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Don’t Panic! Why Italian Elections Could Trigger Reform, Not Instability

By Mark Gilbert

World financial markets and international public opinion have reacted with alarm to the results of Italy's general elections. The success of populist comedian Beppe Grillo's "Five Stars" movement, which was the most-voted party in elections to the Chamber of Deputies, and the strong showing by Silvio Berlusconi's "People of Liberty" party (PDL), sucked out the recent optimism surrounding Italy.

Despite the histrionic media coverage, the results need not mean political instability and economic disaster. They may even offer Italy a precious opportunity to enact key reforms and to rebuild the trust of the Italian people in their political institutions.

The election results were a shock. Most observers expected the center-left coalition, led by the lugubrious Pierluigi Bersani of the Democrats (PD), to win. Bersani is a thoughtful individual, with a homespun sense of humor and a strong record as reformist minister in the Romano Prodi government between 2006-2008. Nobody could mistake him for a left-wing firebrand. Moreover, the center-left held widely attended primaries to choose its leader and parliamentary candidates. Bersani had to win his place at the top of the ticket by beating the charismatic mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, after an invigorating campaign that conferred him with democratic legitimacy.

Many assumed that Bersani's coalition would get at least 35 percent of the vote and would, thanks to the workings of Italy's bizarre electoral law, which gives a bonus in seats to the winning coalition, have a working majority in the Chamber of Deputies. In the Senate, which has a different bonus mechanism, it was assumed that Bersani would need the aid of outgoing premier Mario Monti's Civic List, but international public opinion regarded this as a blessing. Monti, Mr. Austerity for the last 15 months, is more esteemed by non-Italians than by the Italians themselves.

None of that happened.

Both Bersani and Monti proved to be awful campaigners. Monti should have stayed out of politics. His robotic voice is unappealing and his campaign attempts to project a more informal image left voters cringing.  Bersani, meanwhile, tried to stay above the fray and did not voice his party's policies with the necessary vigor. The two men also squabbled about whether the radical "Left Ecology Liberty" party, an ally of the PD, would be allowed to join the government.. The radical left's leader, Nichi Vendola, who is gay himself, is a strong advocate of gay marriage—anathema to most Catholics—and is a critic of the austerity policies imposed by Monti's government of technocrats. The center-left's rows reminded voters of the 2006-2008 Prodi government, which has become a by-word for futile wrangling.

In contrast, Berlusconi and Grillo campaigned like demons. Berlusconi was on television 24/7 showering promises to cut taxes, slash bureaucracy, and stand up to the Germans. Despite his dismal record as premier, and his endless legal problems, this message was lapped up by elements of the middle class. The PDL, nevertheless, dropped 16 percentage points compared to its triumphant performance in 2008. Although Berlusconi's newspapers are boasting that "Silvio the Lion" clawed his opponents to defeat, he certainly did not win.

Grillo stumped throughout the country, attracting oceanic crowds. His final rally, in Rome, was attended by some 200,000 people. The young, in particular, flocked to hear his "kick the bums out" message. It has rightly been said in the days following the election that Grillo's victory is above all a generational protest. A decade and a half of stagnation has created a generation of over-qualified and under-employed Italians. Many, especially those with language skills, are fleeing the country. Those who remain are angry and, having nothing, have nothing to lose by voting for "anti-politics."

Or so goes the analysis. Actually, Grillo is at pains to stress that the "Five Stars" movement is not just a rejection of all politics, but a movement of ideas. Grillo's ideas could provide Italy with a progressive agenda, similar to the center-left’s, that would right many of Italy’s current political ailments.

Grillo wants to cut the cost of politics by reducing the privileges, salaries, and numbers of politicians at all levels. So do the center-left and Monti. The Genovese comedian wants to eliminate the "conflict of interest" represented by Berlusconi's media holdings by passing a new law restricting the power of any single individual over the media. Once again, both Monti and Bersani agree. Grillo wants a more rational electoral law: so does Bersani’s PD, or so it says. His policies on transport, schools, universities, and health care are also akinto the center-left's. The "Grillini" elected to Parliament (Grillo himself was not elected; he was convicted in 1988 of driving recklessly and causing a car crash in which three passengers lost their lives and was excluded by his own opposition to criminals serving in Parliament) say that they will work with anyone who is willing to enact their program, though they are not willing to serve in a government.

If the Italian center-left has vision (a big if), it will draw up a 10-point plan for government, indicating specific reforms, and dare the Grillini to prove that they are a serious force of government, not just loud-mouths with a taste for street theater. The alternative—forming a "governissimo" (a German-style great coalition) with Berlusconi's PDL—is implausible. European partners would surely be aghast at the prospect of Berlusconi's nominees returning to power. The PD's membership would also rebel. The option of voting again is also not realistic. The electoral law has to be changed before an election can be held and the financial markets would go berserk at the prospect of electoral uncertainty. President Giorgio Napolitano is in the last semester of his mandate and therefore is constitutionally barred from calling fresh elections. A parliamentary pact with Grillo would actually give a PD-led government a majority of 454 seats out of 630 in the Chamber of Deputies and 177 out of 315 in the Senate. A government with a tightly defined program could bring Italy the stability it desperately needs—and enact the long overdue reforms that the people are demanding.

There are always buts in Italian politics. Here are several that might prevent this optimistic scenario from taking place. First, will President Giorgio Napolitano, who must nominate the new premier after the new parliament meets in mid-March, opt for  the formation of a minority government rather than a governissimo? Napolitano has been a parliamentary insider since the 1950s and he might instinctively prefer a government based upon the traditional political formations, tasked with drawing up a new electoral law, and headed by a political veteran acceptable to all except the Grillini.  A new election could then be held later in the year, when there will be a new president. . Second, will Bersani, who has called Grillo a fascist and an autocrat, try to work with the Five Stars cohort in Parliament? Bersani's first post-poll press conference, in which he admitted that the center-left had "come first but did not win," was a pitiful performance and his indecision over what course to follow was obvious. Third, will Grillo tie his hands with a formal parliamentary alliance? He has responded to the PD's first timid overtures with derision, pointing out that Bersani has been in power for over a year with Monti, whom Grillo refers to as "rigor mortis." Grillo has also insisted that the Five Stars Movement will not vote for any of the existing parties in a vote of confidence – and an Italian government must command a majority in both chambers of Parliament. Fourth, The PDL would wage parliamentary guerrilla warfare against many of the key reforms that unite Grillo and the center-left.

Finally, would Italy's EU partners welcome such a government?

The Five Stars movement is virulently anti-euro and anti-Brussels. But as the PD, similar to France’s Hollande, is itching to take a more expansive economic stance despite its commitment to the EU’s fiscal pact, this is not necessarily an obstacle to a Grillo-Bersani deal. If the 2013 elections had one big narrative theme, it is that the Italians have learned from the Greek, Irish, and Portuguese experience. Rather than pursue internal devaluation, they want Europe's political economy to become more like the U.S., where a federal government spends big money to restart the economy. Austerity is passé in Rome.

Despite the likely hostility from Berlin and Brussels, the certain hostility of Berlusconi and the PD’s distaste for Grillo's insurgents, a programmatic alliance between Bersani and Grillo is probably the best hope that Italy has of avoiding political meltdown in the next few weeks. It is also more likely to occur than much political analysis has so far recognized. Grillo is as Machiavellian as the center-left's leaders. If they think an accord with Grillo is the only way to form a government—they'll take it. And they might even do good things once they are there.



Mark Gilbert is a resident professor of history and international studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, Bologna.

[Photo courtesy of Vepar5 ]

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