Beppe Grillo’s triumph throws Italy’s politics into chaotic future
ITALIAN politics has never been the epitome of clarity or transparency, and the elections on February 24 and 25, 2013, were no exception.
The left-wing coalition took the lower house by a whisker - 29.5 per cent of the votes, against Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right on 29.1 per cent. But they failed to win enough votes to command a majority in the Senate.
Six months ago, former Prime Minister Mr Berlusconi was considered politically dead, and yet he made a stunning comeback and is the most important bloc in the Senate.
The Five-Star Movement - headed by former comedian Beppe Grillo, and explicitly against the euro, austerity, and ‘old-style politicians’ - has become the largest party in Italy and has about 25 per cent of the votes.
Technocrat Mario Monti’s coalition flopped miserably with about 10 per cent, while some 25 per cent of the electorate decided not to vote.
If Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano offers the top position to Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the left will be facing a tough job.
What will Mr Bersani do?
One option is stepping down and letting somebody else deal with the problem.
A second option would be to form a grand coalition with Mr Berlusconi and ask Italians to vote again in about a year.
A third option is to strike a deal with Mr Grillo’s people and tread water waiting for a miracle.
Today, Mr Grillo is the key to the future of Italian politics.
His MPs cannot simply sit in a corner and vote against all proposals, merely because they have come from the old-style politicians.
On the other hand, Mr Grillo cannot agree on a common programme with Mr Bersani or Mr Berlusconi.
All things considered, Mr Grillo will probably lay out his programme, declare that he will support all proposals consistent with that programme and oppose the others.
Italy may end up with a left-wing minority government at the mercy of the whims of the Grillo crowd.
If this were not messy enough, commentators will have to bear in mind two further elements that could make the picture even more unstable.
The first is that Mr Grillo’s people are a hotchpotch of inexperience with diversified political leanings. Cohesion is by no means guaranteed, disagreements might emerge within the movement, and Mr Grillo may find it hard to stay the course.
The second is that it is hard to see what Mr Grillo’s next moves are going to be. He won not by putting forth a coherent set of political ideas, but by slamming and insulting the incumbent political class.
That proved to be a winning recipe for Mr Grillo’s first appearance in the political arena, but he might have to change the agenda.
The next few days will witness Mr Bersani’s attempts to strike a deal with the Five-Star Movement.
Should we be bothered? The answer is yes, for one crucial reason: while the main actors are finding their way through the mist, the Italian economy goes down the drain, and the consequences might be felt throughout Europe.
The picture looks bleak: Italy is in a recession and both Mr Bersani and Mr Grillo are actually promising a better, possibly even more generous welfare state financed by heavier taxation on the ‘rich’.
But they will also agree to stay away from cutting expenditure, from privatising key sectors such as education, or from overhauling the judicial system.
With regard to Europe, it is evident that the European Union is primarily concerned about the possibility of an Italian default. Sooner or later, therefore, the ball will be in the court of Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank.
Nevertheless, it is clear to everybody in Brussels and Frankfurt that dealing with the left and the Five Star Movement will be much more difficult than with Mario Monti’s time as technocrat prime minister from November 2011.
Italy will remain in trouble as long as it does not carry out structural reforms, and Mr Grillo and Mr Bersani are not the men who will do the job.
Italy will therefore face a transition period, during which the crisis will not be solved and could possibly worsen.
It is to be hoped that the ruling coalition - however fragile - may see the light towards the end of March and will move to make some minimal changes, such as reducing the number of MPs, reforming the electoral system, and identifying a new class of leaders.
If that happens, the Five-Star Movement will lose its impetus and perhaps new elections will succeed in giving life to a stable majority with a clear programme.
The alternative is that Mr Grillo’s dream might come true - either the country goes bust or the European Central Bank comes to the rescue.