Italy elects the impossible

By John Lloyd
February 26, 2013

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

More From John Lloyd
No gimmicks, just 10 good reasons why Scotland shouldn’t leave the UK
In clashes over Ukraine or Iraq, liberty must be defended
Russian ‘realism’ is winning now, but will fail in the end
Germany’s renewed hegemony isn’t something Europe needs to fear
‘Braveheart’ they’re not. What’s Scotland’s problem with a United Kingdom?
The less well Muslims and Jews actually know each other, the more hatred grows
Comments
6 comments so far

The crisis in Italy is morphing, and some things are already pretty much certain:
1. Nothing good will come out of it
2. The crisis in France will be bigger, as well as more meaningful to the future of Europe
3. The EU, ECB etc. will keep generating plenty of useless decisions preceded and backed by plenty of resolute yet meaningless words, and fewer Europeans will even bother to pay attention to them, as Italian voters have already done.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

“Mario Monti, …. He reassured other European states and the global financial markets and institutions, but his reforms were often blocked. Those that succeeded hurt, … the lower-income, the honest and the young.” It seems that those who would operate the government for the benefit of institutions outside of Italy lost.

Were not these outside entities also the same that produced one of the world’s worst financial disasters? Those responsible for the corruptions and stupidities have never been held accountable by these entities and examples have not been made. Maybe such an imperfect election result is the best to be had from a society held captive by that very same scum.

Could it be that morality might play some role in a rescue? No, just perish that thought. A relativist solution that is ambivalent toward rules is always the way to go. Where is the quick profit otherwise? Besides, routes that take long term human relationships and interaction into account require too much time, effort, and thought to contemplate.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

Italy is an original signatory of the treaty which created the Eurozone. They are an integral part of the Eurozone. They might as well be a province in the nation called Europe. Trouble is that most nations/people who agreed with the treaty in the first place didn’t realize that they had to give up some sovereignty to make it fly. Now when their own mistakes are costing them a bit more of that sovereignty they balk and protest and cry and wail. Should’ve read the fine print, because now their protest doesn’t just affect their nation, but every other member of the Eurozone. This is the EXACT reason the Brits didn’t sign on for full membership, because they want the right to screw up their own country without having others have a legitimate say in those very affairs. I still think they did more harm than good to themselves by not joining, but my thought is the Brits still think somewhere in the back of their minds that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Tell it to me again once Scotland leaves the UK, Ireland reunites and Wales is independent. It’ll all happen within 10 years, and those new nations will all join the EU…

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

I love the Italians. For the umpteenth time, you elitists AUSTERITY ISN’T WORKING. Monti is the impossiblist.

All your money countst for nothing. The financial system is broken. Either give it up and reform, or face the guilotine post revolution.

Is the Western elite brighter than Mubarak?

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

And why is Grillo a threat to reforms? Have the other 2 parties which have held power over the past few decades showed that they were able, let alone willing, to reform something? Bersani, even after the results gave him a mandate to govern, albeit not a clear one, has still to produce a clear road map. (Try listening to his speech after the elections…Those who didn’t fall asleep after the first few sentences are still trying to decipher what he said or intended to say) Berlusconi…well….you know him…a man well versed in reform but, as someone rightly put: “verba volant…”. Or maybe the reforms intended in this article and in the media in general aren’t those which a country like Italy really needs at the moment.
Maybe Grillo is right that a good house-sweeping is necessary first in order to pass on to a second phase of reforms. What he preaches is not fantasy but things that would seem normal in any other country. (another article went so far as to describe him as xenophobic…and how exactly is that so? Because he’s not exactly pro EU? Hmmmm…) A few examples: max. 2 legislation periods per politician (isn’t that the norm for the President?); no criminals, indicted et al. in Public Offices (I couldn’t join a police force or run for office in another country if I had a criminal record, could I?); That people at higher levels actually go to jail when found guilty (a novel concept for Italy, but not only…)
In any case, the task is hard one and before anything can change in Italy, the culture has to change and, in the end, that has to happen at the top first. As the saying goes: “fish start to rot at the head”. The hope is that this can be changed to “Lead by Example”.

Posted by grenyx | Report as abusive

Somewhere the author forgot the major point about these elections.

I will repeat so you will not forget:

Italy voted AGAINST the EU and with reason!

Most of the EU contries will vote TODAY against the EURO but in favor of a EU Trade agreement. As long as they stop impoverishing the public by stealing their money to give to the Goldie’s from the world.

Who, in his/her right mind would vote for charlatan-leaders who, in europe, did not bring ONE CULPRIT TO BOOK and yes gave those same crooks billions of euro’s to continue their onslaught?

I should also vote for anybody, just to get rid of the EU dictators.

Posted by Willvp | Report as abusive
Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/