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How Democracy Does not Work in Italy

Italy is, on paper at least, a constitutional democracy.

Expensive general elections are regular events in Italy mainly because governments don’t last too long.  While lots of votes may be cast, not all of them reflect the true desires of voters as many of them have been told who to vote for.

That votes have been pre-determined is what some Italians have suspected for a long while.  There’s some evidence to support the long held suspicions too.

In Italy elections aren’t rigged directly, even if some think this happens as well.  Instead, election results are largely determined beforehand. Candidates in Italy are selected by parties via a closed list system.  Rarely are candidates chosen by voters.  Primaries are very new in Italy.

Spoils System on Steroids

The political system in Italy more or less buys pre-votes.  While cash is not always used, the promise of favours often is.  It’s a spoils system on steroids.

“Vote for Pizza Party and I’ll give your company that multi-million Euro road building contract”, may well be a sentence which is uttered to a a good few business owners.

Said owner will then address his 500 or so employees, saying something like this: “Vote for Pizza Party, and you’ll have a job for the next five years”.

Employees then dutifully place a cross in the right place on voting cards, despite not knowing anything about Pizza Party or its members, some of whom have been convicted of fraud and corruption.

Multiply this effect by lots of companies and you can understand how Italy’s political parties just about know whether or not their candidate will be elected in a certain area before elections happen.

It’s not only contracts which are promised. Plenty of other ‘rewards’ are on offer. Here are but a few examples:

  • Paid seats on committees or ‘independent’ commissions.
  • Jobs in state TV.
  • Contracts for building official web sites.
  • Chairmanships of associations.

Play your cards right in Italian politics and you’ll end up raking in salaries from more than one position.

If a politician can control an appointment, it’ll be promised to someone or other in return for a good number of votes.  Networking in Italy’s political circles means acquiring the promise of lots of votes.

OK, so the same does happen in other nations, not just in Italy.  The labour party in the United Kingdom traditionally buttered up the unions in return for lots of votes.  In Italy, though, another organisation collects votes for political parties.

Mafia Election Campaign Services

If you read books on Italy’s many mafias, you read how organised crime is used to gather votes.  Such votes can be used to put a member of one of Italy’s criminal fraternities in local or national parliament, or simply to ensure a ‘friendly’ party ends up in Rome.

The politician, or politicians, who’ve been elected in this way will then see to it that friendly judges, policemen and others end up in handy positions.  This is how the mob managed to keep its members out of prison.   The situation has changed, but not much.  Ever noticed how Berlusconi’s PdL and Forza Italia always managed to collect so many votes in Sicily?

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Such is the influence of the Sicilian mafia on politics that it can determine the outcome of local elections.  Putting friends in the right places is child’s play.  The rot then spreads like a cancer.

The Pizza Party Example

Pizza Party – an invented name, in case you were wondering – ends up with seats in regional government in Sicily.  I’m using Sicily as an example, but the same system operates pretty much throughout Italy. So, Pizza Party members becomes councillors and find themselves in a positions where they can assign public works contracts.  Such contracts are awarded to companies controlled by organised crime.  Pizza Party members get a slice, the mafia takes a cut, as does the crooked businessman who runs the company awarded the contract.  Lots more public money than needs to be is blown on projects which go over budget, over and over again. Public spending in Italy rises, and then rises some more.

Meanwhile, the Pizza Party is busily appointing ‘friends’ and family to as many council positions as it can get away with. All these friendly personnel are paid generously with cash coming from unwitting taxpayers pockets and, quite probably, via ‘development’ funds from Europe.

Yes, my dear readers in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Holland, France and elsewhere in the European Union, your money may well have paid such salaries, and for the odd luxury yacht or two.  I’m sure this will make you feel very good.

The Same All Over Italy

As if this situation weren’t bad enough, in other parts of Italy, those chosen by political parties and voted in by tame voters, do the same.  Manipulation by organised crime is not always present, but even in northern Italy the mafia has been tinkering and ‘assisting’ at election time.  Stories of local councils being dissolved because of mob penetration crop up in Italy’s news quite often.

Connections Over Competence

Even where gangsters are not pulling strings, jobs and contracts are handed out to family and friends.  The individuals and businesses who land lucrative contracts don’t always bother doing much and are not always that competent either, so the return on investment for Italy’s honest taxpayers is minimal, if indeed there is any return at all.  Honest companies who could do a good job do not get a look in.  Only those who are prepared to grease palms do.

Opaque accounting, most probably done by ‘friendly’ accountants, ensures finding out how much money was spent on what is nigh on impossible for all but the most tenacious.  Those who pry may come to sticky ends if they find out too much.  Go count a few headstones in the cemeteries of Sicily.  You will discover that a few journalists have had their lives taken because they got too close to the rotten truth.  Killing pesky journalists tends to discourage other hacks from perusing the gentle art of investigative journalism in Italy.  The mafia kills strategically.

Read John Dickie’s Books

Does this all sound too far fetched?  If so, try reading John Dickie’s books on the history of the mafia.  Both Cosa Nostra, all about the history of the Sicilan mafia, and Mafia Brotherhoods, which looks at Sicilian mob, the origins of gangsters in Naples and the ruthless ‘ndrangeta mafia which began in Calabria and now operates, profitably, all over the Boot.

Records Kept

Now, I have no proof at all, but I’m willing to bet money on the fact that most, if not all, of Italy’s political parties keep records on who can be counted on to make sure certain numbers of votes are cast for chosen candidates in certain areas of Italy.  The records may be written, or they may be kept in a few trustworthy heads.  Probably the latter.

Votes in Italy end up being counted before elections. The political parties will probably only make alliances with other parties who know just how many votes they can bring to the negotiating table.  That some votes may originate from mob campaigning is not a problem for certain politicians – it’s all part of the power game.

With elections due for spring 2013 or sooner, you can be fairly certain, pre-votes are being sought out now in Italy.

Some kind of electoral reform may emerge, but you can be certain it will not mend the defective system.  Indeed, the opposite is more likely.

The Solutions?

Can this warped version of democracy ever be stamped out?  Transparency, genuine meritocracy, no closed lists, effective anti-corruption laws and declarations of interests might help, as would some form of monitoring of the performance of those given jobs and contracts.  Will Italy ever do this?  Do not count on it, and if you do read the fascinating bloody, body-littered pages of John Dickie’s books, you’ll find out that the dodgy Italian form of democracy has been in place since the last half of the 19th century.

In light of the way democracy does not work, it is no wonder Italy is continually run in such a haphazard fashion that causes it to lurch from one crisis to another with an almost predictable regularity.  The existence of Mario Monti and his technocrat team is the consequence of Italy’s abnormal democracy.

Democracy in Italy is really no more than a trick of mirrors.  Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and others know this to be the case.

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