Italy

Italians cast their ballots in a tight election, with Brussels, Berlin and the markets looking on. By Tom Burgis, Lina Saigol, Ben Fenton and Shannon Bond with contributions from FT correspondents across Italy and beyond. All times are GMT. 

On this, the final day of polling in Italy’s 2013 election, we thought it would be worth highlighting five blog posts from the FT that will help provide the context you need to understand the results when they eventually emerge…

Beppe Grillo at a rally in March 2008 (Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty)

He has been called many things: clown, showman, a “sans-culottes satirist”, Italy’s “funniest man”. And less complimentary things too: “populist, extremist and very dangerous”. But Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-political campaigner, can give as good as he gets. His nickname for Silvio Berlusconi is “the psycho-dwarf”, while he refers to the technocrat Mario Monti as “rigor Montis”. Grillo’s way with words is just one talent he has used to shake up the political landscape in Italy in recent years; his digital savvy – he runs Italy’s most popular blog – has helped him harness growing public anger at corruption and turn it into a grassroots political movement.

Final opinion polls published ahead of the February 24-25 election showed his Five Star Movement in third position with 13-16% of the vote – ahead of Monti’s Civic Choice and only a few points behind Berlusconi’s People of Liberty. So how did he get there? And what does he really believe in?

In the FT

  • Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) presents itself as an antidote to a corrupt political elite, focused on five key areas: public water, transportation, development, internet availability, and the environment. In October, the group scored well in a regional election in Sicily, despite a web-driven campaign spending of just €25,000 – far less than the major parties. The head of one of Italy’s biggest companies lamented: “I can’t stand Grillo. He is against everything. He is aiming to destroy not change”.

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Italy's former Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi delivers a speech during a rally of his party "Popolo della liberta" (People of the Freedom - PDL) in Rome, on February 7, 2013 (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

(AFP/Getty)

As Italy’s increasingly surreal election campaign draws to a close, it is still hard to believe that Silvio Berlusconi, who exited government so ignominiously 18 months ago, may well garner enough votes with his coalition partners next weekend to deny the centre-left and Mario Monti an outright win.

Should that happen, as is probable, Italians are destined for more political instability. They may be back at the polls within a year or 18 months.

In that context alone, understanding the enduring appeal of Berlusconi – who failed to stem a decline of Italian economic competitiveness during his time in office and remains mired in corruption trials – can be baffling for an outsider. But go out on the stump with Italy’s veteran showman, as I did on Monday night, and it all becomes a little clearer. Read more

In a word, yes. The news that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down at the end of February has taken many people by surprise, but the Code of Canon Law (the Catholic Church’s collection of rules and procedures) does allow for papal resignation:

“If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” (From Book II, Part II, Section I, Cann. 330 – 367)

Pope John Paul II explicitly referenced this right in 1996, when he set out his new rules for papal election:

3. I further establish that the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church… even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope.

Precedents: We asked Professor David d’Avray, an expert on religious history at University College London, to tell us about precedents for papal resignation. He picked out two particularly interesting examples: Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415 (who we think was the last pope to resign until today’s announcement). Read more

The most important Italian election for 30 years?

Some argue that the elections to be held in Italy are the most important for that country in three decades, since the fate of the euro could be at stake. Tony Barber, Europe editor, and Guy Dinmore, Rome bureau chief, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the election.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

I have just spent a few days traveling across Veneto, Italy’s industrial heartland in the north east of the peninsula. One of the tasks I had set myself for this trip was to understand whether Italy’s economic crisis is fuelling euroscepticism.

Italy has traditionally been among the continent’s most europhilic countries. To the astonishment of outside observers – particularly those from the Anglo-Saxon world – Italians have seemed relatively at ease with the idea of handing more and more powers over to Brussels.

One of the reasons behind this attitude is their deep lack of trust in their own political class. The euro is seen as a bridge to modernity and progress, rather than a drag on national sovereignty.

After the wave of austerity which has recently hit Italy, and which Brussels was at least partially responsible for, I expected this attitude to have become somewhat less positive. Veneto was an excellent testing ground for its resilience. This wealthy region is governed by Luca Zaia, from the Northern League, the most eurosceptic among Italy’s mainstream parties. Veneto has a strong export-oriented manufacturing sector, which can no longer rely on competitive devaluations as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, before Italy entered the euro.

This point was made to me by Roberto Brazzale, a food entrepreneur from the province of the city of Vicenza, who has off-shored much of his production of parmesan cheese and mozzarella to the Czech Republic. “We must exit the euro,” Mr Brazzale said. “And do it before our industrial base is completely wiped out”. Read more

He is not quite kissing babies yet but Mario Monti is throwing off his image as a fusty economics professor and former EU bureaucrat with his first election campaign spot.

The one-minute spot – released today on social network sites and local television stations – shows the human side of the 69-year-old, playing on the carpet with his grandchildren and promising a “together we can do it” better future.

Hammering home the message that the “old parties are not capable of reforming Italy”, the ad skips over the issue that Mr Monti’s centrist alliance includes two of parliament’s most veteran politicians.

If the campaign carries echoes of Barack Obama, could that be because Italy’s technocrat prime minister has hired two consultants from the old team led by David Axelrod, strategist for the US president?

The spot cleverly splices images of wads of cash changing hands and lines of official limousines as Mr Monti promises to crack down on corruption and wasteful government spending while promising economic growth, jobs and “responsible” tax cuts. Read more

Francois Hollande (R) and Mario Monti in Paris on February 3 (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Mario Monti with Francois Hollande on February 3 (BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy’s foreign policy has long been founded on supporting its western allies in times of need.

Unlike the French, Italy backed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; it has troops in Afghanistan and, unlike Germany, it supported – though with some foot-dragging – military intervention in Libya in 2011.

But electoral considerations have trumped solidarity with France over Mali, forcing an embarrassing u-turn.

Mario Monti’s foreign and defence ministers last month pledged logistical help in the form of transport planes and refuelling for the French. “We are beside you, Paris,” newspapers proclaimed. But on Sunday, in Paris, Italy’s technocrat prime minister had to explain to François Hollande that no such support would be forthcoming after all.

Franco Frattini, former foreign minister and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party, is particularly disappointed, having passed a resolution in parliament on January 22 – with support from members of the centre-left Democrats and the centrist UDC – that backed Italian logistical intervention.

“Because of the election campaign we run the risk of not fulfilling our European duties of solidarity,” Mr Frattini told the FT. Read more

A few weeks ago I was in Oxford for the screening of Girlfriend in a Coma, the film on Italy’s decline written by Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, and Annalisa Piras, an Italian journalist and filmmaker. The audience – consisting mainly of British Italophiles and young Italian researchers who had left the country’s decaying universities to find shelter in British academia – gave the documentary a warm reception. During the discussion I chaired after the screening, Emmott conceded that taking the movie to Italy would pose a far greater challenge. He joked that he and Piras would need bodyguards. Their movie is in fact a brutal exercise in truth-telling, aimed at holding to account those who have run Italy over the past two decades.

Italy’s first reaction has, indeed, proved rather unwelcoming. The Italian premiere of Girlfriend in a Coma, scheduled for February 13 at MAXXI, a museum of contemporary art in Rome, was suddenly cancelled on Friday. Read more

For those used to a democratic system with an established political dynamic – Democrats v Republicans in the US, or Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats in Britain – Italy can seem strange. Some of the parties and alliances running in this year’s general election did not even exist in previous contests.

Italians will be asked to vote in February for one of 169 parties, movements and groups that made it onto the ballot. Many have unfamiliar names, such as the newly formed alliance of Italy, Common Good (which combines the Democratic party, the socialists and others), the Five Star Movement party created by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, or the even newer Monti movement, formed around the agenda of the ex-prime minister.

Data collated by the FT

How could the Italian political system have worked for so long with such a fragmented composition? The answer is that, for most of the time, it hasn’t.

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Barack Obama knows a thing or two about winning elections and having pressed Italy’s Mario Monti into running for prime minister in next month’s elections, the US president is also lending some advice.

Mr Monti, long-time economics professor and former EU commissioner who was appointed technocrat prime minister in late 2011, has never run for elective office in his life, and it shows.

Enter David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s two-time campaign strategist, who responding to a report in Turin’s La Stampa, confirms to my FT Washington colleague Richard McGregor that his old firm AKPD Message and Media has been hired by Mr Monti. Mr Axelrod says he had been retained “to take a look and come in for a day to meet with Monti and his team, which I did.” He adds for transparency’s sake: “I no longer have an interest in AKPD.” Read more

Mario Monti (L) with Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Mario Monti (L) with Silvio Berlusconi in November 2011 (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s alliance between Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and the right-wing Northern League was the last piece of the jigsaw ahead of Italy’s general elections, scheduled for 24-25 February.

With six and a half weeks to go, the situation is still too fluid to make a call on who will win. But, for those not versed in the art of Italian politics, we thought it would be helpful to explain the main players involved, and outline the chances of the two very different men who have held the most influence over Italy in the past few years – Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi.

The parties

  • A centre-left coalition dominated by the Democratic Party, in alliance with the more left-wing Left, Ecology, Freedom party
  • Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance between his People of Freedom and the Northern League
  • A centrist coalition led by Italy’s technocratic prime minister, now turned politician, Mario Monti. This includes the PM’s own list, Civic choice for Monti, the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy
  • The Five Star Movement, brainchild of the comedian-cum-blogger, Beppe Grillo
  • A left-wing group, Civil Revolution, set up by the former anti-mafia judge Antonio Ingroia

The Houses

Italy’s cumbersome electoral law, which is different for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, makes the lives of the phsephologists even harder. Here’s what we know about the situation in each house. Read more

The looming political showdown in Italy
Italian prime minister Mario Monti has said he’ll resign, making elections likely to occur next February. But who is likely to win, or even who will run, remains unclear. Both Mr Monti and Silvio Berlusconi are possible candidates. Guy Dinmore, FT bureau chief in Rome, Tony Barber, Europe editor, and Ferdinando Giugliano, leader writer, join Gideon Rachman.

Silvio Berlusconi attends the presentation of the book "The big cheat" by Renato Brunetta (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/GettyImages)

Following a Berlusconi trial is like going to the theatre — it is your civic right to enjoy a spectacle even though you know perfectly well the act bears no relation to reality.

Very little about Silvio Berlusconi, or about the Italian legal system, is quite what it seems. The four-year prison term to which the former prime minister was sentenced on Friday for tax fraud is a good example. There is next to no chance that he will go to jail. The likelihood that he will ever be definitively convicted of this particular offence is not much higher.

Contrary to what he and his devotees might think, the reason is not that he is a paragon of virtue. Nor is it that the Italian courts always uncover the truth in the end. It is rather that the three-tier judicial system operates so slowly that, even if a defendant is eventually found guilty in the highest appeals court, the case has been going on for so long that a statute of limitations kicks in. Read more

Roberto Formigoni, who this month resigned as the governor of Lombardy after the arrest of his deputy, with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (R) in 2010 (TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The wave of corruption scandals that is engulfing Italy prompts me to ask if we are witnessing a “1992 moment” – that is to say, the start of an unstoppable process that will sweep away much of the political establishment.

The question has two answers. The first is that the Italian upheaval of 20 years ago, though it destroyed the old political party system, promised more fundamental change than it ultimately delivered. So do not raise your expectations too high today.

Some optimistic political commentators thought it safe in the 1990s to suggest that Italy’s corrupt post-1945 First Republic, dominated by the Christian Democrats and their allies, was giving way to a cleaner, more responsible Second Republic. But these hopes turned out to be misplaced.

Secretive networks of influence and self-indulgence at the expense of taxpayers continued, and continue, to shape the activities of the political classes. The mafia, rampant in the 1980s and early 1990s, shrank to some extent into the shadows, but it has never loosened its connections to politics, business and state administration. Read more

Here are the pieces that got us chatting this morning: 

Here are our picks from the weekend and this morning to start off your week’s reading:

By Gideon Rachman

“We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.” So said Massimo d’Azeglio, an Italian intellectual, just after his country’s unification in 1861. The current generation of EU politicians face a modern version of the d’Azeglio dilemma: They have made a European Union, now they must make Europeans.

By Gideon Rachman

It has been many centuries since the Mediterranean Sea was the centre of civilisation. But in 2011 the Med was back – not just as a holiday destination – but at the very centre of world affairs. This was a year of global indignation, from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Moscow election protests and China’s village revolts. It was popular protests on either side of the Mediterranean – in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Syntagma Square in Athens – that set the tone for 2011.