This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 6, 1996
Italian Left Victorious
Could cautious, mild-mannered Romano Prodi really be an Italian political leader? Italy's politics are so colorful, so chaotic, so unpredictably fun. This is a country that has elected a porn star to parliament and had to ban cellular phones from the floor of the Chamber of Deputies. Silvio Berlusconi, Prodi's main opponent, campaigned mostly on television (he owns three networks), haranguing his vast army of enemies while ducking questions about his own indictment for bribery. Prodi conducted his campaign from a bus. His slogan was "The Italy That We Want" - which isn't any catchier in Italian. He is an economics professor, of all things. But perhaps it was time for safe, stodgy leadership. On April 21, Italians signalled that they wanted the 56-year-old academic to be their next prime minister.
By a narrow but seemingly secure margin, Prodi's centre-left coalition defeated media mogul Berlusconi's centre-right group - and brought Italy to a turning point. Post-Second World War politics had spun on one main axis: the search by right-wing parties for a power-sharing alignment that would keep the Communists out of office. For 50 years, through 54 governments, they succeeded. Last week, the bespectacled Il Professore finally brought the Communists in from the cold. In the so-called Olive Tree coalition, Prodi almost alone is the centre; the left is composed largely of reconstructed former Communists. And Prodi's majority will probably depend on the 35 unreconstructed members of the Communist Refoundation - a party of ideologically pure Marxists.
Yet as Olive Tree supporters jammed the piazzas in celebration, the sight of some Italians victoriously waving the red-flagged hammer and sickle set off no alarms. The financial markets did not even shiver. The lira hit a 16-month high against the German mark, and the Italian stock market jumped 4.9 per cent the next day. There seemed to be a consensus that the reformed Communists are truly reformed, and that Prodi will keep Italy on its current path of deficit-cutting and political reform. Said Isidoro Albertini, a leading Italian financial dealer: "It is the first time that the left is going into power, and I don't think it will squander this historic occasion lightly."
In the end, the traditional reluctance of this Catholic country to elect Communists to government may have been overwhelmed by the Olive Tree's composed and competent style, a sharp contrast to Berlusconi's raucous persona. "Be calm," were reportedly Prodi's first words to advisers upon news of his win, and he boasts the kind of pedigree - stints at Harvard and the London School of Economics - that bankers and industrialists love. As well, the Olive Tree includes Lamberto Dini, a smooth onetime central banker who became caretaker prime minister in early 1995 after Berlusconi's eight-month-old government collapsed under the weight of corruption investigations and political infighting. "For the international markets, Dini represents the kind of technical competence Italy needs so much," said Frankfurt merchant banker Harald Schmidlin. A desperate Berlusconi, on the other hand, resorted to promises to slice the 12 per cent unemployment rate in half and balance the budget, all while cutting taxes.
It was a fanciful platform. Italy's budget deficit amounts to a bloated 7.4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (Canada: 3.4 per cent). The government is legally prevented from raising Italy's already high taxes any further to tackle budget overruns. Prodi is also committed to European monetary integration, in which the entry ticket is a three-per-cent deficit. "Italy outside Europe is lost," said Prodi after his victory, but Italy inside Europe faces deep spending cuts - and the social pain that goes with them.
Prodi insisted last week that the mandate gave him a chance to govern for five uninterrupted years, allowing him time to undertake the needed reforms. But he still depends on the Communist Refoundation for his majority in Italy's lower house. And Refoundation Leader Fausto Bertinotti - a charismatic, outspoken politician in the true Italian mold - is a wild card. Last week, he remained cagey about his demands, letting Prodi try to form a government but warning that "its lifespan depends on its capacity to compromise with us." That may be difficult. While Prodi pledges to rein in spending, Bertinotti's priority is to reinstate the indexing of public service wages to inflation, currently 4.5 per cent.
Such obvious contradictions have already sent the Olive Tree in search of another possible ally - Umberto Bossi's Northern League, which did better than expected at the polls. Bossi is another outspoken and unpredictable leader. His cause is the outright secession of northern Italy. Olive Tree politicians sounded him out by suggesting Italy could become a federal state with more autonomy for the north, though no one knows if that will satisfy Bossi. "Italians want serenity," was Prodi's own analysis of why he won, but the road ahead looks as wild as ever.
Maclean's May 6, 1996