

The reality is different: the same group of people (and of interests) that has put Italy and the whole of Europe on the edge of cataclysm is still there, and supports Monti just to have someone do what is needed, and be blamed for imposing sacrifices.

In a year’s time, they will be back. And they will find a richer country, ready to be spoiled again.

Davide Testuginne