Thursday, 29 January 2015

Italian Presidential Elections and Some Wider Implications

Italy begins the process of electing its president today.  At 3pm the grandi elettori gather in the equivalent of the Commons:  senators, deputies of the Lower House, life senators (including former president Napolitano) and representatives of the Italian regions who are themselves Party members of most of the major parties in the Parliament.  There are 1009 of them, 58 from the regions.  On the first three ballots a two thirds majority is required for election - 673 votes.  From the fourth ballot  505 votes suffice.

The inconvenience of the two thirds majority is usually overcome by major parties voting blank on the first three ballots; then they get down to it.  Matteo Renzi has stated that the Partito Democratico's candidate is Sergio Mattarella, a distinguished judge of the constitutional court.  Well, after the Napolitano disgraceful and unconstitutional years that sounds just the job.  He won't be pushing into what is none of his business and may even undo the damage of a rampaging egoist and European Union fanatic warping the basis of Italian democracy.

Unfortunately the rampaging egoist etc., is working away, despite retirement, to replace himself with Giuliano Amato - the author of every major European Treaty: from Lisbon to Rome Amato and his committee have dotted every i, crossed every t.  He has as well a certain reputation as Craxi's man and even now that isn't lived down easily.  Craxi who fled the country and spent the rest of his life in Tunisia.  Which brings us to Berlusconi.  Not, of course, a socialist, and not fled, but convicted and determined to have that conviction lifted (and who can blame him, hounded from office by threats of prosecution and public shaming when he threatened Italy's commitment to Europe-ever-closer...) 

Berlusconi has been in alliance with Renzi throughout Renzi's administration - to the fury of the old CP sections of the Partito Demcratico not least because the alliance across the political divide of centre left and centre right deprive them of all power. (What a pity Blair never allied with Conservative forces against the Brown/Balls/ Miliband tendency).  Berlusconi's price for agreeing to Mattarella is his re-admittance, formally, into political life; he's been banned for some years so necessarily his style is hampered, acting from the back with proxies who tend to get above themselves.  Mattarella, being the man he is, doesn't look the sort of president to hand out pardons to tax-evaders.  So the lifting of Berlusconi's judicial shadows is going to have to come from Renzi and his administration.  And that is going down very badly in the PD, who made 'hating Berlusconi' their mode of being, their only political purpose, for years. (Yes, silly, wasteful, irrelevant but the Left usually is).

Provision has been made, by tagging a special little clause to a much bigger piece of legislation, that gets Berlusca in the clear; but Renzi has put back the vote until after the presidential election.  Anyone can imagine the fury on the Left as the Prime Minister drains power further into his hands.  Napolitano gone and replaced by a severe constitutionalist who will retreat into the proper conduct of the office of president; Berlusconi absolved yet remaining in alliance even though he has been forced to accept a president of the Right who is not his first choice;  the office of prime minister strengthened  by the ending of perfect bi-cameralism and the stripping of power from the Senate; and, most of all, a prime minister no longer answerable to a disloyal Party (at least in large part) and undisturbed by inappropriate Presidential intervention.

It's not just Greece that is challenging  northern European austerity and the imposition of damaging economic and fiscal policies on other parts of the Union.  Renzi has had to sort out his own backyard first but he's nearly there  - then there's  hope he can bring some of the sillier, even dangerous, European ascendency to heel.


Edward Spalton said...

One begins to,appreciate the advantages of constitutional monarchy ever more keenly.

hatfield girl said...

And the advantage of being at the flexible end of the uncodified/codified constitution spectrum too, ES. They can't even keep to their own rules either.

Imagine the distastefulness of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the heads of the larger local councils of the UK acting as our representatives in choosing our head of state. And a head of state who , by rule, must be one of the Great and the Good. Not to mention the expressions of self- satisfaction and claimed political and social high moral status as they do it.

Even then half of them are pushing to shift power into the hands of the president of the country (like France, they say dishonestly) and away from the prime minister and parliament who at least we get to vote for directly. But, then we're not trusted to know our own good, or our own minds.

Edward Spalton said...

A British-style, monarchy can work quite well with a codified constitution too. In Australia the Labour government of Gough Whitlam tried to overthrow the constitution because the Senate ( which had more or less the power of the House of Lords before the Parliament Act of 1910) would not vote supply. Unlike the Lords, the Senate had democratic legitimacy and chose to exercise its powers under the constitution. Whitlam tried to tough it out, issuing government IOUs because he had no money.

The Queen in Australia, in the person of Her Governor General Sir John Kerr, decided that this could not go on and used his power to declare a double dissolution of both Houses so that the people could decide the matter in a general election.

In prima Donna fashion Whitlam resigned as Prime Minister and would not act as caretaker. On the principle that " The Queen's government must go on" the Governor General appointed the leader of the opposition to act as caretaker.

Of course the Labour Party tried to crack this up as a Cavaliers versus Roundheads scenario but the people took a different view. Essentially it was an attempted Labour coup against States' rights by the federal government.

Sir John Kerr did take advice but only within Australia, principally from the Lord Chief Justice. Of course, a great deal depends on the personality of the office holder but I wonder what HMQ might have done with the transfer of powers to the EU ( arguably treasonable according to precedents and statutes in force at the time) if she had the firm framework of a codified constitution to rely on.

hatfield girl said...

While dissolving the Parliament to hold elections to decide directly 'who rules Australia?' was sensible, I believe the appointment of the Leader of the Opposition as prime minister to be to say the least, contentious, ES. It has caused longstanding (and un-ended) bitterness.

Not knowing the Constitution of Australia I would say most tentatively that there must be provision that is less politically questionable for the maintenance of a caretaker government during the unavailability of the exiting government's leader and previous PM. Had the Australian Labour Party no internal rules to cover the unavailability of their Leader either?

Australia's Constitution may be more codified than some but I'm not sure Australia 1973 is a good example of following the rules, and certainly not the spirit. Nor do I feel that had the Queen been acting, rather than her representative, such a very political and interventionist action would have occurred. It is very much this kind of head-of-state-getting-out-of-their-cage that has troubled Italian democracy since Napolitano's accession.

But as I don't know Australian history or politics or Constitution very well......

Edward Spalton said...

I really don't see how the conflict could have been avoided when there was a prime minister and a party determined to overthrow the constitution - and to withhold co-operation in the caretaker phase to try to prevent the people making a decision. The point was that it all worked and solved the problem.

Many people in Britain feel that the Queen somehow let them down by not acting as a constitutional backstop when parliament voted to join the then EEC without MPs ever having had a chance to peruse the treaty. Incredibly they signed a blank cheque!

Since the Parliament Act there has been no effective check or balance on the power of a Prime Minister who commands a Commons majority. He holds all the Crown prerogative power in his pocket.

I think the Parliament Act was actually 1911 . The election which decided it was in 1910. It is a story handed down in our family that my grandfather decked his pony and trap in Tory colours and was pelted through the streets of Liberal Derby. Feelings ran high. Even so, the passing of the Act relied on the votes of Irish Nationalist MPs (then sitting in Westminster) to pass. England voted against.

Caronte said...

"the PD, who made 'hating Berlusconi' their mode of being, their only political purpose, for years. (Yes, silly, wasteful, irrelevant but the Left usually is)."

You cannot possibly love a convicted criminal with mafia connections, tax evader on a massive scale, corrupter of judges-witnesses-minors-senators-MPs, a fraudster who by falsified balance sheets swindled his fellow shareholders in companies controlled by him, who got away with his crimes by getting special ad personam laws passed by his governments, an authoritarian TV and press near-monopolist who used his position to spread lies and false promises, not to mention his monumental and crass vulgarity.

The PD (including Renzi) was indeed silly, wasteful and irrelevant, but for coming to terms with him, not for opposing him. He epitomizes the worst spirit of Italy. The Left just did not hate him enough.