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Italian elections: Monti vs. Berlusconi and a test of democracy

The upcoming Italian elections are a contest between the populism of short-term fixes championed by Silvio Berlusconi and the long-term reforms of Mario Monti necessary to make Italy’s economy solvent, competitive, and sustainable over the long run.

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In his first two years in office, Gov. Brown slashed spending while he sought to obtain supermajority approval – not to raise taxes, but only to get permission from the legislature to put a proposition on the ballot so the voters could decide what to do. That also required a two-thirds vote, which he couldn’t get.

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In California’s direct democracy, voters can make laws and change the state constitution without going through the legislature. To do so, they must gather the requisite signatures from the public (around 1 million). Once a measure qualifies for the ballot, it becomes law if it passes.

So, failing to get the legislature to allow the public to vote, the governor set up a civil society committee with the teachers’ unions to propose raising the sales and income tax for a direct vote of the public. Even though he was the governor, his committee had to gather the requisite signatures to qualify the proposition. In November, that tax plan passed, giving California a temporary reprieve from budget bleeding.

I must add, however, that the new tax avoided the challenge of the “Diet Coke habits” of the general public since it was targeted for restoration of education cuts, a good thing, but only applied to “others” – the rich making more than $250,000 per year. In a society edging toward plutocracy, this was a necessary precondition of broader reform, but only that.

The “candidate” in this case was not Governor Brown. The candidate was a tax policy put forward by a civil society group that included the governor.

Mario Monti’s “agenda for reform” being put forward to the voters without a candidacy seems to me very much the same kind of idea. It is an innovation in democratic politics for the tough times we face – a referendum on the future versus the status quo and the past. If that is legitimate in the radical democracy of California, why not in Italy?

Nathan Gardels is editor-in-chief of NPQ and the Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services. He is co-author with Nicolas Berggruen of “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East.”

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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