Senator Gustavo Selva was running late. With downtown Rome blocked off for President Bush's one-day visit in June, the veteran Italian lawmaker had to cross the capital to get to a live television appearance. Selva confronted the challenge with all the brio and arrogance of a man of his station: he phoned for an ambulance and had it dispatch him to the address of his "cardiologist," which, of course, was that of the TV studio. Once on air, Selva, a former radio news executive, proudly dished out the tale of his own resourcefulness, hailing his ruse as "an old journalist's trick."
Maybe there was a time in Italy when Selva's smug insouciance would have earned him points for Latin style. If so, it's passed. Instead, the episode fueled disgust over the mind-set of Italy's decidedly unservile public servants. Selva, 80, submitted his resignation to the Senate in a bid to quell public outrage. But when the matter was finally put on the legislative calendar on July 17, he announced that he'd changed his mind. Saying that his sin hardly compares with those of Senate colleagues accused of such crimes as bribery and drug dealing, he withdrew his offer, and is keeping his seat.
To many disillusioned Italians, Selva's ambulance stunt was just another act in the absurd pantomime of the country's politics. Only 15% of the population expresses trust in political parties, and it's no wonder considering how maladroit Italian pols can be. On July 30, for example, Lorenzo Cesa, leader of the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), had this response when a deputy resigned over a tryst with a prostitute in a Rome hotel: Cesa called for what he dubbed a "family reunion" stipend so parliamentarians can afford to spend more time with their loved ones. "Loneliness," he explained, "is a very serious thing." Meanwhile, not to be outdone, some center-left leaders have been sullied by leaks of intercepted phone calls with prominent financiers mired in a market-rigging scandal.
When 15 months ago Romano Prodi's government unseated that of Silvio Berlusconi, whose tenure as Prime Minister was marked by frequent allegations of conflict of interest, there were the usual promises of a new era of accountability and efficiency. But Italians have a gnawing sense that not much is changing. "Society appears to be stalled," says Maurizio Pessato, ceo of the SWG polling institute in Trieste. "Italians see a growing Spain, a dynamic Britain, a recovering Germany, and even France has a new enthusiasm with Sarkozy. We are the only ones sleeping."
Bolstering that impression, a new best-selling book, La Casta (The Caste) by journalists Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, details how Italy's politicians have used their institutional muscle to pile up a glut of privileges. They enjoy the highest rate of chauffeured cars among European governments, the President's headquarters cost four times as much to maintain as Buckingham Palace, and there have even been indignant demands for better gelato at the Parliament cafeteria. Adding to the public's sense that politicians are not to be trusted, 16 of the Italian Parliament's 630 members are convicted felons. All this is feeding a mounting frustration with the institutional pillars of Italy's democracy: the parties and the system for electing representatives.
Though there has been some good news on the economic front lately, with unemployment dipping to 6.4%, its lowest since 1992, tough questions for the country's future remain unresolved. Italy is hobbled by a chronic lack of economic and social mobility, an unsustainable pension system and public debt that stands at 106% of GDP. Illegal immigration is exploding while birth rates are among the lowest in Europe. Intractable poverty and organized crime remain endemic across the southern half of the country.