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© Giuseppe Cacace, AFP | The Palio, Siena's historic bareback horse race, draws thousands of visitors each year.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2018-02-26

Siena, home of the world's oldest bank, has been left-wing terrain since the fall of Mussolini. But as Italy heads to the polls, the bank’s tribulations have bolstered a right-wing economist who plans to oust the finance minister and ditch the euro.

A week from Italy's March 4 general election, the woes of a bank founded back in 1472 are high on the minds of voters in this picturesque town, nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany. On paper, Siena is a safe seat for the ruling Democratic Party (PD), located at the heart of a “red” region that has voted communist for decades and is now governed by the centre-left. But many here are furious at the way politicians have run the city’s more than five-century-old bank into the ground.

That is why the Democratic Party has picked Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, the man who engineered the state rescue of the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), to stand for election here – and why the right-wing opposition is fielding a eurosceptic candidate who hopes to pinch Padoan’s seats in both parliament and government.

Siena's crown jewel

"For the Democratic Party, Padoan’s candidacy is a way of saying, 'Here is the man who gave you €5 billion and kept your bank afloat, at least for the coming years'," says Andrea Greco, a journalist at Italian daily La Repubblica, who has followed every step of the demise and rescue of the Monte dei Paschi, Italy's third-largest lender, over the past decade.

The Rocca Salimbeni, Monte dei Paschi's 14th century headquarters. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Founded as a charity for the poor, Monte dei Paschi is not just the city's second employer, after the university. It is the pride of Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a population of just 56,000, and as integral to its identity as the Palio, the bareback horse race that draws thousands of tourists each year. A legacy of Siena’s heyday, when Tuscan bankers raked in money from all over Christendom, the bank has long acted as the city's benevolent patron, showering it with cash.

But when the Monte faltered a decade ago, so did everything else: business dried up, cultural events were scrapped and the cherished basketball squad went bust after winning a record seven titles in a row. Even the 17 Contrade (boroughs) contesting the Palio had to forgo their subsidies, ending an age-old custom. To many entering Siena's majestic town hall, the Palazzo pubblico, it would have felt like a real-life rendition of the city's most famous fresco, the 14th century Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in which greed, fraud and mismanagement leave a town and its surroundings bankrupt and blighted.

A segment from Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government, located in Siena's 14th century town hall. © Wikimedia creative commons

Greco says Padoan's partial nationalisation of the bank in 2017 was met with relief in Siena, after years in which no private investors could be found to prop up the venerable institution that was bleeding cash and creaking under a mountain, or monte, of bad loans. It has ensured that the official headquarters remain in the Rocca Salimbeni, Monte dei Paschi’s historic 14th century base.

A former chief economist at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Padoan is widely seen as a competent and diligent minister. He enjoys broad respect abroad, in the manner of a Mario Monti, Italy's former technocrat-prime minister. On the other hand, cautions Greco, the 68-year-old is also a foresto (outsider) in a town still imbued with the communal spirit of Italy's medieval city-states. Above all, the finance minister is a daily reminder that Siena's all-important bank is now controlled from Rome and that the locals are powerless.

"Padoan may have saved the bank," says Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the local university. "But in the meantime, Siena has lost it."

A challenger from the right

While Siena’s summer Palio is still months away, in the Contrada of the Eagle, historically the least successful of the city's 17 boroughs, the flag-wavers are already out practising their elaborate choreographies, a crucial component of Sienese pageantry. They're hardly impressed with the choice of parliamentary candidates, but all agree voting is a civic duty.

"The important thing is that we don't give another vote to those who pulled the rug from under our feet," says their trainer, referring to the Monte dei Paschi scandal,

The question of who pulled the rug out from under Siena is a hotly contested one, and a source of embarrassment for the left. Together with the Monte, successive left-wing administrations have cultivated networks of patronage and clientelism as intricate as the maze of stone-paved streets and alleys that make up the city’s medieval centre. In return, they delivered what was widely regarded as good government in a region reputed for its civility, prosperity and quality of life. But the traumatic decline of the bank, and its impact on the area, have altered the equation.

"On the one hand, Padoan is the symbol of the Monte's rescue," says Giuseppe Silvestri of the local paper, Corriere di Siena. "But it is also true that it was a leadership with close ties to the left that brought the bank to its knees in the first place."

This has given Padoan's main opponent in Siena, the candidate for the anti-immigrant Lega party, Claudio Borghi, a precious line of attack in a land where conservatives have long been a negligible quantity. Touted as a possible future finance minister, Borghi is part of the latest unwieldy coalition cobbled together by a resurgent Silvio Berlusconi in a bid to return to power. While he remains a long shot for a "red" city like Siena, the coalition whose economic platform he helped draft is poised to win the largest share of seats – and possibly even a majority – in Italy's next parliament.

"The Monte survived wars, plagues and famines, and then the PD found a way to destroy it," Borghi scoffs, mocking the government's "belated and clumsy" rescue. "Besides, the first thing Padoan said when visiting Siena was that the state would soon sell its stake in the bank, which will bring us back to square one."

'Anyway, the Monte will pay'

While the Democratic Party is still in control of Siena, resentment and disillusion are palpable among many of its voters. At the Bottega di Solimano, a butcher in the city centre, the owner says the ruling party has been using Siena's bank "as its cash machine". He will be casting his ballot for "whoever has a hammer and sickle on his logo, even if it's as effective as a pee in the sea".

Like many in Siena, the 65-year-old butcher blames outsiders for interfering with what used to be "a model bank". He points to Giuseppe Mussari, a former Monte dei Paschi chairman from the southern Calabria region, who negotiated the fateful €10 billion purchase of a rival bank, in cash, 10 years ago. It was a bad buy, for the wrong price, at the worst possible time – when the whole financial world was in freefall – and the beginning of the Monte’s demise.

Others feel the locals should share the blame for accepting the bank's former largesse. "Siena has long been spoilt by the easy money that came from the bank," says Aimore Piazzi, a former town hall employee who now runs a wine shop stacked with bottles of world-famous Chianti, Montepulciano and Montalcino wines, all produced nearby. "Whenever we organised something, money was never a problem – because, 'Anyway, the Monte will pay'. The bank gave us €100 million a year, but we didn't invest the money. Now we're left with a commercial fabric that is obsolete. Shops like mine are no longer viable. All we can do is feed tourists in restaurants."

Aimore Piazzi says the people of Siena have been spoilt by the Monte's former largesse. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

At one such eatery, the Trattoria del Capitano, the owner Niccolò Moretti waxes lyrical when given a chance to rail against the Democratic Party. As well as “killing the Monte”, Moretti blames the centre-left party for the high taxes and heavy red tape that have long plagued Italian businesses, regardless of who is in government.

A fan of Berlusconi, "Italy's last great leader", and a proud one too, Moretti is something of a rarity in Siena. He claims the fall of Berlusconi's last government in 2011, amid a string of corruption and sex scandals, was the result of a European plot ordained by Germany and France.

Ditching the euro

Like most Italians, of right or left, Moretti believes joining the Eurozone has been a catastrophe for the country, but that leaving it now would only make a bad situation worse. It is a stance that puts the 36-year-old at odds with Borghi, the man he will vote for on March 4.

A frequent guest of political chat shows and a serial tweeter, the Lega's star economist is a busy man these days. In a phone interview from his taxi, he rails against the Eurozone's banking directives, which he blames for weakening Italy's banking sector and Monte dei Paschi in particular. He blasts Padoan's alleged servility towards Brussels, at a time when "others like France and Germany stepped in decisively to prop up their own lenders". If German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron press ahead with plans for a two-speed Europe, with Paris and Berlin leading the push towards greater convergence, Borghi is adamant Italy must take a backseat.

"And so should France, for that matter," adds the 47-year-old. "What's the point of being top of the class if it means being strangled by Merkel?"

A montage of a 10,000 Lire note with a picture of Claudio Borghi, posted on the Lega candidate's Facebook profile. © Facebook

Nostalgic for the Lira, Italy's former currency, Borghi is something of a currency fetishist. His Facebook page features a montage of a Lira note bearing his own face. At a campaign event in Siena, he produced sterling banknotes with pictures of "great men" including Winston Churchill and Adam Smith. He compared them with faceless euro notes, adorned with pictures of bridges and windows – "which as the Sienese well know, are things people jump from", he quipped, referring to the apparent suicide of a Monte dei Paschi executive, who fell to his death from the window of his office in the Rocca Salimbeni at the height of the bank's debacle.

Borghi's plan for a gradual exit from the euro includes issuing so-called mini-BOTs, a kind of parallel currency designed to inject greater liquidity into the Italian economy. His BOTs, distributed in wads at the event in Siena, are decorated with Italian heroes including nationalist poet Gabriele D'Annunzio and the footballer Marco Tardelli scoring against Germany – of course – in the 1982 World Cup final.

"With these in place, the European Central Bank cannot crush us by shutting off liquidity in euros, the way it crushed Greece,” he said.

The migrant scare

The Lega's alliance with Berlusconi, which also includes Brothers of Italy, a smaller nationalist party nostalgic for the fascist era, is one of convenience. The parties disagree on many issues, most notably quitting the euro. Trust between their leaders is minimal. As Lega chief Matteo Salvini put it, just two weeks ahead of the vote: "With Berlusconi, you always have to keep four eyes wide open." Analysts say their generous campaign promises – including sweeping tax cuts and pension hikes – will cost Italy's heavily indebted state hundreds of millions of euros.

The rise of the centre-right in opinion polls owes much to voters' disillusion with a bitterly divided centre-left, and the growing impact of a poisonous immigration debate. A string of high-profile incidents, culminating in the shooting of several black people by a far-right activist in central Italy earlier this month, have put the campaign spotlight firmly on the migrant crisis that has hit Italy hard. It is a favourite topic of Salvini, a close ally of France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen. With Berlusconi barred from public office due to a conviction for bribery, the Lega leader has vowed to serve as Italy's next prime minister, naming Borghi as a favourite to replace Padoan as finance minister.

Siena's sumptuous cathedral, the Duomo, dominates the city's medieval centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Francesca, a 31-year-old waitress in Siena who declined to give her full name, says Salvini's arguments have gained traction in towns and villages around Siena, like Castel San Gimignano, her hometown. "We used to vote 100 percent communist, but when you listen to people at the bar now, they sound like Salvini," she says, blaming the PD for failing in the left's elementary mission: to protect society's most vulnerable.

Out on the piazza del Campo, the famous saucer-shaped square where the Palio is held twice a year, a group of students is enjoying a break between classes. They come from Puglia in the south of Italy, a part of the country the Lega – founded as the Lega Nord (Northern League) – was once desperate to get rid of. "Even where we come from, people are turning to Salvini because of the migrant issue, older voters in particular," says Martina Pomerico, 19. Martina and her friends are yet to make up their minds, but they are tempted by a new pro-European outfit, called + Europa (More Europe), that is allied with the PD. Their main fear is a Brexit scenario for Italy.

"It's hard to have a pro-European stance these days, and yet it's critical for our future," she says. "We need to raise our voices, or else older generations will decide for the young, just like they did in Britain."

Date created : 2018-02-26


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