Political stalemate

A three-way split in votes in the recent general election has complicated the political situation in a country that faces an economic crisis that many believe has been made worse by an austerity programme.

Published : Mar 21, 2013 00:00 IST

Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose 5SM party won 25 per cent of the vote.

Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose 5SM party won 25 per cent of the vote.

THE results of the general election held in the last week of February have further complicated the political situation in Italy. There was a three-way split in votes between the Centre-Left, the Centre-Right and a new anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (5SM) led by the comedian Beppe Grillo. Though the Centre-Left coalition won a wafer-thin majority, polling 130,000 votes more than the Centre-Right coalition in the elections to the lower house, no party is in a position to form the government. In the Senate (upper house), the Centre-Left could win only 121 seats, closely followed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition, which got 117 seats. The number of seats needed for a majority in the Senate is 158. In Italy, the upper and lower houses are equally powerful. In Parliament, the Centre-Left will now have an absolute majority as Italian electoral law gives the strongest alliance 54 per cent of the seats in the lower house.

Many Italian political commentators are already predicting another election in the coming months to break the political deadlock. Under the Italian Constitution, a government has to be in place by early May. Otherwise, new elections must be called. President Giorgio Napolitano, who retires in April, has held talks with all the major players in an effort to cobble up a coalition government.

The election result in Europe’s third largest economy after Germany and France is also more bad news for the beleaguered European Union (E.U.). Italy is facing a big recession and a massive debt. The financial markets reacted adversely to the verdict. Italy’s economic crisis in 2011 was a major factor that triggered the crisis in the eurozone. With the majority of voters reacting negatively to the E.U.-supported economic programmes, the threat to European unity has only increased.

Rejection of austerity

The most surprising result of the election was the performance of Grillo’s party on its electoral debut. One out of every four Italians voted for the 5SM’s vitriolic anti-E.U. platform. The results were also a massive rejection of the austerity regime introduced by the technocrat Prime Minister, Mario Monti, with the backing of international financial institutions. Monti’s policies were lauded in Washington and Berlin, but, as the results showed, were very unpopular back home. In 2012, half a million Italians lost their jobs, and average per capita income went down to the levels that existed in the early 1990s. The unemployment figure stands at 11.2 per cent today, up from 6.5 per cent in 2008.

The Centre-Left coalition led by the Democrats was generally supportive of Monti’s austerity policies. Right-wing politicians such as Berlusconi, after initially supporting Monti, got more vocal about the widespread cuts in social spending and other austerity measures. Berlusconi had resigned as Prime Minister in 2011 to make way for Monti. On the campaign trail, Berlusconi promised to do away with the tough austerity measures the government had introduced with the support of his party. He even promised to repay, if he became Prime Minister again, the unpopular housing tax the government had collected.

The electorate had also not taken kindly to the open meddling from the E.U. headquarters in Brussels and from Berlin. German Finance and Foreign Ministers, Wolfgang Schauble and Guido Westerwelle respectively, issued statements urging Italians to vote for a pro-European course and the continuation of the austerity policies.

Grillo told the media after the results were out that his party had “decisively broken” the “corrupt old system”. The 5SM, similar in many respects to the anti-corruption movements in India, such as the Aam Aadmi Party, has no clear-cut political ideology. Its attack was focussed mainly on the “corrupt political class”. Most of the votes for the 5SM came from the younger generation of Italian voters.

Grillo predicted, on the basis of the results, that neither the coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party nor Berlusconi would be able to “govern” Italy. Before the elections, he had ruled out the possibility of entering into an alliance with either the Centre-Left or the Centre-Right coalitions.

Talk of “grand coalition”

Bersani, who started his career with the now-disbanded Italian Communist Party, could be left with no option but to try and cobble up a “grand coalition” with his arch-foe and the man he holds responsible for many of Italy’s current woes—Berlusconi. Soon after the results were out, Berlusconi did a political somersault and called for a grand coalition with the Democratic Party. Bersani was quick to reject the offer at that time, but since then many within his party have demanded a “grand coalition” with Berlusconi to avoid yet another election and more political turmoil.

However, for the Democratic Party joining hands with the Centre-Right would be even more difficult following Berlusconi’s latest conviction. On March 6, an Italian court sentenced him to a year in prison over the appearance of a leaked transcript of a police wiretap in a publication he owns, which contained private conversation of Piero Fassino, former leader of the Democrats. A verdict in the case against Berlusconi for allegedly having sex with an underage sex worker is also expected in March.

Bersani had enjoyed a 10 per cent lead in the opinion polls and was considered a shoo-in for the top job until a few weeks before the election. Berlusconi’s re-entry into the fray and his pandering to the electorate reeling under the austerity policies changed the equation. He even described Bersani as an “austerity communist”.

A significant section of the polarised electorate chose to gloss over many of Berlusconi’s financial and sexual misdemeanours and flocked back to his tent. When Berlusconi went to cast his vote, three feminists confronted him with the slogan “Basta Berlusconi” (enough of Berlusconi) stamped on their bare backs.

The combined vote tally of Berlusconi’s party and the 5SM showed that the overwhelming majority of Italians were fed up with austerity and wanted new policies. The general reaction to the results from Western capitals and financial institutions was that Italy could soon become “ungovernable”.

By the second week of March, there were indications of Grillo softening his position on government formation. He said that he would be willing to support a minority government led by Bersani on an issue-to-issue basis but added that his stated first preference was a government led by technocrats. Despite his targeting of the E.U. during campaigning, Grillo is not totally opposed to austerity measures.

The Grillo factor

The programme of the 5SM advocated a unilateral default of Italy’s public debt, which today stands at over $2 trillion. Grillo recently told a German magazine that he was only against the scourge of rising public debt and not against the eurozone. During the campaign, he demanded a referendum on the question of Italy continuing with the euro as its currency. Last year, in an interview, he had described the euro as “a rope” that was tightening around the necks of Italians.

The 5SM has not clearly spelt out its political platform. During the campaign, its attack was focussed on professional politicians who have dominated the Italian political scene. Grillo’s rhetoric also had an anti-immigrant streak. He drew huge crowds as he criss-crossed the country. The 5SM’s populist programme calls for nationalising the banking sector, retaining public ownership of water and other natural resources, and guaranteeing a minimum wage for all Italian citizens. Non-Italians working in the country have been noticeably excluded from a guaranteed minimum wage. Many of the votes that would have otherwise gone to the left-wing parties went to the 5SM despite Grillo’s embrace of “ethical capitalism”. However, the 5SM has not yet formulated a real plan of action to chart out the future course of Italy.

Many of Grillo’s prominent supporters, such as the popular left-wing Nobel laureate Dario Fo, publicly urged that 5SM support a government led by the Democrats. More than 120,000 of his supporters even signed an online petition urging him to cooperate with Bersani. After the election results were announced, Grillo reiterated that he would not support the Democrats and disparagingly described Bersani as a “dead man walking”.

There is also a possibility that Monti may be given the task of running the government yet again, despite his miserable showing at the polls as the head of a coalition led by the Christian Democrats. Before becoming Prime Minister, Monti was the E.U. Competition Commissioner. Despite the backing of the E.U. and the Vatican, Monti’s centrist bloc got less than 10 per cent of the vote. The left-wing parties, which contested under the banner of the “Civil Revolution” coalition, got only 1 per cent of the vote. As things stand now, all these parties will get an opportunity to face the voters once again in the not-too-distant future.

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