Special Report - Sin and be happy

As Italians prepare to go to the polls, the author Tim Parks identifies a ritualistic sparring that

When I came to Italy 25 years ago, the country was about to become a modern western European democracy like the others. That was the year the Red Brigades kidnapped the American general James L Dozier right in Verona, where I'd come to live. The police and army were everywhere. But it was the last ambitious adventure of left-wing terrorism. Forty-two days later the general was liberated and the Red Brigades virtually wound up.

Other anomalies would soon be gone. Europe was heading towards efficiency and homogenisation. Italy was catching up. If you wanted to enjoy anything of the old, corrupt, overbureaucratised, conspiratorial Italy, you'd better take it in quickly. It wouldn't be long before life in Rome was more or less equivalent to life in Paris or London.

Meantime, the country was being run by the same Christian Democratic Party that had taken over after the Second World War. This was a little odd. The Communist opposition couldn't win an election because the Americans and their active secret services wouldn't allow it. So the papers claimed. There were assassinations, disappearances, bombs. Prominent politicians were accused of being in league with the Mafia and other assorted fraudsters, but they were also respected leaders. Giulio Andreotti was the spider at the centre of every evil web and a great statesman whose moral qualities bordered on sanctity.

I learned my Italian poring over melodramatic accounts of political shenanigans in weekly magazines such as Panorama and L'Espresso. I believed the stories I read, and couldn't understand why the newspapers weren't being sued for libel or why the people they accused weren't being arrested. Learning a foreign language, assimilating a foreign culture, obliges you to return to a sort of childhood credulity. I soon realised that this kind of journalism is a form of popular entertainment, in deep if unconscious complicity with the powers it purports to expose. The accumulation of conflicting versions of events creates a mental and legal paralysis that allows everything to go on as usual, even if none of us is quite sure how exactly it does go on.

In the late 1980s my accountant persuaded me to pay a bribe to the local tax authorities to avoid being fined for a misdemeanour we knew I hadn't committed. The squalor of the affair, the very small amount of money that these men extorted from me, opened my eyes. The advantage of imagining one's political leaders as spectacularly corrupt is that it provides good cover for our own, smaller wrongdoings.

Then came tangentopoli and the great mani pulite clean-up. It was 1992 and apparently the country was changing. When the police knocked on the door of one Verona councillor late at night to warn him of an intruder in his garden, he presented himself in the porch with a packed suitcase in his hand, ready for a night in the cells. The Christian Democrats collapsed and disbanded. I asked Andreotti if he had known his party was taking money in return for public contracts. He had forbidden me to use a tape recorder. Aware that whatever I wrote could be denied, he smiled and told me: "Of course."

Now, looking back at the theatrical witch-hunt atmosphere of tangentopoli and the media chorus of self-congratulation that surrounded it, one appreciates that it was part of a cycle of national behaviour: Italian Catholicism requires that life be seen in terms of sin and retribution, and that every so often, to keep everyone on their toes, crimes be remarked on and justice appear to be done. The trials were wonderfully televised. At breakfast over cappuccino and in the evening with our glasses of Prosecco, we saw important men grilled and humiliated. Under Italian law, however, sentences are not executive until an appeal has been heard, and even then you can appeal to a higher level. So the nation could rejoice to see all its old leaders condemned and then look the other way when a year or so later the appeal court exonerated them. In Italy, it is the trial that is the punishment.

For a while, though, it did seem that everything had changed. The Berlin Wall had come down; the erstwhile Partito Comunista had become the bland and electable Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS); Silvio Berlusconi charged into the vacuum on the centre right to put together his Forza Italia; and to top it all, following a referendum, the old system of proportional representation that had led to such a fragmented parliament was replaced with an English first-past-the-post system that promised stable government.

Here, then, 1994 was the most exciting and optimistic moment in recent Italian politics. A combination of circumstances had opened the way to change - new parties, a new electoral law, new men and a more benign international atmosphere. The process was sustained by the Hegelian notion that life tends towards progress and that the apex of progress is European democracy with alternating governments of right and left. The Catholic Church supported the change, adding the bizarre notion, so useful during the cold war, that transparent democratic government is a peculiarly Christian aspiration and that the European Community was the final political flowering of Catholicism. People began to speak of "the Second Republic", as if a real break with the past had occurred.

It was a brief illusion. How quickly the Italians reconstructed the stalemate to which their public life naturally tends. It is generally believed that the first-past-the-post system focuses the minds of electors by obliging them to choose a possible winner if they don't wish to waste their vote. Italian parties at once formed an intricate series of pacts, with multi-party coalitions on both sides deciding which of four, five or even six groups would be allowed to stand in which constituencies so that they did not compete against each other. The resulting government would as usual be prey to infighting and the chance to settle differences through the elections was lost.

To everyone's surprise, Berlusconi's rapidly formed coalition won the 1994 election. Berlusconi offered and still offers clarity, in the sense that he is the undisputed leader of his grouping, an unusual circumstance in a country where politicians like to wield power from the wings, avoiding exposure and accountability. The man had dynamism and personal authority and the allure of vast wealth. Alas, what with his ambiguous commercial past and the glaring conflict of interests that stems from his ownership of all three of the country's major commercial TV channels, he would never have moral authority. Perennially on trial, he has been permitted to rule, but never really to govern, a state of affairs that the Italians find congenial.

As promised, Berlusconi tried to cut Italy's ruinously generous pensions. But drastic cuts are not allowed to happen. The sympathy for anyone who becomes worse off is too much for public conscience to contemplate. Only six months after the first election under the new system, the Northern League abandoned the government, which promptly fell.

Given that the League's deputies had been elected on a coalition ticket and therefore a large proportion of their votes had not been specifically for the League at all, one would have imagined that the president of the republic would have dissolved parliament and asked for fresh elections. Instead the then president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, invited the formation of a government supported by the left and the League. Strange bedfellows. Berlusconi was able to claim that he and his voters had been robbed.

He was right, and yet Italians do not believe that anyone can be truly independent. Biased behaviour never shocks them; on the contrary, it confirms their Catholic vision of fallen human nature. This attitude has important consequences, because the presumption that one's opponents always act in bad faith prevents serious debate and encourages animosity to persist long after the dispute that gave rise to it has ceased to be relevant. For many Italians, at least emotively, the civil war between communists and fascists, Red Brigades and repressive state, is still alive, so that my children will rush home from school declaring that one of their companions is a tremendous communist, or another an appalling fascist, while in Milan the other week an ageing professor told me he would go on voting for Berlusconi as long as there are still people who wave the hammer and sickle at demonstrations.

Such antagonisms explain why Berlusconi is widely believed when he claims that the corruption charges brought against him are the result of communist-inspired persecution. They also partly explain why the electoral turnout is so high: in the region of 80 per cent, not bad for a democracy that is supposed to be so unhealthy. Everyone I speak to - whether my students, the folk at the bar where I get my morning cappuccino, my university colleagues or the fans who stand next to me at the stadium - talks of being bored beyond disgust. Yet they are all going to vote. Old rivalries have a ritual aspect to them. Everybody must take sides when Juventus play Milan. Everybody knows whether he or she prefers the mountains or the sea in June. Everybody believes the north is superior to the south or vice versa. Atheist or not, their children take First Holy Communion at the appropriate age, they visit their family graves on 1 November, and they go for a group picnic on Easter Monday, rain or shine. And on election day they vote, if only to express an old enmity.

Curious in this respect is the position of the immigrants. When I arrived in Verona there was scarcely a black face to be seen. Now whole areas are predominantly African. All of this has happened with admirably little violence, thanks in part to unemployment being so low. Yet, at the same time, immigrants are excluded from the city's social life and live as second-class citizens. Extracomunitari, they are called: outsiders. Not even enemies. They exist only as economic instruments.

The presence of these extracomunitari plays to the ritualistic formula. The xenophobic Northern League draws sustenance from its anti-immigration policies, while the left responds by encouraging the building of mosques, something it knows drives League voters wild. On the other hand, these very League voters are predominantly the local small industrialists who so desperately need immigrant labour, and who have been most instrumental in giving migrants to Italy a decent standard of living, while the state still excludes immigrants from a whole range of public sector jobs, most notably transportation. This restriction was introduced by Mussolini, but the unions, which rejoice in an anti-fascist rhetoric, do not seem eager to open things up.

In the elections of 1996, for the first time in Italian history, the left won an absolute majority in parliament, albeit with the former Christian Democrat Romano Prodi as figurehead. It was a milestone. Perhaps the first-past-the-post system was beginning to work, people said. In any event, it gave the lie to the notion that Berlusconi's TV stations were all-determining. These were the years when the need to meet the Maastricht criteria and get Italy into the euro occupied centre stage: in order to be a "serious" country (a constant obsession), Italy must be in there with France and Germany, otherwise it would be condemned to economic decline and perhaps fall out of the modern world altogether.

However, because painful structural reform is always out of the question, these criteria were met largely by cutting capital expenditure, halting the building of roads, bridges and railway lines - even those already begun. For years I cycled along a dual carriageway that ran into a muddy track. Even today the railway line from Verona to Mantua, part of the route from Munich to Rome, has only a single track in parts.

Shortly after Italy was admitted into the euro, the reassuring Prodi was dumped. Then as now, he had no institutional position in the principal parties in his coalition, a curious state of affairs. Incredibly, none of the three left-wing governments that then muddled through the remaining years of the parliament did anything to bring in a conflict-of-interests law that might have prevented the owner of a commercial television conglomerate from taking power again. I still cannot understand why not. They did, however, ban all TV advertising by political parties during election periods and introduced a cunning rule that all parties should be talked about (not just allowed to talk) in proportion to how many votes they polled at the previous election. One can imagine how impossible it is to police such a law. In 2001, even without TV advertising, Berlusconi won handsomely.

The really crucial change that has occurred in the tone of Italian life over the past five years has been the collapse of every grand political idea. This affects ordinary living, too. One might say that Italians function best when they can understand the many compromises of day-to-day business as temporary, given the long-term commitment to some positive, forward-looking ideal: democracy, the triumph of socialism (or fascism), European unity, the Kingdom of God. In the end it is easier to enjoy fashion, fine wines and fast cars - that elegant hedonism Italians are still so enviably good at - while believing that you are subscribing to responsible and idealistic political developments. Alas, the problem as we approach the 2006 elections is that the ideals have vanished, while the price of luxuries is becoming prohibitive.

The country's first left-wing government had put an end to postwar illusions about socialism. Returning to power, Berlusconi then disappointed those who believed in a liberalist restructuring of the economy. In five years, he has done little but stay in power and out of jail - not a small achievement, perhaps, but not much use to anyone but himself. His government's one moment of unsullied glory was the introduction of a smoking ban in public places (something that, to my considerable surprise, the Italians have respected in a way they do not respect traffic laws and tax regulations, perhaps because the invitation to pop outside a bar or restaurant for a quick smoke offers all kinds of social possibilities, both amorous and conspiratorial).

Meantime, the vision of a united Europe which had conferred a sense of direction and unity on public life suddenly faded. The powers that be tell us constantly that the euro has been a success, but the public knows different. Italians are decidedly worse off. When the French ditched the European constitutional treaty, they merely confirmed the growing suspicion that history is not, after all, a Hegelian omnibus.Which leaves the Kingdom of God. Certainly in recent months, and especially following the orgasm of sentiment that surrounded John Paul II's death, there has been an upswing in religious conservatism, especially among the young. I notice certain students in my classes upset if I betray my own dim view of the Church. I hear commuters speaking enthusiastically of our new pope whose predictable opinions are reported daily and reverentially on all the major TV channels. As a result, politicians have been eagerly declaring their Christian credentials: the health minister, Francesco Storace, does his best to prevent the introduction of the abortion pill; Piero Fassino, leader of the PDS and one-time Communist, suddenly announces that he has always been a practising Christian. When there is nothing to believe in, believe in God, who is always on the side of job security and substantial pensions.

However desolate the situation, nothing prepared me for the cynicism of Berlusconi's last-minute electoral reform. In 2005 regional elections brought dramatic victories for the left. Berlusconi had a think-tank look into the electoral law and decided to abolish the first-past-the-post system that had been introduced by popular demand. His experts told him that the left would lose more than the right in the fragmentation and infighting of the proportional system.

So, in a short space of time and in the last months of his present government, Berlusconi brought this major reform before parliament. It undid any sense that Italy might be emerging from its Byzantine ways of doing things, any hope that the numerous parties might fuse into two or three coherent blocks. "A law conceived and written in secret," protested Prodi. Yet the left did nothing to mobilise its own forces against it, and the public, so enthusiastic and engaged during tangentopoli, was apathetic. Whoever wins the next elections, we can expect even less stability than usual.

In an assessment of Italian customs written in 1826, the poet Giacomo Leopardi described public life as "a school for insults" where "every man is equally honoured and dishonoured". It would be better, he thought, "if Italians had no public life at all". Nearly two centuries later, it is hard to see how things have changed. The election campaign is all bile and platitude. No one believes seriously in either Berlusconi or Prodi. Whether despite or because of the euro, the country is in chronic economic stagnation. It is getting to the point where any bright young Italian is bound to consider leaving the country. Or, worse still, he falls back into sour resignation, convinced that his achievements can never be at the cutting edge of what is going on elsewhere in the world.

Yet simultaneously Italians still feel that Italian food, Italian fashion, Italian football are the best. Perhaps any homogeneous culture necessarily lives in a state of denial, conceding little value to everything that lies outside. Drunk with a power they hold largely because they never change anything, the political classes refuse to wake up, even when each new economic indicator trills an alarm. At moments like this, bereft of any sense of direction or will to change, Italy returns to being what it always was: a beautiful territory, full of sensual and aesthetic pleasures, of rituals and formulas, where many intelligent and attractive people argue noisily - to no end.