Stuck in the Swamp

Italy’s election has produced an ungovernable political wasteland. Can anyone rise above the muck?

Some 90 years ago, the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who would later go on to win a Nobel prize for literature, wrote these bitter, magic verses:

This alone today we can tell you

What we are not, what we do not want. 

At the time, it was read as a statement against the coming tides of Fascism. Today, it expresses the mood of most Italians, stuck in our post-election quagmire. There is no solid majority in the Senate nor even in the lower house of parliament, where the center-left Democratic Party enjoys a slight majority in seats (though not control) -- and there is no viable political coalition on which to build a government.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived his sixth national campaign since 1994: he lost millions of votes from his last go round, yet his promises of slashing taxes once more excited the middle class (and roiled markets). The Democratic Party's (PD) leader, Pierluigi Bersani, was the front runner in all the polls:  but he, too, failed to follow the raw data on the web and his campaign sputtered in the south. Meanwhile, embittered by joblessness, corruption, and organized crime, the south paid no attention to PD and listened to the Sirens evoked by Beppe Grillo, the populist former comedian and founder of the 5 Star party. Grillo shined, winning 25 percent of the votes, which put to rest the technocratic dreams of Premier Mario Monti. Grillo also managed to siphon off more than half of his votes from Bersani's  PD, bleeding the party of its far left. The progressive voters were angry: they did not concern themselves with bond markets, the Davos consensus, or even the wisdom of pundits, for that matter. "Tutti a casa" ("Let's send the crooks home!") was the war cry; homilies from economists fell on deaf ears. 

Clearly, voters did not bother to read Grillo's quixotic manifesto, which includes: quitting the Eurozone; withdrawing Italian troops from all international peacekeeping missions; stopping work on badly needed infrastructure projects, from high-speed trains to highways; putting a moratorium on biotech research; and denying citizenship to immigrants. Instead, in a populist frenzy, they thronged his rallies (to be fair, Grillo is a terrific political performer) and made 5 Star Italy's No. 1 party. Yet such was the chaos of this election, that abstention hit a record high, one not seen since 1946, when war-weary Italians were called to choose between a republic and monarchy.

So as the political parties now scheme and horse-trade, who really won and who lost? And what happens next? 

The real winner was fear -- the fear of globalization, free markets, innovation, integrated Europe, and high tech. Both Berlusconi and Grillo berated Germany's Angela Merkel for her politics of austerity, blaming her cold and stern Europe for Italy's woes. Berlusconi talked of repealing the imposta municipal unica, a much hated real estate tax imposed by Monti. Meanwhile, Grillo claimed that Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz will advise him on how to spur sustainable growth. But without tax revenue and with an epidemic of tax dodging, that's going to be difficult.

The loser (beyond common sense), is Italy's center-left project for a modern, innovative country. It never was a strong party line in an election dominated by the politics of rejectionism: Monti had to compromise with his crusty allies while Bersani had to keep his socialist, pro-union wing at bay. Political white noise eventually confused the voters. They stuck to Berlusconi or gambled on Grillo. Only the party faithful -- some of them grudgingly -- voted for Bersani, their ranks thinned in the north, decimated in the south. 

Now it is up to President Giorgio Napolitano to choose a prime minister and send him on a perilous safari to secure a majority and appoint a cabinet. Bersani may form a minority cabinet and beg Grillo, on his left, to support him. This is the "Sicilian formula," wherein the island's center-left governor, Rosario Crocetta, now has to negotiate every bill with 5 Star hardliners. For example, to secure the 5 Star vote on a recent budget bill, they forced Crocetta to strike down MUOS, a strategic NATO radar system, over alleged health concerns.

Will Bersani follow the same path? Will he swap national budget cuts for canceling defense projects? Will he buy a much needed new electoral law at the price of outlawing research on genetically modified food? (The latter is one of Grillo's pet peeves: he even called the late Italian Nobel laureate Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini "a bitch" for her biological research.) Will these sorts of deals diminish the party's international standing? We'll see. 

Bersani doesn't have a great deal of options. He could approach his archenemy Berlusconi and form a large coalition. But the campaign between the two was very bitter and doing so would cede the opposition to Grillo, who would thrive in such a position. And Berlusconi would likely require that Bersani give in on tax cuts (not to mention squashing any talk of regulating his television networks), moves many would see as a step back to the old, cozy ways of Italian politics.

President Napolitano's final option would be opening the procedure to call a new round of elections , to be held after his successor is elected in the spring. For Grillo, however, this would be a wonderful springboard -- he'd run as the lonely maverick against the inert establishment. 

So we're stuck. Meanwhile, Milan's stock market plunged at news of the political stalemate, while Italy's main bank, Intesa San Paolo, lost 10 percent in a few hours on Tuesday. It was enough to make European Central Bank President Mario Draghi worry that his own country might spark a new bout of eurocrisis. And it's a valid concern: European leaders are afraid that Italy's political malaise will stop whatever anemic progress there has been after the Greek debacle. Since Draghi vowed "to defend the euro at any cost," 100 billion euros in foreign investments poured back in southern Europe, including Italy. Will investors stay away now?

Here's one more curveball to consider: when the polls closed, and Bersani's Pyrrhic victory was called, TychoBigData -- a big-data start-up which maps raw political data online -- saw a sudden jump in tweets for Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence. Renzi may have lost in the PD primaries against Bersani, but for many in the left he seemed the ideal candidate. He has not spoken since his party defeat, yet insiders say he's pondering his next move. A young and brilliant politician, Renzi will likely wait and watch as Berlusconi, Bersani, Grillo, and the political animals attempt to devour one another. Whether he can rise about the carnage is anyone's guess. But Italy's swamps are very treacherous this winter.


National Security

Cleaning up a Dirty War

What America's anti-torture advocates can learn from Argentina's darkest days.

Zero Dark Thirty may have been snubbed at the Oscars, but human rights groups are still up in arms about the film and the role waterboarding may have played in the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, the day after the Academy Awards, Amnesty International cited the film's nomination in calling on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to make public its report about the CIA's treatment of detainees. Amnesty and others are frustrated that years after the U.S. use of torture became public no high-level Bush administration officials have been held accountable.

President Obama seemed to close out that possibility when he called for "turning the page" shortly after winning election in 2008. That "forgive and forget" approach, coupled with the failure to close Guantanamo and the recent white paper laying out a drone policy asserting the right to kill Americans abroad, has discouraged advocates of civil liberties, who had hoped that a Democratic president -- a constitutional law professor no less -- would have investigated and punished such egregious acts. The fact that they are using one movie's Oscar loss as a call for action suggests how desperate they are.

Those advocates might, however, derive encouragement by looking south -- way south -- to Argentina. That may seem an odd source of inspiration, given that the country has hardly been a model for good governance. Cristina Kirchner is currently president, having succeeded her now-deceased husband Nestor in 2007, and their dual reign has been marked by the expropriation of foreign-owned enterprises, rampant inflation (which the government consistently tries to hide), and a dubious alliance with ailing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who may have helped fund Kirchner's 2007 campaign.

When it comes to human rights, though, the couple presided over a watershed in Argentine history: They made it possible for members of one of the most brutal military dictatorships in South America to finally be tried and sentenced for kidnapping, murder, and torture. In the late 1980s, those men seemed forever protected by a spate of amnesty laws. Now, hundreds have been convicted. It's a narrative that activists who long for a similar meting out of justice in the United States can take hope from -- and learn from, too.

Obviously, there are enormous differences between the U.S. and Argentine cases. During the so-called Dirty War, the military junta killed as many as 30,000 people, the vast majority of them native Argentines. Their repertoire, moreover, was shockingly grisly: It included kidnapping, rape, electric shock torture, and drugging and dumping prisoners' inert bodies from airplanes into the sea. Perhaps most egregiously, the government took hundreds of babies from sequestered mothers and gave them to members of the military and their supporters. While the war was ostensibly waged against guerrilla fighters, the military's victims expanded well beyond that group to include anyone with suspected leftist sympathies. Students, journalists, and even psychologists were particularly vulnerable to being "disappeared."

While the United States tortured in the so-called war on terrorism, its actions certainly did not reach the depths of the Argentine junta. (No one is accusing senior officials of taking newborns away from their mothers.) But there are not-insignificant parallels between the U.S. war on terrorism and Argentina's Dirty War. Both had a similar incitation: They were launched in response to terrorism. The military junta was able to seize power from Isabel Peron's hapless government in 1976 largely because it was incapable staving off the Marxist Montoneros guerrillas, who were kidnapping high profile targets and setting off bombs in movie theaters and hotels. Some of the hallmarks of the U.S. war on terrorism also echo tactics deployed in the Dirty War, like indefinite detention, "hooding" (placing a hood over the entire face of a prisoner, so he cannot see), and waterboarding. And, as in the United States, for a long time in Argentina it seemed like no one would ever be forced to answer for their actions. For decades, the perpetrators of the Dirty War lived openly, and seemed immune from prosecution.

Yet now many of them are behind bars. How did that turn-around happen? Generally speaking, human rights activists employed three tactics. They documented and disseminated information on the abuses; consistently staged public demonstrations, even when the political climate seemed hopeless; and leveraged international courts to try members of the military brass in absentia when domestic jurists did nothing. "When the doors were closed," says Mirna Goransky, who has prosecuted cases against Dirty War military officials, "we did all we could to leverage the small openings that remained."

Human rights advocates were aided by the fact that, immediately following the fall of junta government in 1983, democratically-elected President Raul Alfonsín put top generals on trial and initiated a truth commission to investigate their legacy of political violence and repression. When the military threatened to take down the government, Alfonsín ended up pushing through what would be only the first round of amnesty laws, but the findings of the truth commission, published under the title Nunca Mas ("Never Again"), stunned the Argentine public. Documenting what happened during the period popularly known as anos de plomo, or "years of lead," became a useful placeholder for justice. In the 1990s, when courts wouldn't jail junta-era torturers, human rights attorneys pursued so-called "truth trials," in which they didn't demand punishment, but rather judicial investigations into the fate of the disappeared.

In addition to all of the legal wrangling, human rights groups consistently staged public demonstrations. The most iconic were, of course, the madres de la plaza de mayo, who took to walking in the Plaza de Mayo square in Buenos Aires every Thursday, wearing their signature white handkerchiefs. Most of the women were mothers of desaparecidos. Their consistent presence, and maternal bonafides, made them potent opponents.

The activists looked internationally, as well, to effect change at home. Attorneys proactively took on the cases of European victims, and had officers tried abroad in absentia. In 1999, in part at the prodding of Argentine attorneys, Spanish jurist Baltazar Gaston followed up on his warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet by filing charges against members of the Argentine armed forces. The censure put pressure on Argentina to act, and when Kirchner annulled the decree forbidding extradition in 2003, the Dirty War cases started being heard in domestic courts.

To be sure, human rights groups today are using many of the same tactics deployed in Argentina. In 2011, for example, Amnesty International called for Canada to arrest and prosecute George W. Bush for his role in approving torture. This appears to have curbed the former president's international travel, but if he were in fact detained by a foreign government, it would probably backfire. Rather than whip up more U.S. public support for a thorough accounting for what happened post-9/11, most Americans would be outraged that a foreign power had put a former U.S. commander-in-chief in the dock.

The part of the Argentine playbook that could be most effective in the United States is the public documentation of acts of torture. It was almost nine years ago that pictures of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib surprised and sickened the American public. Although news accounts of what happened during the Bush years -- and popular media like 24 and, yes, Zero Dark Thirty -- have no doubt inured the public to the reality of U.S.-sanctioned torture, putting more information out there would have an impact. Government officials implicated in the Bush-era policies know this; that's why the C.I.A. destroyed tapes of its interrogations.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have released reports documenting the role senior officials played in condoning "enhanced interrogation techniques." More powerful than these efforts would be for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to declassify its 6,000-page report on the use of torture post-9/11. It reportedly makes the case that subjecting prisoners to torture did not play a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden and was counterproductive in the broader effort to root out terrorists. Despite persistent demands from human rights activists like Amnesty, the report remains shrouded from public view.

That gets to what is arguably the real lesson of the Argentine experience: Don't give up. By seizing on every opportunity to obtain and disseminate information and keeping the pressure on, activists eventually succeeded in getting trials. In a speech he gave in 2011, ACLU president Anthony Romero said his counterpart in Argentina -- the head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires -- routinely bucks him up when Romero despairs of seeing charges brought in connection to the war on terrorism. "You're thinking too short a time frame," Romero's counterpart purportedly tells him. "It took us 37 years."