Stuck in the Swamp

Italy’s election has produced an ungovernable political wasteland. Can anyone rise above the muck?


Some 90 years ago, the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, who would later go on to win a Nobel prize for literature, wrote these bitter, magic verses:

This alone today we can tell you

What we are not, what we do not want. 

At the time, it was read as a statement against the coming tides of Fascism. Today, it expresses the mood of most Italians, stuck in our post-election quagmire. There is no solid majority in the Senate nor even in the lower house of parliament, where the center-left Democratic Party enjoys a slight majority in seats (though not control) — and there is no viable political coalition on which to build a government.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived his sixth national campaign since 1994: he lost millions of votes from his last go round, yet his promises of slashing taxes once more excited the middle class (and roiled markets). The Democratic Party’s (PD) leader, Pierluigi Bersani, was the front runner in all the polls:  but he, too, failed to follow the raw data on the web and his campaign sputtered in the south. Meanwhile, embittered by joblessness, corruption, and organized crime, the south paid no attention to PD and listened to the Sirens evoked by Beppe Grillo, the populist former comedian and founder of the 5 Star party. Grillo shined, winning 25 percent of the votes, which put to rest the technocratic dreams of Premier Mario Monti. Grillo also managed to siphon off more than half of his votes from Bersani’s  PD, bleeding the party of its far left. The progressive voters were angry: they did not concern themselves with bond markets, the Davos consensus, or even the wisdom of pundits, for that matter. "Tutti a casa" ("Let’s send the crooks home!") was the war cry; homilies from economists fell on deaf ears. 

Clearly, voters did not bother to read Grillo’s quixotic manifesto, which includes: quitting the Eurozone; withdrawing Italian troops from all international peacekeeping missions; stopping work on badly needed infrastructure projects, from high-speed trains to highways; putting a moratorium on biotech research; and denying citizenship to immigrants. Instead, in a populist frenzy, they thronged his rallies (to be fair, Grillo is a terrific political performer) and made 5 Star Italy’s No. 1 party. Yet such was the chaos of this election, that abstention hit a record high, one not seen since 1946, when war-weary Italians were called to choose between a republic and monarchy.

So as the political parties now scheme and horse-trade, who really won and who lost? And what happens next? 

The real winner was fear — the fear of globalization, free markets, innovation, integrated Europe, and high tech. Both Berlusconi and Grillo berated Germany’s Angela Merkel for her politics of austerity, blaming her cold and stern Europe for Italy’s woes. Berlusconi talked of repealing the imposta municipal unica, a much hated real estate tax imposed by Monti. Meanwhile, Grillo claimed that Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz will advise him on how to spur sustainable growth. But without tax revenue and with an epidemic of tax dodging, that’s going to be difficult.

The loser (beyond common sense), is Italy’s center-left project for a modern, innovative country. It never was a strong party line in an election dominated by the politics of rejectionism: Monti had to compromise with his crusty allies while Bersani had to keep his socialist, pro-union wing at bay. Political white noise eventually confused the voters. They stuck to Berlusconi or gambled on Grillo. Only the party faithful — some of them grudgingly — voted for Bersani, their ranks thinned in the north, decimated in the south. 

Now it is up to President Giorgio Napolitano to choose a prime minister and send him on a perilous safari to secure a majority and appoint a cabinet. Bersani may form a minority cabinet and beg Grillo, on his left, to support him. This is the "Sicilian formula," wherein the island’s center-left governor, Rosario Crocetta, now has to negotiate every bill with 5 Star hardliners. For example, to secure the 5 Star vote on a recent budget bill, they forced Crocetta to strike down MUOS, a strategic NATO radar system, over alleged health concerns.

Will Bersani follow the same path? Will he swap national budget cuts for canceling defense projects? Will he buy a much needed new electoral law at the price of outlawing research on genetically modified food? (The latter is one of Grillo’s pet peeves: he even called the late Italian Nobel laureate Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini "a bitch" for her biological research.) Will these sorts of deals diminish the party’s international standing? We’ll see. 

Bersani doesn’t have a great deal of options. He could approach his archenemy Berlusconi and form a large coalition. But the campaign between the two was very bitter and doing so would cede the opposition to Grillo, who would thrive in such a position. And Berlusconi would likely require that Bersani give in on tax cuts (not to mention squashing any talk of regulating his television networks), moves many would see as a step back to the old, cozy ways of Italian politics.

President Napolitano’s final option would be opening the procedure to call a new round of elections , to be held after his successor is elected in the spring. For Grillo, however, this would be a wonderful springboard — he’d run as the lonely maverick against the inert establishment. 

So we’re stuck. Meanwhile, Milan’s stock market plunged at news of the political stalemate, while Italy’s main bank, Intesa San Paolo, lost 10 percent in a few hours on Tuesday. It was enough to make European Central Bank President Mario Draghi worry that his own country might spark a new bout of eurocrisis. And it’s a valid concern: European leaders are afraid that Italy’s political malaise will stop whatever anemic progress there has been after the Greek debacle. Since Draghi vowed "to defend the euro at any cost," 100 billion euros in foreign investments poured back in southern Europe, including Italy. Will investors stay away now?

Here’s one more curveball to consider: when the polls closed, and Bersani’s Pyrrhic victory was called, TychoBigData — a big-data start-up which maps raw political data online — saw a sudden jump in tweets for Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence. Renzi may have lost in the PD primaries against Bersani, but for many in the left he seemed the ideal candidate. He has not spoken since his party defeat, yet insiders say he’s pondering his next move. A young and brilliant politician, Renzi will likely wait and watch as Berlusconi, Bersani, Grillo, and the political animals attempt to devour one another. Whether he can rise about the carnage is anyone’s guess. But Italy’s swamps are very treacherous this winter.

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