Italy’s Mr. Fix-It Tries to Fix the Country’s Troubled Justice System — and Its Politics, Too
LODI – If there is one person who does not have to be convinced of the need for an urgent push from Italy for judicial reform – on which Prime Minister Mario Draghi has bet his leadership – it is the former mayor of the city of Lodi, in the north of the country, Simone Uggetti.
Early one morning, Lodi’s financial police knocked on his door, took him to jail, strip searched him, and put him in a small cell with a convicted murderer and a drug dealer. It was the start of a five-year ordeal – on the award of city contracts, worth 5,000 euros, to manage two public swimming pools – which served his political opponents to destroy his career, his credibility, reputation and family.
“Who are you? You are the mayor who has been arrested your whole life,” Mr Uggetti said this week, still visibly shaken by the experience, which only ended in May when a court d ‘Appeal acquitted him, saying no crime had ever been committed. He cried in court. “It was the end of a nightmare,” Uggetti said. “Five years is long.
Such cases are all too common in Italy, where the sheer power of sometimes ideologically motivated magistrates can be used to pursue political blood feuds or where companies can easily be trapped in the heavy and intimidating litigation that is among them. the slowest in Europe.
Mr Draghi is so convinced that Italy’s courts must be fixed that he has said he is prepared to risk his government’s survival on this issue, by putting to a vote of confidence new legislation that would shorten civil proceedings and criminal. Without faster trials, he claims, all the economic renewal and political change required in Italy will not come – and there is a lot to change.
On Thursday evening, the government announced that it had reached unanimous agreement with a wide range of interests in government. A vote will take place in the next few days.
“The aim is to guarantee a swift judicial system which respects the reasonable length of a trial,” Marta Cartabia, Italian Minister of Justice, said Thursday evening after the announcement. “But also ensures that no trial goes up in smoke.”
The question has become the first major test, beyond vaccinations, of whether Mr Draghi, a European Union titan who helped save the euro, can capitalize on his formidable reputation as Mr Fix- It and the grand political coalition behind him to solve a long-standing problem that threatened the democratic process and the economy in Italy, the last of the major European powers to escape far-reaching overhauls of its systems according to -war.
Mr. Draghi’s bet has all the potential to change a country where, as the saying goes, “you are nobody unless you are investigated”. It is nothing less than an attempt to restore Italians’ confidence in their political leaders and institutions after decades of anti-establishment vitriol, angry headlines and slurs on social media.
The threat of endless litigation, Mr Draghi argued, scares foreign investors, forces growing Italian companies and could even prevent Italy from meeting the demands imposed by the European Union to win its share of over 200 billion euros post-Covid. recovery fund.
“Justice is one of the keystones of the recovery,” said Claudio Cerasa, editor-in-chief of il Foglio, a newspaper that has established itself as the voice of the protection of the rights of the accused, but also of the frustrated accusers, slow and politicized justice. He said Mr. Draghi “depoliticizes the conflict and takes it to a different level, which is Draghi’s hallmark, he turns everything into common sense.”
However, it is not an easy task. But Mr. Draghi is betting that after several decades the political winds around the issue have turned in his favor.
Justice emerged as perhaps the central theme of contemporary Italian politics in 1992, when Clean Hands’ filigree investigation uncovered a complex, wide and systemic corruption that funded the country’s political parties.
The scandal was known as Bribesville and brought down a ruling class, marking the end of the First Italian Republic after World War II.
Prosecutors became public heroes and, taking advantage of the widespread impression that all politicians were guilty of something, they sank into the vacuum of power.
But so do Silvio Berlusconi, the brash media mogul, who has become prime minister and a constant target of prosecutors who have investigated him for corruption and other crimes. He portrayed them as politically motivated communists, or “red dresses,” and almost always beat rap by running out of time and hitting a statute of limitations.
This infuriated the magistrates and ultimately fueled a populist “hang them all” backlash led by the anti-elite Five Star movement, which once again described the political establishment as a corrupt caste.
In 2018, Luigi Di Maio, one of its leaders, drew up lists of all the rival candidates under investigation and called them “unpresentable”. The media splashed accusations and leaked investigations on the front pages, then barely mentioned or buried the charges of abandonment or acquittal.
Now this anti-establishment season seems to be running out of steam, and populists have apparently done the math that, electorally, “locking it up” no longer pays..
Mr. Di Maio, who led I accuse the Five Star protests against Mr. Uggetti and who once led popular anger to victory in national elections, is now contrite. Now Italian Foreign Minister, he wrote an apology in Il Foglio to Mr Uggetti after his acquittal in May for the “grotesque and indecent manner” in which he behaved.
But Mr Cerasa, editor-in-chief of Il Foglio, suspected the change might be more tactical than sincere. He said parties that used the justice system as a weapon also felt his scorpion sting when in power and faced a barrage of civil and criminal cases.
But something else has changed: Mr. Draghi has now become the organizing force for Italian politics.
With hundreds of billions of euros in EU aid at stake and a pandemic still in the air, establishment chops and palpable reason are in high demand. Mr. Draghi seems to have both and has seized the opportunity to consolidate power.
Not new to politics, Mr Draghi appears to have the backing needed to pass his judicial legislation – and to put Italy on a more solid footing by incorporating lasting change into the system.
The government’s agreement on the legislation includes Five Star, who had expressed concerns over the release of the criminals, but who ultimately agreed to withdraw their proposed amendments. The other support came from the nationalist party of the League of Matteo Salvini; the party of M. Berlusconi on the right; the liberal democrats of the left; and Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister.
However, not everyone is enthusiastic.
Marco Travaglio, the editor-in-chief of Il Fatto Quotidiano, who has close ties to magistrates and has served as a megaphone for Five Star’s slander, has gone on a rampage and angrily resisted what increasingly looks like more at the end of an Italian political era. This month he made fun of Mr Draghi as a privileged kid and called his justice minister, Ms Cartabia, former president of the Italian Constitutional Court, a rube who “cannot distinguish between a court and a hair dryer “.
But for the most part, people agree with Mr Draghi, and Mr Uggetti hoped the prime minister would bring more balance to the system that almost ruined him.
Mr. Uggetti now works as the Managing Director of a technology company outside of Lodi that develops business management software. “I am rebuilding my life,” he said.
Yet he lacks being mayor. While walking around the swimming pool which was the source of his legal nightmare, and which is now only an empty ruin, he ticked off everything he was going to repair (bike paths and roads), and pointed out scraps historical (a bridge where Napoleon won a major battle, a statue of a scientist) as if he still represented the city.
He considered running for mayor again as a possibility. But there was also another possibility. In Italy, a higher court can set aside a court of appeal, set aside an acquittal and send a person to trial. This higher court still has time to decide to retry him.
“They have the power to say ‘No, this appeal conviction is not good,'” he said, shaking his head. “I really hope it ends here.”
Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.
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