The Call

Reconsidering the Grillini

With a surprising and inconclusive election result and no clear route to a government almost two weeks later, Italian politics appear to have returned to what passes for normalcy there. Despite the near-term uncertainty, three things do seem clear. First, new elections are likely to take place between six months and a year from now. ...

FABIO MUZZI/AFP/Getty Images
FABIO MUZZI/AFP/Getty Images

With a surprising and inconclusive election result and no clear route to a government almost two weeks later, Italian politics appear to have returned to what passes for normalcy there. Despite the near-term uncertainty, three things do seem clear. First, new elections are likely to take place between six months and a year from now. Second, voters are fed up with tax-heavy fiscal consolidation and structural reforms. Third, Italians have had their fill of a corrupt and gerontocratic political class, as demonstrated by the success of comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-party, anti-corruption Five Star Movement (M5S).

Despite the movement’s negative portrayal in the media, Grillo’s M5S could be the breath of fresh air that Italian politics badly needs if — and it’s a big if — it can make a constructive contribution to dialog in the parliament. It is true that M5S’s feud with the domestic media, crude skewering of established politicians, and potentially disastrous economic views have raised concerns from foreign policymakers and market participants. For example, Grillo personally supports a referendum on euro membership and has discussed restructuring the public debt or delaying interest payments. Officially, the Five Star Movement also hopes to roll-back the Biagi law, a liberalizing labor market reform, and renationalize the telephone network, among other economically questionable proposals.

But the movement has also been treated unfairly by international commentators. Comparisons to populist, far-right groups are just wrong. The M5S is not racist, violent, nationalist, or anti-democratic. Moreover, some of its economic proposals, especially where competition policy and reducing the state bureaucracy are concerned, are sensible. And while M5S’s newly-elected parliamentarians may be inexperienced, they are also younger, more educated, and include more women than most other parties. These qualities make the movement more representative of modern Italy than many of their opponents.

But in the near-term, Italian politics will be dominated by efforts to form a government. Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the "Italy Common Good" coalition, gets the first crack at forming a cabinet thanks to his coalition’s majority in the lower house (it failed to secure a senate majority, though). Bersani hopes to persuade the "Grillini" to support an eight point legislative plan, though Grillo has only agreed to evaluate each bill independently. The markets and the Italian public seem to understand that economic reforms are on hold for now, but both are hoping for political reforms.

Should Grillo allow political reform to move forward — especially to the flawed electoral system — the public will likely reward the Five Star Movement when Italy returns to the polls. (A new president must first be chosen, while electoral reform and cutting the number of parliamentarians and their salaries, as Bersani has proposed, would take several months.) A more cynical electoral strategy would be to hamstring any attempt at change, perhaps forcing Bersani to turn to Berlusconi and the center-right for a grand coalition. That strategy may allow the Grillini to capitalize on public disgust when new elections are called, but it is unclear how voters will respond if M5S adopts such an intransigent approach.

Whatever M5S does, even greater uncertainty will probably surround the next elections. Inaccurate polling, and perhaps a new voting system, will again make seat counts difficult to predict. And because markets will demand more than just political housekeeping, the stakes are almost certain to be higher. But the election could also provide an opportunity to finally move on from the dysfunctional, bipolar politics of the Second Republic, and that would be no small achievement.

Peter Ceretti is a researcher with Eurasia Group’s Europe practice

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