They call it “honeymoon”. This is no romantic movie, though, it’s the nickname that Italian newspapers gave to a new political phenomenon: Berlusconi’s personal degree of favor among the Italians, his popularity has now reached 60%. For people that are used to all kinds of promises coming from politicians before any electoral campaign, current results must be shocking; as if, suddenly, Santa Claus would arrive carrying presents in October.
There were a few very important issues on Berlusconi’s desk, immediately after the elections: a stagnant economy, unemployment, the problem with Alitalia, the garbage in Naples, security and justice. Generally speaking, it was a quite difficult situation to face. Speaking about the economy, according to a Ipr Marketing poll made for La Repubblica, 86% of Italians think that inflation should have priority in this government’s agenda. Citizens cannot afford the soaring costs of living. The house market, the food sector, transportation and school have become too expensive during the recent years, salaries, on the other end, have not followed the same trend. The result? People were scared to death about the future and when that happens, the economy tends to suffer. One of the first moves of the new government was eliminating the so called Ici, a homeowners’ tax. This tax does, however, still exist when it comes to secondary properties such as a country house or a second apartment in the city. People who only have one house though, will not have to pay a dime for it. To help older people keep up with soaring prices of energy, this government has introduced what they call the Robin Hood tax. It is an adjustment that forces oil and gas companies to demonstrate their revenues in order to keep prices of gas at an acceptable level.
The second concern, according to the same poll, is unemployment, which 78% of Italians described as their first concern. As everyone knows, Italy has been a country for trade unions since its creation as a Republic. At the end of WWII, the communist partisans who fought against the Nazi-fascist occupation created the Italian constitution with a model in mind: the Russian empire with its bureaucratic apparatus of State owned industries. As a result, over the past four decades, entrepreneurs like Berlusconi have found it very difficult to create their own businesses, since they were oppressed by a scary prototype of the man, the opposite of Alexey Stakanov: the “fannullone”. Sluggards have dominated the scene of the Italian economy until the arrival of Berlusconi. They have been stealing from the State by working for the minimum amount of hours they could, while getting paid like others colleagues that were actually working. This cancer has been fought with passion by Berlusconi’s government and by ministers like Renato Brunetta, the sluggards’ worst nightmare. The Minister of Public Administration wanted to make one thing clear once nominated: there will be no more space for idlers in Italy. The reason this government wants to get rid of such people is quite simple: they keep the job market full and prevent real workers from getting in. Workers’ rights were too rigid and in favour of trade unions before, now they have changed and young people are able to find jobs more easily. It is also true that they now have to prove their skills much more than before, but that’s globalization. If the world is flat as Friedman argues, than the toughs get going when the going gets though, right?
Alitalia is a quite good example of how a State owned firm can be irreparably ruined by sluggards. Fifteen years ago, before the privatization, Alitalia was a black hole for money. The State would provide the flagship company with huge yearly surges of cash on the grounds that it was… the flagship carrier. My father has been working for Alitalia for 35 years and I personally witnessed the development of his career. During the early nineties he was sent to Nicosia (Cyprus) were they had a local office as an Area Manager. He went alone, because my mother decided that it wasn’t a good idea to move the entire family unless really necessary. I was 17 when I went to visit him for the first time. He came to pick me up at the airport with a car generously supplied by Alitalia (it was a Honda Accord). I remember my father telling me that they were also paying for the gasoline for the car. So, say that he wanted to go out for a trip in Paphos, he wouldn’t have paid a penny on his own. Once we got home, I discovered another marvel: the apartment. It was a five room home with one huge kitchen and a huge living room, two bathrooms and two terraces at the top floor of a residential building near the center of Nicosia. Of course I was quite happy with that: I could even play soccer in the living room. Although I remember I couldn’t help asking myself why they would give a single man such a big apartment. Well, my father was a hard worker, he deserved to be treated well, but that was too much even for him. I also remember that we went out for a dinner together with some people from the embassy and some other friends. At the end of that my father signed a piece of paper and claimed that it was up to Alitalia to pay for the bill (800 dollars). Ok, it was a business dinner, but it gives you an idea of how the flagship carrier was: carrying too much weight on its wounded wings.
Multiply those expenses by the number of Area Managers that were around the world at that time and you’ll have an idea of how the revenues of the company were spent, no wonder the situation now is so critical.
Berlusconi has provided a group of buyers for the company, even in spite of all odds. Of course he did not want Air France to buy Alitalia because that would lead to a shift in tourism. France is a direct competitor of Italy when it comes to vacation, the money would follow the tourists. It could have been very easy, in fact, for the French government and Air France to create an advantageous path across the Alps for tourists that would have chosen Italy. But if they gave you the choice between going to Paris for $400 or Rome for $600, where would you go?
Regarding the messy situation in Naples, everyone remembers what it was like to be in the city a few months ago: it was practically like Venice only, instead of water, there was garbage. Berlusconi had sworn to get rid of that pile of trash before the elections. I remember him saying something like “I’ll spend some time in Naples, the amount of time sufficient for me to understand what is going on and to find a way out”. A couple of weeks later, Naples came back to normality. It wasn’t a miracle though; it was just about using the right means to get rid of the garbage once and for all.
Security was another issue on the table. Italy has never been a dangerous place to live, nothing compared to the U.S. or Great Britain. In our country there has been no bloodshed in schools but things are beginning to change. With the great number of immigrants that have come to Italy from Eastern Europe and Africa, people that, usually, do not have stable jobs. Italy has changed a lot. We have witnessed the anger of a Muslim father who buried his young daughter in the backyard for no reason; we have seen soccer supporters beating each others to death during a game; and a Romanian immigrant raping a women on her way home. The government has opted for a “surge”. Not that they wanted to emulate anyone, but it makes sense to have more soldiers when you need them. There are now roughly 3000 troops helping out the police and the Carabinieri in their everyday job. It feels good to spot them somewhere around the city, I have to say. It is still too early to draw conclusions about whether or not the surge has been successful. We don’t know yet but two things are for certain: it can’t be bad, and the soldiers would otherwise just be spending their time being bored in their headquarters.
Last but not least, the reform of Justice. Italian citizens are used to a very slow legal system. In fact there is a joke about (courts) tribunals: when you want to make sure your enemy wins, just sue him. The joke illustrates how long it takes for a court to examine the case and take a decision; about seven years. Indeed, for an ordinary everyday case, that’s the amount of time it takes a judge to hand down a decision. The government has been trying to introduce a new law, called Lodo Alfano, that will speed up the process by organizing the trials in a logical way. As of now, it’s sort of running a scan disk when your PC is too slow.
We don’t know for how long this honeymoon will last for the Italians, but so far so good.
Andrea Loquenzi Holzer/ Brittany Christine Toscano