August 9, 2022

Austerity in Italy May Not End Its Jobs-for-Votes System

The auxiliaries, who earn a respectable 800 euros a month, or $1,100, to work 20 hours a week, are among about 64 Comitini residents employed by the town, the product of an entrenched jobs-for-votes system pervasive in Italian politics at all levels.

“Jobs like these have kept this city alive,” said Caterina Valenti, 41, an auxiliary in a neat blue uniform as she sat recently with two colleagues, all on duty, drinking coffee in the town’s bar on a hot afternoon. “You see, here we are at the bar, we support the economy this way.”

But what may be saving Comitini’s economy is precisely what is strangling Italy’s and other ailing economies throughout Europe. Public spending has driven up the public debt to 120 percent of gross domestic product, the highest percentage in the euro zone after Greece’s. In recent weeks, concerns about Italy’s solvency and the shaky finances of other deeply indebted European nations have sapped market confidence and spread fears about the stability of the euro itself.

On Wednesday, Italy’s lower house of Parliament gave final passage to a $74 billion austerity package aimed at eliminating Italy’s budget deficit by 2013. But analysts doubt that the measures — primarily tax increases but also cuts in aid to local governments, a higher retirement age for women in the private sector and a change in Italy’s labor law to make it easier for companies to hire and fire — will achieve the advertised savings.

Many of the cuts in financing for local governments may yet be bargained away in annual budget negotiations to be held this year, and nowhere in the legislation are there any measures to reduce the salaries or the number of public sector employees, more than 80 percent of whom have lifetime tenure. But they would lose some retirement benefits, and a hiring freeze is already in place.

Financial markets have remained edgy, with yields on Italian bonds rising to a record high of 5.7 percent at auction this week, before rallying a bit after the government passed a confidence vote on the austerity measures. Investors remain unconvinced, though, fearing a possible downgrading of Italy’s credit rating, which could further drag down the euro, and there is already talk of the government introducing additional austerity measures.

“I have great doubts about whether they’re sufficient,” Stefano Micossi, an economist and the director of Assonime, an Italian business research group, said of the austerity package. “The mechanisms that led to such spending haven’t changed.”

The sticking point, he added, was the public sector. “The big problem is the public administration,” he said. “It’s inefficient and corrupt. But corruption is born in politics and politicians don’t want to change.”

Italy is contending with a public debt, built up under a succession of Christian Democratic governments, that helped the country emerge from dire poverty after World War II to become Europe’s third-largest industrial economy.

Especially in the poorer Italian south, the Christian Democrats put millions of people on the state payroll in a jobs-for-votes system that many say has persisted under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The quid pro quo worked so long as the economy was expanding, but now is seen as one of the major threats to Italy’s solvency.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, an estimated 3.5 million Italians were on the state payroll out of a work force of 23 million, according to the Ministry for the Public Administration and Innovation. On Mr. Berlusconi’s watch, government expenditures — including the cost of public administration and defense — rose to more than $1 trillion in 2010 from $753 billion in 2000.

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.

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