venerdì, ottobre 14, 2005

Electoral Reform – again?

The Berlusconi Contract - Click image to read it.

With elections in Italy looming on the near horizon, it is scarcely a surprise to find yet another political fiasco brewing in the hazy world of Berlusconi politics. This time, he is attempting to steam-roller a change in the voting system just 6 months before the next set of elections.

There is no secret that the electoral system is in dire need of sorting out. At the moment, despite the changes made back in 1993, it is still wide open to “manipulation” by the more canny – furbo – politician, allowing several “extra” seats to be awarded those clever enough to manipulate the system of “scorporo”, as it is called. There isn’t an easy way to explain the current system, save to say that it has most certainly not been successful in achieving the main objective of the 1993 change - to introduce some sort of stability into the electoral system.

There has been much discussion over the past few years about the need – or desire – for electoral reform, which has resulted in referendum proposals in 1999 and 2000, seeking to reform the system introduced in 1993. Sadly, they were invalidated when voter turnout failed to reach the required quorum of fifty percent of the registered voters plus one. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority of the electorate that took part in the referenda supported the proposals, reflecting a growing sense of frustration with the electoral system as it currently stands, but illustrating the general sense of helplessness that was felt at the time – hence Berlusconi’s later electoral victory.

In point of fact, it is Berlusconi himself that has felt the worst effects of the current system. Back in 1994, when he was first elected to the Prime Minister’s office, he fell foul of the Lega Nord, led by Umberto Bossi, when Bossi withdrew his support for the Forza Italia party in a fit of pique, thereby bringing the fragile coalition down, precipitating yet another election. Now, Lega Nord is a very small political party with less than 4% of the national vote. However, with the 1993 system, the Lega were able to get seats on the government and have enough power to actually bring down the government of the time. It is hard to say that there is no need for reform with that background, I feel.

But – and it is a recurring “but”, sadly – Berlusconi seems to have honed his talent for “putting his foot in it” to an extent that should give him his own entry in the Guinness Book of Records. He announces a reform that is half-baked at a time when it would appear to any observer that his only motive is to “rig” the forthcoming elections in his favour, given that his popularity is sinking fast at the moment. The world press have clamoured for Berlusconi to back down and leave the electoral system as it is – at least until after the elections. Probably it is the best advice he could have, but, I suspect that he will just dig his elevated heels in somewhat further and claim the world is both against him and that they are all communist in any case. Even I sigh and lift my hands in the air at the thought!

Tremonti, Fini & Berlusconi

Perhaps Silvio is worried that he might lose the elections next year – or, at the very least, lose his seat of power to one of the other members of his coalition, such as Fini, perhaps. He doesn’t have a great deal of time left in which to modify the criminal code so that it continues to protect his current immunity from prosecution status either. Perhaps all of those new friends he has made in the Italian judiciary will feel perfectly comfortable with the thought of Silvio appearing in court after his term in office is over and apply what laws are left unchanged against Berlusconi. After all, there are some of the very best brains in Italy in the judiciary that he will have to deal with then, not just a marketing guru that thinks FIAT should change its name to Ferrari in order to increase sales. Silvio, a word here. You are wrong. Boyo.

Infamy, infamy - they all have it in for me!

martedì, ottobre 11, 2005

A New Law is Born?

Cesare Previti enjoying a happy moment during his trial in Milano.

Our dear friend Silvio Berlusconi is, if nothing else, a very loyal man. He looks after his friends and family in the true style of a gentleman Man of Honour. The most recent development in the long saga of how the Prime Minister of Italy runs the country he is currently “in charge of” is in the protection of one of his oldest, most staunch friends and confidantes, Cesare Previti. Previti was one of Berlusconi’s lawyers for many years, protecting and defending his client through the development of his business empire. He was repaid with a seat in Berlusconi’s first attempt at government – an attempt brought down at the time by the somewhat xenophobic Lega Nord. Short lived though this initial appointment was, it led to Cesare Previti becoming elected to the Chamber of Deputies, so it didn’t work out too badly for him in the end.

That was up until an investigation into bribery and corruption, leading to his conviction for the bribing of a judge in Roma on behalf of Berlusconi in a take-over bid of Mondadori, the company which has Marina Berlusconi as its President. Fortunately for Berlusconi, he just escaped conviction of the same crime by the enactment of a law giving him (surprise, surprise) protection from criminal charges through the clever use of yet another statute of limitations clause. That was a bit of good fortune for Berlusconi, of course, as he would have most likely suffered the same fate as Cesare Previti if the case had proceeded as intended by the legal system of the time.

But, Berlusconi being the man that he is – loyal I mean, of course – he hasn’t deserted his old friend to the 11 year prison sentence he was first awarded for the bribing of judge Vittorio Metta to look kindly on Berlusconi’s tactics during the take-over battle with Carlo De Benedetti.

There is a law presently going through the Italian parliament, pushed along by Berlusconi’s Justice Minister, Roberto Castelli, called the “Save Previti Law" by opponents of the law, which will come to the aid of his friend - a true “Friend in Need”. The new law will cut in half the timescale within which convictions for many criminal offences can be pursued by the Italian courts. Now, the legal system in Italy has long been somewhat of a confusing matter for those of us brought up outside of “Roman Law”. Suffice it to say that the law here is very much more a discussive affair than elsewhere, with the courts often taking many years to prosecute miscreants and even longer before the process of automatic appeals is exhausted and the convicted criminal actually goes to prison. That is, of course, assuming you happen to have the funds available to pay the lawyers that will keep delaying the appeal process up to the actual moment you have to serve your “time”.

This is where the new law comes in. By cutting in half the time during which the courts can hear the action, it actually stops the whole legal process whilst the wheels are still turning. How this would affect Previti is by bringing the entire action, still going through the appeal courts, to a grinding halt - thereby making him a free man again, in much the same way as his old Boss got let off. All that without having the stain of a conviction against his name. It would be quite a success for Berlusconi in defending his old friend.

The problem (if I may leave aside the whole matter of whether a convicted bribester should be allowed to walk free in any case) is that it will affect many thousands of other court cases presently in process. The Court of Cassation estimates that of 3,365 cases currently pending, as many as 1,652 may be killed if the law passes through the system unscathed. This includes cases of manslaughter, corruption, fraud and criminal violence. Nearly 90 per cent of the corruption cases currently before the court would have to be disbanded as “out of time”. One well known judge commented wryly, "We will be able to finish our work before lunch".

The reaction by Previti has been fairly predictable, in a "Berlusconi" sort of way. The opponents of the law are, according to Previti of course, “untrustworthy”, saying that he considers the new law to be a major step forward for Italy. Perhaps he has changed his name from Cesare Previti to “Italy” now?

Berlusconi being firm during one of his trials in Milano.