Trying to explain Italian politics is not easy.
First you need to know something of the Italian electoral system.
To vote you have to be 18 years old for all elections except the Senate and for that you have to be 25. Berlusconi’s party, under pressure from a minor coalition member, invented a new proportional voting system known as the “Porcellum”, or in other words a pig of a law. This means that Italians do not vote directly for their local or regional representatives as in other countries but vote for a list prepared by each political party. The number of persons elected from each list depends on the list achieving a minimum quota of votes which are then distributed proportionally to each list.
The effect of the “Porcellum” is to guarantee that the leaders of each list are elected, or at least if the list reaches the minimum quota. For this reason Italy has a proliferation of parties that has the undesirable effect of creating unstable government due to shifting coalitions. It has also led to a cult of leadership in Italian politics in part because of the huge power it invests in political leaders. An unscrupulous leader is able to control the list in such a way as to give prized political positions in exchange for favours of a political, financial or sexual nature. He also has the power to remove from the list anyone with whom he disagrees. This leads to an autocratic government with a bunch of yes men and women filling most of the seats. A good example of this is how Berlusconi led the country to the brink of ruin whilst passing a multitude of laws to benefit his enterprises and protect him from prosecution for various accusations of wrong doing. A high place on the list of a political party is quite lucrative in terms of salary and benefits accruing to Italian politicians. After only two and a half years of “service” they are able to claim a life-time pension with reversibility to their wives after their death. The national and regional politicians don’t even campaign very much locally as campaigns are conducted on a national or regional basis by the leaders.
Italian politicians are the best money can buy.
To start off political parties are “refunded” electoral expenses with little or no control of how the funds were spent. In fact political parties have accumulated astonishing levels of assets and cash. To give you an idea this is the list of public funding to the principal political parties from 1994 to 2012:
Popolo della Libertà (Berlusconi): 1 billion euro (916,536,489.85 €)
Lega Nord: 120 million euro (120,260,237.37 €)
UDC: 120 million euro (121,396,272.24 €)
Partito Democratico: 760 million euro (759,599,659.64 €)
Italia dei Valori: 50 million euro (53,305,757.75 €)
In 2012 Italy had 630 members in the national lower house and 315 Senators. Other than enjoying a high salary they also benefit from an interminable list of privileges. For some even that is not enough and many have been prosecuted for graft and corruption of one form or another.
In regional government there were 1,117 members. The regions are a little like states in other countries and have responsibility for main roads, health, schools etc. Their income varies from region to region but the total of salary and “expenses” varies between about €10,000 and €18,000 per month. To this has to be added a benefit that is paid at the end of each term of office. This alone can amount to an additional €4,000 for each month of service. Again they can claim a lifetime pension after only 30 months of service, half a normal term of office. As with the national politicians many have been charged with corruption and Mafia associations.
Each Region is divided into Provinces. The provinces have responsibility for the provincial roads, transport, school buildings, etc. Given the condition of the regional roads they don’t do a very good job.
The provinces have a total of 4,000 elected members at a total salary and allowances cost of about €113 million euro a year, an average of €2,350 each to which you have to add reimbursement of “expenses”. The average salary for the provincial presidents is €5,130 each plus expenses. Many of these representatives do very little work and some of the politicians in the higher positions receive incredible salaries and allowances. One search of the internet reveals an example of €13,353 euro a month for a politician that only attended 20 sittings and others who receive as much as €16,000 a month. It has recently come to light that several are claiming two salaries because they hold two positions. Naturally there have been many accusations of corruption at the provincial level too.
Finally we have 8,094 mayors of local councils. Their income depends on the number of inhabitants but they are also entitled reimbursement of expenses
Next are the principal players in the national elections.
Berlusconi is well known to the rest of the world as a TV magnate who has made an incredible fortune by gaining dominance at a time when Italian frequency licensing laws were vague, to say the least. In at least one case he simply occupied a frequency that had been allocated to a competitor, a case that was never resolved. Where he managed to raise the funds to elevate himself from the status of a cruise ship entertainer to the richest man in Italy has never been fully explained. Naturally his dominance of television is not only a conflict of interest that no other country would allow but allows him to influence the thinking and attitudes of a large proportion of the population. He has regained a huge number of votes by promising to abolish and repay an unpopular property tax levied by Monti government. He has claimed this will be funded by taxing hidden funds of Italian citizens in Swiss Banks. An idea the Swiss have stated to be virtually impossible.
He is most famous around the world for his political gaffs, his jokes in bad taste, and his sexual exploits. He is currently, amongst other legal problems, being prosecuted in sex scandal involving a then underaged girl of Moroccan extraction. This alone would prohibit any person from standing in politics in any other country. Despite all this he achieved 29.1% of the vote and still has the highest numbers in the Senate.
Pier Luigi Bersani is the leader of the Democratic Party, really the left of Italian politics. They have gained about 29.5% of the vote narrowly beating Berlusconi in the lower house. Bersani, and his party, are probably the most honest and least corrupt in Italian politics. Unfortunately, like all left wing parties, they are somewhat captive to the trade unions and therefore unable to bring about much needed reforms in the labour laws. Bersani, undoubtedly able and intelligent, is not a charismatic figure and this has, in part, led to the much lower than expected vote. He will probably be replaced by Matteo Renzi, an up and coming young leader who has achieved great popularity.
Beppi Grillo is a dangerous populist politician and failed comic. There is absolutely nothing funny about him. Grillo has toured the country screaming abuse against all in power. He has no idea of what to do only to criticise those who are in power. Certainly there is a lot to criticise and he has gained 25% of the vote from those that want to register their protest. He is a politician who stands against all politicians, certainly a contradiction. Grillo and his “5 Star” movement are unlikely to ally with any other group and will no doubt gain more than proportional influence by controlling the balance of power between the major parties. He strongly wants to reduce the number of politicians and reduce the benefits that politicians receive. At least this is a much needed reform that has gained him a great deal of popularity amongst those who wish to protest the current system. Personally I see this as being very difficult to achieve: when has any politician ever voted against their own benefits. He is not by any means a democrat and rules his party with an iron hand expelling anyone who voices disagreement on his methods. All in all a very unpleasant character.
Mario Monti is a lifetime senator who is not himself standing for election but is supported by a group which has gained 10% of the vote. He was called by the President to form and emergency government when Berlusconi had nearly led the country to ruin. His harsh economic measures have saved the economy but made him unpopular. His year in government had regained a great deal of respect internationally. He originally had no intention to create a political group but his hand was forced by the re-entry of Berlusconi into contention (probably yet another attempt by Berluscani to escape legal problems).
In addition to the above main contenders there are a number of minor groups. The end result is that no-one has won the election and we will have a government, with an unstable coalition in the lower house and a hostile senate, that will be lucky to last 6 months. One can only hope that this time they will be able to force through a change in the electoral laws that will lead to more stable future government.
Disclaimer: Naturally all of the above is my opinion only and any names mentioned are fictitious. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.