The trouble with parliaments

Mario Monti is in trouble for something he said to the Germans. He has since claimed that he was merely calling for greater ‘flexibility’ in the ‘interactions’ between governments and the parliamentary assemblies of Europe, but politicians across the Bundestag would have none of that: what he really meant, they say, is that executives should have more power at the expense of their legislatures. It was an attack on democracy itself.

Monti was sworn in as a caretaker Prime Minister in December of last year, after a hasty appointment as lifetime senator of the Italian Republic. His mandate was to select a cabinet of respected academics and professionals with no political affiliations, and – if not get the country out of financial trouble – at least restore some of its credibility with international investors. Or, as he put it recently to the Wall Street Journal:

My job was to transform my popularity, which started out at about 72% and is now around 40%, into unpopularity by way of necessary measures.

What a remarkable sentence that is. What it says is that good politics, necessary politics, is doing the things that you know will make you unpopular, that is to say the opposite of what the people want. However that’s not quite true either: because the people knew you were going to do those things, as measured by the fact that they seemed to approve of you back when you said you were going to do them. That is a singular mandate to receive, by way of an opinion poll, and to think of that as a political capital to be not so much spent as exhausted over time is more singular still.

Occasionally, I have to reassure non-Italian acquaintances that things were done by the (constitutional) book. In Italy it is not necessary to be elected in order to form a government, as the president is empowered to give the mandate to just about anybody so long as they have a chance of securing in turn the approval of the two houses of parliament. And for the last several months we’ve been told that our parliament has lost none of its prerogatives: it can send Monti and his government home whenever it so chooses, and then the president would have to call for an early election. Except, any political force that precipitated such an outcome would also have to answer for its consequences. How would the bond markets react to such news? What chain of reactions would this set in motion? How would the country function during the transition, if it had to cope with a sudden financial collapse? These aren’t entirely far-fetched propositions: even with the reassuring presence of Monti in charge – the man who the markets and the Troika wanted – spreads have climbed back to where they were when Berlusconi resigned, and our major banks get credit-downgraded every time one of their tellers sneezes.

So to a degree our (very culpable) parliament is hostage to the situation. But when is the game supposed to end? The next national election is scheduled for April of next year, and for some months now it has become customary in opinion polls to ask variations on the following question: would you be in favour of postponing the election and letting the current government complete its job? This tells us two things. Firstly, how casually the subject of a coup d’état can be raised; and secondly, that there is a diffuse perception that the technocrats are there to do a finite job. And if they’re there to do a finite job, as opposed to stemming for a time the continuing haemorrhage of the nation’s finances, then what is this job?

I follow Italian politics closely, but I cannot say that it’s ever been very clear to me. The most obvious, visible role of this government has been to implement austerity measures in order to restore trust in our governance among central European economies and international investors. Those are the ‘necessary measures’ that Monti refers to, but they will never amount to a finite job. Our pain will never be ‘enough’, partly because these measures aren’t actually improving our debt position – since the economy continues to contract – but mostly because it’s an existential, symbolic kind of pain: a price that we must pay indefinitely to continue playing our role in the European moral theatre.

While this pain is being inflicted, the Monti government fulfils another major function: to provide political cover to the parties that are currently represented in the assembly, none of which wants to be tarnished with having brought in austerity. This is where the technical arrangement, while not breaching the letter of our constitution, effectively suspends democracy, for Monti and his ministers can act without the need of political consensus or the fear of political consequence. They weren’t elected, nor are they seeking to be re-elected. But they are in charge, and while they are in charge, see no limits to the extent of their mandate.

Technocrats must do things, because this is what technocrats are like: always working, always implementing measures. And so after that initial emergency budget was passed, last December, and knowing that they were going to have to stick around for a while, they started to devise ways to keep themselves occupied. Soon the business of the caretaker government morphed into the structural reform of our institutions. Everything became a necessary measure, including when Education Minister Francesco Profumo – for reasons understood solely by him – suggested introducing competition for awards and scholarships among high school students. But the targets of the most important initiatives were unions and workers. Minister of Labour and Social Development Elsa Fornero, best known outside of Italy as the one who cried, decided to go after article 18 of the Workers’ Statute, the one that protects employees against unfair dismissal, on the not-at-all-ideological grounds that making it easier to fire people will reduce unemployment. Then she too went to the Wall Street Journal (where else?) and explained to them that ‘work isn’t a right’ – quite the revelation for anyone familiar with articles 1, 3 and most especially 4 of our constitution.

Who needs parliaments or constitutions? One of the reasons why so many eyes are fixated on Italy at present is that it has become a protracted experiment in post-democracy, perhaps a model of the Europe to be. Monti himself intimated as much when he said that if the eurozone is to survive this crisis, it will be by giving its executive bodies ‘more room for manoeuvre’. The room to do what is necessary, in a special zone above politics. And if it’s offered to them, you can be sure that they’ll take it.

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