Non Habemus Primus Minister


The election of a new pope is usually a time for celebration in Rome, with the city’s more devout Catholics welcoming their new spiritual leader, alongside thousands of pilgrims from around the world. And undoubtedly, the city’s less devout still welcome the tourism money those pilgrims bring with them. But Jorge Bergoglio was not the only man who stood for office in the Eternal City this month. Just a few miles from the Vatican, a much more temporal election took place—that to determine which party or coalition would rule Europe’s third largest economy. And as is more often than not the case in Italian politics, the election’s only real winner was cynicism.

One can’t help but feel sorry for Mario Monti, Italy’s beleaguered outgoing Prime Minister. An uncharismatic, centrist technocrat, Monti has done his best to fix, with unpopular but needed austerity measures, the mess left behind by his irresponsible predecessor, Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi. After forming a government in 2011 at the behest of Italy’s leftist President, Giorgio Napolitano, Monti has spent the past two years trying to reform Italian fiscal policy. The larger threat to the Eurozone meant that Monti had to take drastic steps to prevent Italy from veering off into a Greek-style debt crisis. These measures included higher taxes as well as spending cuts, and to highlight his commitment, Monti even waived his own salary, something that would have been unthinkable to his billionaire predecessor.

At first, Monti’s efforts seemed to pay dividends. Before the election, Italy was predicted to have a primary budget surplus of 3.5 percent of its GDP this year. But it wasn’t enough. Unemployment has risen to over 30 percent for young people, and the economy shrunk by 2.3 percent last year. And while Monti’s policies were lauded in Germany and the rest of the E.U., they were unpopular with an Italian population that was tired of austerity. As a result of this, Monti’s party fared poorly in the election, retaining just over ten percent of the vote. It would seem he was much too reasonable to succeed in Italian politics.

Before Italians went to the polls in late February, the party which seemed most likely to triumph was Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left Democrats and their left-wing coalition. The fractured nature of the Italian left meant that this coalition included a wide variety of regional parties, along with the more “fringe” elements of the far left. Campaigning against both Monti and the right, the Leftist coalition seemed to be the party with the best prospects of forming a government. Yet in the end, they won less than thirty percent of the vote, and control of the lower house of deputies. But control of the senate—and the ability to form a government—escaped them.

The right-wing coalition came in second, with only slightly less of the popular vote. Leading this group was none other than Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s eccentric and wealthy former Prime minister. A man who The Economist once declared “the Man who Screwed an Entire Nation” , Berlusconi has a closet overflowing with skeletons, and makes gaffes with the best of them. In terms of policy, Berlusconi campaigned on a shamelessly populist opposition to austerity, and despite his myriad of personal faults, the Italian electorate responded. Il Popolo della Liberta, The People of Freedom, ended up winning 125 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 117 in the Senate, against the Democrats’ 123. The lack of a majority for either party means that unless a coalition is formed, there can be no government.

The “wild card” in the race—and the party which has attracted the most outside media attention—is the “Five Star Movement” of Comedian Beppo Grillo. Originally formed via social media in 2009, the movement was meant to be a direct response to the perceived corruption and incompetence of Italy’s entrenched political elite, which for Grillo included both Berlusconi and Bersani. The “five points” that their name refers to are development, connectivity, environmentalism, sustainable transport, and (public) water. Although on social issues the group tends towards the left on some issues and right towards others, they are also “Eurosceptic”, meaning that a Five Star controlled government would likely be at odds with those in Germany and elsewhere trying to hold the Eurozone together. The movement is unsurprisingly popular amongst young, cynical voters, yet it does not seem to have a truly cohesive “ideology”. Mr. Grillo is closer to Ron Paul than Stephen Colbert—a determined insurgent who has a clear beef with the political establishment, yet whose populism hides a lack of workable ideas. While the Five Star movement should theoretically be the most flexible and pragmatic party, Grillo has so far rebuffed (rudely) offers from both the left and right to form a coalition government, despite the Five Star Movements twenty-five percent of the vote meaning that such an alliance is the only way they could feasibly govern.

Realistically, the Five Star movement, while well-intentioned, will likely be more of a hindrance than a help for Italian. Few of their ideas, such as free internet access, have anything beyond novelty value. Any coalition including the Five Star movement would have a difficult time working to solve Italy’s major debt crisis. Furthermore, Grillo’s talk of leaving the Eurozone has already made other European leaders skittish. It is hard to imagine the single-currency surviving without Italy, and it is hard to imagine the Italian economy recovering unless it remains in the union. If the main goal of the movement has been to disempower the political elites, it has certainly succeeded. But Italians may soon realize that those elites were a necessary evil.

So, between these three faction—the right, the left, and the disillusioned, what middle ground is there? None of the three major players seem willing to make the sacrifices which a coalition would require. Yet despite Mr. Grillo’s rhetoric, Italy needs a government. And it needs one soon. The Italian economy remains sluggish, and much of Mr. Monti’s work restoring faith in Italian markets has already evaporated. The worst case scenario is Italy sliding into a lengthy recession, as Japan did in the nineties. Given the massive political fragmentation which accompanied that decline, the parallels are disturbing.
It would be easy to blame the Italian electorate for putting short term interest ahead of long term stability. But that would be unfair to a country which has already endured years of austerity, and whose politicians have consistently been corrupt, incompetent, or both. And while it may be easy as an outsider to mock a figure as ridiculous as Silvio Berlusconi, he continues to win (or at least remain competitive in) elections. With the Italian Left hopelessly fractured, and outliers like Grillo making a mockery of the entire process, Italy has few better options. The Italian voter isn’t the problem—it’s the Italian politician who needs fixing.

Berlusconi is, first and foremost, a businessman. With his vast media empire, he has applied to first rule of news—“Give the People what they want”—to his political campaign. Italians do not want austerity, any more than Greeks do. But in order to save their economy, that is exactly what they need. So Italy’s hypothetical political savior would end up pushing policies not unlike those of Mr. Monti. The key difference is that he would do so without Italians realizing it. A leader who can maintain the personal popularity essential to holding together a coalition, while instituting painful but necessary reforms, is what Italy should be hoping for. In essence, Italy needs a swindler—someone who can push austerity without Italians realizing it. But for the time being, Italy has no government, and few prospects of one. For the time being, the various factions seem content to fiddle while Rome—and the rest of La Repubblica—burns.

3 comments on “Non Habemus Primus Minister”

  1. I take issue with your ideas about both the five star movement and the way out of the debt crisis. First, I feel like your understanding of the political psychology of the average Italian is severely limited – and definitively anglo-american. The five star movement is anything but pragmatic, thats the point, its a message against the establishment and against the political “caste” of Italy. You seem to be ignoring the fact that of any single party (not coalition) M5S won the most votes. That seems pretty significant to me – its a movement beyond cynicism, I would argue. Chalking it up to only that is simply lazy, but understandable considering the way most of the media, especially the Economist, covers the movement. Secondly, I take issue with your seemingly absolute faith in austerity and the central bankers of Germany. Another idea that’s a little too “Economist” for your own good in my opinion.

    If you’re interested in Italian politics, and in the motivation behind the supposedly cynical movement, check out this book:

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