Articles by: Judith Harris

  • photo by Alessio Jacona
    Facts & Stories

    Salvini to Saviano: "Off with his bodyguards!"

    ROME -- For most of us, Roberto Saviano, 39, is one of Italy's great heroes. The author of "Gomorrah," the book that nailed the Neapolitan organized crime gangs, and of other investigations into organized crime, was awarded the PEN/Pinter Prize and the Olof Palme Prize in 2011. A successful movie was made of his book, and, in a truly signal honor, an asteroid was named  "Saviano" by the International Astronomical Union. But this week he tangled, not with the gangland murderers who have threatened his life for 11 years, but with Italy's top cop, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

    Since the new government was installed just three weeks ago, Matteo Salvini has exercised power also as deputy prime minister. His populist Lega party has won praise from Steve Bannon, the former campaign strategist for President Donald Trump, who is quoted in "The Daily Beast" as saying that, if [Salvini] populism works in Italy, "It is going to work everywhere. It shows that it is going to break the backs of the globalists."

    Bannon was frequently in Italy during last spring's election campaign, to the point that the distinguished "New York Times" columnist Roger Cohen suggested that Bannon was "perhaps even the formation of an anti-European, anti-immigrant government in Italy." As for Bannon himself, he was consulted on the eve of forming a government, and advised that an alliance of  the Lega and the Movimento Cinque Stelle would be brilliant: "You are the first guys who can really break the left and right paradigm." Thus the new government was born.

    Saviano's purported misstep was to "vomit hatred on Matteo Salvini," as the rightist daily "Libero" put it. On a Facebook video Saviano had called Salvini the "Minister of Crooks," a politician elected by Calabrian criminals with "the votes of those who die for the n'ndrangheta."

    Saviano also alleged that, at an election campaign speech by Salvini, the front row was occupied by mafia bosses. "For me he is the boss of a party of thieves: almost 50 million Euros handed out as reimbursements for stolen votes" -- that is, funds seized by police from the Mafia and not yet handed over to the state but, said Saviano, to the Lega (which now says the funds are being consigned, however).

    Among the many siding in the dispute with Saviano was Salman Rushdie. Not surprisingly, the new Interior Minister displayed displeasure at this attack by suggesting that Saviano's round-the-clock police protection -- two armed cars and five Carabinieri policemen accompany him everywhere -- be eliminated, a financial saving. To this an angry Saviano responded: "I am proud to be among your enemies.... Italy has the most journalists under protection of any Western country because it has the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.

    "But Matteo Salvini, Minister of the Interior, instead of fighting against the mafias, threatens to reduce to silence those who tell of it," said Saviano. Living with bodyguards since he was 26 years old, he said, he had received threats from the Casalesi in Southern Italy and from Mexican narcos. "So do you think you can threaten me, intimidate me?" By raising the possibility of removing my police escort, Salvini is signalling my place in the long list of his enemies." (See

    Saviano is not the only Italian journalist to live under daily threat. Nineteen other Italian journalists live under 24-hour police protection after death threats, not only from organized crime, but also from fundamentalist and anarchic groups. According to the most recent annual report by Reporters Sans Frontières, in terms of security for its journalists, Italy ranks fairly low, 46th down, among the 180 nations studied.

    Politics as well as organized crime plays a role, and rightist parties are known to publicize the names of those who disturb them, said RSF.  The situation is particularly bad in Calabria, Sicily and the Campania, but also in Rome itself. Besides threats and car burnings, their homes are broken into, and computers and documents stolen.

    Just one of these living under protection is Paolo Borrometi,  journalist who testified in a Siracusa courtroom in a trial of an alleged Mafia boss. A defense lawyer asked, "And just why did you have to write about my client?" "Because it is my work," Borrometi responded. "Because it is in the Constitution." A local boss was overheard by police threatening to have Borrometi killed. Follow his tweet at

  • Op-Eds

    In Latest Polls, Salvini's Lega Bests the Five Stars

    ROME -- The Italians did not need President Donald Trump to teach them that anti-immigrant rhetoric is a vote getter. They are already there. In latest polls Matteo Salvini of the Lega, whose latest campaign is viciously anti-Romaani ethnics, or Roma (we used to say Gypsy), just topped the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) headed by Luigi Di Maio. The victory was by a hair, 0.2%, but victory it was: in the March 6 national general elections the Five Stars won 32% and the Lega, only 17%. This means that to date the Lega has bounced  up by 15%. With this comes the implicit threat that, if Di Maio's starlets (who include the obviously distressed Premier Giuseppe Conte) whine too much about Lega policies, the result will be an autumn vote and an even stronger Lega.

    And what policies they are. The latest is Salvini's demand that Italy take a census of the Roma and expel all those lacking the right credentials to remain. In Italy, according to Rome University Professor Marco Brazzoduro, president of the Cittadinanza e Minoranze Association, six out of ten Roma are already Italian citizens and cannot be ejected from their own country. "Unfortunately we shall have to keep the Italians among them," acknowledged Salvini, who is Interior Minister in the fledgling government he shares with the Five Stars.

    "The sad truth is that this government has many supporters and is popular because it identifies targets: categories of individuals that people can unleash their frustration on; enemies to be stoned," writes Roberto Saviano in The Guardian June 19. This government, "even before it has got down to real work, has already done irreparable damage.... In today's world the notion of a 'zero landing' Mediterranean, where no migrants reach Europe, is nothing short of criminal propaganda."  Read more here >>>

    To some extent the Roma statistics are already public record. In Rome itself, fully one-third are Italian citizens while another third are Romanians. The rest are from the countries of East Europe or those once part of Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia and Serbia. Kicking these out of Italy would not be possible, experts say, because they technically have no home. This leaves perhaps 300 Roman Roma without a proper residence permit and hence subject to possible expulsion -- "But these tend to leave Italy anyway, they want to go to Germany, where they are likely to be better treated then here," according to Prof. Brazzoduro.

    Their camps are a problem. Of Rome's 6,900 Roma, the vast majority ( 5,700) reside in 17 legally authorized camps. Another 1,200 occupy unauthorized camps . These  "camps of desperation," as one newspaper here called them, are broken up by police from time to time, but then reconstituted wherever new space is found. Indeed, 175 unauthorized Roma camps were torn down between 2014 and 2017 and, of course, immediately rebuilt elsewhere. 

    The reactions to Salvini's outburst have been extraordinary, as is hardly surprising. As the late lamented New York Times correspondent Flora Lewis always warned, keep an eye on attitudes toward the Roma, for they forewarn a rise of anti-Semitism and of what comes after that. In fact, a statement from the Jewish Communities in Italy warned that, " Interior Minister Salvini's  announcing of a possible census of the Roma population in Italy is worrying. It brings back memories of the racist laws of 80 years ago, which sadly are being ever more forgotten." 

    For the Partito Democratico's Acting Secretary, former minister Maurizio Martina, this marks "a dangerous and unacceptable escalation," and Salvini's words are "aberrant." And for Laura Boldrini, former president of the Chamber of Deputies, this is "inhumanity in power."

    Even within the government there were signs of distress. Conte reportedly complained at Salvini's words, which undermined a meeting taking place just then in Berlin between the new Italian premier and Chancellor Angela Merkel, where the two had been working toward finding an EU solution to the problem of migrants. The meeting had been carefully arranged from Rome by Di Maio. whose campaign of  presenting himself as representing ordinary Italians fades beneath Salvini's more aggressive stances. Not only -- Di Maio himself is notably weakened within his own suddenly weaker party. 

    Given the reactions, Salvini to some extent backtracked later in the day, saying that he was "not calling for the Roma to be fingerprinted," but that he still expected those without papers to be expelled.

  • Drawings and paintings by child migrants from an exhibition opening this week at Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art

    Standoff on Migrants Splinters the EU

    ROME -- When 629 migrants, mostly from sub-Sahara Africa, were en route to Italy in a ship June 10, Matteo Salvini, who as Interior Minister is chief of all police here, declared that no Italian port could accept them. "Saving lives is a duty, but turning Italy into Europe's refugee camp, no," he stated. "The EU countries have left us alone too long," he added, speaking on nationwide TV. "And among the migrants there are terrorists." Salvini won, and at this writing, weighed under by its load of  migrants, the ship run by the SOS Mediterranee NGO was heading off toward Valencia in Spain, albeit plagued by the considerable distance (750 nautical miles), rough seas and strong winds. 

    Among the migrants were 123 unaccompanied minors, among them a dozen young children. Of the  seven pregnant women on board, the Italian coast guard removed four, plus a child suffering convulsions, to the isle of Lampedusa, from where they were flown to hospitals in Palermo and Agrigento. Sicilian press reports suggest that at least some of these pregnant women, who had spent months crossing the desert to reach the Libyan coast and the boat traffickers there, were rape victims.

    Salvini's popularity is on the rise, and he appears notably heartened by his triumph  in local elections held June 10 that involved 6 million voters in 760 towns scattered throughout Italy. These were the most important elections held since the national vote March 4, and the 61% turnout was 6 points below that of the previous local elections, held in 2013. His governing partner Luigi Di Maio's  Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) lost votes and hence is weaker vis à vis Salvini in their shared government. 

    In Rome's two districts, fewer than one-third of those who could vote bothered to do so. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi of the M5S appeared in obvious difficulty. So did Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, which dropped some 200,000 votes while the Partito Democratico -- slashed in half March 4 -- made small advances. For a full analysis, see here>>>

    Countering the ever more popular Minister Salvini's harsh words and actions on immigration were the mayors of a number of Southern Italian towns, who defiantly said they would accept the migrants. Minister Salvini rejected their offers -- just as word arrived that another ship, the Dutch-German Sea Watch 3,  is trying to deliver onto Italian shores over 1,000 more migrant refugees. At this news Salvini tweeted, "Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying, and THIS TIME SAYS NO.  #chiudiamoiporti."

    To his tweet almost 4,000 tweeters responded emotionally. "Finally we have a state that protects its borders and orders a halt to the deportation of slaves," said one. The reply: "And lets the slaves die. Finally, right?" The dialogue continued: "Well, there are other ports." "Pontius Pilate was decidedly a favorite of yours." "Until now there have been lots of Pontius Pilates." "Think only of your own people and tell the others to f&*! off. Very nice." "Same to you." "Germany, France, Malta turn the [migrants] away? And they call us racist!" 

    Although  the EU has just agreed to triple spending to over $5 billion a year to deal with illegal migration, these turbulent seas washed all across Europe. The EU last week sought to establish refugee quotas and a common system for member states to share responsibility for asylum seekers, but failed utterly. Although Angela Merkel warned of the consequences of failure to find an agreement, that debate  deadlocked, "with ministers pessimistic that any agreement can be reached by their self-imposed deadline at the next Brussels summit at the end of this month," writes the Guardian. 

    The fallout of ill feeling was particularly strong between Italy and France. "Bravo Salvini," was the reaction from Nicola Dupont-Aignan, rival and ex-ally of the French rightist Marine Le Pen. "Proud that a front is opened in Europe on the migrants, a shame that Spain has decided to take them when they can enter France whenever they want" (this, obviously, was sarcasm). France called the position dictated by Salvini "nauseating" while Spain suggested that Italy, in denying a port to the migrants, was in violation of the law. To this Salvini retorted, "To the French President I say, if you have the big heart you say you have, tomorrow I will send you the details of 9,000 migrants you had agreed to take in." As a result, Salvini, Di Maio, and their premier Professor Giuseppe Conte are now considering cancelling that EU migration summit.

    The drawings and paintings by child migrants are from an exhibition opening this week at Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art, organized by actress Simona Marchini and sponsorship by UNICEF. 

  • Matteo Salvini and No Sanctions

    Foreign Affairs Upstage Policy, Stir Up a Hornet's Nest

    ROME -- In a globalized world it is hardly surprising that foreign affairs occupy more political space than ever before. Forget the new government "contract," with its policy bullet points. The brave new government is headed by a relatively inexperienced Prof-Premier Giuseppe Conte, who misplaced his notes for his debut in Parliament Wednesday. For Conte, flanked by powerhouse Matteo Salvini of the Lega and, to lesser extent, by Luigi Di Maio of the Movimento 5 Stelle, the enormous challenges weigh in from all sides: NATO, the European Union, the US, and, regarding immigration, North Africa.


    In particular, addressing Parliament Wednesday, neo-Premier Conte stirred up a hornet's nest when he declared, "The government wants to promote an opening toward Russia, and a revision of the system of sanctions." Speaking in favor of the government's proposal to lift the sanctions was Guido Crosetto of the rightwing party Fratelli d'Italia, second-in-command to Giorgia Meloni. "We must abolish the sanctions because strategically we cannot just leave Russia in the arms of China. On NATO's part it is a strategic error to insist upon antagonizing Moscow," he told reporters Wednesday in Parliament.


    These economic sanctions were invoked by Angela Merkel in July 2014 as an alternative to military action after Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian Crimea. They were applied against Russia by the EU, Canada, the US and other nations and are, to quote the US magazine "Foreign Policy", "a response to Russia's behavior in violation of international law and its own commitments."

    After four years the consequences for Russia include capital flight, a drop in value of the ruble, lost access to foreign financing and hence a draining of Russian foreign exchange reserves, and a decline in the country's GDP. And last March 12, just six days after the Italian general elections which propelled Salvini and Di Maio into government for the first time, the EU announced that those sanctions are extended for another six months, or until Sept. 15.


    Among other things, the sanctions -- which include travel restrictions and asset freezes against 38 companies and 150 individuals in Russia -- suspend credit financing for exports to Russia, financing of its economic development projects, and the "sharing of technology for shale projects that can produce oil in the Russian Federation," in the words the U.S. State Department.


    Will a lifting of the sanctions actually happen? It is too soon to know, at least not until the European Council (the institution in Brussels that defines EU political priorities) meets June 28-29 in Brussels. For NATO, "We must maintain a political dialogue with Russia, but the economic sanctions are important," said Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, secretary-general. And speaking for the US was ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson: "On Russia I think that the sanctions must be maintained until Moscow changes its behavior -- otherwise we will be giving a bad signal to the Kremlin."


    The debate took a nasty turn, when Hungarian-American financial mogul George Soros, 87, speaking at the 13th annual Economics Festival at Trento June 3, declared that, "I am very concerned at the new government's moving closer to Russia.... There is a close relationship between Matteo Salvini and Putin. I don't know if in effect Putin finances Salvini's party, [but] the Italian public has the right to investigate the question, the right to know if Salvini is on Putin's pay roll," Soros said. To this a shocked former Interior Minister Marco Minnitti said, "I surely hope that no one ever took a single ruble for financing from the Russians."


    Salvini flatly denies having accepted Russian funding for his party. "Shameful! I never took a lira, a euro or a rouble from Russia. I consider Putin one of the foremost statesmen, and I am ashamed of the fact that in Italy they invite to speak a speculator without scruples like Signor Soros."


    How does the public feel about this? In a nationwide survey of the popularity of a trio of international leaders -- Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump --  conducted by Demos & Pi, with almost 6,000 interviewed, Putin was favored by only 39% nationwide. Supporters of Forza Italia were Italy's most enthusiastic about Putin (61%), notoriously a friend of Berlusconi. Voters from Meloni's tiny Fratelli d'Italia (54%) and Salvini's Lega were next (53%) in admiration for Putin, decidedly less popular among voters for Di Maio's M5S (39%).


    Nationwide, at 51% Angela Merkel was the most popular of all, and Donald Trump, the least, at 23%. On the other hand, rightist party respondents who said they admire Trump were Fratelli di'Italia (49%), Salvini's Lega (41%) and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (38%).


    Needless to say, Russian sanctions are not the only Italian situation that troubles Europe. Moving closer to home, the Italian economy had a GDP surplus before interest payments of 1.7%, and so "Italy is not particularly vulnerable to a run on its bonds by foreign investors," according to the "Economist". However, the magazine's editorial writer went on to say, Italy has "one of Europe's worst-performing economies," and the new government's proposals for a flat tax and for a universal basic income provision are risky: "Italy's real problem is the debilitating combination of chronically low growth and high public debt."

  • Op-Eds

    In the Eye of a Hurricane: Political Italy

    ROME - Bari is one of Southern Italy's most beautiful port cities, the capital of the Apulia Region on the Adriatic Sea, with a population of over 325,000 and, in its immediate surroundings, twice that number. Its famous Norman-Hohenstaufen Castle has stood guard over the town for over eight centuries. At the same time, the city's handsome, gigantic Palace of Justice, built in the late 20th Century, has developed cracks to the point that it risks collapse. The footnote: the dangerous cracks have been reported for 15 years. As a result, this week trials take place inside three tents made of cloth set up in the parking lot; for how many years this procedure will continue no one knows. Meantime, consider the prosecutors' problems of keeping files. 

    Can it therefore surprise anyone that in the national general elections last March, in Bari almost half (46.51%) the voters for the Senate chose the anti-system, angry Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S)? Only a miniscule few, 14.15%, preferred the Partito Democratico, which has run the country for the previous three years. New administrative elections take place on June 10, which will be a test of things to come. Put another way, Bari is a metaphor for the rest of Italy these days, a threatening world of beauty and the beast. 

    The current Italian political plight is front-paged worldwide as the most important media turn their attention to what many fear might become a constitutional crisis. To synthesize, to form a government the Big Two populist parties (M5S and the rightist League), with 50.1% of the March 6 nationwide vote, insisted that their joint cabinet include the anti-EU economist Paolo Savona. President Sergio Mattarella rejected this. Although more moderate solutions, which included Savona in government, were proposed, the Big Two rejected any compromise. 

    Both the Big Two reacted viciously, with M5S current boss Luigi Di Maio calling for the president to be impeached. Di Maio is obliged to battle against Salvini, his purported ally (but rival in any future vote), by being even more aggressive. "Why don't we just say that, in our country, there is no point in voting since the ratings agencies and the financial lobbies decide the governments?" he declared on Facebook.

    The result of their holding a line in support of the anti-EU Savona: Mattarella has now had to appoint a temporary cabinet to tend the store until new elections are held, probably as early as September. Premier designate is Carlo Cottarelli, formerly executive director of the International Monetary Fund, who may also hold down the crucial Ministry of Economics. 

    This September date offers a slight glimmer of hope because League boss Matteo Salvini had demanded they take place within weeks. The problems go well beyond the frontiers of Italy, the fourth largest economy in Europe, for the Italian situation, with its risk of quitting the Euro, is destablizing for all of Europe. At risk is also the NATO alliance, some here believe.

    In the most recent polls support for Salvini's League (in Italian, the Lega, formerly the Northern League) continues to grow, including vis à vis the M5S as well as Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. Both these two show weakness. As a result, the opinion is widespread that all along Salvini had never intended to participate in government with the M5S, but opted for new elections that would strengthen his party. Salvini continues to denounce Germany for running Italian affairs. In political science terms, the Lega's anti-immigrant, anti-EU stance puts it in the historical company of negative coalitions -- that is, of political parties that boost their popularity by focusing on the dislike of an outsider rather than on shared goals.

    The current political, fiscal and constitutional crisis in Rome, the most serious since the murder of Aldo Moro forty years ago, can only gather steam with the calling of new elections. In the meantime the two leading populist parties are calling voters to demonstrate out in the streets this June 2, a public holiday honoring the Republic, to show their discontent at the way that President Mattarella has been managing events. Clashes are feared. In addition, some political observers believe that Mattarella may have miscalculated in vetoing the appointment of a Eurosceptic Finance Minister. A September vote may only increase support for the populist parties in the absence of any clear national plan to correct the errors of free spending previous administrations.

  • Giuseppe Conte

    Awaiting That Final Decision: Approval of a New Government

    ROME -- Italy's final decision that would ratify a new government requires the  formal approval of President Sergio Mattarella and then a vote in Parliament. In the meantime, rarely have so many studied the Italian Constitution. The reason: Article 95, which spells out the responsibilities and duties  of the premier, in this case the nominee Giuseppe Conte. Conte is a bright, well prepared professor, but devoid of any political or administrative experience whatsoever.

    On Monday Luigi Di Maio, who heads the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), and Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega (the League), each separately gave Professor Conte's name to President Sergio Mattarella as their choice to head an anomalous biparty coalition. Normally a politician would head the executive government, but in this unique situation, both political leaders -- despite agreeing after 45 days to form a governing alliance -- refused to agree for the other to be premier of their joint government. Conte is therefore a de facto technical head of government even though neither Di Maio nor Salvini would accept this definition.

    As president of the Council of Ministers, specifies Article 95 of the Constitution, Conte must "direct the general policies of the Government, and is responsible for them. He maintains the unity of police and administrative direction, promoting and coordinating the activities of the Ministers."  What policies? Albeit quarreling noisily in the past, Di Mario and Salvini have jointly elaborated what they call a "contract" for governing. The "contract," however, if in respect to the Constitution, is not supposed to allow Italy to ignore its European obligations nor to ignore or change its international alliances, beginning with NATO. However, Salvini has called for greater links with Putin's Russia and for Italy to quit the Euro. 

    "Well," Di Maio admitted on exiting from his meeting with the president, "the criticisms are fair, but at least let us get started." Salvini was no less open after his meeting with Mattarella. "There's no reason for fear," he said. "Within the limits of the possible, the constraints [i.e., NATO, the EU] are not up for discussion. But thanks to those constraints our public debt has grown by 300 billion euros during the past five years." The EU is openly concerned at the size of Italy's public debt, as Salvini knows well -- but nevertheless his potential future governing partner, Di Maio, has promised a relaxed monthly contribution to the less affluent. How this, if realized, is to be paid remains a mystery, but the promise appealed to many in Southern Italy, whose votes last March were significant in boosting the M5S votes up to 32,7% of the national electorate. (In the attached map, the blue area represents a preponderance of League votes and the yellow, votes for M5S.)

    And herein lies another problem: the North-South divide. In the past it has been the result of geography, education, labor (industry vs. agriculture) and -- dare I say? -- the historic culture of the pre-drug Mafia-type organizations. In the last national general election Di Maio's M5S was massively voted in the South, but not the North, while Salvini's message, with its anti-immigrant bias, was massively voted in the North but not in the South. As some here have warned, if and when it comes to new elections, there is a risk of increasing the already existing North-South divide.  Conte is "a hostage of the parties," trumpeted one headline. 

    Conte's background is interesting. Born at Volturara Appula, near Foggia in the Apulia Region of Southern Italy, Conte, 54, received a strong Catholic education before graduating in law from Rome University. He is  described as a devotee of Padre Pio, whose shrine is in San Giovanni Rotondo. An expert in civil law, Conte has spent periods of study at Yale and Duquesne in the U.S, in Vienna, at the Sorbonne, at Cambridge in the UK and at New York University.  In Italy he has taught at Rome's Luiss University and now teaches at Florence University, where one of his students said he is noted for a real dislike of Italy's over-bearing bureaucracy. He is a member of the cultural commission of Confindustria, the national association of industrialists, and is described as an expert in the "management of large businesses in crisis."

    He became a spokesperson for the M5S -- "a marvelous, incredible political laboratory" -- while recently admitting on national TV that in the past he had tended to prefer the politics of the left. "Despite his having no political nor administrative experience whatsoever, he is quoted as saying that he is an excellent listener, and long accustomed to negotiating between individuals who stand at a distance from each other.  

    Significantly, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, 81, plans for his Forza Italia party to vote against the government, which means voting against his ex-partner Salvini. Giorgio Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia, the third component of their rightist electoral coalition, was invited to join with the Big Two but has turned them down. Meloni's party contributed 4.3% to that alliance, Berlusconi's Forza Italia 14% and Salvini's Lega 17.4%. In respect to Di Maio's 32.7%, their defection leaves Salvini on his own and decidedly weakened vis à vis Di Maio. At the same time, polls show that both Di Maio and Salvini dropped in popularity by 1% in just one week.

  • Op-Eds

    Populist Government may Save Italy From Hasty new Elections

    ROME -- Until lunchtime Wednesday, Italy was plunging into the year's second round of national general elections, probably slated for July, even as commentators warned that scorching July temperatures would send voters to the seashore instead to polling booths. But at one o'clock May 9 former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, staunchly allied with Matteo Salvini of the Lega, said he would drop his opposition to a proposed government of the Lega and the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S). Together these two populist parties control just under half of the Parliament elected March 6, sufficient to marshal votes for a government. 

    Luigi Di Maio, who has replaced Beppe Grillo as head of the Five Stars, commands 32% of Parliament, making this the largest single political force. Lega boss Salvini is the strong man in a three-party rightist coalition, which together commands  35%. As a result, neither has been able to oust his rival. On his own Salvini has only 17%, but this boosted by Berlusconi's 14%. 

    Reactions are flooding in. Columnist Stefano Folli remarked on the irony that "what couldn't be done in two months was done in a couple of hours." Another authoritative columnist, Claudio Tito, suggested that, in offering his outside support, Berlusconi was also saying that if they fail, it is not his fault. Will they fail? Under their care, warns Tito, the Italian cabinet becomes an outsider in the EU political world, and  Italy, a "laboratory of populism that may scare neighbors and allies." At the same time, it is not yet a done deal, and on Thursday morning a cautious Salvini warned that this turnabout is only "a first step"  and that his MPs are not to make vacation reservations just yet in case elections do take place in July, according to the AGI press agency.

    For nine weeks now any possibility to form a government was stalemated, with President Sergio Mattarella conducting three rounds of endless but futile all-party negotiations. A crucial reason: Berlusconi flatly refused the Five Star-Lega request he give the proposed joint government a benign but external go-ahead; to do so would "offend my dignity," he reportedly said. What made Berlusconi change his mind? First, polls show a decline in support for several parties, including Berlusconi's own Forza Italia; a new vote might worsen their relative positions. Secondly, many fear a negative public reaction because of the high cost to the country of holding new elections. Thirdly, say observers here, the parties themselves are too short of funds to be able to finance campaigns. 

    The alternative is for President Mattarella to appoint a caretaker government that might last through early 2019. With Berlusconi's backing down, this becomes less likely. The country needs a government able to tackle urgent problems, such as passage of the national budget, measures to govern immigration and revision of the previously untried election law, blamed for some of the present mayhem, "in order not to go back to the vote with the real danger of another inconclusive result," writes Roberto Mostarda, columnist for Wall Street International.

    Back in 2011 Berlusconi, 81, was forced to resign from his third term as premier over "claims he had paid for sex with an underage sex worker" (to quote the Guardian). In 2012 Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Instead he performed four hours weekly in a home for dementia sufferers, for whom he sometimes played the piano, as he had on cruise ships as a youth. This conviction barred him from public office (albeit not from politics), but his multiple judicial trials (and a new one beginning this week) meant that the Five Stars declined to join any government in which Berlusconi would play a part. 

    Until this week Salvini had flatly refused to turn his back on Berlusconi, to the point that Di Maio intimated that behind their solidarity was Berlusconi financing Salvini's Lega. Now, under pressure from Mattarella, from business and financial circles and from the general public, this week the two finally agreed to form a cabinet supported only by Di Maio's 5 Stars and Salvini's Lega while formally asking Berlusconi's outside support for it. The point was to avoid Salvini's outright break with the man whom many here consider his mentor in one way or another. The compromise should avoid the costly new elections, which risk thrusting the same leaders back into the same inconclusive negotiations. Who would be premier? For the moment this remains a mystery, but in the cafes this morning there was gossip that it would be a "puppet" while Salvini and Di Maio would take over the interior and foreign ministries. 

    Unless it be forgotten, just before the elections Salvini called for the demise of the Euro, "a failed experiment," in his words, "the principle cause of our economic decline.... If I go into government I will have top experts keep Italians from being damaged in case the Europe crumbles." Only a few days later however, he said in a press conference in Strasburg March 12 that it would be "impossible to leave the Euro behind us just now." 




  • Italian Tv Host Fabio Fazio (L), Matteo Renzi

    No Government in Sight 60 Days After Elections

    ROME -- Sixty days after national general elections were held in Italy, no government is in sight. Despite rumors of secret deals, the long and tense negotiations among the parties brought no solution while, in the meantime, tempers flared. Now the ball is in the hands of the long-suffering Italian president Sergio Mattarella, whose job it is to find a way out of the impasse. This is not the first time that Italy has had a long wait before a government is formed. Back in 1992, 82 days passed before Giuliano Amato was made Premier.

    Still, raising the tension level are the results of regional elections held in both the North and the South over the past two weeks, and widely viewed as harbingers of things to come. They show that Matteo Salvini's Lega is forging ahead relentlessly, at the cost of a perhaps surprisingly weakened M5S. Friuli-Venezia Giulia had over one million potential electors. There, on Sunday, April 29, the Lega coalition, with over 62%, trumped the M5S, which won barely 7%, by comparison with its almost 25% in the same area on of March 4. This placed the M5S in an even worse position than Berlusconi's FI, with over 12% on its own. The rudderless Partito Democratico, which had almost a third of the vote three years ago, is today splintered into a half dozen often antagonistic mini-parties, and is still identified with former Premier Matteo Renzi, actually made a decent showing by on its own winning 18% and, with coalition partners, over 26%.

    The previous week regional elections were also held in the Molise Region in the Italian South, shown in the March 4 election as a bulwark of M5S votes. The turnout was decidedly law, and here too Salvini's center-rightists triumphed, winning half the votes, or 49.3%. By comparison, the M5S slumped to under 32%, significantly less than the Lega coalition. Now, with the Lega sweeping the North, and the M5S appearing diminished even in the South, the situation appears more tense than ever. This setback may explain why Di Maio is demanding a new round of national general elections be held in June -- that is, before the M5S loses more of its appeal. Already, some M5Sers are demanding that the 32-year-old Di Maio be replaced by another and more accomplished leader.

    Not surprisingly, Salvini was crowing. The Molise elections, he said, "confirm that the Italians have clear ideas: the PD and the left have been canceled from the face of the earth. They've been kicked out and cannot return to government. Our hope is that an executive between the two political powers of this country will be born. I am ready now." This was the offer Salvini made to Di Maio, who however continued to insist that the Salvini coalition would have to dump Berlusconi, an unworthy candidate and a "crook...who blocked the country for 20 years." 

    When Salvini continued to refuse to break with Berlusconi, the deadlock grew serious. Briefly Di Maio flirted with the PD, but Renzi not only refused to enter government with the M5S, but, on a popular TV program with Fabio Fazio, attacked the M5S. "Let's let them do what they promised," he said, "if they are capable... we will not be the caretakers for Grillo's adventurers." As for Berlusconi, he boasted that the two regional elections "redimension the 5 Star amateur hour," compared with the protest vote expressed in the national general elections in March. "The Grillini have shown they are incapable of achieving a consensus for their guiding the regions and the country," said a gleeful Berlusconi. 

    The cause of the current stall is well known: on its own comedian Beppe Grillo's Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), now headed by Luigi Di Maio, had bested all the others in the March 4 vote, winning 32% under a new and untried election law. But the three-party rightist coalition, composed of Matteo Salvini's Lega (formerly the Lega Nord), former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (FI) and Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia, outfoxed the M5S by copping, together, 37%. Although President Mattarella appointed the heads of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate to mediate, the two groups have flat out refused any compromise to work together. 

    This leaves President Mattarella a limited number of choices.  The first is to hold new elections in the autumn; Mattarella has already ruled out holding new elections immediately. If this is his choice, the current acting Premier Paolo Gentiloni, whom new polls show as the single most popular politician in Italy, may be asked to continue.  Second alternative is to create a minority rightist government backed by Salvini, Berlusconi, and Meloni, who together command 216 votes in the Chamber (out of the 316 required for a majority), and, in the Senate, 127 out of 161 for a majority.  

    A third option is what is called here a "Governo del Presidente" or grand coalition, in which all parties chip in votes for a distinguished candidate chosen by Mattarella. An advantage of this would be to postpone early elections for as much as a year while the dust settles. An important looming deadline, requiring the existence of a government, is to enact the Italian national budget.

  • Art & Culture

    Happy Birthday, Rome! Celebrating 2,771 Years

    ROME -- On April 21 Rome celebrates its official birthday, ever known as the Natale di Roma, 2,771 years after the city's legendary founding by Romulus in 753 BC. For the occasion a parade of 2,000 in costume -- gladiators, politicians, priestesses -- will take place by the Colosseum.


    The celebrations record the founding of Rome from tiny settlement on the Palatine Hill to what became Caput Mundi, the capital of the world, so-called for the vast extension of the Roman cultural, military and economic empire that lasted 1,000 years.


    The celebratory date of April 21 itself derives from Roman history. In antiquity cattle were driven through bonfires on that day in honor of Pales, the goddess who protected flocks and livestock. Recording this, in a ceremony April 20 in the Colosseum, young ladies in Roman-looking frocks will dance, while historical charades of gladiatorial combat will take place for the entertainment of children.


    In addition, the Colosseum will host a photo exhibition, plus lectures and demonstrative exhibits on Roman schooling in antiquity, on medicine, food, religion, women's fashions and makeup, idem for men, the fames children played and the lives of the military (legionaries and pretorians). Sponsors are the city of Rome plus, organizing the events for the 15th year, is the Gruppo Storico Romano, an historical drama society.


    Other events include a visit to the Tiber Island, originally the Temple of Esclupius. Ending the weekend celebrations at the Colosseum are fireworks. (For details of the program in English see >>  and, for this and other Italian travel site updates, also see >> )  


    In a novelty which will interest the many unable to be here this weekend, the new administration of the Colosseum has just announced that a single new ticket, called S.U.P.E.R., will allow visitors entry for two days into not only the Colosseum itself, but also the Roman Forum, Nero's covered passageway called the Cryptoportico, and the Palatine Museum, plus access to see new virtual reality narratives of Ancient Rome.




  • Street Art. With Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini

    One Artist's Opinion: The Politicos as Cardsharps

    ROME -- Seeking a way out after a second round of all-party negotiations foundered, President Mattarella on April 18 called for "explorative" consultations to be conducted by Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, 71-year-old attorney born in Rovigo and resident in Padua. Casellati, who represents Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia in Parliament and is his staunch supporter, is the first woman to become Senate President in Italy. Her special field had long been canon law. "This opens a new political season," says the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore.


    Despite there being no sign of an end to the crisis that began six weeks ago with national general elections, there has also been a bit of light relief. Back in 1594 the young Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, depicted three men playing the card game "primero," an early form of poker. In this extraordinarily famous painting, "The Cardsharps," now owned by the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas, a man hovering between and above the two young players slyly signals to the youth on the right the cards held by his opponent on the left. Last week a satirical version of this Caravaggio painting suddenly appeared on the wall of a building on Via de' Lucchesi a stone's threw from the presidential Quirinal Palace.


    In this street art version,  three of today's top politicians dressed in 16th century garb -- former premier Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia (FI); Luigi Di Maio, head of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S); and Matteo Salvini, head of the rightist Lega -- are depicted playing cards. To the left is Berlusconi, in the center the sly and double-crossing Salvini and, on the right, Di Maio. As one Italian commentator put it, the painting showed "double crossing in action." Under the painting a caption declared, "An ingenuous old man [Berlusconi] is playing cards with his opponent, who, plotting with the adversary, cheats in the game of politics. This descriptive and realistic theatrical scene contains a moral warning: it condemns immorality [malcostume] and especially the strategies cooked up by the politicians." Needless to say, Carabinieri police immediately snatched the painting from the wall and presumably destroyed it, but not before the media pounced upon it, rebroadcasting its message, which was that Salvini and Di Maio were conniving against Berlusconi, supposedly Salvini's partner.


    Among the multiple reasons for the failure of these six weeks of all-party negotiations was Salvini's support of Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the tempest over responsibility for the alleged gassing of Syrian citizens, which left 40 dead. "The attack on Syria was a tremendous error," declared Salvini, who made one of his several visits to Putin in Russia last March. In a twitter Salvini added, "They are still hunting for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, we are still paying for the crazy war in Libya, and the trigger-happy insist with intelligent missiles, helping among others the Islamic terrorists, who'd almost been defeated. It is crazy, stop it." Among those critical of Salvini's views was his coalition partner Berlusconi, quoted as saying, "In a situation like this it would be better to say nothing. The attack had precise objectives against sites linked to the production of chemical weapons."


    Most importantly, according to the conservative daily Il Giornale, Salvini, treading on the dangerous terrain of international relations, left President Mattarella "perplexed over whether he can entrust a leading role to Salvini, in a field that requires the gifts of prudence and diplomacy." At the same time some in the M5S sympathize with Putin's Russia; Manlio Di Stefano, in charge of the movement's foreign affairs, has criticized NATO for being too "aggressive" in East Europe.


    The challenge for Casellati is enormous, for she must again try to persuade Salvini's and Berlusconi's center-right to form a government together with the M5S. She has served six terms in the Senate, winning in Venice, where she won 42% of the votes. "I like politics and I hope to continue," she told reporters almost 25 years ago. "In my house everyone votes for Forza Italia, including my mother," she once said.


    Will she succeed? For the moment The M5S and the coalition now dominated by Salvini remain split over whether or not to include Berlusconi in a new government. Speaking for the left, Marco Travaglio, editor in chief of the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano, warns that Salvini should be careful of a breach with Berlusconi, as Di Maio is demanding. "It is very difficult and very dangerous for his allies to break with Berlusconi. He is used to slamming, with his TV stations and newspapers, everything that gets in his way." And at any rate Italian politics remain a waiting game until the results are known for regional elections, being held in Molise in the South on April 22 and, in the North, in Friuli Venezia Giulia on April 29. At that time the relative strengths of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, the Lega and Berlusconi's Forza italia will be tested.


    At any rate, said Travaglia, "Casellati will go to the parties to ask questions whose answers she already knows. She knows that the M5S will never go into government with Forza Italia and hence, with due respect, she will go into an exploratory period that can lead nowhere at all. And in this way we shall finally rid ourselves of that swindle that is called center-right. It is a fake coalition."