Why Italian Politics Never Ceases to Amaze

The indecisive result of Italy’s recent election. Blue: Centre-right, Red: Centre-left Yellow: Beppe Grillo’s “Five-Star” Movement. Source: wikimedia commonsItaly is the European country that that has seen the most ruling governments since its 1861 creation. It has had more than 60 governments since World War II, and desperately needs a stable government to heal its wounded economy back to growth. Once Italy was Europe’s emerging economy, a society that blended dynamism and rapid growth with a standard of living that was the envy of the rest of Europe. Now it is a major threat to the future of the Euro as its political system, shorn of credibility, struggles to deal with huge public debt and anaemic levels of economic growth. 

Young people are leaving the country in droves, frustrated at the lack of opportunities. As Bill Emmott writes in his book Good Italy, Bad Italy, older people cling to their rights and privileges, fearful of what the future might hold. But what has tarnished the ‘Made in Italy’ quality stamp? The answers lie in Italy’s historically unstable political system.

Reactions to the country’s stunning election result from February 25th have varied. A broad array of disappointments, laughter, enthusiasm, fear and tragicomedy can be perceived. The result presents serious dangers, both for Italy and for Europe, but there are also opportunities and important lessons. The biggest lesson comes from the success of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, an anti-political experiment of hyper-democracy as he calls it, which succeeded to rise from nothing, taking 25% of the national vote and more than 160 seats in the two houses of Parliament. The most important lesson he teaches in this opera buffa is that, in times of crisis, the most powerful – and necessary – political message is that of change. However, ‘experiments’ such the one led by Grillo could hamper Italy’s development both politically and economically in the coming years.

The entire Italian political establishment, which includes last year’s saviour, Mario Monti, succeeded in ignoring the hunger for change and holding on tightly to the “old tricks”. So did Berlusconi, but at least he was listening to his voters and so offered the simple and appealing promise to not only cut the country’s most unpopular tax, but to also repay it. This is one of the main reasons he managed to resurrect himself politically and double his pre-campaign share of the votes.

Neither Monti, nor the pre-campaign favorite, the Democratic Party leader, Pier-Luigi Bersani, managed to offer voters any real sense of change. Monti lost his image as an outsider with integrity by allying himself with discredited centrist groups and the Catholic Church, which meant that he offered no real hope of shaking off the idea that he was all about raising taxes and forcing sacrifices on people. Monti is in desperate need of finding an appealing rhetoric to not make his liberalism sound like another form of sado-masochism. And it seems he’s interested in doing so, by resorting to the services of a renowned political consulting firm that Obama is associated with. Nevertheless, Monti is still senator for life and at the forefront of Italy’s best – and also private – business school. Some say that this is enough for him to retire in ‘glory’.

Pier Luigi Bersani: Italy’s centre-left Prime Minister in waiting? Image: wikimedia commonsBersani is by far a better communicator than Monti. Nevertheless, he made no effort to show that he would be able to break with the old left’s love for labour unions and high taxes. His belief that he would sail into office as if it was his party’s birthright proved unfounded.

If he succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, Bersani has pledged to continue with Monti’s unpopular budget-cutting reforms and sees them as a necessary evil, but he says Europe’s strict focus on austerity measures is preventing Italy from growing. Bersani will also pursue civil unions for gay people, immigration reform, and introduce €500 million worth of government-funded university scholarships. He also said he will retain an unpopular property tax that his rival Berlusconi has promised to repeal, and refund, in its entirety – a promise Mario Monti called “a poison meatball“. One of Bersani’s main goals will be to enact labour reforms to make it cheaper for businesses to hire, but experts say his allegiance to Italy’s labour unions could complicate any attempts of change.

It seems like the Italian electorate – or most of it – craves fresh political discourses. One can only ask whether this is truly the way to regain the status Italy held in the 60s and reform old political class and its sclerotic processes.


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