02 August, 2006

An improvement on Berlusconi?

Rightly or wrongly, the Italian politician and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi is widely regarded as a corrupt buffoon who involved Italians in that mess in Iraq while doing nothing to help the economy. Berlusconi had already been prime minister once before, and he was so sure that he would win re-election that he said the Italians would surely not be such, uhm, "testicles" as to vote for the opposition. Italy voted out the center-right Berlusconi government a couple of months ago. The deciding factor came from Italians living abroad whom Berlusconi's government had empowered by a recent change in electoral law. Berlusconi apparently forgot that you have to campaign among those foreign voters, too. Had he done that, Berlusconi might still be prime minister.

(I should note that I have also read that the Italian right wing ran more candidates abroad than the left wing, so that the right wing vote was diluted in much the same way that some people argue Nader's 2000 campaign defeated Gore.)

The new prime minister is Roman Prodi. Perhaps I should say that he is the renewed prime minister, since he also served as prime minister once before. You can tell he's smarter than Berlusconi for two reasons: (1) Italians call him il Professore because he was once an professor of economics, who has taught at Harvard and Stanford, and (2) his coalition bothered to campaign among Italians living abroad. His coalition enjoys a small majority in Parliament.

Small as it is, that majority is larger than it would have been, thanks to a change in Italian election law made by Berlusconi's government and strenuously opposed by Prodi's opposition. The change guaranteed a certain minimum of seats to the coalition with a plurality of votes. The point was to guarantee a certain stability to Italian governments that they have, for the most part, lacked. (Ironically enough, Berlusconi's recent government had been the longest-serving in Italian history.) I believe Prodi's advantage went from ~49% of the vote to 55% of the seats, but don't quote me on that. I can't make head or tail of Italian election law.

To tell the truth, I can't make head or tail of any Italian law. I've been reading Italian newspapers off and on since the world cup, and apparently the latest big legislation passed by Prodi's government is popularly called l'indulto. If you spot the Latin root, it might remind you of the word indulgence: three years were removed from the sentences of those in jail. I read yesterday that the law effectively means that up to 20,000 prisoners will be released from some form of detention this year (around 13,000 or so from jail proper). This appears to include some violent types, but some criminals will not benefit. Child prostitution, child pornography, terrorism, banditry, and some other crimes. I read that mafiosi will not benefit — unless, I suppose, they are in jail for crimes that are not explicitly mafia crimes. (I mention this because Al Capone, the Chicago mafia boss, was never convicted of a real mafia crime; he served life in prison on account of tax evasion.)

However, the law doesn't appear to be working very well. Four of the prisoners released yesterday are already back in jail. A 45-year old was back in for breaking and entering (a pizzeria, of all places). A 32- and 28-year old are back in for, of all things, assaulting police officers. (They had celebrated, gotten drunk, and refused to show identification papers when approached.) Yet another tried to strangle his ex-wife. The first man released was a murderer. He appears to have stayed out so far, but one Italian procurator put it well:

Se e quando tutta questa gente tornerà a delinquere, torneremo ad arrestarla. È un bel gioco.
(If and when all these people return to crime, we will return to arresting them. It's a beautiful game.)

If you don't understand how this is an improvement over Berlusconi, welcome to Italy. Berlusconi continues to lead his coalition in opposition, barking constantly that Prodi's government will fall any day now. It doesn't sound as if Berlusconi has much confidence in the stability of the first government elected under his own electoral law.

(Disclaimer: Although everything I've written here is correct as I understand it, it's probably clear that I don't understand much at all. If you know of an error, by all means send a correction in the comments or via email.)

1 comment:

jack perry said...

Well, that was quick.

A clarification. The indulto enjoyed wide popularity in parliament, gaining large majorities in the House of Deputies. One motivation for the indult appears to be the disrepair of Italian jails (I found a comment to that effect).

A correction: Al Capone did not serve life in jail; he died at home. However, he was put away for a long time for tax evasion.