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Coronavirus and Democracy: Conte is Dangerous, Italy is Under Martial Law

Letter to the Editor: Italy is under martial law and if we allow the seizure of absolute power because of an “emergency”, we will not have much democracy left

by Christopher Binetti

"Task force" del governo di Giuseppe Conte per il coronavirus (Foto Palazzo Chigi)

Read below the answer of Stefano Vaccara

Dear La Voce di New York,

I write to you to tell you about what is really going on Italy. The English-language media falsely calls “il blocco” a lockdown. However, it means blockade, which is much more severe than a lockdown. Also, “lockdown” implies a short-term measure, or one based on a calculated threat. However, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte extended the original “il blocco” decree from some areas in Northern Italy that are politically opposed to him to the whole country only two days after the first decree. He had no reason to believe that the extension was strictly necessary scientifically, but he had many political reasons for doing so. Particularly, he had been getting critical by the opposition for the “red zone” that the first decree created. So, he decided to extend the “red zone” to all of Italy.

He acknowledged that politics was at least part of his considerations, when he remarked that after the second decree, there was no longer a red zone, only Italy (I am paraphrasing). I am less concerned about Conte’s original motivation for establishing “il blocco” than what it does to Italy’s constitution as a free republic and liberal democracy.

For one thing “il blocco”, even if translate properly to mean blockade, is still a euphemism. In truth, “il blocco” is marital law nationwide in Italy. Almost all secular businesses were closed down nationwide without a specific examination of the threat in most areas in Southern Italy, amongst other regions. Moreover, the national police and military are empowered to arrest anyone trying to walk across municipal borders. Essentially, the regions are broken up into their constituent towns and cities, and other wise, the power of regional governments, an opponent of Conte’s new allies, appears crushed for all time.

The courts are quiet and the Parliament, if still functioning, is effectively powerless. There are no checks and balances on Conte’s power. He is effectively a dictator just in terms of institutional analysis, not necessarily intent. However, the precedent of even temporary dictatorship eventually doomed both the Roman Republic and the free medieval comuni like Milan and Florence. This precedent, regardless of Conte’s intent, is extremely dangerous to republicanism, civil liberties, and liberal democracy in Italy.

The argument that this is an unprecedented situation is false. Italy has unfortunately seen this situation too many times. Sometimes the crisis is war, other times it is plague, often worse than the Coronavirus. In still other situations, it could economic depression, slave revolts, riots, class conflict, and half a dozen other causes. If we allow the seizure of absolute power because of an “emergency”, we will not have much democracy left when all of the “emergencies” are deducted from out time to be free.

Even in the United States, people are talking about giving up many of their civil rights, “temporarily” for safety. However, how much of your hard-earned rights are expendable in any crisis, let alone like this which I believe to be far from as frightening as the bubonic plague or World War II? I would argue that our right to move from town to town with our own regions, the right to assembly and protest in small groups, and our right to institutional checks and balances are the three most important civil rights that we must not allow to be violate in the United States as they are being violated now in Italy.

Dr. Christopher Binetti is on the Adjunct Faculty in the Political Science Department at Middlesex County College in Edison, New Jersey.


Dear Dr. Binetti,

I actually think the opposite, Giuseppe Conte acted the way a head of government in a Democracy should in a situation of grave national emergency. Usually it is more in the spirit of  “dictators” to try to hide reality, saying things like “it’s a hoax”, risking more lives hoping that the economy can continue to appear strong so that people will keep you in power… I think in fact that, as Fabio Cammalleri wrote recently in La Voce di New Yorkthat Conte looks like more FDR than Mussolini.


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