TOPICS > Politics

The Italian Election

May 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Joining us now for analysis of Italy’s new prime minister are: Mario Calvo-Platero, U.S. editor of the Milan Financial Daily Il Sole 24 Ore; Daniel Serwer, who was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Rome from 1990-93, and before that its economics minister. He’s now with the U.S. Institute of Peace; and, Alexander Stille, author and journalist, who writes frequently about Italy, the country where his father was born. He is the author of “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic”.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Serwer, “colorful” doesn’t seem to quite capture Silvio Berlusconi. Tell us a little bit about him.

DANIEL SERWER: He’s certainly the triumph of image and popular appeal over the traditions of Italian politics. Italy was once known as a partitocracy, a country run by parties. It wasn’t run by colorful personalities like this. This election seems to have ended that and created really something quite new for the Italians and Americans are quite familiar with this kind of politics.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Stille, what’s your take on Silvio Berlusconi?

ALEXANDER STILLE: Well I think he’s an extremely telegenic and charismatic figure. I think the problem is not really with his programs, which are fairly standard conservative programs of cutting taxes and limiting government; the problem is represented, I think, by the exceptional situation of a man who owns the three largest private television networks and will now control the three large public networks which gives him effectively control over 90 percent of the television audience. The other problems are posed by some of the things you mentioned in your film segment, which are the fact that he is the criminal defendant in a number of rather important investigations, which are very serious and should be allowed to proceed without interference, and it’s very difficult to understand how someone can both be a criminal defendant and rewrite the Italian penal code, how they can help Italy become a modern economy and own significant portions of the private economy.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Platero, you were home in Italy for the election. Give us a sense of how he is viewed by people who cast votes in this election, how someone with all of these issues that we’ve just had outlined, how he came to win.

MARIO CALVO-PLATERO: Well, as you can imagine all of these issues have been part for months of the political debate in Italy. For years, probably, Mr. Berlusconi was a prime minister and then lost his coalition and basically had to leave his position, so Italy has been very familiar for quite a while with his problems and potential conflict of interest, so these are facts and issues that are being discovered now presumably by the large international public because he’s been elected.

But the mood in Italy at this point is to look beyond this. Even the opposition party leaders have declared that the elections have been perfectly legitimate and the people are those that go to vote and not newspapers like the economists that may be less familiar with some of the issues than the Italian people. So the Italian people are now looking forward and hoping that he will do what is promised and keep his word.

GWEN IFILL: Were the elections as raucous and chaotic as they seemed to be from us looking at this distance.

MARIO CALVO-PLATERO: I’m afraid they were. I’m afraid they were. There were huge lines. That was one of the consequences of trying to cut expenses, so they decided to cut from 60,000 polls to 30,000 so that created huge lines. And the polls were supposed to be closed at 10:00. I think in the Southern Italy, the last voter exited the poll at 5:00 AM, but everybody got a chance to vote in the end even if it was rather strange and tiring.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Serwer, as we just saw, Silvio Berlusconi made a lot of promises, a lot of very optimistic promises. What is the likelihood that he can begin to even keep them?

DANIEL SERWER: I think it’s going to be difficult. Italy has a tight budgetary situation. He’s promised to increase expenditure and cut taxes. That’s also a message that might be familiar to us. But Italy has a lot less flexibility also because it has to stay within Europe and within the rules of the new European currency, the Euro. I think really the flexibility is quite limited, and he’s going to have a rough time delivering everything.

GWEN IFILL: How different is this Belusconi reign going to be from the 1994 when he was in office for seven months and then gone?

DANIEL SERWER: Well, it looks like he’s in office in a much more solid way this time. His coalition is together in a way that it wasn’t previously. And he doesn’t apparently depend on the votes from Umberto Bossi, the Italian political leader who withdrew his support and caused the last Berlusconi government to fall. I think we’re about to see probably the strongest Italian political leader in a long time, maybe since Mussolini.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Stille, what’s your reaction to that? Do you think he has a potential to be a very strong political leader in Italy?

ALEXANDER STILLE: Yes, I think so. I think as Daniel mentioned, he enters power this time with a much stronger majority and clearly with the validation of the Italian public. I think that doesn’t entirely do away with the problems that he’s likely to encounter in the day-to-day governing when through the problem of conflict of interest. It’s almost impossible for Berlusconi to take any measure without, in some way, either benefiting or damaging his own private interests.

GWEN IFILL: Because he owns the television stations, the newspaper.

ALEXANDER STILLE: But also financial companies and so forth. The previous government, for example, took, made a law that limited discounting of books to 15 percent below the cover price. If that had been done by Berlusconi’s government, immediately there would have been accusations of self-dealing. Many people have discussed the need to privatize part of the state TV empire. That would be very difficult for Berlusconi as the owner of the three private stations to oversee that process.

GWEN IFILL: What should he do to overcome the potential for conflict of interest?

ALEXANDER STILLE: I think the example actually was set by the Bush administration. Everyone in the Bush administration from the President and the Vice President on down sold all of their private interests and all of their stock and stock options on coming in to power. I think the norm there was that serving in government is a great privilege and that there should be no suspicion that your public actions are in some way benefiting your private interest. I think that should be anything short of total divestment of all of his holdings would leave him open to the problem of conflict of interest. And this, I think, should be the standard as opposed to a kind of fake divestment of the kind that Berlusconi has engaged in in the past. He was, for example, obliged by a previous antitrust law to sell the daily newspaper based in Milan. He, quote unquote, sold it to his brother and it remains essentially a Berlusconi newspaper and he’s vehemently in favor of Berlusconi and his party.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Platero, what about Mr. Berlusconi’s politics? There have been so many questions raised about, for instance his first congratulatory phone call came from York Heider from Austria who was condemned by the European Union for his right wing views. And he has other internal domestic political ties of the same sort. Do you think that that’s something that would dog him?

MARIO CALVO-PLATERO: In a way, yes. But for different reasons. The problem is that some of the smaller parties in his coalition are old-style right- wing parties. And we have many of those in Europe; we have them in France. We have them in Germany that are very much in favor of statism, of state ownership. So they will resist some of the measures that Mr. Berlusconi would like to bring forward. But the fact that he has got quite a strong majority will probably give him much more of a hand than he had in the past. And some of those parties also have evolved. So the policies will be tried. We have to see and watch whether he’s going to be able to succeed. He’s always said that being as rich as he is, his only objective is to try to make Italy better. So, you know, we have to see now if he’s going to do it for sure.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Serwer, what about these outstanding corruption charges, which still are pending still have not been resolved?

DANIEL SERWER: Well, I think that could cause him serious problems if some of them are resolved in a way that makes him guilty in the final court of appeals, which is the way the Italian system works. You’re not guilty until the last court has decided. But, look, this is certainly a threat to decency but it’s not a threat to democracy. Italy has strong democratic institutions — even this problem that Alexander refers to of his ownership of a vast business empire, I agree, there is no avoiding conflict of interest as long as he owns that. But that can be dealt with through the Italian institutions well, it seems to me. Something interesting has happened within Italy, but I don’t think the United States or even other Europeans should be terribly concerned about it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Stille, from the U.S. point of view we look at this election and we think 58 different changes of government since World War II. Why does it happen that way in Italy?

ALEXANDER STILLE: Well, I think first of all that figure can be a little misleading because there actually is an election every five years to elect a new parliament. Many of these governments are governments that are patched together that are essentially similar to the ones that precede them. I suspect the center left government that ruled for the last five years had two or even three different governments but it was basically the same team in place. I expect that you’ll see that here too. But it’s true that there’s an enormous amount of instability as a result of the Italian constitution that was put into place after World War II. There was great fear of the return of fascism and fear of the strong man who would dominate the political scene. So they put into place a proportional electoral system, which led to a large number of parties and a lot of fragile coalitions that would quickly fall apart. People have been working to try to, there was a reform of this in 1993, and the current electoral system that was just used seems to be producing a slightly more stable kind of majority than we’ve seen. There are still proposals out there to reform it further, but at the moment I think, and Berlusconi himself and his principal partner of the national alliance, have proposals out there to promote a kind of presidential system giving more power to the executive.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Platero, what do you think will be the outcome of this instability on this new prime minister?

MARIO CALVO-PLATERO: Well, I think that he, you know, I think that we should think in terms of what Italy is. I mean one should not forget that Italy is the fifth largest industrial country in the world that has quite a solid system, that there is a president of the republic, who was elected two years ago by the parliament who is a very solid person and a great guarantor. He will certainly provide the underlying stability that is needed both to protect Mr. Berlusconi from political attacks that could be related from his conflict of interest and the opposition or the Italian people from Mr. Berlusconi taking advantage of his position. So we have a bit of a guarantee over there. Go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: I was just going to say thank you very much. We’re out of time. Thank you for joining us.