Not waving but drowning on an empty beach

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica in recent days, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colours, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This was in a left-of-centre daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian prime minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich”. The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This was in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable.

Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the €2 mark per litre, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun.

It was little hassle to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled daily the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

The technocratic government led by Monti, the distinguished economist and former European commissioner, has seen little of the beach. The elected politicians, free from the usual business of government or opposition, were active, too.

The political scene is as boiling hot as the climate. The left remains fractured and struggles for alliances and unity. The new populists, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars movement, remain attractive to many because of Grillo’s attacks on a partly corrupt political class.

In the centre, a loose coalition of Christian Democrats and secular liberals invoke the spirit and memory of Alcide de Gasperi, Italy’s long-serving postwar premier — who presided over the rapid recovery of the economy in the 1950s and positioned Italy as a founding member of what became the EU. It seeks to tempt Monti into heading the Christian Democrats and running for elected office after his temporary mandate ends next April.

On the right, the immortal Silvio Berlusconi dominates attention. The near- universal assumption, one that I shared, that his resignation in November amid jeers and a collapse in the support for his Forza Italia party, meant his political end underestimated his will for power. Or, say cynics, it did not take into account his fear that if he does not retain some political power he will finally enter the maw of the justice system which has tried to nail him for a quarter of a century.

He has been addressing the still-faithful around the country, secure (he says) in the love of the people and in his country’s need of him.

He is on trial in Milan for encouraging underage prostitution, and German model Sabina Began told the daily Il Fatto Quotidiano he had impregnated her, and that she lost the child in a miscarriage (he denies it). But Italy is still a country for old men, and at 75, this old man has the money, media and stomach for another fight.

For the moment, though, Italy is Monti’s charge and though he cuts and cuts, warns of hardships to come, and has no charisma in any conventional sense, he remains popular among an electorate desperate for him to succeed. And not just with the people: Both Moody’s and Fitch rating agencies lauded him last week, the latter saying he was “credible” and that if and when he leaves the scene, greater risks return.

No hint of a scandal has attended him, and the political circus around him can look tawdry. But the circus beasts were chosen by the people. Pierluigi Bersani, Partito Democratico leader, said in an interview with Repubblica that Monti had done a fine job but must stand aside in the spring as “if the idea catches on that politics is not able to take us out of the crisis, we will put ourselves on the margins of the democracies”.


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