Category Archives: politics

Why Democracy Produces Incompetent Leaders – How to Fix It

My latest article on Impakter. I’m proposing a very easy-to-apply, simple fix that could save democracy. Interested? Here’s the opening:

Democracy doesn’t work. Plato thought it was a terrible system, a prelude to tyranny, giving power to selfish and dangerous demagogues. Watching what is happening these days in democracies around the world, it’s hard to disagree with Plato. Democracy appears to produce an abundance of incompetent and dishonest political leaders, who exploit people’s credulity and prejudices and thrive on emotion-driven discourse and fake news.

This Impakter essay looks at the problems and proposes an easy fix – if only we had the courage to implement it.

First, let’s quickly review what’s wrong with democracy.

Why People Have Lost Trust in Democratically-Elected Politicians: The Rise of Incompetent Political Leaders

Most people don’t trust democracy to deliver. According to 2019 Pew survey, trust in government is at a historical low: only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).

The situation in the rest of the world is not much better. A 27 countries Pew survey (April 2019) revealed that a majority (51%) are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. Anti-establishment leaders, parties and movements have emerged on both the right and left of the political spectrum. And most people in developing countries find authoritarian figures more trustworthy than democratically-elected politicians. Hence the success of the “China model”.

Bottom line, elections don’t deliver the kind of political leaders people want.

After a honeymoon period between voters and their winning candidate, often as short as a month, he or she always disappoints. Why? Is it the fault of the voters, do they expect too much? Or don’t they understand what is going on – how complex the job of governing can be, how campaign promises can’t be kept?

It has been convincingly argued that, yes, it’s the voters’ fault. Dambisa Moyo, the well-known Zambian economist and author of Dead Aid (2009) in which she famously argued that foreign aid made Africa poorer, placed the blame squarely on voters:

 “Voters generally favor policies that enhance their own well-​being with little consideration for that of future generations or for long-​term outcomes. Politicians are rewarded for pandering to voters’ immediate demands and desires…”

This quote is out of an article she wrote for Foreign Policy when her new book came out in 2018, Edge of Chaos Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth — and How to Fix It. The article sums up her book’s arguments. In a nutshell:

“Because democratic systems encourage such short-​termism, it will be difficult to solve many of the seemingly intractable structural problems slowing global growth without an overhaul of democracy.”

Let’s put aside for the moment the question whether our overall goal should be “global growth”: A good argument could be made that the unrestrained pursuit of continued economic growth in a world of finite resources (and where there is no Planet B) can only be achieved at the expense of the planet’s ecological balance.

Yes, climate change is real, have you heard? Ms. Moyo appears not to consider the possibility. But she does make some excellent points regarding “governance” – how we humans govern ourselves. And in particular, governance in a liberal democracy which is (still) considered, to use Churchill’s phrase, the least bad system. The actual quote is: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ Obviously, democracy is always better than dictatorship.

So what are the obstacles to good governance?  Let’s list the obstacles Moyo has identified – plus a few of my own:

(1) Too many elections: She sees “the short electoral cycle embedded in many democratic systems” as a major problem…

Click here to read the rest. It’s (as always) on Impakter. Yes, I’m still Senior Editor there – I was there when it all began, back in 2014, as I’m sure some of you remember…

Happy Holidays to all, and let me know what you think!

Comments Off on Why Democracy Produces Incompetent Leaders – How to Fix It

Filed under politics

What Sustainable Finance Means and What it Can Do

Just published my latest article on Impakter magazine, here’s the opening:

SUSTAINABLE FINANCE: HOW TO ADDRESS NATURE RISKS AND CLIMATE CHANGE

As our environment is undergoing ever faster collapse, with the rainforest burning in the Amazon, the ice melting in the Arctic and now California ravaged by fires, the goal of achieving sustainable finance appears ever more elusive. It is obvious that nature risks directly translate into financial risks. And with climate change accelerating, it is equally obvious that growing natural risks is the cause of equally growing financial instability.

While the relation between nature, climate and sustainable finance is obvious, the exact impact is not so clear. Natural disasters, from floods to air pollution events to wildlife species extinction, can impact businesses and whole economic sectors in variable ways, some more than others. And a small further rise in global warming, as small as a half degree centigrade, can make a stunningly huge difference:

To illustrate with the famous case of a highly valuable wildlife species threatened by extinction, i.e. bees whose pollination activities are fundamental for agricultural production. A prosperous European pharmaceutical company suddenly faced catastrophic financial losses after it had acquired in 2018 an agrochemical company accused of causing adverse impacts on bee populations that led to a series of health-related trials. Suddenly, it lost almost 40% of its market capitalization in less than one year, causing shareholders billions in losses.

To put a name on these firms: the pharmaceutical company is Bayer, the agrochemical is Monsanto and the cause of the bee-killing is, of course, a pesticide, the infamous “Roundup”. In short, Bayer is worth less today than the $63 billion it paid for Monsanto about a year ago.

As a first step to ascertain what the effects of nature risks are on the finance industry, a number of academics at the University of Hamburg have formed a Research Group on Sustainable Finance and analysed for the first time the existing academic literature which highlighted the relationship between nature risks and financial risks. The study has been financed by WWF Switzerland and will be uploaded to their website this month.

They identified 154 peer-reviewed articles published between 1966 and 2019. These articles covered four areas: banking, insurance, real estate, and stock markets; and nine nature risks: disease, drought, erosion, flooding, invasive species, oil spills, pollution/environmental contamination – of air, groundwater, soil/land and surface water -, solid waste, and bushfires.

“Destruction of ecosystems results in financial risks”

Overall, the articles confirmed that the destruction of ecosystems results in financial risks. They also found that nature risks are not adequately reflected in current risk models of financial institutions and therefore not priced correctly.

Incorrect pricing is a major concern. It means that financial institutions urgently need to identify how the activities they finance impact the natural world. Developing a framework for investors to analyse nature risks and integrating these systematically in their valuation models is crucial. It would be the first indispensable step to achieve sustainable finance.

What is interesting is how the literature reviewed by the Research Group on Sustainable Finance identified variable impacts depending on the sector and the kind of nature risk. The sector that tends to suffer the most from nature risks is real estate. The greatest threats to valuation in the real estate sector include flooding followed by air pollution (and environmental contamination in general) and bushfires.

That of course, is a massive financial problem – but it is a problem for individual property owners too. The house you just bought, or that you inherited from your parents, could be worth next to nothing in just a few short years.

To find out how other sectors in the economy will be impacted and what should be done, read the rest on Impakter, click here: https://impakter.com/sustainable-finance-address-nature-risks-climate-change/ 

Comments Off on What Sustainable Finance Means and What it Can Do

Filed under Business, climate change, Economics, Environment, politics

The Climate Emergency: How Humanity Can Avoid the Fate of Dinosaurs

Sorry for the silence, my friends, I’ve been working on a new book – a book for young children told in the voice of my dog Pepy (woof!) – but I didn’t stop working as Senior Editor at Impakter magazine, also contributing articles (yeah, I confess, there’s been a break of several weeks, but I was wrapped up in writing the first draft of my Pepy book …). Now a new article is out, so, as usual, here’s the opening:

The climate emergency makes the comparison between humans and dinosaurs inescapable: Both face extinction from a climate crisis. But with a difference. The dinosaurs didn’t bring it on themselves. An asteroid hitting Earth and a giant volcano did it for them. By contrast, humans are doing it to themselves. The scientific evidence is incontrovertible, the climate emergency results from the industrial revolution.

And the climate emergency is much more than rising temperatures and sea levels. It’s choking pollution, it’s a calamitous drop in biodiversity, with more than half the world’s species gone over the last 30 years. In short, it’s the 6th mass extinction. And it’s happening now. The Artic melted this summer like never before. The question is: Can we survive as a species?

The question is urgent. We can no longer afford to waste time discussing scientific facts with climate deniers. We need to consider what to do concretely to avert disaster – anything less is irresponsible.

That is the point made by a mild-mannered professor at a British university, Dr. Rupert Read who teaches at the University of East Anglia (UK) and self-describes as a committed climate and environmental campaigner. Most recently, he has been a frequent spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion and a member of their political liaison team. For anyone who hasn’t heard yet about the Extinction Rebellion, here is a quick video that sums it up:

Extinction Rebellion is a people’s movement that was launched in May 2018 with protests in the UK and is now active around the globe. Starting 7 October, and for two weeks, protests are planned in London (you can sign up here) and other major cities (to join, check this site). The movement has become truly worldwide:

It has already achieved one of its goals: It got the UK Parliament to declare on May 1st 2019  a state of “climate emergency”. Through the summer, the parliaments of other countries joined with similar declarations: Ireland, the Holy See, Canada, France, Argentina, Spain, Austria, in that order. Local administrations joined too, including New York and San Francisco in the US; Sidney and Melbourne in Australia; Paris and Mulhouse in France; most towns in Canada and Germany. The list is endless and growing.

At the moment of writing, Extinction Rebellion protesters are defying the London city ban on protests and nursing mothers target Google. Why Google?

To find out why Google has excited the ire of Extinction Rebellion (and much more), read the rest on Impakter, click here. 

If you’re curious about my other articles published on Impakter magazine (I started in 2014), here’s a list, click here.

Comments Off on The Climate Emergency: How Humanity Can Avoid the Fate of Dinosaurs

Filed under climate change, politics

Europe’s Darkest Hour: The Danger Comes From the UK and Italy

Two political developments threaten Europe: A no-deal Brexit that would certainly hurt the British economy but would also be painful on the continent, and an out-of-control deficit in Italy. Taken separately, Europe could handle the issues. But the problem is that they come together.

The power of Eurosceptic politicians is definitely on the increase across Europe. It has always been so in the Visegrad group of countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) where populists are firmly in government, running increasingly “illiberal democracies”. Hungary’s battle against philanthropist George Soros is a good illustration of what is wrong in those countries.

Yet the threat to Europe seems relatively minor. After all, those countries were always on the periphery of Europe. They were latecomers to the European Union and, because of the Soviet legacy, it surprises no one that the bulk of their population is apparently not attached to democratic values.

What is new is that traditionally liberal West European democracies are now also following in the populist footsteps of Visegrad countries. It first happened in the UK with the June 2016 decision to leave the EU.

The Brexit referendum was astonishingly mismanaged from the start with no requirement to ensure that a real majority had voted Brexit (they hadn’t) and no control over fake news (notably over supposed migrant invasions or Boris Johnson’s famously false promise of regaining £350 million pounds from Brussels).

Yet Conservatives ignored the democratic failures of that referendum and were quick to jump on the bandwagon of Brexit, claiming that it was the sacrosanct “will of the people” and had to be honoured at all costs.

Since June 2018, the UK is no longer alone on that path. Italy joined it when two populist politicians, Di Maio, the Five Star Movement leader and Salvini, the Lega leader came together to form a government. The alliance looked fragile from the start, the two are unlikely bedfellows.

The Five Star Movement is a leftist populism colored by some socialist fantasies (like the Reddito di Cittadinanza, citizens’ income). The Lega is extreme right, with neo-Nazi tendencies –  but the government is holding up surprisingly well, even though the balance of power has totally shifted, putting Salvini firmly in the driver seat. Not only did Salvini win a hefty 34% at the European parliament elections in May, but the latest polls in June show he’s ahead by another two points, around 36% against Di Maio’s paltry 16%, a further one percent drop.

Let’s take a closer look at what is happening in the UK and Italy, the two major battlegrounds where the future of Europe is now being played.

The UK: A Future American Colony?

Read the rest on Impakter magazine, click here.

Comments Off on Europe’s Darkest Hour: The Danger Comes From the UK and Italy

Filed under politics

Should Robots Be Built To Feel Pain?

My latest article on Impakter, just published, about AI and how we should organize our future with sentient machines. Should we build them to feel pain and other emotions? What is the point of it? What are the dangers?

 Neku – Robot Lover Song (Featuring Aline) in Youtube video

What is the role of pain in our lives?  Pain, we can all agree, is unpleasant, both physically and emotionally. Pain acts as an alarm when faced with danger. Pain can be excruciating, tragic, the forerunner of death. In short, when we feel pain, we feel more alive than ever. Now that robots play an increasing role in our society, should we design robots as sentient machines with the ability to feel pain?  

Robots are everywhere in manufacturing, in agriculture, in transport and distribution, in communications, in the home. And they appear not just as androids like the famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov visualized 75 years ago, but in a vast range of devices, from autonomous vacuum cleaners to whole factory production lines and military drones.

Arguably, it might make sense to endow some of them with the capacity to feel pain in situations where it could help the machine foresee a threat and save itself from possible damage. But should it be endowed with merely a series of physical reactions demonstrating pain or should it feel it as an emotion the way we humans feel it?

When a machine feels pain, will it cry?

Or an equally valid question: should it cry?

The question of whether robots should feel pain may sound futile, but it’s not. With advances in computing power, particularly with quantum computing just around the corner, we are close to being able to create robots with General Artificial Intelligence. Not just a specific ability like beating human champions at difficult games like chess and Go, but a “general” intelligence that could lead soon to the dreaded Singularity, the point where Artificial Intelligence will surpass human intelligence.

In short, we are headed towards a world where science fiction meets reality, where our planet hosts two types of “sentient machines”, us and the robots.

How to Organize a World full of Sentient Machines

Scientists have been working on this for several years, notably Beth Singler  and Ewan St John Smith, both at Cambridge University.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here

Find out about our future with robots. Should love and sex be part of it? Let me know what you think!

Comments Off on Should Robots Be Built To Feel Pain?

Filed under Digital Revolution, Economics, politics, science fiction, Sociology, Tech

Funding: Too Much for Notre Dame in Paris, Not Enough to Fight Climate Change?

My latest article on Impakter:

Notre Dame burning in Paris, 15 April 2019 Source: Wikimedia

Soon after Notre Dame in Paris went up in flames, teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, in a speech to the European Parliament, said she did not want to diminish the Notre-Dame fire, but wished there was an equal outpouring of funding support to combat issues such as climate change.

The outpouring of funding to rebuild Notre Dame was indeed impressive. Within 24 hours of the blaze, French luxury tycoons had pledged donations in the hundreds of million Euros: François-Henri Pinault (Kering) came through with €100 million; his crosstown rival Bernard Arnault (LVMH) with  €200 million; the Meyer Bettencourt family (Oreal) with €200 million.

Add to that the €100 million announced by Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné

Is Greta Thunberg right? Is there not enough to fight climate change? I thought I’d investigate the question and if you’re curious and want to get the answer, read the rest of my article on Impakter, click here

Let me know what you think!

Comments Off on Funding: Too Much for Notre Dame in Paris, Not Enough to Fight Climate Change?

Filed under art, climate change, Environment, philanthropy, politics

Chaos in Libya: Why Europe is Paralyzed

My latest article on Impakter Magazine announcing the birth of our sister publication IMPAKTER ITALIA and reproducing one of their articles on Libya:


Libya: A masked member of the internationally recognized pro-government forces in a military vehicle, 10 April 2019 Source: Reuters

When Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted by a blitzkrieg in 2011, three European countries played a key role, the UK, France and Italy. With America “leading from behind”, a polite way to say that America provided only military support while the Europeans called all the political shots.


This time, as Libya descends again in the chaos of war, the situation is different. With the UK in the grip of Brexit, only two European powers remain in play, France and Italy. But they are embroiled in a series of diplomatic spats, and their rivalry in Libya has deep roots, as Impakter Italia explains in a recent article reproduced here. Impakter Italia, launched with an editorial on April 13, 2019 is Impakter’s sister publication in Italy, sharing a common vision and mission.


First, a quick update on the current situation. Libya today is divided between two rival governments: one in the eastern city of Tobruk backed by strongman Khalifa Haftar and an internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Haftar has forged close ties with a branch of Salafists, called Madkhalists, using their fighters and incorporating their conservative ideology in the parts of eastern Libya he controls, including a ban on women travelling without a male guardian.


On 4 April, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was in Tripoli to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for mid-April, Haftar audaciously launched an assault on the Libyan capital with his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA was pushed back at Checkpoint 27 – also called “Gate 27”  – on the coastal road between Tripoli and Zawiya, some 45 kilometres west of the Libyan capital. 120 LNA fighters were taken prisoners.


But the setback was only temporary and the battles rage on, with the outcome still uncertain as Haftar is pushing forward:


Last week, while Notre Dame was burning in Paris, Italian Prime Minister Conte was sounding the alarm in Rome about an impending humanitarian crisis in Libya.


“We are very worried about the Libyan crisis”, he said, “we have always worked and will continue to work to avert a humanitarian crisis that can expose us to the risk of the arrival of foreign fighters in our country.” He was referring to the reported 400 ISIS prisoners in Libya that could now escape as war is spreading. And he concluded: “We absolutely must avoid escalation”.


Yet Italy cannot solve the problem alone. 


Populist leader and Interior Minister Salvini insists that his policy of keeping Italian ports closed to ships bringing in refugees is working. The Italian Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Danilo Toninelli, disagrees:  “If thousands of asylum seekers arrive, the closed ports policy is not enough,” he said at Radio Anch’io, explaining that “other European ports will have to be opened” and “a redistribution of migrants will be needed “. Therefore, the minister underlined, “the approach must be international”. He meant: European.


How to avoid the threat to Europe – a new wave of migrants and possible terrorists among them – is going to require a concerted European action. But for now, that is not happening. Diplomatic tension between France and Italy has not abated and France has just announced that it will continue for another six months its policy of closed borders with Italy. Not exactly an example of European cooperation.


To help understand how two major EU member countries, like Italy and France, that should work closely together, yet do not do so, Eduardo Lubrano’s article on Impakter Italia throws much needed light:


Why France and Italy are competing in Libya

by Eduardo Lubrano

Eight years after Gaddafi’s death, Libya is still in the midst of a civil war. On the one hand the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan national army (NLA). On the other hand, the legitimate government, supported by the UN, in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.


R
ead the rest on Impakter, click here

TO VISIT IMPAKTER ITALIA, CLICK THE FOLLOWING LINKhttps://www.impakter.it/

Comments Off on Chaos in Libya: Why Europe is Paralyzed

Filed under European Union, politics

The Race for Artificial Intelligence: China vs. America

My latest article on Impakter:

What is The Role of Europe in the AI Race?

Let’s be clear, Artificial Intelligence, in particular in its latest development, deep learning that mimics the way the human mind works, first emerged in America. This gave the U.S. a huge head start over the rest of the world – including China, putting the U.S. firmly in the lead of the race for AI.

In the photo: Electronics factory in Shenzhen. Note that the photo dates back to 2005: Chinese investment in electronics is nothing new. Source: Wikipedia

IWhat Americans didn’t develop at home, they bought from Europe. In this respect, two British firms stand out with groundbreaking contributions to AI development: ARM and DeepMind.

While all eyes are trained on the AI race between China and America, is there a role left for Europe?

From the start of the digital revolution, and in spite of America’s lead, Europe has always had a fundamental role in digital research, a role often overlooked and even downplayed by the media mesmerized by Silicon Valley fireworks.

But the fireworks are dying down and getting messy now while China is on the rise.

America’s AI Roots in Europe

Let’s take a closer look at ARM and DeepMind, the two British firms that played a fundamental role in sustaining America’s lead in electronics.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

Comments Off on The Race for Artificial Intelligence: China vs. America

Filed under Digital Revolution, politics

Volt Europa: A New Party to Jolt Europe


My latest article just published on Impakter:

The New Party to Make Europe Smart and Fair

There is a new party rising across Europe, a party shaped by Millennials who want a voice in their future: Volt Europa. The name says it all: Volt Europa, jolt Europe. An electrical charge to shake it out of its lethargy, give it new energy.

Volt is, of course, the international unit to measure the force of electric current. It’s a nice easy name that stays the same with the same meaning across Europe and all its languages and cultures. And, in the words of the party leaders on their website, “it fully represents our fast and efficient team”.

So who is this team and what does this party aim to do?

Volt Europa had an extraordinary start: in less than two years, it acquired over 20,000 adherents and it is active in 32 European countries with more than 300 teams. It is mostly a party of young people but it has attracted all ages, including older citizens horrified by what is happening to Europe these days. The oldest is a 92 year-old Netherlands citizen. Even more extraordinary: over 70% of its adherents have never been involved in politics before.

That means Volt is not a rehash of a dying party or a new current in a traditional party. It’s a totally new entity, a pan-European party aiming to have subsidiary parties in every EU member country. As Kai Kotzian, a 43-year-old Volt candidate for the European Parliament in Germany recently told the Frankfurter Wochenblatt:  “Our perspective is different from that of other parties. We are not just looking at what’s good for Germany, but what’s good for the entire European Union. Since there is no European electoral law, in order to form a cross-European party, we had to found one in each country so we could vote.”

The first national Volt party was created in Germany in March 2018, now Volt has 12 parties at the national level. It covers all the EU members and beyond, including Switzerland, Serbia and Albania.

Among new parties with a pan-European vocation, Volt stands in a “leftist” centre. To its left, you have Dem 25, the party founded by the former Greek finance minister Varoufakis. To its right, you have The Movement founded by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and extreme right Breitbart News editor.

Bannon’s Movement, however, is paradoxical as a “pan-European” party. Its avowed aim is to weaken the EU, and if possible, destroy the European dream of a United Europe. Bannon plans to pull together all the European populist parties for a big win at the European Parliament elections. Not an easy task as populist parties are clearly nationalistic and often at odds with populists from other countries.

Volt, in contrast, is truly pan-European and committed to building up and strengthening Europe, standing on a “progressive” middle ground. It fights for sustainable growth and social justice. But it’s not as far to the left as Varoufakis’s Dem 25. Also, unlike Dem 25, Volt has no founding father image, like Varoufakis. Or, to compare it with the Five Star Movement, like comedian Beppe Grillo.

Volt is not a vertical, hierarchical structure. And it shares with the Five Star Movement a propensity to give a lot of weight – and a voice – to its base, using digital communication, social networks and participatory methods to develop its political platform.

Volt Europa’s Political Message

Volt Europa’s immediate goal: Win in the upcoming European Parliament Elections. Candidates were announced in 11 countries at a meeting in Amsterdam on 27-28 October 2019 – among them Italy, France, Germany and Spain. The hope is to obtain at least 25 deputies in 7 countries which would enable Volt to register as an autonomous parliamentary group. 

The long-term goal: Reform Europe and give it a voice in the concert of nations. And the “reform” has nothing to do with populism’s backward, nostalgic message of restoring sovereignty and going back to Charles de Gaulle’s “Europe of Nations”.  On the contrary. It is forward-looking, ultra-liberal and progressive, much like Macron’s plan to reform Europe or Carlo Calenda’s.

More Europe is good. A reformed Europe that works is better.  Volt’s Amsterdam Declaration adopted in October 2018 makes for inspiring reading. This is indeed groundbreaking: Volt will campaign across Europe on a single common platform.

Here are the highlights:

The rest on Impakter Magazine, click here 

Did you notice something new here? Yes, there’s an announcement: IMPAKTER Up is launching! That’s an amazing new app for startups with socially responsible aims – “social good companies” – to match them with investors committed to a sustainable future. 

Yes, our planet needs to be saved from rapacious, voracious capitalism! 

Comments Off on Volt Europa: A New Party to Jolt Europe

Filed under European Union, politics

Italy’s Love Affair with Populism: From Berlusconi to Salvini

My latest article on Impakter, updated 24 February 2019 with the news that Salvini is taking funds from Russia. Here is the opening:

Italy has a surprising weakness for populism à la Trump. It began over twenty-five years ago with Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party and is still going strong with the extreme-right populist Lega leader Matteo Salvini. Berlusconi and Salvini share the same worldview with Trump: a visceral attachment to national sovereignty (my country first!), a rejection of multilateralism and international cooperation in any form, and a determined anti-immigration and pro-business stance.

As to the Italian fascination with Trump, it is unique in the group of advanced, politically mature European countries that constitute the core of the European Union. Compared to fellow citizens in Spain, France and Germany, Italians are three to four times as likely to have “a lot or some confidence in the U.S. President”, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center survey (October 2018):

Trump does slightly better in the UK (28%), no doubt as a result of Brexit and Britain’s continuing “special friendship” with the United States. And, predictably, he does best in Europe’s most “illiberal democracies”: Poland (35%) and Hungary (31%).

Admittedly, Italy’s fatal attraction for strongmen is nothing new. Setting aside Mussolini and fascism and turning to modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi, the TV mogul. Berlusconi has shaped Italian politics, opening the door to extreme right parties that were once banned because of their fascist roots. To understand how it happened and see where Salvini’s populism could lead Italy, it helps to look at his legacy.

Berlusconi’s Legacy: A Brilliant Start, Broken Promises and a Humiliating End

Much as Macron did with his party “La République En Marche”, Berlusconi created a party literally overnight, Forza Italia (“Go Italy” – note the nationalistic touch and the reference to Italy’s passion for football).

The start was even more explosive than Macron’s. Founded in December 1993, the party quickly gained a relative majority and won general elections three months later. That was the result of a skillful use of media campaign techniques on Berlusconi’s Mediaset, a near monopoly in commercial TV. The party’s earliest officials were Publitalia executives, the advertising arm of his business empire.

Forza Italia always was – and still is – Berlusconi’s “personal party”. And he proceeded to lord it over Italy, both as the head of the center-right coalition and serving as Prime Minister for a total of nine years. Considered the most influential politician since Mussolini, there is no question that he has shaped Italy’s politics and economy over two decades – unfortunately leaving the economy in shambles.

Yet he had vowed he would make his compatriots rich. Many believed him, seeing how rich he was himself. But Italy’s economic growth rate remained abysmal throughout. In 2010, only Haiti and Zimbabwe fared worse than Italy. Likewise, he couldn’t deliver on his promise to reform the slow and inefficient justice system, as his efforts at reform turned out to be personal moves to defend himself and his assets from prosecution. As to immigration, he was the first politician to tighten immigration rules in Italy and establish a special relationship with Libya to discourage inflows of migrants across the Mediterranean.

The most damaging result of the Berlusconi years was the return in mainstream politics of extreme right anti-establishment political parties, brought in and rehabilitated as Forza Italia’s partners: Umberto Bossi’s Lega (then called Lega Nord as it was both anti-Rome and anti-Southern Italy) and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance with deep roots in fascism.

2011, the height of the Euro crisis, was a turning point. In April, Berlusconi was put on trial, accused of paying an underage prostitute. By November, he was forced out of office. He left Italy in financial disarray, with an estimated debt of €1.9 trillion. He always claimed it was a “EU plot” by Brussels bureaucrats.

On 1 August 2013, he was convicted of tax fraud, banned from office and condemned to four years in jail that were commuted to “community service” due to his age (he was 77). In November of that year, the Senate expelled him from Parliament and he vowed to follow the example of Beppe Grillo, the comedian and founder of the 5 Star Movement, who was able to lead his party in spite of not being a member of Parliament Grillo has made it a principle in his party that anyone with a criminal conviction cannot hold a public office – himself included, since he was convicted of manslaughter in a car accident in 1981.

Today, at 82, Berlusconi is still in politics. Forza Italia has lost its luster and the Lega, that used to be his junior partner, is well ahead in the polls.

In the photo: Salvini and Berlusconi. That day, 7 January 2018,  Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d’Italia, agreed on the distribution of electoral colleges  SourceLa  Stampa, photo LaPresse  

Is Salvini, Berlusconi’s heir, Italy’s Trump?

On 21 February, the Italian newspaper L’Espresso published shocking news:  That Salvini’s party the Lega is likely to be secretly financed by Putin, to the tune of €3 million, with the goal of giving it a boost in the upcoming European Parliament elections and more generally spread discontent in Europe. This is of course not the first time that news emerge of Russian funding extreme-right, anti-establishment populist parties with the purpose of destabilizing Europe – notably Marine Le Pen in France is said to have received some €11 million from her friend Putin.

Yet the last ten days had been a turning point for Salvini with several wins. On 10 February, his party, the Lega, came first in local elections in the Abruzzo region, with 27,4% – a number oddly close to the one in the above-mentioned Pew survey rating Trump, suggesting that this could be indicative of the core support for any populist in Italy.

The rest on Impakter, click here. 

Comments Off on Italy’s Love Affair with Populism: From Berlusconi to Salvini

Filed under European Union, politics