May 31, 2007

But Prodi doesn't really care

Though Italian Prime minister has not campaigned, insisting the vote had a local significance and no bearing on national politics, last weekend’s local elections have been largely seen as a test for Romano Prodi, given the number of eligible voters—10 million out of an overall electorate of 47 million—and the number of races, with mayorships and city councils to be filled in some 850 towns and small cities and governments in seven provinces. And the test results—inline with a recent opinion poll saying that the majority of citizens think Prodi's government has not done a good job—indicate that, to be fair, the unpopularity of the year old centre-left government has raised the level of alert. Or, to be manifestly unfair, “all of Italy has sent a clear signal to Prodi: this government of taxes must go home,” as centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi said.

But it is to be said that, earlier this month, Prodi’s coalition was also largely trounced by the center-right in local elections in Sicily (just another “local test,” according to Italy’s Prime minister). This after in February a humiliating foreign policy vote in the Senate briefly brought down the government.

Yet, Romano Prodi has made his best to minimise the electoral whirlwind (“I have no problems in saying that this was an entirely expected result”). But his dismissive shrug could turn out to be a boomerang by giving Italians the impression—or, I should better say, “confirming” the impression—that their Prime minister doesn’t really care what the people think about what the government is doing.

There have obviously been many attempts to explain Prodi’s defeat. This, in today’s The Times, is in my opinion a very perceptive one:

Italy’s multiple political parties and hangers-on cost its citizens € 4 billion a year, more than those of Britain, Germany, France and Spain put together. It is a mighty machine for patronage and getting out the vote, but hopeless at governing. What Mr Prodi has given Italians for their money is a nine-party coalition that runs the gamut from Trotskyist to (a precious few) economic liberals and is daggers drawn over everything from gay rights to public spending, taxes, pensions and regulatory reform.
Mr Prodi’s pledges of sweeping reforms have dwindled into a modest trimming of Italy’s huge debts, a lower budget deficit, and an assault on taxi-driver cartels, bank charges, notaries and supermarkets, with hairdressers and petrol pump owners next in line. All this activity is marginal. He even shows signs of watering down the Berlusconi law raising the retirement age from 57 to 60 — folly, since for every 100 Italians under 18, there are 141 over 65.
As the election results came in yesterday, Mr Prodi set out to prove his point. In a sop to the Left, he gave Italy’s 3.5 million public sector workers, whose pay in recent years has risen twice as fast as in the private sector, a budget-busting 4.5 per cent pay rise, all without securing the productivity gains he had insisted must be part of any deal. It took Gordon Brown the best part of a decade to understand that such deals stoke inflation; the Italian Left seems not to care. Mr Prodi should now be aware that voters do care.

Yep, voters do care, indeed.