By Pablo De Orellana
This is not a joke. These are the nicknames of the principal politicians participating in the election, except for the priest and the clown. The latter cannot participate in person, but has been the underestimated wildcard in this this shuffle of Italian fortunes.
On Sunday, three women hurled themselves naked at Silvio Berlusconi howling “Basta Berlusconi” [“Enough Berlusconi”], in one of many and desperate signs of the overdrawn exhaustion of the Italian political class and the loathing that it has garnered among voters. Berlusconi is still politically alive and kicking in yet another election campaign. This is because of the incredible challenges facing Italy and especially the deep unpopularity of the Monti technocrat government. The difficulties and brutal cuts of Italy’s latest austerity drive cannot be overstated. The trouncing of Monti’s hopes in this election is proof of this clearly expressed resentment.
This is not a common election. At first sight the results (see below for detailed breakdown) appear to reflect the old right-left divide, with reincarnations of the old DC (Christian Democratic Party) and PS (Socialist Party) –the originals died drowned in the embezzled funds of the Tangentopoli scandal in the 1990s. There are, however, a number of new wildcards complicating the equation. Most importantly, Italy has not seen circumstances so dire for a generation with a stagnant economy, record unemployment and rapidly falling living standards.
Mario “Rigor Mortis” Monti is the loathed bogeyman of this election. Most political discourse in this campaign has been written and spoken in reference Italy’s financial credibility, which Monti has promised to fix with increasing doses of austerity bloodletting. The proverbial straw was the IMU tax, a levy on the value of a household’s primary property. This has caused exasperation in a country where low and middle earners are already very heavily taxed, with horror stories of bankrupt families due to the IMU. In some regards, Monti too has been an unconventional saviour of Italian finances. In Italy’s past debt scares (they happen every decade) una tantum (‘once only’) taxes were levied on luxury properties such as second and third homes, luxury cars, capital gains, bonuses. Monti, on the other hand, can be credited with importing European Neo-Conservative economics, with the resulting faith in public service cuts and increased taxation of the most numerous part of the population – who on average make little more than 900 per month (INSEE data) – rather than higher earners or corporations such as Berlusconi’s own Mediaset Group. Not unlike George Osborne, Monti’s entire programme is ostensibly designed to uphold the credibility of Italy’s credit ratings. Monti has run in this election as leader of a coalition of small centrist parties, although their parliamentary weight is negligible at just over 10% of the vote. This is clear proof of the great resentment that austerity measures have elicited in Italy.
Italy’s centre-left party grouping, the Partito Democratico (PD) led by Pier Luigi (aka “ex-Communist”) Bersani, has been a great disappointment both in campaign and in today’s results. PD promised to keep the course and spirit of Monti’s reforms – albeit with a few concessions to the need for growth measures – and indeed looked likely to form a coalition with Monti. This unexciting passive acceptance of the austerity dogma has alienated many supporters and has allowed other protest candidates to trounce its advantage in polls over the last few weeks. In last night’s results, PD is basically tied in voting percentages with Berlusconi’s alliance of conservative parties and only just ahead of Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement. Italy’s puzzlingly complex voting laws give the PD bloc extra bonus seats, which should make the lower house just about governable.
Then come the rogues: the ones defined by opposition to the Monti administration and austerity policies. The most puzzling aspect of this election, and one that foreign analysts seem to miss, is that Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi has, in an incredible piece of high-speed historical reframing, recast himself as a rebel, a transgressor to the Merkel-imposed austerity dogma and calling into question Euro membership, the EU, Mario Monti’s reforms and budget cuts. Most spectacularly, only a few days ago Berlusconi made the extraordinary promise of returning paid IMU tax to taxpayers if elected. He is now at the head of the second biggest group in the Lower House.
Machiavelli was right in decrying his indignation at Italy being saddled with the Papal Curia, and the Vatican has had varying policies in its involvement with Italian democracy, from sometimes banning the faithful from voting, to sanctioning specific parties. Yet another unusual factor, one that might be overlooked is the Pope’s resignation. Whilst in recent years the Church has not attempted to excommunicate stray voters and has adopted subtler means, its influence cannot be underestimated. It is likely that the Vatican’s temporary distraction has been to the disadvantage of conservatives and especially Mario Monti’s group.
Finally, the greatest surprise to those not accustomed to Italy’s political volatility and unfamiliar with recent economic woes is the success of the party led by comedian Beppe “Clown” Grillo, the 5-Star Movement. It has exceeded all projections, and is now the single largest party in the lower house (although it is outdone by the centre right and centre left alliances). It stood on a simple basis: reforming the overpaid, corrupt, rentier, clientelist and mafia-tainted nature of Italian politics by “sending the old [politicians] home”; reforming Italy’s economic course towards fairer taxation, limiting the rampant tax evasion of the richest individuals and corporations, removing austerity policies and encouraging higher employment and stemming Italy’s tragic graduate brain drain.
Considering Monti’s very poor showing, this Movement’s surprise showing is all the more important: The 5-Star Movement now holds the balance of power in the lower house. Grillo has declared that he wants no alliance with the old parties, and this is further complicated by the Movement’s staunch anti-austerity policy. I suspect that, barring fresh elections to resolve this stalemate, PD will have to make concessions to the Movement to be able to govern; but considering Bersani’s strongly-worded disapproval of the comedian’s protest party and its policies, this seems unlikely.
This election is not only a stalemate, but speaks of the worldwide dilemmas of democracy, finance, debt and the economic future of Europe. Sadly, the stalemate is fodder for market instability, political instability and stagnation. It is not clear who has won this election; what is clear is that there is one loser: Italy.
Dante Alighieri put it better than I ever could. Reader, I will let you translate these sad verses.
Italia, poi che se’ sì grande
che per mare e per terra batti l’ali,
e per lo ‘nferno tuo nome si spande!
Tra li ladron trovai cinque cotali
tuoi cittadini onde mi ven vergogna,
e tu in grande orranza non ne sali.
Dante, Inferno, XXVI, 1-6
Detailed election results in full as well as the fine detail of Italy’s complex electoral laws can be found on <http://elezioni.interno.it/camera/scrutini/20130224/C000000000.htm> [last accessed 26 February 2013]