Big Tests Ahead Italy Tries Fresh Start With Fragile Government
Two months after the election, Italy finally has a new government. It is made up of parties bitterly opposed to each other, much like the political situation in Greece. Can it prevent political chaos and keep Silvio Berlusconi from rising again?
Author Edoardo Nesi is sitting in his home in Prato near Florence on April 25, which is Italy's national holiday marking the country's liberation from the fascists. He's reading the newspaper and looking at the photos from the previous day. The images show the designated prime minister, Enrico Letta, in a Fiat Ulysse -- a dove-gray family station wagon. Letta is driving the car himself. He leaves the guards of honor behind him and heads straight to Quirinal Palace, the Italian president's official residence. Nesi finds that remarkable. A man sets off to shape the destiny of his troubled country -- it's a comforting image that seems like a promise of better things to come.
It took nearly 60 days for Italy's politicians to agree on a prime minister. The new cabinet was sworn in on Sunday. Led by Letta of the center-left Democratic Party, the government includes ministers from Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party. Italy, like Greece, now has a coalition made up of opposing parties whose political platforms could not be more different from each other.
Nesi, 48, took part in Monday's vote of confidence on the new government. He was elected to parliament for the first time. In fact, half of the seats in parliament are filled by new members, many of them younger than their predecessors -- and there are more women among the parliamentarians. In the first few weeks after the election, Nesi felt out of place and useless. He wrote a text about this feeling, which the Italian daily La Repubblica printed on its front page. He wrote about "the lost time, in which you wait to finally do something for your country, following the brave, childish desire that brought you to parliament, hoping to somehow be useful to your country. You tell yourself that it's not like that. That it cannot be that way. You wait."
Nesi used to be a textile manufacturer. His family made fine wool cloth in the traditional manufacturing city of Prato before their goods were rendered obsolete by less expensive Chinese products. Nesi has had to reinvent himself a number of times. For instance, nine years ago he sold the family business, became a writer and translated David Foster Wallace's weighty novel "Infinite Jest." He was awarded Italy's coveted Strega Prize for literature for his autobiographical novel "The Story of My People. On the Anger and Love of an Industrialist from the Provinces." Since February, he has been a member of parliament in Mario Monti's moderate Civic Choice party, which was the big loser in the February elections, getting just under 10 percent of the vote.
Now, Nesi is no longer bored. Quite a lot has happened over the past week, although not much of it is positive. For nearly 20 years, Berlusconi was widely seen as the man primarily responsible for Italy's political and economic mess. But now the deeply-divided left has only itself to blame for the chaos of recent weeks. Both presidential candidates backed by PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani failed to garner sufficient votes, leaving him with no alternative but to resign.
It also appeared that a number of members of parliament still failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. During the vote for president, they wrote on their ballots the name of legendary football player and coach Giovanni Trapattoni -- or Rocco Siffredi, the former porn star. They thought it was funny.
Nesi observed these antics from a distance and was astonished. He sat in the lower house of parliament next to representatives from Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, who rarely speak with politicians from the establishment and only confer among themselves. He drifted back and forth between the parliamentary chamber and the Transatlantico, a marble hall as big as a tennis court, with a bar and a hair salon. He noticed the whispering of the TV anchorwomen, with their full lips and identical noses -- and he saw how the men engaged in medieval courtship dances, linked arms for a few steps, then continued to dance with the next partner. When he looked at the floor made of yellow marble, he found it magnificent and fragile at the same time, and asked himself why people could not treat this precious country just as gingerly.
Today, he is disenchanted, but also proud. He witnessed a political milestone when the newly reelected head of state, Giorgio Napolitano, 87, lambasted parliament for its "irresponsibility" and "ineptitude." Nesi heard how he threatened to resign if the politicians continued to refuse to face up to reality and "turn a deaf ear" to the challenges facing the country. The most thunderous applause came from those who were targeted by the criticism. It was as if they were expecting an absolution -- but none was forthcoming. Nesi was pleased with the president's speech. So were many other Italians.
Government Offers Only Brief Reprieve
How long will it last, this forced marriage of the warring political camps that Napolitano has demanded? Not long. Letta wants to restore credibility to politics. He intends to reform the electoral law and put an end to the European austerity measures -- although he is just as committed to the European project as his predecessor, Mario Monti. Yet Letta's hands are tied because the positions of his coalition partners are so diverse. His government offers barely more than a brief reprieve -- perhaps for a year, perhaps only until this fall. Indeed, the last few days have revealed two things: The left has failed, at least for the time being, and Berlusconi, the great survivor, is still pulling the political strings.
His party, which seemed doomed just a few months ago, has triumphed once again. According to opinion polls, it is currently the strongest political force. On the day of Letta's appointment, Berlusconi had more important things to do: He flew to Dallas to help inaugurate the George W. Bush Museum. If new elections were held in October, Berlusconi would be 77 years old, while Matteo Renzi, his probable opponent from the PD, would be 38. When will Renzi, the mayor of Florence, finally challenge Berlusconi?
"If this election has shown anything, it's Italians' desire for change," writes one of the country's best-known bloggers. "And now the answer is: Letta. That's a little bit like smoking a joint at Woodstock, rolling in the mud and waiting for Jimi Hendrix. And who steps onto the stage? Orietta Berti and Drupi" -- in the English-speaking world, roughly the equivalent of Peggy March and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Or as the vice director of the School of Governance at Rome's LUISS University put it: Even Letta can't put a stop to the bloated political machine because he is, of course, part of it. "If your frying pan has a hole in it," he quips, "you don't attach a new handle because it wouldn't change a thing."
Former entrepreneur and political newcomer Nesi says that he'll continue to watch the shenanigans for a while. It's a bit too early to leave politics, he says. After all, as he points out, it also took him a while to master the art of writing.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen