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Italian lessons

By Denis Solomon

Mr Solomon concludes his discussion on the parallels between the T&T of Kamla Persad-Bissessar and the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi in the wake of the Section 34 issue. Part 1 was published yesterday.

Ironically, what finally forced Berlusconi's resignation was strong public discontent fuelled by the perception that he was devoting more time to his legal woes than to solving the country's pressing economic problems. This led to irreparable defections from the governing coalition of two of its major components,.

The latest case to "time out" arose out of a charge of bribing a British lawyer, David Mills, to give false testimony in two cases of financial wrongdoing involving Berlusconi's Fininvest organisation. Mills had already been convicted and sentenced in the court of first instance, but his case also timed out during the appeals process.

The acts chiefly responsible for halting this and other cases against Berlusconi were piloted through parliament by Berlusconi's minister of justice, Angelino Alfano. The latest of them also had the effect of nullifying about 14,000 other cases and potential cases. After his recent forced resignation, Berlusconi tipped Alfano to succeed him as leader of the majority party, and therefore of the government if the party wins at the next election. But as this is being written, he has announced that the party will contest the election with himself as leader, sidelining his lapdog Alfano as "not yet ready". A cynical sacrifice strongly reminiscent of the fate of a certain Herbert Volney.

Days before this announcement, Berlusconi was convicted and sentenced to four years by a Milan court for tax fraud in the operations of his Mediaset media empire. In passing sentence the judge remarked that Berlusconi had a "natural capacity" for crime. The 2006 law, however, means that the sentence, if it becomes definitive, will be reduced to one year, and given the other limiting statutes, the chances of it becoming definitive are slim.

And in Italy, no one sentenced to less than four years ever goes to jail anyway.

In purely quantitative terms, all this would perhaps indicate that the Italian political system is more corrupt, and Italian justice even more dysfunctional, than ours. But hold on a moment. In objective terms, there is one major difference.

The Berlusconi government is out, but the Persad-Bissessar government is still in.

There is little evidence here of the party defections or overwhelming popular revulsion that brought about Berlusconi's downfall. And despite the proven, over the years, natural capacity for crime of several present and former T&T politicians, no judge has had the opportunity so to label them. Certainly, there is, as in Italy, public disaffection from the entire political process, but the tribal loyalties preventing the fall of any government other than by election subsist. And who is to say that the stand-alone adoption of Section 34 by a tame House of Representatives is less cynical, even if it was more ineptly done, than the passage of its numerous Italian counterparts? And if all Opposition and Independent Senators, instead of a single, wide-awake one, had opposed the manoeuvre, what difference could it have made, since the government has a built-in Senate majority, composed of members even more inclined, since they can be removed at the whim of the Prime Minister, to blind obedience?

In the longer term, racially based voting can be overcome, or its effects weakened, in a number of ways. But a comparison of the Italian situation with ours will go some way to show us what must be done, in purely institutional terms, to prevent abuses of power such as led to the Section 34 scandal. These measures, though radical, are few and simple.

1. Separate the legislature from the executive. In both Italy and T&T, the Prime Minister and cabinet are all members of Parliament. Here, even more than in Italy, MPs are beholden to their leader within the legislature for their endorsement as candidates in the first place, and defying him or her is not on the cards. So have an executive President, elected separately and at a different time from the legislature, and accountable to it as a whole. Such a provision would go a long way towards shifting the power base of MPs out of the lap of the Maximum Leader and into their constituencies, where it belongs. The president would then need the endorsement of party or parties to be elected, not the other way around. After all, the president would not need to be party leader or, in theory, to be a party member at all. Within parliament, leaders of majority and minorities would arise by more natural processes. By the same token, parties, inside and outside of Parliament, would be more responsive to popular will.

2. Increase the size of Parliament. In Italy, though Prime Minister and cabinet are, as in T&T, part of the legislature, the size of the Italian parliament makes unquestioning loyalty to the majority leader less certain. So threats of defection from the majority (such as the defections of the Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega Nord which were the specific occasion for Berlusconi's downfall) will curb irresponsible majority behaviour. In this country, there has been a defection of one of the elements of the so-called coalition (its leader "withdrew from the government" though neither he nor any other member of his party was in it), but it has made no difference at all to the excessive concentration of power and the consequent incompetent and abusive exercise of it.

3. Consider whether the Senate should be retained, but if it is, greatly increase its size also, and above all abolish the Government majority in that chamber.

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