Comedy of Errors Damages Italy's Democratic Institutions

Just weeks away from Italy's regional elections the country witnessed one of the most awkward, and potentially dangerous, episodes in the history of its politics.
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Just weeks away from Italy's regional elections the country witnessed one of the most awkward, and potentially dangerous, episodes in the history of its politics. Newspapers abroad have not been picking up on this story, partly because of its complexity, but what happened in the past few days is analogous to having the queen in the UK to come in and fix the country's democracy because someone was literally out to lunch.

As the controversy unfolded, it all sounded like a joke. In Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, the officer in charge for registering the candidates for the upcoming elections for Silvio berlusconi's party failed to do it on time because he was "a mangiare un panino" -- eating a sandwich -- as he tried to justify. A few hours later the news came from Milan that even there the People of Liberty (PdL), the prime minister's party, had been excluded, this time because of irregularities with the signatures needed to present their electoral list. Berlusconi's men first reacted with confidence, claiming that a closer analysis would have shown that the contested signatures were valid. And they were partially right. The judges later admitted some of the signatures were valid, just to point at many others that had not been spotted before to be irregular.

Put in perspective this episode reflects a far bleaker reality. The delays and wrongdoings in presenting the electoral lists were caused by internal divisions within the PdL and by the need to replace candidates at the very last minute. The recent corruption scandals surrounding the reconstruction of L'Aquila after a deadly earthquake had damaged the party's image, forcing to promise "clean" names in the upcoming elections. More dramatically, the two events created the conditions to enact one of Berlusconi's most effective and problematic strategies: expending the legitimacy accumulated in Italy's institutions to serve his and his party's interests. But this time, it had to be Italy's top institution, The Presidency, that has long been untouchable, to take the blow.

Soon after the events, Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera reported the prime minister to be furious not just because of what happened, but because his allies did not react as they were supposed to. "You should have blamed it on our adversaries and on the judiciary that uses every opportunity to damage me", he was quoted by the newspaper. However, this time the evidence was probably already too clear to hold two of Berlusconi's usual targets responsible for his misfortunes, and it would have been of little use anyways to have his party running again in Rome and Milan's regions. So Berlusconi went so far as to ask the President, Giorgio Napolitano, to sign off a decree interpreting the electoral law in such a way to have the two lists re-admitted for the competition. On March 5th the president acquiesced and was dragged into the storm of Italy's politics. The leader of the left leaning party Italia dei Valori asked for Napolitano's impeachment. People started writing on their blogs and facebook pages "He is not my President", a slogan usually employed to refer to Mr. Berlusconi. For the man who is the ultimate guarantor and the symbol of the whole country, this takes Italy's political crisis to a new level.

These events confirm that Burlusconi's party, the People of Liberty is on a downward slope, reaching new levels of incompetence. The party founded and built around the idea of "doing", of acting efficiently rather than just talking politics, seems to have lost its capacity to function, to perform even the most basic tasks such as registering candidates. The ruling that some have called ad paninum -- for the sandwich -- is an analogy with the many laws ad personam -- for his own person -- Berlusconi's government passed in the past few years. At the same time, the involvement of President Napolitano indicates that on his way down Mr. Berlusconi will be ready to drag with him even Italy's most fundamental institutions.

March 5th, the day the decree was signed, was also the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Italy's wittiest writers and journalists, Ennio Flaiano. In 1956 Flaiano wrote that "The political situation in Italy is bleak, but it is not serious". His words could have not been truer today.

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