Italy elects the impossible
In a parliamentary election this week, a majority of Italian voters – some 60 percent – chose parties that even a cursory glance could tell had no coherent idea of how to run an advanced and complex state (let alone Italy). Forty percent voted for two groups that have a recognizably sensible approach to governance, the largest of which is mainly made up of the Democratic Party, heirs to the former Communist Party of Italy. In one of the smaller ironies of the election, these heirs of an anti-capitalist, anti parliamentary revolutionary ideology were regarded, especially by investors, bankers and politicians of both the center-right and center-left, as Italy’s greatest hope for constitutional and market stability.
Just under 30 percent of the vote went to the coalition put together by Silvio Berlusconi, a man not exactly proven at being able to govern Italy well. He is yesterday’s but also tomorrow’s man, who saw his run for office – once regarded as something of a joke – embraced as he promised to return, in cash, citizens’ payments of a property tax for which his party had voted; asked a young woman how often she climaxed; and remarked, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose racial laws condemned thousands of Italian Jews to concentration camps and death, had done some good things in his time. He didn’t win, but nearly did; which means he remains a major power in the land.
Tim Parks, the British writer who has married and lived for most of his life in Italy, wrote of his adopted people that “nonchalance is perhaps their greatest (talent)”, and continued: “Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination (of Italians) not to face the truth, which again combines with the deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. … Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who pay taxes.”
The other major threat to the necessary reform of Italian politics and society is the surging Five Star movement of former comedian and champion blogger Beppe Grillo. It is an irony that this man, who has no obvious peers in his movement, is positing the largest possible reform and has the least means to achieve it. Grillo has for a decade and more described the entire political class, and the news media, and the Church and the corporate establishment, as thieves, criminals and liars, interested only in feathering their own nests and in pursuing their private vices. His program is for the political parties to “go home,” for Parliament to be dissolved and for parliamentary rule to be replaced by rule of the people, their will made evident through the Internet. Little question that this is absurd: If and when the Net plays a large role in democratic politics, we will require a staged and consensual movement, one that is explained at length and over time to the electorate. Grillo’s leap into postmodernity is a fantastic indulgence.
But between a quarter and a third of Italians were prepared to indulge him. And they did so because they believed him and his disgust over a long political betrayal. Italian politicians at every level are not universally venal, but enough of them are. They produce sufficiently frequent scandals of an outrageous kind for the honest, taxpaying citizen to feel regular nausea. It is on the tide of that nausea that Grillo rode, which made his movement the biggest single “party” ‑ the center-left and center-right blocs, which narrowly beat him, were coalitions ‑ and which handed him a large power to do … something.
The something Italy needs – no secret here – is reform: reform of the political and electoral systems, of the labor market, of state spending, of tax collection, of subsidies to the South. It needs to take on organized crime, political and corporate corruption and burgeoning drug traffic. It needs a strong, more or less respected, government with the base and the will to stay the course through unpopular measures. Mario Monti, unelected prime minister for a little over a year, tried to give himself a democratic mandate and failed. His was a mixed record: He reassured other European states and the global financial markets and institutions, but his reforms were often blocked. Those that succeeded hurt, inevitably, the lower-income, the honest and the young. Ten percent of voters voted for him. They were the elite, I would guess, and they voted more in hope than in faith.
The left, which at a little over 30 percent has “won,” scraped a victory in the lower house but not in the senate: The two houses have roughly equal powers. No coherent government is possible. The 60 percenters, led by two of the greatest populists of our time, Berlusconi and Grillo ‑ both in one country! Italy is uniquely cursed ‑ now have to make their moves. Will one or other or both renege on every one of their pre-electoral statements and find common cause with the center-left to support a government that would carry on some sort of reform program that Monti has sketched and that the rest of Europe demands? Or will one or other or both continue to play to their own galleries, blame Monti, the left and the European Union for past and present woes and seek to widen their appeal for a future election, now seen as likely soon?
It’s worth stressing the extraordinary nature of the Italian result. Two impossibilists taken most of the vote; the man most approved by the rest of Europe, the United States and the world institutions been humiliated; the vote, as Tim Parks writes, blithely ignored realities one would think are pressing upon the state and upon its people. The future of both the Italian state and Italian democracy is in serious question. The populists have it in their power to weaken both further, perhaps fatally. For all their farcical posturings, the issues they have set before their country, and the world, are serious.
PHOTO: A woman stands in front of election posters in Milan, northern Italy, April 13, 2008. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini (ITALY) – RTR1ZGUX