Italy's new government is unlikely to break with the past

The left-right coalition represents a continuation of the old, discredited politics - and a victory for Berlusconi.

When compared to other geographical areas Italian politics often looks very colourful. This is the nation which, in some ways, still represents a sort of laboratory for the western world, and acts like a model for other countries – from the building of the nation-states to the rise of fascism and the contemporary relations between media and power. This went along with the presence of characters like Garibaldi, Berlusconi, and, of course, Beppe Grillo. Different to some northern European states, Italy also experiences high levels of politicisation in national life, and a strong political and ideological polarisation and fragmentation. This contributed in making Italian politics so argumentative and, often, quarrelling.

Yet, miracles, at times, happen and for the second time in a row a "grand coalition" is being established, gathering together the centre-left and the centre-right. A government led by one of the leaders of the Partito Democratico, Enrico Letta, has been established. It is clear that Italy does need a government and a leadership. But is this the right one to deal with the economic and social turmoil Italy faces? President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, talked about the need for "unity", like during the years of the anti-fascist Resistance (probably overlooking that politicians in Berlusconi’s party never rejected interwar fascism). Other commentators looked instead excited at the welcome, but cosmetic-only presence of young and female senior ministers. A source from the Partito Democratico even suggested that they had to back it because this government represented a "chance" for Italy.

Along with an evident lack of political strategy, the centre-left is showing a quite high degree of hypocrisy. Over the years, anti-Berlusconism was the only magnet to keep together some of its own forces and streams – and these anti-Berlusconi stances are very strong in the leftist electorate. At the same time, their poor attitudes contributed to the incredible endurance of Berlusconi’s political activity, and recently to the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement. It also seems that they hardly learned from the history of Italian elections. Elections took place on 24-25 February, and the Partito Democratico was leading in polls. However, Berlusconi came very close, and the centre-left could not gain any realistic and stable parliamentary majority. Following the establishment of this governmental coalition, the real winner is Berlusconi, the one politician who many European elites and international organisations would have loved to see disappear.

We might wonder what these leading foreign and economic forces think about this development – especially if we consider that Berlusconi has recently employed anti-EU and anti-Euro propaganda which generated criticisms in Brussels. Moreover, it is unclear what this mixture of centre-right, centre-left, and liberal politicians will do in foreign policy, economic plans, conflict of interests, unemployment, and, intriguingly given Berlusconi’s ongoing trials, justice. It will probably be the centre-left losing votes again as it happened following their backing of Mario Monti's technocratic government. Berlusconi will, in fact, play the card of elections when he feels to be strong enough. He has already done this, and then played an electoral campaign against austerity, Germany, and the same Monti (after having initially supported him).

In some ways, Grillo won too. The left-right coalition gives strength to his argument that all parties are the same. However, millions of Italian people voted against traditional politics, against austerity (at least in part) and the technocratic government of Monti, yet they end up now with this type of catch-all government. The coalition also represents an attempt to react against Grillo and common citizens voting for the Five Star Movement. Traditional parties prefer to stay together, hoping that the economy will improve and Grillo lose votes. However, this is well in line with the ethical decline of contemporary Italian politics too. This is, in fact, the outcome of a couple of decades of failing political elites. Many people, and especially the youth, voted for the Five Stars because they wanted a moralisation of public life, meritocracy, cuts to politicians' privileges, a halt to the brain drain, and have deputies pursuing collective interests. A good part of the centre-left electorate also probably hoped that a new political era could start after years of Berlusconism, scandals, bribery, foreign media attention, and economic downward. Will a government backed by the heirs of the Bunga Bunga-like politics reverse the economic trend, save the country from mafia and corruption, and regain international prestige and the votes of the young generations?

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a forthcoming book on transnational neo-fascism (Cambridge University Press) and coedited “Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe” (Routledge)

Slight ritorno: Berlusconi, in the Italian senate on 30 April 2013. (Photo: Getty.)

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times