October 26, 2010
Today’s political decisions – both in Europe and the United States – are being unduly influenced by tomorrow’s elections, according to professor-at-large and former prime minister of Italy Romano Prodi.
“This is a problem shared by all contemporary democratic systems in the short term,” said Prodi, speaking recently at the Institute. Most bad decisions can be traced to influence by upcoming elections, according to Prodi. The trend is not exclusive to Italy and can be witnessed today all over Europe and the United States, be the elections local, municipal, regional, or national. The problem is exacerbated by contemporary events, including the slow recovery from the global economic crisis of 2008.
Local elections in particular are being abused and not held in accordance to democratic principles, Prodi said. “The most negligible local election” can take on larger policy significance, he added. “This is not only an Italian problem, but a problem of all democracy.”
To that effect, the Greek economic crisis, which has been touted in the media as the most major recent European issue, was a negligible issue, Prodi said. “Greece is only 2 percent of European GDP,” he explained. “The problem could have been solved within one moment.” The resolution of the problem was delayed because of German local elections, according to Prodi. It was this delay that led to the later collapse of the Greek economy.
Opinion polls add to the dilemma, increasing pressure for politicians to focus on issues with clear, short-term solutions. Short-term decision-making has become the priority for politicians, to ensure a positive public opinion in time for the imminent election, according to Prodi.
“How can we afford the next generation’s problems if we’re only worried about the next elections?” Prodi asked.
Prodi identified other two key obstacles for democracy in Europe: the fear of external pressures, including immigration, and the increasing individualism and diminishing regard for solidarity.
The increase of media funding, too, poses a problem for the democratic process. Any entity controlling the media has an enormous influence with regard to the portrayal of political actors and candidates.
In Italy, fiscal evasion is a prime example of the decline of the democratic system, Prodi said. Short-term decisionmaking undermines the possibility of adopting a coherent fiscal policy that would allow for the provision of a high level of public services, which necessitates a high level of taxation. Nevertheless, Italian politicians have been leading a campaign against taxation. “If you give the message that [taxation] is robbery, you disrupt the institutional pact that is the foundation of democracy,” Prodi said.
The future of democracy in Europe is unclear, Prodi said. The Italian public is looking for a “papa straniero – literally, a foreign pope: a leader that appears out of nowhere,” according to Prodi. Such a leader, however, can refuse the constitution, change legislation for personal use, or attack the judicial power, exacerbating weaknesses in the European democratic structure.
In the changing system of world power, there is an increased need for a strong, operating democracy that can inspire real confidence, Prodi remarked. “Democracy will not fail: there is no alternative. … I am more worried about a decay of democracy, not a strong democratic crisis,” he added.
The talk was sponsored by the Italian Studies Department.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Anna Andreeva ’12