Italy : How to move away from a technocratic government
17 July 2012
Corriere della Sera
Last year, to calm the markets, Italy resorted to a government of unelected technocrats. But with elections coming up in 2013, one columnist writes, the only way for political parties to regain public confidence is to propose public works projects.
We are living a phase of chronic tension between democracy and the European Union, between the aspirations of the electorate and the need to safeguard the European project. Sometimes we succeed in controlling that tension, and at other times it degenerates into open conflict. The fracture, which crosses the eurozone, between the countries in the North and those along the Mediterranean, is in the form of expression.
To keep the markets at bay, reassure public opinion in the northern countries and save its place in the euro club, Italy has invented a stop-gap, an emergency workaround: the government called "technical". But the hourglass knows no pity, and no one can halt the countdown. As paradoxical (and "politically incorrect") as it may seem, almost everyone in Italy and elsewhere is dreading the moment when "democracy" will rediscover its rights – that moment, when, in less than a year, voters will make their voices heard.
Why such fear of democracy? Because, rightly or wrongly, it’s widely believed that the political formations the Italians will vote for, or against, are all inadequate, constitutionally incapable of persevering in the clean-up policies that the crisis has made necessary.
The parties supporting the Monti government are promising that they will not unravel the reforms that have already been committed to. But why should anyone believe them? Who says that the Right, on returning to power, won’t immediately repeal the Spending Review [Law on the rationalisation of public expenditure] to resume managing public funds the way it always has?
And why should we believe the Left when it says it will not stray from the path laid down by the Monti government when we know very well that this path does not have the backing of the unions and it is unthinkable for the Left to set out on anything without their approval?
A rocky road
The fact that it brings up the possibility of a "grand coalition" (that is to say, yet another Monti government) after the elections shows that these same political forces are fully aware of their inadequacies.
How to leave that all behind? There’s one way out: a rocky road, one alien to our traditions. For the first time since the birth of Italian democracy, the political forces that matter should work through the instructions in “The Manual of a Good Democrat". These state that the electoral campaigns should lead not to a rain of vague promises, but to specific projects.
A project can be called specific when it is clearly announced who will be rewarded and who will be penalised. A project is called specific when it is applauded by some and makes others hit the roof. A political organisation could announce possible examples of specific projects to its constituents: if we win the election, within thirty days after taking office we will slash public expenditure on such and such a sector by so much, and we will lower the tax burden by the same amount.
Or: if we win the elections, we will halve the North-South transfers, except for essential services, and along with it we’ll abolish business taxes for so many years.
The parties should propose projects on all the major topics of general interest. In health, for example, what has been the impact of bringing in the "standard cost" of services [which compares costs and outcomes]? Or, in education, who would dare to propose a detailed roadmap (as opposed to the usual blah-blah) to inject a bit of meritocracy? Indexing wages to the quality of teaching is possible, technically, if the political will is there.
Discredit suffered by the political class
If the electoral campaigns were well conducted, it would, in a sense, be a posthumous victory for Ugo La Malfa (substance over ideology lay at the heart of the political creed of the Republican). A “LaMalfa-isation” of political groups would be a radical break with tradition. In Italy, election campaigns have always been conducted by combining ideological stances against the "enemy" with vague promises.
Ideology (the series of 'isms': anti-communism, anti-Berlusconism, etc.) serves to close up the ranks, while the vague promises displease no one and cast a wide net. Moving on from using "ideology + vague promises" to the "specific projects" method would be a revolution that would translate into drastic changes in political style and communication.
Relying on instinct, calculation, tradition and personal expertise, the politicians are preparing to take their perennial campaign to the Italian people. But this time they may well have been mistaken in their calculations. As evidence from the polls suggests, the discredit suffered by the political class has exceeded the warning threshold. A radical change in communication style may well be the only way out. In addition, it may have a reassuring effect on the rest of the world, looking on from outside.
What they may lose in proposing projects that might displease their potential voters – and thus cost them votes – they may win back by forging an image of seriousness and rigour. It is precisely the lack of seriousness and rigour that everyone is reproaching the political class for today. Besides, a campaign based on specific, competing projects will let voters grasp which forces are most credible for continuing the policy of consolidation.
The global crisis, as it’s being drummed into us all day long, is forcing us, if we want to survive, to change many of our habits. It’s time for the political class to change theirs.