Berlusconi, Bersani, Beppe The Comico - A Most Bitter Italian Election

Where are the leaders?
Where are the leaders?
Gianni Riotta


We’re all critical of the leaders of our time: Obama let us down, Merkel isn’t Adenauer, and Hollande and Cameron are just pale copies of Monsieur Mitterrand and Lady Thatcher.

Meanwhile, in Italy, in front of the disappointing batch of candidates for national elections, nostalgia runs deep for figures of the past from Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro to Communist Party chief Enrico Berlinguer.

If the current polls are correct, the Democratic Party’s Pierluigi Bersani should come out ahead, though he will rely on support from interim centrist Prime Minister Mario Monti and others. Silvio Berlusconi, after 20 years in politics, still has a solid block of around 25% support together with the Northern League, proving that his comeback was not made of “plastic.” Either way, comedian-turned-political activist Beppe Grillo is expected to garner enough support to be a significant and unpredictable force in Parliament. His Five-Star Movement has benefited from the inability of Monti's government to tackle corruption or produce a reasonable reform of the electoral law.

Grillo on the campaign trail (Niccolo" Caranti)

As much as one would like to forget, our leaders get where they are because we voted them there. We pretend to forget that, if they’re not up to scratch, it’s everybody’s fault – the entire ruling class: managers, businessmen, unions, academics, artists, bankers. There isn’t a profession that isn't using all its force to defend its own privileges and the status quo.

The price of bitterness

It could appear that the “weak” leaders of our generation are a result of a country that has lost the value of the shared community. But one thing is sure; whoever wins the Italian elections will have to find the right tone to communicate with the people. It’s the same problem that David Cameron faces with a UK that wants to leave Europe, as well as with a Scotland that wants to leave the UK. Spain’s Mariono Rajoy, who is down 10% in the polls, has the same situation with the Catalans who want independence from Spain; and Francois Hollande has become a disappointment to the French as quickly as did Nicolas Sarkozy.

In an Italy, as well as a Europe, that isn’t getting any younger, the people look to the past – to the years of the economic boom, sexual liberation and peace – with a personal and political nostalgia. The young Italians look at the ballot boxes with bitterness because they have been hurt by this economic crisis and have neither the means of their peers in America to innovate, nor the enthusiasm to create a new political movement.

Yet, in the end, bitterness doesn’t pay off in politics or in life. Looking at the U.S. presidential elections from the 20th century onwards, the candidate with the most optimistic message always prevails over their gloomy rivals. Whether they’re wrong or right, we want to hear words of confidence from our leaders.

In Winston Churchill’s first speech in 1940 as British Prime Minister he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat...” While this is often quoted as an example of a leader plainly laying out the difficulties a country faces, it was actually a taste of Churchill's optimism, especially compared to his pessimistic predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, who was ready to surrender to Hitler.

A path forward

During the Italian electoral campaign, nobody has spoken of reform as a good thing. Too many fear technology, research and new digital knowledge, thinking they are snobbish games that shut out anyone who doesn't have a job.

It’s a false myth that will wreak terrible damage. To maintain economic growth in the north of Italy, and to create one in the south – because an entire generation cannot stay unemployed for their entire lives – the only path is through innovation.

Bersani's lead in the polls is shrinking (Francesca Minnone)

If you think back to the necessary public spending cuts to counteract the debt: if imposed, they stem investments and cut jobs – which scares people. A less painful and more effective reform, like the one long advocated by economist Kenneth Rogoff is to reduce public sector costs more efficiently.

Bersani knows that a budget of up to 13 billion euros looms over 2013. He knows that going deeper into debt isn’t possible, but he also knows that some people define as “perverse” the EU’s philosophy of cutting spending in the middle of a recession with millions unemployed.

True reforms, not the petulant kind that the liberal purists threaten people with, are beyond the State v Market dispute. The State facilitates research and start-ups, as well as sustaining the workers who don’t have the necessary knowledge and training.

The market promotes innovation and spreads technology – if in two generations, thanks to technology, South Korea has gone from being hungry to doing extremely well, why doesn’t that happen in Sicily?

Italians are frustrated with the last 20 years of polemics, weak governments and reforms that have put people on the chopping block. Both the next Prime Minister and whoever is in the opposition must listen to the people, otherwise Italy risks being left behind.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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