29/03/2006 - D-7
Fifty million Italians are called to vote on 9th and 10th April next to elect the 630 representatives and 315 senators in their Parliament. For the first time since 1994, MP's will all be elected by proportional vote, with the winning coalition taking the "majority prize". Two main parties are confronting each other in these general and senatorial elections: Casa della Liberta, a liberal coalition led by the present President of the Council, Silvio Berlusconi and Unione, a coalition of leftwing parties led by opposition leader and former President of the European Commission (1999-2004), Romano Prodi.
Just one week before the elections the leftwing forces are still ahead in the polls even though "il Cavaliere", Silvio Berlusconi's nickname, continues to rally nearly one Italian in two to his name. The most recent poll published by La Repubblica on 26th March, credits 51.7% of the vote to the Unione versus 46.6% for the Casa della Liberta in the general elections and 51.4% versus 47.1% in the senatorial elections. Interviewed about the person they would prefer to see at the head of the country more than four Italians in ten (43.4%) answer Romano Prodi versus 34.5% for Silvio Berlusconi. One third of those interviewed say they still have not decided. This poll will be the last to be published before 9th April since polls are prohibited in Italy two weeks before the vote.
Silvio Berlusconi continues to say he is confident of his re-election. "It would be just crazy to send a government team home after they have got to know Italy so well over the last five years. Our government has an experience of the State machine that no other has and a new team would have to start all over again. A victory on the part of the centre-left opposition would be a type of masochism which the Italians are incapable of doing to themselves", he declared. The President of the Council sent 11 million Italian households a 160 page magazine entitled "The True History of Italy".
However the President of the Council is facing a difficult electoral campaign: attacks from Italian employers, the publication of poor results in terms of the country's economy, resignation on the part of several of his ministers, defection of several intellectuals over to Romano Prodi and problems to assert himself on TV, which is unusual for the President of the Council since this is a media of which until now he has been the uncontested master. Finally Silvio Berlusconi has to face corruption charges from the courts in Milan.
On 17th March last the President of the Council and the opposition leader were invited by Confindustria, the employers' organisation to speak to 5,000 company heads in Vicenza (North East Italy) which was an opportunity to observe the gap that exists between Silvio Berlusconi and Italian employers. The President of the Council, who was suffering from lumbago initially, cancelled the meeting before finally turning up at the congress which the vice-president of Confindustria, Andrea Pininfarina inaugurated with the following words, "for the first time since the war, Italy is in danger of falling away from the group of the most industrialised countries".
"Only when an industrialist has lost his mind can he support the left or if there are a lot of skeletons in the cupboard and things that he has to apologise for", declared the President of the Council to an audience of outraged employers. He also denied that a crisis was affecting Italy: "Crisis, what crisis? It is only a desire on the part of the left and its papers who are inventing a decline that does not exist with the simple aim of taking power", he added, "it is not true that we have become poorer over the last few years; we are at the top in Europe in terms of owning cars, mobile phones and soon, computers". According to the President of the Council the company heads "refuse to understand that they will be the first to suffer if the left comes to power".
"The aggressiveness which leads him to utter numerous ineptitudes is worrying given that this is the man governing the country", said Diego Della Valle, CEO of Tod's and of the football club Fiorentina, Florence. He also asked the President of the Council to "stop treating the Italians like idiots", accusing him of "getting up everyday convinced that he owned Italy". Diego Della Valle in fact resigned on 20th March from the executive committee of Confindustria "to avoid being continually manipulated which might damage the association and my industrial friends".
Apart from the criticism on the part of company heads Silvio Berlusconi has also had to face the publication of the latest economic figures by the Central Bank of Italy with regard to Italy's previous year's results. For the third year running the GDP and exports, which have been a longstanding mainstay for the Italy's economy are regressing. The GDP lies at 1.3% and is lower than that of the other countries in the Euro Zone and exports have dropped by thirty points on the foreign markets. Likewise the trade balance has declined from eight billion to three hundred and twenty nine million euro. In addition to this, public debt increased in 2005 for the first time in ten years reaching 106.4% of the GDP versus 103.8% in 2004. In a year government spending has increased by 4% i.e. twice the objective set for them to reach 48.5% of the GDP. Finally the new governor of the Central Bank of Italy, Mario Draghi pointed to the enormous increase in temporary work over the first nine months of 2005 (49.8% of young people aged 15 to 29 years old were recruited for a fixed term work contract). The biggest of the unions, the General Work Confederation (CGIL) has given its support to the left wing opposition. Before an audience of 1,200 delegates at the 15th Congress of the workers' organisation its leader, Gugliemo Epifani, said that he was in favour of signing a "a 1000-day term of office pact in order to re-found Italy", with the next government that would be led by Romano Prodi. "Your ideas are the same as the ones in my programme. Re-building Italy is a commitment that brings us together. There is a close convergence of views and my programme", answered the opposition leader who knows how much he will need the support of the unions if he wins in order to put through his opinions within the coalition likewise pushing through and applying his rigorous programme amongst the Italians.
On March 12th the President of the Council walked out of the RAI 3 studio during an interview with a journalist Lucia Annunziata who was asking him why outside of Italy he was best known for his support of American president George Bush in the Iraq war and for his financial and political problems. "I demand that you allow me to answer otherwise I shall get up and go", said Silvio Berlusconi before carrying out his threat. Lucia Annunziata then answered, "I am asking you not to leave. You cannot dictate the rules. It will remain as a blemish on your career; you should be ashamed of your behaviour. You do not know how to behave with journalists. This is my programme and I shall decide on the questions to ask. This channel is a war machine being used against the Prime Minister", maintained Silvio Berlusconi. The RAI 3 journalist, who is used to forceful interviews, is believed to be close to the centre-left. She quit the management of the RAI two years ago believing that this had become a relay for government petitions.
On 27th March Romano Prodi announced that he would now boycott the three TV channels belonging to Mediaset managed by Silvio Berlusconi. For his part Massimo d'Alema (DS), former President of Council said that if the left won it would oblige Silvio Berlusconi to sell 38% of his family's shares in Mediaset. "Mediaset has become a biased instrument in the electoral campaign", maintained Piero Fassino, the leader of the Left Democrats. According to figures published by Corriere della Sera, the group's TV channels dedicated 10 hours, 21 minutes and 4 seconds to Silvio Berlusconi between 1st January and 15th March in comparison with 1 hour, 35 minutes and 21 seconds to Romano Prodi.
Silvio Berlusconi faced Romano Prodi on 14th March during a 90 minute TV debate. The programme was hosted by a manager of the RAI's editorial staff; both candidates were interviewed alternately by two directors of daily newspapers and each had two and a half minutes to answer and neither was allowed to talk directly to their respective adversary. The RAI promised not to film one candidate whilst the other was talking. Socio-economic questions were the focus of the programme. Silvio Berlusconi tried to defend his government's results drawing up a list of reforms undertaken over the last five years "which were ten times more than those undertaken by the five previous leftwing governments", as well as the major projects he has launched. The President of the Council declared that "if the left won, it would stop all of this work because 20% of the coalition (the Greens, Communist Renewal), those against globalisation are against modernisation". Romano Prodi answered saying that "the major projects are not finished and have no funding" and that "demagogic politics have to come to an end (...) you spread pessimism and ideas of catastrophe, creating fear amongst the Italians", he pointed out appealing for "the respect of the ethic of duty".
Sixteen million Italians watched the face to face interview of the two men, i.e. an audience rating of 56.75%. Four viewers in ten believed that the leader of the leftwing won the duel against Berlusconi (42% versus 35.6% for Silvio Berlusconi). Finally 27% believe that the debate ended in a draw. A second debate is planned on RAI 1 on 3rd April.
On 10th March Silvio Berlusconi was confronted with the resignation of his Healthcare Minister, leader of the National Alliance, Francesco Storace, who is accused of having tried to spy on Alessandra Mussolini (Social Alternative) and Piero Marazzo, a former RAI journalist representing the leftwing, candidates who are challenging him for the chairmanship of Latium in the regional elections on 2nd-3rd and 17th-18th April 2005. The minister is accused of having hired eleven private detectives specialised in industrial espionage to discredit his adversaries during the election. This attempt at defamation was revealed telephone tapping. "The simple suspicion that I orchestrated a political manœuvre against these adversaries hurts me and leaves me indignant. I feel more than anyone the right to know the truth as quickly as possible because nothing is more important than my personal and political honour", declared Francesco Storace who also referred to "the duty of not exposing his political family and the government" and his "desire not be used by the left". The regional elections in 2005 witnessed the victory of Piero Marazzo. This resignation is the second in three weeks since the departure of the Reform Minister Roberto Calderoli (Northern League) on 18th February, who shocked a number of Italians with his racist declarations and criticism of Islam when he wore a T-shirt bearing one of the controversial caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Silvio Berlusconi decided not to replace Franceso Storace and to take on the function of Healthcare Minister himself.
Finally the judges Fabio de Pasquale and Alfredo Robledo from the Public Prosecutor's Office in Milan have requested Silvio Berlusconi's prosecution for corruption along with British business lawyer David Mills, husband of the British Culture, Media and Sports Minister, Tessa Jowell. This petition by the Prosecutor's Office is the equivalent of an indictment procedure and it is now up to the judge in the preliminary hearing to decide whether there is substance for a trial – a procedure which could last several months. The accusation stems from another legal procedure in which Silvio Berlusconi is suspected of tax evasion in the purchase of film rights by his audiovisual group Mediaset (artificially inflated prices thanks to offshore companies based in tax paradises). The Prosecutors in Milan believe that David Mills, who is involved in the establishment of offshore companies and the opening of bank accounts in tax paradises for Fininvest, Silvio Berlusconi's holding company, received over 500,000 euro in 1997 from Fininvest in exchange for giving false evidence in favour of Silvio Berlusconi during two trials at the end of the 1990's. When asked by the British tax office to justify the source of the this sum which is said to have been used to pay off a housing loan that he and his wife had, David Mills is said to have admitted before quickly retracting that it was a "gift" in exchange for giving favourable evidence. David Mills and Silvio Berlusconi both maintain that this sum did not come from Fininvest. On 11th March David Mills and Tessa Jowell announced they were to separate and the minister received the support of Tony Blair.
Those close to the President of the Council have denounced "a calculated attack" on the part of the magistrates. "Once again and just before the elections some magistrates willingly give up the search for the truth in order to pursue political ends", declared Sandro Bondi, national co-ordinator for Forza Italia. "Right in the middle of the electoral campaign the Prosecutor's office rejects a legitimate request for additional information whilst we are suggesting the interruption of the prescription time so that the procedure is not delayed. You can come to your own conclusions", stressed Nicollo Ghedini, Silvio Berlusconi's lawyer and Forza Italia MP. The magistrates at the Prosecutor's office in Milan justified their intervention by saying they feared prescription; in effect the President of the Council recently reduced the deadlines for the closure of affairs involving false entry by half.
Over the last few weeks of the campaign some intellectuals have gone over to the left. "The Caiman" by Nanni Moretti came out on 24th March in 380 of Italy's cinemas. The film portrays a young director who cannot find an actor to play the role of Silvio Berlusconi. "Let's hope the Caiman is useful and not damaging in the electoral campaign", said Romano Prodi. The leftwing weekly Diario offered its readers a DVD entitled "Once Upon a Time there was Silvio Berlusconi" the director of which, Enrico Deaglio, said that is was a "Michael Moore style" overview of the five years of government by Berlusconi Another. Another weekly "L'Espresso" distributed the film by a young German director entitled "Bye bye Berlusconi". Author Umberto Eco has just published a critique of Silvio Berlusconi's "populism" and provides his support to the leftwing coalition. "This will be a dramatic day. Since 2001 Italy has been falling disastrously with regard to the respect of the laws of the Constitution in the area of economics and with regard to its international prestige. If we have five more years of Silvio Berlusconi's government then the decline of our country will be inevitable and we shall probably not be able to make a come back". The writer did not hesitate in saying that he might leave Italy if Silvio Berlusconi won.
These elections are also a source of motivation beyond Italy. Hence on 1st March last Silvio Berlusconi was invited to the USA by president George Bush; he was privileged enough to deliver a speech to the American Congress, rare for a foreign Head of Government; this was broadcast complete by a number of Italian TV channels. George Bush has also sent Karl Rove, his communications advisor and craftsman of his own victory in November 2004, to help Silvio Berlusconi. For the first time this year three and a half million Italians abroad will be able to vote in the general and senatorial elections. They will now be represented by twelve MP's and six Senators.
Nearly half of the candidates on the Greens and Communist Renewal lists are women, on those of the Left Democrats there are 30% and La Margherita has around 20%. The present government forces are weak with regard to feminising their lists. With 11.5% women MP's and 8.1% female Senators Italy lies 29th in the world ranking and 23rd in the EU in terms of the representation of women in Parliament. The Minister for Equal Opportunities, Stefania Prestigiacomo who is one of the three women in Berlusconi's government did not succeed in passing her law on parity, which was indeed adopted by the Senate on 9th February just a few hours before the dissolution of Parliament, but it could not be examined by the Chamber of Representatives.
The electoral campaign is proving so hard and tense that on 24th March the President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi appealed to all politicians for calm. "True civic passion is expressed and convincing when it addresses real problems and takes projects forwards to settle Italy's problems; this is certainly not the case when voices are raised. On the contrary it would be preferable to lower the tone", stressed the Head of State. The entire political community welcomed this appeal.