Italy has had 58 governments in less than 50 years, but next Sunday’s general election has probably received more international attention than all the ballots in the last half-century combined. Although law bars publication of opinion polls in the last two weeks of the campaign, the most recent survey showed media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right coalition, 4 percentage points ahead of the center-left coalition, headed by Francesco Rutelli. However, that was before international newspapers and magazines ranging from the Economist and the Financial Times of Britain, through Le Monde and Libération of France, El País and El Mundo of Spain, to Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung published blistering attacks on Berlusconi’s fitness to govern.
The criticisms focus on three main areas: 1) misgivings about Berlusconi’s integrity; 2) the extreme far-right views of at least two of his coalition partners; and 3) potential conflicts of interest between his commercial concerns and the duties of the prime minister, especially the de facto concentration of media power that would result if Berlusconi controlled state television in addition to his own private channels. Britain’s Daily Telegraph summarized his legal difficulties: “[He] has been found guilty three times on corruption-related charges, but the convictions have been quashed or have lapsed in Italy’s tortuous appeals system. Several more cases—on charges ranging from false accounting to bribery and tax fraud—are pending.” The Independent said Berlusconi’s bad reputation would detract from the European Union’s reputation as an environment for business: “There are simply too many questions about how Mr Berlusconi built his business empire to trust him as a gamekeeper.” The Guardian likened the extremism of Berlusconi’s coalition partners to that of the Austrian Freedom Party, whose presence in the ruling coalition led to that nation’s ostracism. It said: “Forza would share power with parties on the extreme of what is tolerable in modern Europe. … Italians who vote for them next week would … be inviting to national power parties of the far right, with all the destabilising effects that would have on Italy’s participation in the EU—and on the conduct of affairs at home.” The combination of state and private TV channels would give Berlusconi control of 80 percent of Italian TV outlets. The Financial Times declared: “This concentration of media power belongs more to the world of George Orwell’s 1984 than a modern European democracy.”
The Financial Times reported that the election campaign “is set to wind up with a grand television finale” on Friday. Berlusconi has booked time of one on his commercial channels to explain his plans to avoid a conflict of interest. Meanwhile Rutelli, angered that Berlusconi has refused his challenges to a televised debate, is threatening to debate against an empty chair: “Italians will thus be braced for what could turn out to be the first virtual political debate on television: they will simply have to hop between one channel and the other.”
Forest aid: Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post called for “drastic action” to save the forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan, which, according to a recent report, “could be completely gone by 2010” if illegal logging and forest clearance continues at its current pace. The paper reported that the “pillaging” of Indonesia’s forests has increased dramatically since the fall of former President Suharto three years ago. It was Suharto’s custom to give away forest concessions to friends and allies, thus preventing local residents from tending the forests in traditional ways. Post-Suharto administrative reforms have sown further confusion and, according to the SCMP, in some areas where locals still controlled the forest, “communities have been forced by fear and lack of options to sign over their land titles to illegal logging gangs.” The destruction could have devastating effects on the ecosystem: Two thousand endangered species—up to 13 percent of the world’s wildlife population—face extinction from the loss of habitat, and the elimination of tree cover makes droughts, floods, and mudslides more likely. The World Bank is now threatening to withhold aid to Indonesia unless the government takes more effective steps to halt illegal logging. The SCMP’s editorial concluded, “Aid donors should withhold funds until the timber thieves are brought to book and their assets seized so their ill-gotten gains can be used in trying to repair the damage.”
Humans 30, Dingoes 1: After the fatal mauling of a 9-year-old child by wild dingoes last Monday, there were claims that authorities overlook the dangers dingoes pose to humans in order to protect tourism. According to Britain’s Independent, there are 35,000 dingoes in Australia, but “they are rarely spotted outside wild and beautiful Fraser Island [where the attack took place], the world’s largest sand island and a World Heritage site. The rainforests, lakes and vast sand dunes attract 300,000 eco-tourists a year. All want to see the 160 rare dingoes.” Australia’s Sunday Telegraph revealed that two years ago, an official report on Fraser Island’s wildlife management had concluded, “Interacting with dingoes [is] important and … the dingo’s benefits considerably outweigh their drawbacks.” The Telegraph said the animals “are victims of an ecological nightmare, and they have lost their fundamental instincts and their ability to feed themselves. Brumbies [wild horses], which were a natural and ready food source, were removed from the island. Other food species like the swamp wallaby and some migratory birds grew more rare.” This has left the island’s dingoes starving and malnourished and has driven them to scavenge from visitors. Several papers pointed out that last week’s death further exonerates Lindy Chamberlain (whose story was made into the Meryl Streep movie A Cry in the Dark), who spent three and a half years in jail for the murder of her daughter Azaria, until evidence was found to support her claim that a dingo took her baby. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “She believes the interests of the tourism industry—run by people anxious that bad publicity on the danger of dingoes will put off visitors—and of official bodies that have ignored warnings of the dangers, have been allowed to prevail over the need to protect people from the dingo menace.” Despite protests from Aborigines and conservationists, as many as 30 animals have been culled after the Queensland premier told reporters, “Children are more important than dingoes.” An editorial in the Age of Melbourne concluded:
Proposals to keep the dingoes away from the humans on the island have been made before but not followed up. … [D]ingoes are innocent—because they are wild animals and, therefore, are not responsible for their actions. Humans, on the other hand, have a duty not only to assess the risk to their own kind but to examine, independently, the inconsistency of their own behavior. When we sentimentalise an animal such as the dingo, we fail to see it truly, and are ourselves diminished in the process.