Putting democracy on trial in Italy

Matteo Salvini Is to go on trial for kidnap due to his immigration policies. It will be seen by Italian voters as the establishment using the courts to silence dissent

Matteo Salvini on trial
Tim Hedges
On 25 February 2020 11:57

Perhaps stability would be too strong a word, but it seemed that Italian politics had been going into a period of peace.

The unlikely coalition between the populist 5-star and the traditional centre-left Democratic Party seemed to be holding, Emilia-Romagna had resisted the populists and remained with the Left as it has done since the war, and there was some peace with Brussels.

Now, the Senate has given permission for the most popular politician in Italy, Matteo Salvini, to go on trial. For kidnap.

I have never been comfortable with Italy’s habit, reflected in much of Napoleonic Law Europe, to shield its politicians from corruption. A fair few of them are indeed corrupt and should be subject to the same legal processes as the people they purport to represent.

It will be remembered of the late Helmut Kohl in Germany, that when some money went ‘missing’ from the political party grant (itself an invitation to corruption), he was not elected by his constituents but anyway placed himself on the party list, gained office from that, and could not be charged.

Silvio Berlusconi has regularly avoided or delayed prosecution by hiding behind elected office. All you need to do under the List system is be friendly with an influential figure and, just as the investigating magistrates are hot on your trail, get him to put you on the party list. Then you are safe, however the voters feel about you personally. I mean, who gives a stuff about voters, eh Helmut?

Until recently I had thought this protection of the corrupt to be itself corrupt and unreasonable. In Italy you can be relieved of your immunity privilege only by the house you belong to voting to release you for trial. And so it has been with Matteo Salvini.

Salvini stood for election on the basis that he was going to do something about untrammeled immigration. His policy was simply not to let them in. He was elected and in the 2018 coalition made Interior Minister. When the boat Gregoretti arrived in the port of Catania, permitted to dock by the local mayor, Salvini refused to let the 131 rescued migrants disembark. The Gregoretti stayed in Catania for three days.

Where I am now slightly sympathetic with the system is that it was designed to protect elected officials from political attacks through the courts. And that is exactly what has happened to Salvini. Consider this: he made no secret of his views. He adduced evidence that some NGOs were in contact with human traffickers in Libya and rather than rescuing stranded migrants were actually acting as a taxi service.

Salvini said the migrants (more than 90% of them are not refugees) should not be allowed to dock at Italian ports. He was quite open about this. And he was elected, and the party he led went into government. That party, the Lega or League, is now, according to polls, the largest party in Italy. But it doesn’t have the seats, which are based on the 2018 general election, so when someone brought a crafty prosecution (the magistry is political in Italy), he was outvoted in the Senate and thrown to the wolves.

Whatever you say about Salvini, and he is certainly controversial, he has done no more than what he professed and subsequently secured the electorate’s mandate to do. This should exempt him from prosecution (if that is the system you are going to have) or at least the courts should throw the case out on the basis that otherwise it would be the judiciary interfering with the electorate.

What will now happen? Italy’s politics is interwoven with the law of unintended consequences. It seems more than likely that Salvini will become a martyr to his supporters, the man who tried to protect them from illegal migrants undercutting their wages, unjustly prosecuted by an out of touch state.

I cannot say I am happy about keeping distressed migrants in discomfort on a boat, but that aspect will be forgotten. To the maybe 40% of people who are sympathetic to him, Matteo Salvini will be the man who tried to stop the rot, and was attacked by the establishment for doing so.

Italy needs an election, and soon.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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