From Machiavelli To Berlusconi In 500 Years (Is This Progress?)

ISN’T there a general election coming up in Italy?

Yes, it’s to be held from February 24-25, and we know there’s a poll because, in this the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli’s The Prince — a kind of Lonely Planet guide to power — Italy is engulfed by a massive corruption scandal that titillates graft-weary Italians as it disgusts them.

Maybe Machiavelli was onto something when he said: “Of mankind, we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”

Oh bella l’Italia … (sigh)… who stole what from whom this time?

It’s apt that in a post-Lehman world, where public regard for bankers isn’t that far removed from that for vermin, this particular corruption drama centres on the world’s oldest bank, the 541-year-old Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, where normal banking practice could seem secondary to its service as a spigot for the Italian left.

A €2 billion hole has been discovered in the MontePaschi accounts.

MontePaschi is Italy’s third-biggest bank and is based in Siena — deliciously in Machiavelli’s home region of Tuscany — at the heart of a bucolic area oft-known as Chiantishire, where many European bankers own glorious holiday piles.

A €2 billion (AUD2.6 billion) hole has been discovered in the MontePaschi accounts, a gap in the books derived from secretive transactions made with German and Japanese banks years ago that everyone seems to have tried to cover up. Two weeks ago, MontePaschi was forced into an embarrassing €4 billion bailout from a friendly Italian government, which can’t afford a bank collapse in the middle of its election campaign, not to mention an economy it was appointed in 2011 to clean up.

But a daily drip of revelations around MontePaschi has exposed Italy’s usual treacherous politicians, conflicted bureaucrats, dodgy bankers, incompetent officials and, because this is Italy, conniving clerics. (MontePaschi is also being probed by corruption investigators about the circumstances of a €9 billion deal in 2007 to buy rival Italian bank Antonveneta from Spanish group Santander; the Spaniards had paid just €6.6 billion for it, just weeks earlier. At the risk of getting a little Dan Brown here, these banks have links to the church’s secretive prelature Opus Dei.)

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Indeed, about the only regular performer in the unending farce of Italian public life that hasn’t yet appeared in this circus is the Mob. That’s probably only because MontePaschi is Tuscan, and not Sicilian or from Naples. Still, it’s early days in the scandal and the Cosa Nostra will inevitably cameo at some point.

Siena? Where they run that famous horse race in the town square? Isn’t that where Machiavelli comes from?

The very same. The Prince was written in nearby Florence, where Machiavelli plotted to topple the Medicis. But, yes, it is famously home to il Palio, the medieval-era gallop around the town’s magnificent Piazza del Campo, an event long funded by, you guessed it, Banca MontePaschi.

Like too many Italian banks, MontePaschi is controlled by a fondazione, regional trusts jealously controlled by local worthies and, invariably, with shady church monsignori sticking their cassocks in too. Except, again because this is Italy, these foundations have become utterly politicised. The assets these fondazioni control, such as banks like MontePaschi, have been transformed into vehicles of matey patronage for political parties and vested interests.

Banca MontePaschi is an excellent example. Tuscany is the core of Italy’s quadrilatero rosso, the “red quadriliteral’’ that also includes Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and Marche. This part of central Italy has long been a stronghold of the leftist Democratic Party (PD), which has its roots in the Italian Communist Party. Siena is strongly PD, and that means the party effectively controls MontePaschi through the Siena foundation.

Now sacked after that mysterious €2 billion hole was discovered in his bank’s accounts, MontePaschi chief executive Guiseppe Mussari is an ex-communist lawyer and PD party hack. As Rome academic Guiseppe Ragusa told The Global Mail: “Actually being a banker is a skill too far for some of these foundations. A banking qualification isn’t really the point.”

And why is this important now?

Until this all blew up, the PD was virtually assured of outright election victory. It is the main anti-Berlusconi party — about the only one equipped with the political machinery to beat the disgraced 76-year-old billionaire and former prime minister — campaigning as the antidote to his corruption. But MontePaschi again reminds Italians that institutional cancer here isn’t exclusively the preserve of the right. But if Italian politics is true to form, a PD majority in next week’s election will likely mean that the MontePaschi scandal will be quietly despatched, unpunished, into the long grass.

Ah, the always entertaining Silvio! He was finito, no?

Certo, and that’s what weary Italians thought after the man Italians call Il Cavaliere, The Knight, was booted from office in November 2011 — he says by Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel — after treating Italy as his private fief for most of the past 20 years. As Machiavelli put it, “politics has no relation to morals’’, and Berlusconi brought Italy — and Europe — to the brink of collapse (though not his own business empire). Many thought he was finished, condemned (who could forget “Ruby” and “Bunga-Bunga”) and bound for prison. The sighs of relief from Brussels and Berlin were audible in Rome.

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But in December the shameless Silvio decided he wanted power a fourth time. He withdrew his party’s support for Italy’s emergency government and started plotting. Italians treasure their democracy and this election will restore the vote briefly stolen from them when Mario Monti’s technocracy was installed a year earlier. Berlusconi has been quick to remind Italians that they actually elected him, as he touts a populist anti-austerity (read anti-EU, anti-Germany) ticket.

And he also delights in reminding that on the night last December after he forced the fall of the Berlin-backed technocracy (after pulling his party’s cross-parliament support for it), the toppled Prime Minister Monti attended the season opening at Milan’s storied La Scala opera house. The biggest event on the Italian cultural calendar usually opens, patriotically, with something from Verdi or Puccini, perhaps Rossini. But this season La Scala opened with (the German) Wagner’s Lohengrin. Among the glitterati in Milan was the EU Commission’s austerity-preaching president Jose Manuel Barroso. Silvio loved that too.

Because Italians seem to have short memories, the MontePaschi-PD scandal has rejuvenated Berlusconi’s poll numbers. As centre-left support erodes, Il Cavaliere is back with a real chance of winning at least a blocking vote next week. In Rome, one can almost feel the shudders from Berlin and Brussels at the very notion.

Beyond Berlusconi, MontePaschi has exposed deeper issues for Europe. The bank’s dodgy transactions occurred when Mario Draghi was governor of Italy’s central bank, the supervisor that’s supposed to check risky banking business. Draghi is the former Goldman Sachs executive anointed by Merkel to be governor of the mostly German-funded European Central Bank. That means he’s the custodian of the embattled euro; it’s not a good look as Europe’s crisis enters a sixth year.

Who is Berlusconi running against?

Well, there’s the 69-year-old acting incumbent Monti, the unelected economist installed 15 months ago to stave off an Italian flameout. He gets huge credit in Brussels and Berlin for stabilising the economy but precious little at home, where he’s seen as a taxer. After deciding to run, the colourless Monti has tried to patch together a centrist coalition for the election but as a career technocrat lacking a grassroots network, not to mention a personality, he’s tracking at 14-16 per cent, a poor fourth in opinion polls.

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party is second in polls with 28-30 points, behind the PD led by the 62-year-old Pier Luigi Bersani with 34-35 points. Hailing from that “red quadrilateral”, the former communist Bersani was regional boss in Emilia-Romagna, based in Bologna. He’s unlikely to win outright, but could seek a post-poll coalition with Monti.

The wildcard is the pox-on-all-their-houses activist Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo. He’s the internet-savvy former comedian famous for his vaffanculo, literally “fuck you’’, protest rallies when Italians sickened by their rancid political class come together in demonstration to tell their leaders, well, “fuck you”.

Grillo’s 5SM has polled as high as 22 per cent for a firm second behind PD and is now tracking third between 16-19 per cent. As yet another Italian political-financial scandal unfolds, the MontePaschi affair will have drawn support to Grillo, now on an end-of-poll “Tsunami tour’’ of Italy. 5SM’s internet-based activism has spooked the establishment parties into modernising their communications, and now they’re suddenly all over social media. Berlusconi’s Twitter feed is #fiducia, Italian for trust and, yes, he’s serious.

But perhaps minded of Machiavelli’s axiom that those who “act virtuously in every way necessarily come to grief among so many who are not virtuous”, Grillo’s raucous righteousness is also his Achilles heel. He wants nothing less than the wholesale cleanout of that establishment — with criminal prosecutions — and pledges he won’t make political deals with anyone. On polling day, Italians may decide a 5SM vote is a waste. Or they could prove so revolted that Grillo has power within his grasp.

The Pope’s just resigned. Will that have an impact on the election?

Apart from diverting the news cycle, likely not much. The church is broadly believed to support the (moral, church-going) Monti and then the PD. Bunga-Bunga kinda finished whatever allure the church had for Berlusconi.

What else are the parties talking about?

Grillo aside, an observer could be excused for answering “nothing”. In this not-so-divine comedy of Italian politics, there’s been lots of finger-pointing but little debate advancing policy of substance; little of immigration, Europe, education, foreign policy or the usual issues supposed to exercise voters.

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But football matters in Italy and, desperate to secure his northern heartland, Berlusconi bought one of Europe’s most gifted players, Mario Balotelli, to bolster his AC Milan line-up. No matter that Silvio said last month that he didn’t want the striker at Milan because a “bad apple” infects the dressing room, Balotelli has proved an instant success for the Rossoneri. Political analysts believe the “Balotelli Effect” could bump Berlusconi’s numbers up as much as 5 per cent in northern Italy, proving crucial in this tight poll. What was it that Machiavelli said? Oh yes, “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived”.

Machiavelli said a lot. Didn’t he also write that “people also get the government they deserve”?

No, that line has been ascribed to either the 18th century thinker Joseph de Maistre or the 19th century French republican philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. De Maistre was educated in Turin, in Italy, the country that elected Berlusconi to clean up the mess of the notorious tangentopoli crises of the early 1990s, the “Bribesville” scandal when Italians believed their corruption couldn’t get worse.

Who do you reckon first coined this?

“Whoever conquers a free town and does not demolish it commits a great error and may expect to be ruined himself.” Yep, that would be Machiavelli.