Rome is Burning for Bush

Despite domestic instability, President Bush encountered a more internationally assertive Italy when he arrived in Rome last weekend.

This weekend, President Bush visits Rome to meet with Italian leaders and the Pope. He will encounter the ritual European anti-war demonstrations-8,000 riot police are ready should the rallies, one of which is organized by the "disobedient" extra-parliamentary left, become violent-not to mention the opening of the trial of 25 CIA agents and a U.S. Air Force colonel charged in the rendition of Osama Mustafa Hassan. He will almost certainly receive a firm "no" to any suggestion that Italy should take a more active role in the mission in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema will be cordial, but the smallest show of warmth toward the American leader would pull the plug on Prodi's already moribund government. The "No Bush Day" rallies in Rome will be attended by several far-left members of the Prodi government, although Prodi has debarred Cabinet ministers from participating, and the far-left parties have more than enough votes to bring Prodi down in Parliament.

Actually, strong American pressure for a bigger Italian contribution in Afghanistan is one of the few things that might unite the Prodi government and cause it to drag on a few more painful months. Prodi's government has never regained momentum since the government crisis in February. Its problems are structural and will not go away. In essence, the government needs to pass harsh reforms to liberalize the economy, get the budget back in balance, improve relations with the United States and modernize the country's institutions. But these ideas are mostly anathema to the Left. The question is increasingly becoming when, not if, the Left (or exasperated centrists worried about their electoral future) will pull the rug out from beneath Prodi's feet.

There is a growing likelihood of a "ferryboat government", perhaps led by a technocrat-the former EU Commissioner, Mario Monti, has all but thrown his hat in the ring in a series of newspaper articles and interviews-or by an "institutional" figure such as the president of the Senate, Franco Marini. Such a government would have the task of carrying on ordinary administration and passing a temporizing budget while the political parties wrangle over yet another (it would be the third since 1994) electoral reform. Elections in that case would be in the spring of next year.

Fresh elections would probably bring Silvio Berlusconi, whom Bush will meet privately at the end of his stay, back to power, with the north of the country voting by plebiscitary margins for the populist right. But there are plenty of unknowns. Berlusconi, who is seventy, has been taken ill on two occasions during recent speaking engagements. There is nobody ready to take his place as a unifying force on the right, although the president of the Employers' Federation and of FIAT, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, recently denied slightly too emphatically that he might enter politics. A charismatic figure with a proven record of success in business, Montezemolo might have wide public appeal.

The center-left might also regain competitiveness, though this looks less likely with every day that passes. The two largest parties of the center-left, the "Democrats of the Left" and "Democracy and Liberty" vowed in May to form a new "Democratic" party in October. This move may renew public support, but so far it has only strengthened the far left and caused an immense quantity of futile politicking as the new party's big guns struggle in advance for the leadership.

Foreign Minister D'Alema recently warned that he sensed the same popular frustration with the political class that brought the entire party system crashing to the ground in 1992-1993. D'Alema's alarm is justified. The privileges of the political elite have become an authentic issue in recent months. A recent (and at times scarcely credible) exposé of the elite's privileges by two diligent and daring journalists is entitled "The Caste." Italians believe they are being ill-served by their leaders.

It is hard to disagree. Italy is a first-world economy with Latin American politics. The economy, as the recent revival of FIAT shows, can still surprise. But one has to wonder how long the contrast between economic vitality and political muddle can endure. Italy's competitiveness is harmed by high rates of taxation, a bloated public debt, out-of-date labor laws, a malfunctioning legal system, painfully inept local government (images of mountains of burning trash in Naples have blighted Italy's reputation all over the world), over-generous pensions, failing universities, pervasive corruption and overburdened infrastructure. Neither Berlusconi nor Prodi has made much impact on these Augean stables, and it was perhaps expecting too much to suppose that they would have done so. But this does not mean that the problems will go away.