Dissatisfaction Grows with Italy's Political Caste How Long Can Prodi Hang On?

Rumors of the political death of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi appear to be greatly exaggerated -- "Il Professore" is hanging on in office despite a razor-thin majority and a lack of vision. But are Italians tiring of their pampered political caste?

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, shown here in a May 2006 file photo, hangs on in power despite continually being written off.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, shown here in a May 2006 file photo, hangs on in power despite continually being written off.

Gravity appears to function in a similar way in Italian politics as it does in animated cartoons. In a cartoon, when the hero runs off a cliff he keeps on going as if nothing has happened, only crashing to the ground when he notices the abyss below. Romano Prodi seems to have decided not to look down.

Week after week, the newspapers declare the 67-year-old Italian prime minister to be finished politically -- deceived by his allies, duped by his own intelligence services and considered completely incompetent by his fellow business professors.

Last week Prodi announced, once again, that he has the government's firm support. And to those in his coalition government who were urging him to take action, he said: "Here is the push forward you are demanding." Then he announced his plan to increase the pensions of some retirees by €50-70. These are the visions of Romano Prodi.

There are easier jobs than his. Prodi, a native of Bologna and former president of the European Commission, has been in office for more than a year now. The economy has gained some momentum, and yet when Prodi's name comes up in the country's political back rooms, he is usually referred to in the past tense.

Italian cartoonist Giorgio Forattini depicts Prodi as a square-headed country pastor whose cross has been replaced by a hammer and sickle dangling on a chain in front of his belly. It is easy to poke fun at this affable man, at his seemingly endless sentences, his demonstrative ease and his composure so complete it borders on sleep.

And yet, for someone whose political prospects were unpromising after his narrow election victory last year, Prodi has in fact been rather successful in his first year in office. Newspaper articles about Italy have moved from the gossip columns to the political pages, and Italy is once again being taken seriously in Brussels. Interior Minister Giulio Amato is German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble's favorite counterpart in Europe. "Grazie, Italia," US President George W. Bush said when he recently visited Rome, partly in appreciation for Prodi's military help in Lebanon.

In the wake of the recovery in the euro zone, the Italian economy is also predicted to grow by 1.9 percent this year. In 2007, the national deficit will be well below the critical 3 percent level, something that hasn't happened in a long time.

A Sense of Dissatisfaction

Nevertheless, the sense of excitement about the future which Italians felt last summer after the end of Silvio Berlusconi's five-year reign has evaporated. To this day, no one really knows exactly what the Prodi government stands for.

The Quirinale Presidential palace in Rome.

The Quirinale Presidential palace in Rome.

In its first stab at reform, Prodi's government attempted to boost competition in certain professions, such as lawyers, taxi drivers and pharmacists. But that was the extent of it. Judicial reform, a proposed law on conflicts of interest, reform of election law -- all of these reforms have been stifled, postponed or torn to pieces by the coalition parties' efforts to take center stage and melodramatic resistance from the opposition, both within and outside parliament.

Urgently needed investments in universities, transportation and healthcare were sacrificed in favor of cost-cutting measures. And the gentle increase in the retirement age, from 58 to 61, that the EU Commission, International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have been demanding for years appears to be impossible to carry out.

Prodi has essentially only one ally, and a reluctant one at that: Silvio Berlusconi. If the politician-cum-business tycoon were finally to retire and perhaps hand over the leadership of the opposition to former Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, Prodi's days would be numbered. He is, in a sense, at the mercy of his predecessor.

The Italians wanted to oust Berlusconi, and because there was no alternative they voted for Prodi. Today they would like to see the center-left government voted out of office, but not as long as Berlusconi heads the opposition.

There is a palpable sense of dissatisfaction in Italy -- in prison reforms that have put thousands of criminals back on the streets, and in a judiciary that is merciless when dealing with the weak and weak when dealing with the strong.

In the last communal elections, Prodi's election coalition, The Union (L'Unione), suffered significant losses in the north, the country's center of power.

"These voters saw that the French voted twice in the space of three weeks, and that, within 48 hours, the winner had formed a government consisting of only 15 cabinet ministers, half of them women. They compare the situation in France with the Italian political landscape, which is divided over everything from a proposed civil union law to the best way to use surplus revenues." These are not the words of a member of the opposition, but of Piero Fassino, head of the Democrats of the Left.

Ironically, the reform-oriented Prodi government has increased the number of cabinet posts to 26 ministers and 87 junior ministers -- because each of the 14 coalition parties and minor groups wanted a piece of the pie.


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