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As politicians avoid austerity, Italy simmers with resentment

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (left) and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti voted a week ago over a crucial $100 billion austerity package. Tremonti, who devised the austerity plan, had warned his colleagues that politicians had to set the example if they were to be credible in demanding sacrifices of ordinary Italians. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (left) and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti voted a week ago over a crucial $100 billion austerity package. Tremonti, who devised the austerity plan, had warned his colleagues that politicians had to set the example if they were to be credible in demanding sacrifices of ordinary Italians. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)
By Alessandra Rizzo
Associated Press / July 22, 2011

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ROME - Millions of Italians face sacrifices from an austerity package passed last week to stave off a financial crisis. But the country’s leaders don’t seem prepared to abandon La Dolce Vita.

The $100 billion package does not entail any significant reduction in the wages, perks, and privileges of Italy’s notoriously bloated, handsomely paid political elite, despite repeated promises such cuts would be carried out. In fact, some measures that would have made politicians suffer were watered down in a last-minute, nighttime meeting of lawmakers.

Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s flamboyant ways have grabbed most of the headlines, but Italians have long grumbled about the state-subsidized luxury lifestyles of their politicians. Now, at a time of belt-tightening, these privileges strike people as particularly odious.

“The increasing indifference of the political class to the country’s problems is infuriating to people,’’ said Sergio Rizzo, coauthor of a hugely successful book called “The Caste,’’ which exposed greed and corruption in the halls of power. “It is as if our politicians had reversed the order of priorities: first their own business, then ours.’’

A Facebook page called “The Secrets of the Caste of Montecitorio’’ - after the name of the building housing Parliament’s lower house - has drawn over 340,000 “likes’’ in a few days. Its author is anonymous, calls himself Spider Truman, and is a self-described disgruntled former aide to an Italian lawmaker.

Influential Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana weighed in this week, lamenting that the political class was administering “bitter medicine’’ to the country but not to itself. “Politicians are not giving up one euro,’’ it said.

Faced with the popular outrage, politicians of all stripes are now promising action. A minister in Berlusconi’s government has proposed an ambitious constitutional reform, but that would take years to pass. The speakers of both houses of Parliament have devised packages of cuts and promised swift implementation.

But similar promises in the past have gone unfulfilled.

“I’m not confident. They’ve said it many times before, they’ve never done it,’’ said Franco Ferrari, a 67-year-old pensioner, speaking just outside Parliament. “They have cut the pensions to poor people . . . myself among them, while they keep up these privileges.’’

According to a recent study by the labor union UIL, about $35 billion goes every year into funding the political machine, which employs, directly or indirectly, some 1.3 million people. That means each Italian taxpayer contributes annually about $910 to a system widely seen as failing the nation.

Lawmakers in the 630-member lower house of Parliament make $16,500 per month before taxes, plus some $10,000 more to cover expenses or pay aides. Most of those expenses go largely unchecked, leaving the lawmakers free, for example, to pocket money intended for an aide. Plus they have free travel within Italy, be it by highway, plane, or train, among other perks, and a generous pension system.

The overall compensation is not all that different from what lawmakers make in some of the biggest EU states. In France for example, the 577 deputies of the Assemblee Nationale earn $10,000 before taxes, but also have $9,000 for other expenses, and funds of up to $12,700 to pay aides.

What is enraging Italians is the perceived marriage of incompetent leadership with corruption and abuse of office. The country has been sickened by tales of state planes shuttling lawmakers to football matches, fancy restaurant lunches for which the taxpayer picks up the tab, and inside access to luxurious real estate below market-price or paid for by friends.

“We are not outraged because somebody, even a politician, makes a lot of money, but because there is no corresponding service provided to the community,’’ said Rizzo.

To many critics, Berlusconi is the most egregious example of a political class intent on perpetuating its power rather than serving citizens. The Italian leader has passed measures critics say were meant to protect his business interests or safeguard him from prosecution in legal cases.

But corruption probes and books like “The Caste’’ - written by Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, both reporters at Corriere della Sera - suggest a greedy political machine at all levels. Recent investigations have targeted a former aide to the finance minister, who allegedly sought favors and presents from an industrialist, including a Ferrari. In another case, a Cabinet minister is under investigation for alleged Mafia ties.

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