Politicians fight over Italy's soul

Voters long to embrace new ideals, writes Andrew Gumbel in Rome, but the old system still dominates today's election
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The Independent Online
"Few revolutions succeed," wrote the Italian Renaissance thinker Francesco Guicciardini, "and when they do, you often discover they did not gain what you hoped for, and you condemn yourself to perpetual fear, as the parties you defeated may always regain power and work for your ruin."

Anyone wondering why Italy is bothering to hold a general election today, when the country's politics are in turmoil and show signs of staying that way for the foreseeable future, would do well to heed the wise Florentine's words. Although written more than 400 years ago, they neatly encapsulate the state of uncertainty wracking modern Italy.

What is going on, four years after the corruption scandals that swept away the old political order, is nothing less than a struggle for the country's soul. It is not a straight contest between left and right, but rather between an old Italy, that the country has seemingly rejected, and a new one that is yet to be fully defined.

The old Italy was a baroque structure of clientelism, backhanders and interests defined exclusively by the exigencies of power. The new Italy, in the idealistic terms used during the campaign, will be clean, efficient and modern, offering genuine public services and tying its strategic interests closely to the north European mainstream.

The problem is that every political party, indeed the whole political system, is steeped in the old ways. The left is still weighed down by the heritage of the Italian Communist Party, whose sins were less about ideology than they were about unhealthy collusion in the old Christian Democrat-led system; now, the new centre-left coalition has accentuated that connection by embracing a broad swathe of centrist Catholic parties and interest groups. It looks a bit like the "historic compromise" between Communists and Christian Democrats that failed to take off in the mid- Seventies.

The centre-right, meanwhile, is led by Silvio Berlusconi, who claims to be a new broom but owes his previous career as an entrepreneur and media magnate largely to his friendship with Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former Socialist Party leader, now living as a fugitive from justice in Tunisia. His partners include a large number of former Christian Democrats as well as a reformed version of the neo-fascist party - a group that rightly claims to have been largely excluded from the old order, but almost certainly deserved to be.

Mr Berlusconi has demonised his opponents as crypto-communists on the one hand, and as compromise-prone muddlers on the other. The centre-left, meanwhile, has suggested that Mr Berlusconi's taste for decisiveness indicates a worrying authoritarian tendency inherited, in part, from his old friend Mr Craxi, and that his coalition is far more right-wing than most voters could stomach.

There are elements of the old and the new in both sides. What voters must decide is which coalition stands the best chance of making a genuinely progressive leap into the future. If they get it right, Italy can hope to put the worst of its byzantine political past behind it; if they get it wrong, or an inconclusive result protracts this period of uncertainty, there are signs that all the old corruption and double-dealing could make a comeback.

In his brief period in government, Mr Berlusconi stuffed the public broadcasting service with his own appointees and waged war on the magistrates pursuing him and his business empire for tax fraud and other corruption charges. He has fought this campaign almost exclusively on television, which has given full vent to his skills as a communicator while failing to stretch him on the detail of his programme.

The centre-left's leadership seems less questionable, and its commitment to grassroots campaigning has been far stronger, but there are signs among some of its candidates of a cynical, self-serving political style.One candidate admitted to me quite happily that he considered his southern constituency politically and economically doomed, and that he would hand out all the favours he could (such as turning a blind eye to tax evasion among key local businessmen) to ensure political support.

The problem in the end may be more about the political system. In 1993, Italian voters opted to do away with their proportional electoral system in favour of a largely first-past-the-post one. But the reform has more than doubled the number of parties in parliament and has failed to create a viable governing majority. Perhaps most seriously, it has squeezed out the moderate right-wing, leaving conservative voters to choose between the centre-left against all their traditional instincts, or opting for the excessively radical right of Mr Berlusconi and the reformed neo-fascists.

The country now finds itself in a classic paradox: it won't get a better system without a government stable enough to carry out effective reform, but it won't get a stable government without a better system.