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Old guard underpins Italy

March 21, 2008

By Guy Dinmore

Published: March 21 2008

Your audience is bored, hostile and you need their attention. So what to give them? When it comes to an Italian election and your party wants to lure you with vote-winning candidates, the answer is anything that gives an illusion of choice … while maintaining the old order.

For next month’s parliamentary elections the main parties offer an array of new faces – controversial, seductive, heroic, successful and even, counter-intuitively, inexperienced and unsuccessful – just so long as they grab attention. Because if you get the voters to focus on the new, they will gloss over the old.

There is the elderly fascist, the young prince, the call-centre operator, the fashion dynasty baron, the Balkan gypsy, the survivor of a steel plant inferno, the ex-general, the beautiful daughter of a deceased actor. There is also 96-year-old Giuditta Cavenaghi, who would rather be on a desert island with Paul Newman than with Italy’s president.

Italy has had unlikely parliamentarians before – remember porn-star actress Cicciolina, elected in 1987 – but the new electoral system introduced by Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister, in 2005 has unleashed a trend.

It is the leaders who choose their lists, in most opaque fashion. Mr Berlusconi, the centre-right opposition leader, and Walter Veltroni, the head of the ruling centre-left Democratic party, failed last year to agree on electoral reform. Mr Berlusconi, comfortably ahead in opinion polls, wanted lists to stay. Both have since been ruthless in exploiting their power to shape parliament.

Hidden amid the dazzle of novelty is the same old “caste” of politicos, some with criminal convictions and shady Mafia-linked pasts. Mr Berlusconi had the audacity to attack his rival for copycat tactics. “These candidates are like a bikini,” remarked the 71-year-old media tycoon. “Leaving bare a lot of the body but hiding the essential bits.” The left attacked Mr Berlusconi’s choice of Giuseppe Ciarrapico, a 74-year-old publisher and self-professed fascist to run in the same party as Fiamma Nirenstein, the Jewish and pro-Israel writer.

Drawing up lists also involves dispensing patronage. Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party is ostensibly in favour of liberal market reform. Yet in Rome one of its candidates is the head of the taxi drivers’ association that is usefully anti-Veltroni but known for its highly restrictive practices.

Similarly, Mr Veltroni has embraced Massimo Calearo, a northern industrialist not noted for favouring labour rights.

Lists can also get you out of a hot spot. Confronted on a television show by a woman who complained she could not afford to have a family, Mr Berlusconi joked that she should marry someone rich like his son. While Italy reacted in roughly equal measures of mirth and outrage, his party offered 24-year-old Perla Pavoncello a place on the Rome council list. She declined, but said she would still probably vote for him.

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