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The Italian general election 2006
Article added on May 17, 2006
  
Finally, one of Europe's greatest shames has been removed from office: Silvio Berlusconi. However, the European Union (EU) did not play any part in the removal of Italy's prime minister - the EU does not seem to take its values seriously - it was the work of a tiny majority of Italian voters.

Only after weeks of speculation and incertitude, Silvio Berlusconi indirectly conceded defeat in the Italian general election of April 9 and 10, 2006. The official result is extremely close. In the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, the colorful coalition of the left, The Union, led by former prime minister Prodi, advances Berlusconi's center-right coalition, the House of Freedoms, by less than 0.1%. Whereas in the upper house, the Senate, Berlusconi's House of Freedoms even won a majority of some 400,000 votes if one excludes the overseas ballots. However, Prodi's Union won four of the six overseas Senate seats, securing a majority in the upper house too. Ironically, it was Berlusconi's government which had introduced the admission of overseas ballots in the hope of winning additional seats for the right. In addition, in December 2005, just a few months before the general election, the government brought about a change in the election laws through the parliament thanks to its majority in both houses in the hope to profit from it - but the changes were in vain.

The margin of victory of the center left was much tinier than predicted. Some 25,000 voters (out of some 38 million) only separate the two political camps in the lower house. In this context, Berlusconi's wish for a recount becomes understandable. Less comprehensible are his weird accusations of fraud and irregularities, especially considering that he is Italy's richest man, serving as prime minister and controlling the state as well as the majority of private TV channels. After the election he went as far as to suggest that, because of "manipulations", "irregularities and errors", the electoral result "had to change". This was not the first time that he could not put up with defeat. Only after foreign prime ministers and presidents such as Chancellor Merkel and his friends President Bush and President Putin had congratulated Prodi, it dawned upon him that time had come to concede, which he only did indirectly.

Yesterday, on May 15, 2006 the new Italian President Giorgio Napolitano took over office. 81 in June, the former communist is not a credible alternative to former president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who left office because, at 86, he justly felt it was time to step down and not run for office again. Incidentally, the prime minister appointed yesterday by President Napolitano, Romano Prodi, will be 67 in August. Thus old men - and no women - govern Italy. Prodi will present his cabinet list later today.

Prodi presents himself as "il professore". However, he served not only as prime minister from 1996 to 1998, but also as minister of industry as early as in 1978 under Giulio Andreotti. Later he headed the state owned industrial holding company IRI (1982-89, 1993-94), where he privatized important parts of state assets. In short, although not a member of a party, he is by no means a political outsider. However, although he has been confirmed by four million people or some 70% of voters in a primary election in October 2005 as the leader of the political left, he has no party power base to support him. Furthermore, the so-called Margherita, politically closer to him than the former communists (Democrats of the Left), performed poorly in the elections.

Berlusconi is right to a certain point that Prodi is a servile puppet "frontman" for a coalition largely consisting of communists and former communists, who wouldn't appeal to a majority of Italian voters (Berlusconi used the term "useful idiot" and called voters for the left "coglioni", vulgar for "testicles"). Prodi stands on the right of what is largely a unreformed Italian left. Old fashioned communist are in the minority, unreformed old style social-democrats form the majority of his coalition. Greens and other complement the colorful picture. Ideas of New Labour have not yet reached the Italian left.

From May 1996 to October 1998, as prime minister, Prodi could not even control the left-wing coalition thanks to the pressure exercised by the Maastricht criteria to fulfill in order to become a part of the European Monetary Union (later the Euro zone) from the beginning. Despite this external pressure, in 1998 Rifondazione Comunista (the communist party of Fausto Bertinotti, now in 2006 just elected president of the lower chamber by The Union left-wing coalition) refused to accept the budget for 1999, which brought about the downfall of Prodi's government. Today, without the external pressure of the set up of the Euro zone, will Prodi be able to govern a full term with a tiny majority in the Senate? Will the government be able to implement a reasonable economic and financial policy?

In fairness, it has to be pointed out that Berlusconi's electoral program foresaw even larger benefits to the voters than The Union's, including free rides on the state train and free entries to cinemas and sporting events for people over 70. Furthermore, Berlusconi's economic record is far from convincing: The Italian state deficit has increased, privatization has almost come to a halt and, as a consequence, the national debt is at a risk to reach the record height of 108% of GDP in 2006. Already in 2005, it reached a vertiginous 106.4%. As a consequence, Italian interest rates for the state debt have almost reached Greek levels. In addition, from 2001 to 2005, Berlusconi has not reduced the ratio of government expenditures to gross national product, but instead increased it from 41.1% to 43.9% of GDP. The economy had stagnated since 2002, growing not more than 0.35% per year in comparison with 1.45% on an average in the EU. Currently, the budget deficit is at 4.1% of GDP.

It is a disgrace that the political right in Italy cannot find an alternative to Berlusconi. At least the leading center-right newspapers, Il Corriere della Sera, understood that it was time to turn the page and not vote for Berlusconi again. How can Italy's richest man whose estimated wealth is 12 billion Euros first govern Italy and now continue to run the leading opposition party? He has conflicts of interests in almost all areas of the economy he touches. How could the owner of the majority of private TV channels, who also happens to control the country's leading advertising company, rise to power? Italy was and is a banana republic in the heart of Europe. In the past, the EU overreacted to Haider rising to prominence in Austria, although the right-wing populist had only said but not (yet) done unacceptable things. Subsequently, the EU draw the wrong conclusions from the Austrian isolation disaster and closed its eyes on Berlusconi's Italy.

Before the election, staying in Rome, I had a provisional okay to interview Prodi for an important German newspaper as well as for Cosmopolis. In the end, he could not find time as holding together his electoral coalition demanded all his time. Although the reason advanced for not giving an interview was probably correct (no time), a bitter aftertaste remains because Prodi wanted to know all the questions of the interview in advance as well as in great detail. One wonders of course whether the candidate considered the questions too critical to be answered in the hot phase of the electoral campaign. Strange, strange, Mr. Prodi. I don't think your students get to know their exam questions beforehand either.

Prodi's electoral program of some 280 pages is far from precise. He scored an own goal with the demand of the reintroduction of the death and gift duties, because he not only remained vague for a long time on what he understood by "important wealth", but furthermore he had profited himself from the current legislation by giving 870,000 Euros to his two sons in 2003.

How will The Union reduce the colossal state deficit and tackle the unemployment of some 15% in the south (Mezzogiorno)? How will the left reform the slow and powerful bureaucracy, red tape being one of the key obstacles to future growth in Italy?

Do they have plans to prevent a situation such as with Berlusconi, a politician rising to power who has conflicts of interests in whatever he touches and who pushes through a series of custom-made laws in order to protect his business interests? These are anomalies the center-left already forgot to remedy during their previous government from 1996 to 1998. Berlusconi is again under investigation in the Mills affair, because of massive tax evasion and for setting up offshore funds, probably in order to bribe politicians, judges and others.

Will Italy play a more active role in Europe since the Chirac-Schröder axis of incompetence is no longer in place? Prodi, as a former head of the European Commission, has excellent knowledge and contacts, but also a record with mixed results. Will the Italian center-left coalition be able to govern the full term or will we soon witness the return to the Italian political instability? So far, the Union has managed to push through its representatives for the offices of State President, President of the Chamber and President of the Senate. Probably the discussion of the new budget will be the first serious test for the heteroclite Union.

More articles regarding Italian politics: Silvio Berlusconi and his cabinet (2003) and Italy's new Prime Minster Giuliano Amato (2000).







Added on May 17, 2006 at 16.40 Swiss Time:
Romano Prodi's Italian cabinet 2006
Prime Minister (Presidente del Consiglio): Romano Prodi
Vicepresidente del Consiglio & Minister of Foreign Affairs: Massimo D'Alema
Vicepresidente del Consiglio & Minister of Culture: Francesco Rutelli
Interior Minister: Giuliano Amato
Minister of Economy: Tommaso Padoa Schioppa
Minister of Justice: Clemente Mastella
Minister of Education: Giuseppe Fioroni
Minister of Labour: Cesare Damiano
Minister of Defense: Arturo Parisi
Minister of Agriculture: Paolo De Castro
Minister of the Environment: Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio
Minister of Infrastructure: Antonio Di Pietro
Health Minister: Livia Turco
Minister of Communication: Paolo Gentiloni
Minister of Regional Affairs: Linda Lanzillotta
Minister of Attività Produttive: Pierluigi Bersani
Minister of Funzione Pubblica: Luigi Nicolais
Minister of Pari Opportunità: Barbara Pollastrini
Minister of Social Policies: Paolo Ferrero
Minister of Parliamentary Relations & Reforms: Vannino Chiti
Family Minister: Rosy Bindi
Minister of European Affairs: Emma Bonino
Minister of Ricerca universitaria: Fabio Mussi
Minister of Youth & Sports: Giovanna Melandri
Minister del governo: Giulio Santagata
Minister of Transport: Alessandro Bianchi

The cabinet has been announced quicker than expected. As a result, there is a job for everyone; the government is extremely large.
 

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