The Bordello State

Italy's descent under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, nave sanza nocchiero in gran tempesta, non donna di province, ma bordello!

Quoting Dante is, I admit, the last resort of a scoundrel or at least the indolent scribe. But this one, from Purgatorio,* is too apposite not to use. Roughly translated, it reads, "Alas enslaved Italy, inn of sorrow, a ship without a helmsman in a great storm, not a queen of her provinces, but a whorehouse." It was also the title of a book by Paolo Sylos Labini published posthumously in 2006; Sylos Labini was not only one of Italy's most distinguished economists, but a man of absolute integrity who consistently and very openly refused to compromise with Power (even "power" with a small "p"). His last work described, analyzed and criticized the Italy of five years ago. "Why have we sunk so low?" he asked. "I exhort my fellow citizens to carry out an unflinching critical examination of our civic consciousness if we want to rise from the abyss." His appeal was more or less an economist's defense of the market economy and its rules, which defend the community against unbridled economic and political power. Italian prime minister and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's massive conflicts of interest have made a mockery of these rules.

Today's Italy has been battered by even more internal storms, as well as the obvious international economic ones; since then, the prime minister's residences have become brothels -- and not just metaphorically. Above all, the ship of state is close to being rudderless. So I am not the only person in Italy quoting Dante these days.

There has been a lack of clear leadership since the end of July, but over the last fortnight the lack of direction has become paroxysmal. For most of August, Berlusconi threatened elections in order to bring Gianfranco Fini, the rebellious former ally who broke with the prime minister in July and formed his own party, and his followers to heel. Then, as polls showed that the only real winner in an early vote would be Umberto Bossi and the Northern League, which favors autonomy for Italy's north -- and, worse, that there was a good chance that Berlusconi would not win a majority in the Senate -- he started backpedaling. These last few days, his public statements once again refer to "three more years in order to carry out the Great Reforms." The immediate aim is to pass a motion supporting a five-point plan concerning the economy, the South, fiscal federalism, justice, and security. The most controversial issue is "justice," which for Berlusconi means giving the himself immunity from prosecution ("in order to get on with the job of governing," he says). Devolved spending powers are fundamental for the Northern League, but others in the center-right are worried that poorer parts of the country will lose support.

Berlusconi boasts constantly that his personally run foreign policy is the envy of Europe, but the reality is different and as counterproductive as much of his domestic policy. Last week, he used his presence at the Kremlin-organized Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl, Russia, to take a swipe at Fini (without naming him), saying there were some who had created "little political businesses" (aziendine) in Italy; then he made the nth complaint that "communist judges" were stopping him and his people from governing; and finally, to cap his effusive welcome to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi two weeks ago, came the remarkable statement that his hosts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were "God's gift to democracy" (pity that the Economist had beat him to it with a cartoon showing Putin's real love of democracy and the press). More embarrassing still was the news that one of Libya's Italian-donated coast guard launches had machine-gunned an Italian fishing boat.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi's domestic woes are multiplying. The editor of one of his own papers, Vittorio Feltri in Il Giornale, criticized the prime minister this week for being indecisive and lacking leadership. Worse, his personal approval ratings are at 37 percent (down 4.9 percentage points since June), with his People of Freedom Party below 30 percent (down from 33.2 percent in June and 37.4 percent in the 2008 elections), according to an early September Demos poll. We will know whether the "three more years" proposal has any chance whatsoever at the end of the month when the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house of Parliament, debates Berlusconi's five-point plan and votes on it. In the meantime, the prime minister appears to be on a shopping spree, hoping to pick up independents to make up the loss of defectors to Fini -- he needs 19 to have a secure majority.

If anyone can pull off this feat, it's Berlusconi. Given his financial and media resources along with other forms of political patronage, there is little that he cannot offer. He has experience in convincing parliamentarians to come over to his side, as recent revelations about the so-called P3 are showing. (The P3 is an alleged secret cabal whose members were active three years ago in trying to promote Berlusconi's public and private interests through underhanded means. One allegation holds that in, late 2007, in another political shopping spree, the P3 began throwing around money and favors in an effort to bring down the left-leaning government of Romano Prodi; his coalition duly fell apart in January 2008.) But the revelations of its moves to oust Prodi are themselves proof of the changes in Italian politics since then. Unlike on similar occasions, when indicted politicians were very tight-lipped, it seems that most of the accused are singing as if they were in La Scala -- and suggest rats fleeing from a sinking ship.

It's a shame Berlusconi is so preoccupied with his own survival, because his country is in big trouble. Italy's relative decline began almost 20 years ago, when it became clear the economy was not able to face the new challenges of globalization, but every year production figures go down with respect to Europe, and of course China and the other emerging economies. Last week, the OECD -- the developed world's think tank -- calculated that the country's GDP would decline 0.3 percent in the third quarter (making Italy the only G-7 country with negative growth) and grow by a miserable 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter. The World Economic Forum reckons that a real recovery has not begun and puts Italy in 48th place for global competitiveness, just behind Lithuania and ahead of Montenegro. Youth unemployment grew to 29.2 percent in May, up 4.7 percentage points from May of last year. Berlusconi's minister for economic development resigned four months ago and still has not been replaced. And as the school year begins, teachers are on the warpath over budget cuts, as are the police. There are plenty of real issues, but Italy is nave sanza nocchiero, "a ship without a helmsman."

So is Italy once again "enslaved," as Dante lamented 700 years ago? And is Italy a brothel instead of queen of her own provinces? A new book by a Princeton University scholar argues that Italy is very much the bordello. In La libertà dei servi, Maurizio Viroli writes that Italy has succeeded "in the political experiment of transforming, without violence, a democratic republic into a court which has at the centre a feudal lord surrounded by a plethora of courtesans admired and envied by a multitude of people with a servile spirit."

In Verdi's Rigoletto, the protagonist curses the courtesans with his wonderful aria "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!" but today it is the courtesans who are in control. Even Fedele Confalonieri, probably Berlusconi's best friend and closest associate, described him in 2004 as "an enlightened despot … a good Ceausescu, but decidedly anomalous as a democratic politician." Six years later, with a changed electoral system that makes all parliamentarians beholden to him and a new, enlarged party completely under his control, the quote is even more apt.

Last week, a center-right deputy in Fini's group accused some of her fellow MPs of having prostituted themselves to get into Parliament. She withdrew the statement immediately (even though a deputy from Berlusconi's party said that he saw nothing untoward if anyone had), but in any case Veronica Lario, Berlusconi's second wife, and the Fini think tank FareFuturo had made the same point in April of last year. The real point, though, is that the problem is not that some women got into Parliament through a bedroom; it is that men and women, journalists and professionals, have given up their minds and principles rather than their bodies.

Dante is oft quoted here for good reason.

* The original version of this article stated that the quote at the top of this article was from Dante's Inferno.



Constitutional Crisis

A looming referendum in Turkey has once again turned into a showdown between secular and religious forces.

Not a day has gone by in Istanbul recently without a huge demonstration: Vans drive along main thoroughfares blasting Anatolian folk songs, volunteers distribute brochures, and neighborhoods are flooded with thousands of glossy billboards brandishing political slogans. It once again feels like election season in Turkey.

On Sept. 12, Turks will go to the polls to vote on a controversial package of constitutional reforms. Among other measures, the proposed reforms would reorganize the country's higher courts, which traditionally have been bastions of Turkey's uncompromising form of secularism.

In Turkey's contentious political climate, those old, elite forces of secularism are constantly at odds with the rising conservative middle class based in central Anatolia - now mostly represented by the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Turks line up once again on different sides of this old divide, the referendum has become a stand-in for which vision will dominate the country's future.

For AKP supporters, the package is an essential step toward improving a constitution that was imposed by Turkey's military leaders after the 1980 coup. In making the case in favor of the reforms, Erdogan has harped on the political influence that the present constitution grants to the military, arguing that his party wishes to "end the humiliation of the coups" by bringing the courts in line with European standards.

Erdogan's opponents see the referendum as an AKP ploy to exert its influence over the judiciary. The AKP is a conservative party with its roots in political Islam, and it is more comfortable with the role of religion in public life than Turkey's traditional secularists. The powerful Constitutional Court has historically been a bastion of secularist influence in the country and has banned Islamist parties. In 2008, in fact, it censured the AKP for "anti-secular activities" and came within one vote of shutting it down entirely.

Gursel Tekin, vice president of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), is one of the figures who believes that the proposed amendments are more akin to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's court-packing scheme in the 1930s than a series of earnest technocratic reforms. He said he is concerned that the AKP wishes to have more "like-minded people" in the judiciary, so that the party can easily "advance its own agenda."

This pitch has left Turks divided almost exactly down the middle. Adil Gur, head of the A&G research firm, says that recent polls predicted that 45.5 percent of Turks approve of the measures, 42.1 oppose them, and 12.4 percent are still undecided. Gur has conducted about seven polls since the referendum date was officially announced earlier this year. Over that time, he has witnessed surprisingly few swings in the electorate's opinions. "We believe it's because the society is so polarized," Gur says. "People are likely to vote for the leaders, not so much [for what is in] the package."

Whether the referendum succeeds or fails, it will do little to alleviate Turkey's most pressing ethnic dispute -- escalating tensions between the country's Kurdish minority and the state. Clashes between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist group that has waged a decades-long struggle against the state, and the Turkish army have claimed the lives of dozens this summer.

Erdogan didn't include Kurdish rights in the constitutional reform package out of fear of alienating voters outside the predominantly Kurdish eastern regions. In response, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the main legal Kurdish party, called on its supporters to boycott the Sept. 12 vote, none of which meets their demands.

By ignoring Kurdish interests, Erdogan is likely costing himself a reservoir of support from Kurdish voters that otherwise would have been his ally on limiting the power of Turkey's old guard. According to Gur's projections, 66 percent of the BDP's approximately 1.7 million supporters will likely boycott the vote. If BDP voters turned out at the polls, he predicted, the AKP could have secured a 2 percent advantage over the opposition.

Faced with these challenges, Erdogan is leaving little to chance in his effort to push the referendum through. The AKP's well-organized grassroots activists have taken full advantage of the month of Ramadan by organizing iftar dinners to break their fast with voters and talk politics. The party has also called on its supporters to cancel umra visits - trips observant Muslims take to the Islamic holy city of Mecca - in order not to lose "yes" votes.

Despite this frantic political maneuvering, many Turks are still preoccupied with the larger question of their country's ultimate direction. Alaatin Masim, 53, is a pious Ramadan drummer and father of seven children. For the last month, he has beaten his drum around 3 a.m. each morning to wake residents for Suhur -- the last meal that observant Muslims can eat before sunrise. Masim is afraid that Turkey's possible accession to the European Union, which the AKP supports, could eventually cost him his livelihood. "I hear [playing drums] will be completely forbidden if Turkey enters the European Union" he says. "How am I going to feed my children?"

Masim's political allegiances are mixed. He voted for the AKP in the last two elections, yet he carries a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the adamantly secular founder of the Turkish Republic, in his wallet. However, he has recently soured on the ruling party. "Only if [the AKP] bring jobs to us, I will vote for them," he says.

The referendum on Sunday will define the atmosphere heading into Turkey's general elections next July. A sweeping victory by Erdogan could give him a major boost, and perhaps even pave the way for an entirely new constitution. Whether that would deepen Turkey's current divides or present the country with a fresh start to reconcile its differences will be an even tougher test for Turkish democracy.