Does the outcome of last month’s election in Italy have any relevance to the U.S.? A youngish center/left candidate who claimed to represent a new politics of hope — “Si puo fare” (“It can be done”) — lost decisively to a 71-year-old figure of the center/right who is nothing if not a familiar fixture of Italian politics. The loser’s resemblance to Barack Obama is not coincidental. Walter Veltroni was the first European politician to promote Obama after the two met in 2005. Veltroni wrote the introduction for the Italian release of The Audacity of Hope. While he has moved to the center in recent years, Veltroni began his political life in the communist party, a biographical detail unforgiven by some voters.
But Silvio Berlusconi pulled out a great victory. And that is where resemblances to American politics must end. Consider what Berlusconi faces. The New York Times reported it this way: “Beginning his third term as prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday pledged unusually forceful measures to solve Italy’s deep problems. These steps include new restrictions on illegal immigrants and the use of the military to tackle the longstanding garbage crisis in Naples.” The military? To clear garbage?
Your humble correspondent was just in Italy last week and, amid many delights (including the gorgeous Amalfi Coast), had the misfortune to spend the better part of a day in Naples. Nothing prepares you for the squalor. The trash is piled up in great hillocks around the city, many as much as one-story high. The stench is oppressive. A great deal of garbage has of course escaped its plastic bags and decorates the streets and sidewalks. Everywhere your eye falls, even in the district surrounding the Palazzo Real (Royal Palace), blight reigns. Having just seen Rome and Sorrento, Naples was a jar.
My friend Michael Ledeen — an expert on Italian fascism, Euro-communism, the history of Italy, terrorism, and many other subjects — is completing a book on Naples. He compares it to New Orleans — another corrupt city. Both cities are doomed, he explains. New Orleans — it need hardly be recalled, post-Katrina — lies below sea level, and in the path of hurricanes. Naples sits right below Mount Vesuvius, which has erupted dozens of times since its catastrophic explosion in AD 79, most recently in 1944.
The question now is whether the Italian government has the wherewithal to deal with the literal and figurative mess. Italy is famed for its ungovernability. The trash has piled up in the streets of Naples because the dumps are full and when a new dump or incinerator is proposed, there is loud protest from those in proximity to the planned site. The NIMBY impulse is killing a great European city.
Not only is the trash an aesthetic and health offense, it deepens the corruption of the city. The companies that collect trash are thoroughly infiltrated by the Camorra, as the Neapolitan branch of the mafia is called. City dumps reached capacity a decade ago, so the city has pronounced yearly states of emergency since then. Under the states of emergency, CNN reports, the normal contracting oversight is dispensed with, and Camorra gets the lucrative contracts. The criminals then fail to clear the trash and deal with complaints and competition in time-honored wise guy fashion. The Camorra is said to earn more than a billion dollars a year from “waste management.”
Silvio Berlusconi is from the bustling northern Italian city of Milan. A billionaire with a higher than average self-regard (“I am the Jesus Christ of politics”), the black-haired septuagenarian has been plagued by conflict-of-interest charges. His previous record on economic reform was tepid, and as for his diplomatic skills . . . well: At the close of the 2003 EU summit he pronounced “Let’s talk about footfall and women.” He then turned to the four-times married German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and said “Gerhard, why don’t you start?” Regarding his own flexible ethical standards, Berlusconi explained “If I, taking care of everyone’s interests, also take care of my own, you can’t talk about a conflict of interest.”
Such is the man who now bestrides Italian politics. His quirky egomania seems ill-suited to the grownup job of governing. The trash in Naples is the test. If he can clean that up and take down the Camorra, he will deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Rudolph Giuliani.