Prodi v Berlusconi: Italy’s ugliest election?

In the absence of any big ideological differences, Romano Prodi and Silvio Berlusconi traded barroom insults instead.

Dominic Standish

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At the time of writing, it seems that Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition has the upper hand against Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. Prodi won 49.8 per cent of the vote against 49.7 per cent for the governing centre-right in the lower house of Parliament. Prodi also appears to be in the lead in the upper house, the Senate. A majority in both houses is required for decisive victory. The Senate majority will be finalised when six seats are decided by votes by Italians living abroad. Why was this election such a close and bitter contest?

Italy is widely known as Il Bel Paese (the beautiful country). Yet the leading Italian daily La Repubblica recently ran a frontpage editorial titled ‘The ugliest elections’, referring, not to the looks of the two leading candidates, but to the insults traded between them in recent weeks.

Much of the coverage of the election in Italy and abroad has focused on Berlusconi’s abrasive comments. Infamously, he suggested that voters for Prodi are idiots. Speaking to an association of Italian retailers, Berlusconi said: ‘I have too much respect for the intelligence of Italians to believe that there are so many coglioni around to vote against their best interest.’ The direct translation of coglioni is testicles, but it’s widely used to mean cretins or idiots.

Prodi quickly accused Berlusconi of ‘mud-slinging’. Berlusconi certainly used some colourful language, but it was Prodi who made the first insult between candidates. On 3 April he said: ‘The prime minister [Berlusconi] clings to data in the way a drunkard clings to lampposts – not for illumination, but to keep him standing up.’ Berlusconi responded by calling Prodi a drunk too. ‘Prodi is like a useful idiot’, he said. ‘He lends his cheery parish priest face to the left, which is 70 per cent made up of former communists.’

Berlusconi likes pointing out that Prodi’s Union coalition includes the Refounded Communist Party and others who belonged to the old Italian Communist Party. Berlusconi warned of the ‘150 communists’ in Prodi’s coalition; his Forza Italia party displayed posters in town and city squares suggesting that putting Prodi and Co in government would be like having ‘No Global’ (anti-globalisation) types running the country. ‘I fight communism the way Churchill fought against Nazism’, said Berlusconi.

And just in case anyone in Italy didn’t know how bad communists are, Berlusconi told them to ‘read The Black Book of Communism and you’ll discover that under Mao [Zedong] the Chinese didn’t eat babies. They boiled them to fertilise the fields’. (The Black Book of Communism was first published in France in 1997.) This caused a diplomatic incident with China. But did it succeed in making Italians fear the ‘communists’ in Prodi’s coalition? It seems not. Apart from anything else, Prodi’s coalition also includes former Christian Democrats associated with the right.

Berlusconi was clearly trying to present a great ideological divide between his ‘House of Liberty’ coalition, representing freedom, and the centre-left coalition containing ‘evil’ communists. On 7 April, he even compared the current campaign to the polarised election in 1948: ‘The elections to be held on 9-10 April are a history-making crossroads for Italy, similar to those held in 1948, when the democratic forces defeated the communist advance, firmly pegging Italy to the West, democracy and its values’, he declared.

The 2006 campaign certainly contained some heated exchanges, but any comparison with 1948 was entirely fanciful. The 1948 election represented a clash of ideological differences – especially between the elite’s Christian Democratic Party and the Italian Communist Party that became the largest such party in Western Europe. At stake was whether Italy would come out of the Second World War on the side of the Soviet bloc or Western democracy. As the Cold War unfolded, this ideological divide ran through every aspect of Italian society, leading to vitriolic election campaigns in 1948 and beyond.

In contrast, the insults that dominated the current campaign were driven by the absence of ideological differences between the parties. It’s a struggle to find anything the parties seriously disagree on, or any policy that will seriously impact on Italy. There are slight differences in taxation policy. Prodi promised a five per cent cut in payroll taxes and social security contributions paid by Italian businesses. Berlusconi made a commitment to bring the tax burden below 40 per cent of Gross Domestic Product and vowed to abolish council taxes on first homes. Prodi tried to come across as ‘worker-friendly’ by linking his proposed taxation cuts to reintroducing tax credits for companies that hire salaried employees instead of using short-term contracts.

Yet both of these policies would principally benefit employers. There was no discussion of developments that might benefit workers, as there had been among the Socialist and Communist parties in the past (even though their proposals didn’t come up to scratch in practice, either). Indeed, looking through Prodi’s centre-left’s policies, it is hard to see anything ‘left’ about them.

Likewise, Berlusconi’s centre-right programme was bereft of policies that might have been considered ‘right-wing’ in the past. The one exception was his emphasis on the family as the ‘natural community founded on marriage between man and woman’, which contrasted with Prodi’s support for legislation recognising the legal rights of unmarried and same-sex couples. But both the centre-left and centre-right coalitions proposed heightened security measures and clampdowns on illegal immigration. As I argued in spiked, there was also little difference between the parties on the environment (see No-go Italy, by Dominic Standish). The coalitions would have been better off dropping their ‘left’ and ‘right’ tags, and just keeping the word ‘centre’.

Both coalitions moved further towards the centre as the election heated up – especially on the issue of Italy’s military commitments in Iraq. Berlusconi is known as the staunchest supporter of the Bush administration in continental Euope; as prime minister he sent 3,000 troops to Iraq. But at the end of 2005, as the election campaign kicked off, he suddenly revealed that he had tried personally to dissuade President Bush from invading Iraq. As opinion polls frequently showed disapproval of the Italian presence in Iraq, Berlusconi adopted a policy of gradual troop withdrawl during 2006 with their replacement by a civilian force.

The centre-left’s policy on Iraq also changed at the end of 2005. As many linked the ongoing conflict in Iraq with the potential for more terrorism in the West, senior figures in the centre-left coalition began to argue that immediate troop withdrawl could lead to further destabilisation. Emma Bonino, head of the Radical Party in the centre-left coalition, opposed the war in 2003 but began to adopt the gradual withdrawl policy in 2005. ‘Some Italians believe that, “Oh, we can withdraw as long as the Americans stay”’, she said. ‘The Europeans very much like this approach. You look good and the other ones do the dirty job.’ Prodi also seemed to accept the need for a gradual withdrawal. ‘Certainly I shall not make a coup de théatre as was done by the Spanish’, he said, referring to Spain’s withdrawal from Iraq following the General Election there in 2004.

So the Italian electorate was not presented with a choice on the key foreign policy issue. This and many other issues were essentially depoliticised. Issues such as Italy’s poor economic condition were raised but were not really debated in any meaningful way.

In the absence of real policy differences, the campaign was dominated by a clash of personalities. Not known for his outgoing personality, Prodi (nicknamed Mortadella – a thick, bland sausage) seemed content to let Berlusconi’s buffoonery take centre stage. Prodi seemed to rely on Berlusconi making a fool of himself – and Berlusconi seemed willing to comply. At one stage, he presented the results of his own personal election telephone ‘poll’ using sex chat line girls. Prodi preferred to appear bland compared with Berlusconi’s foolery – but this meant that Prodi was unspecific and deeply uninspiring. In a TV debate he was asked what his government would do about abortion. He told the nation he would advance ‘an active politics for the family, a happy politics of the family’. What?

As a former president of the European Commission, Prodi came across as a tired bureaucrat, closer to the European political elite than to the Italian people. But he’s also a member of Italy’s ‘old guard.’ It should not be forgotten that he once presented vital information about the location of the kidnapping of the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Prodi said he had received the information about Moro’s whereabouts from a séance, probably in an attempt to protect his source. During the current campaign Berlusconi said: ‘I leave it up to Italians to decide if they want to trust the country to someone who, when he has a problem to sort out, turns to a three-legged table, a tray and asks spirits in the afterworld for help.’

As voters went to the polls, many analysts argued that the election had become a referendum on Berlusconi (1). Bit it wasn’t a referendum on his policies, since there was little debate about policy. Nor was it a debate about his ‘conflict of interests’ regarding his huge business links or the legal cases against him. Many foreign commentators focused on this issue, perhaps unaware that Italians are relatively uninterested in it. Many Italians see Berlusconi as doing what every sensible Italian tries to do (only more successfully): avoid paying tax to the state. Remember that Italians elected Berlusconi in 2001 when his ‘conflict of interests’ was well known (see The biggest scandal in Italian politics, by James Heartfield).

And it’s worth remembering that Prodi was investigated for a conflict of interests, too, over his time as chairman of the powerful state-owned industrial holding company IRI and contracts awarded to his own economic research company.

The election focused only on Berlusconi’s personality. At various stages he was compared to an alligator, reptile and lion. Three weeks before the election the Italian film director, Nanni Moretti, released Il Caimano in cinemas, a political satire about Berlusconi based on the cayman, the reptile that has the habit of ingesting its prey – in this case the Italian state – to appropriate it. Maybe Il Caimano did for Berlusconi what some say Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 did for President Bush – boosted his fortunes a little (though not enough, it seems, to get re-elected) (2). Berlusconi responded by comparing himself to a lion: ‘I feel as strong as a lion and I am sure of winning.’ He hinted, however, that he might be a feeble lion. ‘But if there is a defeat, and I don’t believe there will be, it will be an absolutely hairline margin.’ Well, he was right about that.

It was indeed an ugly election – in place of political debate all we had were insults and animal comparisons. If Berlusconi could be said to resemble any kind of beast it would be a caged lion, lashing out with inappropriate remarks. He was caged by the almost universal condemnation of his attitude and antics. His only helping hand came from Bush, who invited Berlusconi to act the statesman by addressing the US Congress two months before the election. But who in Europe wants to be associated with the supposedly evil Bush administration and its neocon agenda? It seems that a helping hand from the American president is not what it used to be. And it seems that the final nail in Berlusconi’s coffin will come from Italians outside of Italy, who are more likely to be influenced by international opinion.

The biggest problem was not that the election became all about Berlusconi, the caged lion. It was the absence of real debates and decent choices, which imprisoned the Italian voters. Che brutto! Now that is really ugly.

Dominic Standish is doing a PhD on the politics of environmental risk in Italy. Email him at dstandish@europe.com.

(1) Italians Vote in Ballot Seen As Referendum on Premier, by Robin Pomeroy, Reuters, 10 April 2006

(2) Italy’s politics refracted, on stage and screen, by Elisabetta Povoledo, International Herald Tribune, 7 April 2006

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