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In with the old? New party names offer few fresh choices for Italy

April 8, 2008

by Guy Dinmore, published on FT on April 10 2008

Italians will drag themselves to the polls this Sunday, much as some go to church, more out of a sense of duty than conviction. But more than any election in modern times – and in Italy there have been many – this campaign has been fought amid a deep sense of national crisis and despondency.

It is not just that the economy is again hovering on the edge of recession – and, according to some surveys, nearly two-thirds of families cannot make it financially to the end of the month – or that the vast majority of voters detest a system that encourages unstable coalitions.

Now, there is a more profound fear that Italy is in serious decline, at least relative to the rest of Europe, and that its highly paid politicians are incapable or unwilling to reverse it.

Silvio Berlusconi

In 1994 Silvio Berlusconi (pictured right) burst on to the political scene as a novelty. A super-rich media entrepreneur, he campaigned as an anti-politician and an antidote to the corrupt postwar parties that were then imploding. Now 71, Mr Berlusconi is fighting his fifth campaign and aiming to be prime minister for the third time. His newly branded, centre-right People of Freedom alliance looks as tired as he does on stage (despite the cosmetic surgery), surrounded by the same cast of politically incompatible allies. His programme of tax cuts, less public spending, more security and tighter controls on immigrants is little changed.

If the view from Ponte Milvio, known as a rightwing stronghold in northern Rome, is anything to go by, Mr Berlusconi still inspires popular support but no longer passion. “People will vote for Berlusconi because they are tired of the left,” says one woman. She does not like the billionaire but will vote for him because she is a fan of his coalition partner, Gianfranco Fini, leader of the rightwing National Alliance.

Walter Veltroni, leader of the new, centre-left Democratic party and a relatively popular mayor of Rome for nearly seven years, has been dashing all over Italy in a big green bus in an attempt to claim the reformist mantle for his party. Created last October out of a merger of former Communists and progressive Catholics, the Democratic party is bidding to capture the centre ground by dumping its coalition allies on the far left and promising tax cuts and a slimmer government.

If Mr Berlusconi does win – as the last opinion polls predicted when they were released two weeks ago – it will be largely due to Mr Veltroni’s inability to distance himself from the dysfunctional centre-left coalition government of Romano Prodi, former European Commission president, which collapsed in January after 21 months in office.

The centre-left had squeaked in by the narrowest margin ever. It is possible that Mr Berlusconi will end up like the hapless Mr Prodi, ruling with a slim senate majority and dependant on wayward allies. But demonstrating again how different Italy is from the rest of Europe, Mr Berlusconi has accused his opponents, with no evidence, of preparing electoral fraud.

For many Italians whose main wish is to live in a “normal country”, the electoral stage is set for a messy outcome. As one sceptical voter in Ponte Milvio exclaims: “We are just waiting for it all to be over.”

Crime bedevils politics in the pivotal south

The most powerful and efficient Italian “holding company”, as a recent 230-page parliamentary report characterised it, is not the rejuvenated Fiat carmaking group or one of the great names of fashion but the ’Ndrangheta criminal organisation.

From its historical stronghold in Calabria, the “boot” of southern Italy, the ’Ndrangheta has spread around the world and now controls much of Europe’s cocaine trade with South America.

The ’Ndrangheta is a secret society reputedly with close links to Masonic lodges. It has quietly penetrated the political and commercial establishment rather than confronting the state head-on, as the separate Cosa Nostra mafia attempted in Sicily with devastating attacks on the judiciary in the 1990s.

Unlike the hierarchical Sicilian mafia, which is in decline, the ’Ndrangheta is a more horizontally organised, family-based federation of some 300 clans with an estimated annual income of €40bn ($63bn, £32bn). Because almost all its members have blood ties, infiltration by the police is difficult and there are far fewer collaborators.

On top of drugs, it thrives on billions of euros siphoned from corruption in public services such as waste disposal. Having outgrown Italy, it is spreading across Europe into banking, property, shops, supermarkets and even the Russian oil trade.

“The ’Ndrangheta is growing every day and our resources are inadequate,” says Giuseppe Lombardo, an anti-mafia prosecutor in Reggio Calabria, the city that is a mafia heartland and has Italy’s second highest murder rate. “They thrive on the weakness of the state and are building their own parallel state,” he says. “They are exporting a model that functions. Their firms never go bankrupt. They destroy legal companies.”

Elections in Calabria are what could be called a family affair. Magistrates estimate that one in three of the population has some kind of connection to the mafia. With unemployment reaching the highest levels in Europe and some 1,300 people leaving southern Italy every week, the money and influence of the mafia go a long way.

Referring to the heads of the two leading political groupings contesting the general election nationally, Mr Lombardo adds: “[Walter] Veltroni and [Silvio] Berlusconi say they do not want the vote of the Mafiosi but there will be many and they will be decisive.”

One elderly shopkeeper laughed when asked how much people are paid to vote in a certain way: “They don’t need to give money. They are our friends. There is an understanding.”

Two-thirds of the centre-left regional government is under criminal investigation, according to politicians on the right, several of whom are also facing possible charges.

Since the north of Italy is set to vote largely for Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance and the middle will lean towards Mr Veltroni’s centre-left, the outcome of the elections – especially in the senate – is likely to hang on the more volatile south.

In Calabria, the ’Ndrangheta has no political ideology. Instead it infiltrates all parties and, where possible, all levels of government from local councils to the senate. It likes to back the winning horse, say the magistrates. Last time the winning horse was the centre-left. This time it appears to be Mr Berlusconi.

Sicily lacks the political volatility of the rest of southern Italy, being historically a stronghold of conservative and Catholic parties, but the Mafia there is similarly entrenched. Salvatore Cuffaro, the region’s governor, is running for the centrist Union of Christian and Centre Democrats while appealing against a five-year jail sentence imposed for complicity with the Mafia. Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, a close ally and business partner of Mr Berlusconi, is also seeking re-election while fighting a nine-year, Mafia-related jail sentence.

Salvatore Boemi, Calabria’s veteran anti-Mafia chief public prosecutor, wants to ring Europe’s alarm bells. Like Italy 40 years ago, he says, the rest of Europe is asleep to the dangers posed by organised crime. “The Mafia are not content to control Italy’s economy alone. They are spreading through Europe.”

He adds: “Economic power becomes political power. I am not allowed to talk politics but I can only say that Italian politics is unstable and that instability carries many dangers for society. The Mafia plays on this.”

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