January 24th, 2007 06:23 EST
On January 18th, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi received an honorary degree in political sciences at Milan’s Catholic University. However, he also had to deal with young protesters all day long. Lorenzo Ornaghi, rector of Milan’s Catholic University, awarded the political leader for his efforts to build the European Union. Mr. Prodi, during his term of office as President of the European Commission, always tried to convince everyone that unity was the way to go. He has been one of the most convinced supporters of the euro-- the official currency that 12 European countries have been using since 2002 (plus Slovenia that adopted the currency on January 1, 2007). Worldwide, the “Professor”-- as Mr. Prodi is sometimes called-- is known as a fervent backer of Europeanism.
Mr. Prodi now leads the left-wing coalition, which is governing Italy. He won last April’s elections, defeating TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi (outgoing Premier back then), but only for as little as 7,000 votes. Last year’s elections clearly showed how divided and torn the country is. Despite his previous attempt of putting together a stable majority back in 1996 (ended with the fall of the government after the communists’ leader Fausto Bertinotti took his party’s backing away from it), Mr. Prodi decided to try again, and won. Fausto Bertinotti is President of the Chamber of Deputies, and Prodi’s coalition looks, in fact, a little stronger and more united than it was ten years ago, although internal disputes and conflicts never really rest. However, the leader of the opposition, Silvio Berlusconi, never accepted his enemy’s victory and keeps contesting the Government’s legitimacy. In addition, here is the main difference between Left and Right in Italy.
While right parties are able to stick together and act in perfect unison, inner fights and bitterness have always damaged the Italian Left. That is history. That is also why Democrazia Cristiana (a conservative party supported by the Vatican, which started its decay in the early Nineties) was able to rule the country for almost fifty years. Communists and socialists never have gotten to unite their efforts to overcome their common rival’s power. Today, it is exactly the same. Moreover, if this were not obvious enough, Mr. Berlusconi declared a “media war” against Prodi’s government and brought the protest on the streets of Italy. A few months ago, he organized an enormous demonstration in Rome which over a million people attended. He has repeatedly asked for thousands of ballots to be counted again, alleging that Prodi’s coalition stole decisive votes in April 2006. Silvio Berlusconi is a picturesque character, the quintessence of Italianity. His record is not exactly immaculate: he was charged with corruption during his premiership and he is even accused of having questionable ties with mafia. It is legitimate to wonder how he became one the richest men on Earth starting with nothing. Instead, Mr. Berlusconi uses this issue as a weapon, as something to brag about, claiming that people can trust him because he is a self-made man and he knows what he is doing. His most useful and developed skill is certainly communication. He is a people person.
Thanks to his ability to speak to Italians, Mr. Berlusconi is managing to push thousands of people to join the protests against Romano Prodi, who is having samples of this mobilization in every place he goes. The Prime Minister finds demonstrators anywhere, at any time. He even met them at the Motor show in Bologna, his hometown. More recently, he met them in Milan’s Catholic University, where he was invited to give a lecture and receive an honorary degree. The same university he graduated from was the place where he was contested the most. Even protests were led the Italian way, obviously. Demonstrators hurled insults, screamed, waved banners and booed. Everybody had something to complain about. Young right-oriented protesters lamented so many issues it was inevitable to read the whole thing as a direct attack against Mr. Prodi. Truth be told, in the last year the Government gave people many reasons to be angry: an unpopular amnesty, for example, or the hugely unpopular financial act for 2007 (which raises taxes). Prodi’s coalition promised to find a solution to the problem of what in Italy are called “coppie di fatto”. In English, it could be translated with “actual couples”. This issue involves a big range of situations and conditions, but it can be explained in a simplified way: Italy does not recognize people who live together but are not married. A law must be enacted to protect the rights of people simply living together, for instance. This created an immense uproar, since such a law would let gay couples ask their own rights to be considered. Italy is not a bulwark for civil rights, and is known to be very conservative. A raging fight against PACS (Civil PAct of Solidarity that would in practice allow civil unions) started a couple of years ago and it is still going on.
When he was Prime Minister, there were many reasons to be angry with Mr. Berlusconi, as well... maybe more than now. As Premier, he did things that shouldn’t be done in a modern democracy, such as promulgating laws ad personam, prepared carefully to help himself and his friends... like the one allowing people to ask for another judge if they just assume the one who’s in front of them is actually an enemy of theirs. Mr. Berlusconi’s achievements were not many; he left the country broke and isolated from the rest of Europe, as a result of his foreign policy focused on pleasing Washington’s desires.
Mr. Prodi, on the other hand, understands how important Europe is for Italy’s future. Without the European Union and the euro, Italy would be even more troubled than it is now. It is, therefore, fundamental that it resumes and improves relations with Brussels-- without forgetting, that is-- its long friendship with the US.
Italy is going through a tough period, and it looks like there is no government, neither left nor right-oriented, that can save the nation from the precipice it is about to fall in. Berlusconi did badly, and Prodi is certainly not doing well. Nevertheless, why is Prodi booed everywhere he goes, while Berlusconi never was during his five years of bad ruling? There are two possible replies to this question. The first one would be that the Left was so weak that it could not even organize protests against the lousy government; the second one is that Berlusconi’s strict control over television networks prevented the media from covering unpleasant stories, such as booing demonstrators or raging crowds. It is difficult to decide which one of the options is the scariest.
Not all the people who booed Romano Prodi at the Catholic University, as rude as they may appear, should be blamed. They just emulate what their political role models actually do inside the Parliament. Italians see all the time on the news politicians with banners inside the Chamber of Deputies or at the Senate, booeing, yelling, hissing from the opposition seats. It was not like that when the Left sat at those benches.
Maybe the Professor is doing an awful job in Rome, or maybe it is too soon to tell whether his mandate is a failure or not. In any case, booers should understand that cooperating and proposing would be the right thing to do, instead of acting like those kids that tease dorks in high school.