Giulio Sapelli on Who Governs in Italy

by Carlo Melato

Who governs in Italy? “Nobody does, ergo money governs.” Giulio Sapelli, Professor of History of Economics at the University of Milan, economist, intellectual, and free thinker of the Italian left, asserts this theory. His most recent book, Who Rules in Italy, analyzes the dynamic of power in a country where trust in the political system has never been as low as it is now. Recent local elections have seen the lowest level of participation in decades. Approximately one out of two voters participated in Rome’s mayoral election, and in the national election, no single party managed to reach a majority vote, largely due to a faulty electoral law.

This week, a Milan court found former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi guilty of paying for sex with a minor and abusing his office to cover it up, resulting in a seven-year jail sentence. Adding to the disillusionment of the Italian electorate is the fact that the former Prime Minister, who denies wrongdoing, is not required to leave his seat in Parliament while the case faces two rounds of appeals.

Politicians have refused to acknowledge the rage and frustration of the people who are suffering in an ongoing economic crisis that has drastically changed their way of life. It is in this current environment, caused by the myopic vision of the so-called “casta,” or privileged class, that the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) has become one of the most powerful parties in the nation. It has virtually the same support as Berlusconi’s Freedom Party (Popolo della Libertà) on the right, and just barely less than the support of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico) on the left.

Sapelli argues that the two pillars that support a modern polyarchy—one being democratic representation, and the other, a system of influencing public officials for personal interests—are collapsing. Political parties as Italians have known them no longer exist. Now, politicians are financed by powerful businessmen who have the means to assault political power in order to control some sectors of the state, such as energy and infrastructure. As a result, political power in Italy is extremely fragmented.

I sat down with Giulio Sapelli for a deeper discussion on these issues.

In your opinion, what are the consequences of a power vacuum in Italy?

Usually the result of this kind of process is military sovereignty, which is typical in Latin America. Fortunately, this can’t happen in Italy because it has always been a country with limited military power. Instead, there is a transformation of the judiciary to a real power that is a decisive determinant on the economy, politics, and culture. This is a phenomenon not seen anywhere else in Europe. Only in Pakistan have we seen elections dominated in this way, by judges who decide who can be a candidate and who cannot.

In your book you explain that this system of democratic polyarchy has been able to survive during a period of economic growth despite its limits. What do you think the future will bring in light of the ongoing economic crisis?

I believe that this system will not be able to hold up to this impending avalanche. If judges, for example, expropriate the most important steel company in the country, “Ilva,” the destiny of Italy will seem to have already been written. When Italy is no longer of strategic importance to the United States and when the American military leaves Aviano and Naples, this country may no longer have any role in the international scene and will become a conquered land.

How much of a chance does the big coalition government of Enrico Letta have to pick up the reins and prevent the scenario that you describe?

Regarding this point, I have to say that an interesting variable has come up. Giorgio Napolitano, President of Italy, was asked by all political parties to run again in spite of his advancing age, because they were not capable of finding an alternative candidate. He was elected for the second time. This move is unprecedented and probably goes beyond constitutional prerogative. It was, in fact, Napolitano who coerced the parties, by now toothless, to create this big coalition that we now have. Even if you don’t consider his subverting the law, this President is the last defense against the collapse of Italy, sustained by the United States and European nations, because the collapse of Italy would be inconvenient for them. The result is, without a doubt, new to the Italian political scene: the government is made up for the first time by an alliance between the right, Berlusconi’s party, and the left, the Democratic Party, which refused to be aligned with Grillo’s Five Stars Movement.

Is there a risk that the hopes for the success of the Letta government will be crushed, as it happened with the Monti government?

I don’t think so. The Monti government was formed by technocrats who proved to be incompetent almost immediately. This experiment of transforming technocrats into professional politicians failed. Despite the support of the national press, Monti had neither credibility nor prestige on the international scene. Instead, Enrico Letta is the leader of this great coalition government and a significant figure in the Democratic Party, in spite of his youth. We’ll see if he is capable of freeing Italy from the stranglehold in which it finds itself.

How can he accomplish this?

By creating an alliance with France, Spain, and all those countries who are paying the price of austerity that Germany has imposed on the European Union, thereby inhibiting economic growth. In my opinion, Germany’s austerity program is a recipe for disaster. I hope that the EU can demolish the totem of public debt and give birth to a new European Keynesian economic program.

Can you explain Silvio Berlusconi’s continuing influence on the Italian political scene, which is increasingly difficult for most outside observers to understand?

Let me point out that Italy is a southern European country, and in many ways it is more similar to Latin American countries than to its northern counterparts. What is happening with Berlusconi in Italy is comparable to what we have seen with Collor de Mello in Brazil and Alberto Kenya Fujimori in Peru, although in those cases it was much more dramatic. It is not as dramatic in Italy, because the resistance to Fascism in the last century has prevented the cult-like following of Bonaparte and Julius Caesar that we see in those countries.

One can say a lot of negative things about Berlusconi except that there was a regime during his time in power. There was more criticism than praise from the press, yet the silent majority voted for him. The Left in Italy needs to think seriously about this, because historically they represented the working class, small businesses, and entrepreneurs, and now they only represent those who work for the State.

About the Author

Carlo Melato is a Milan-based journalist. Among the newspapers, magazines, and online publications that publish his articles are L'Unità, About Pharma, Il Giornale, and Il Sole 24 Ore Radiocor. Carlo holds a degree in Political Science and International Relations from the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan.

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