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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle