This was the dream: Italy’s citizens honor Mario Monti’s commitment to reform and Monti’s party becomes the strongest in Parliament. With the moderate left under Pierluigi Bersani, it forms a stable government that continues on the path of reform. Meanwhile, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement comes in third, and as the opposition keeps pumping for reform. In the doghouse sits Silvio Berlusconi, who ruined Italy economically, politically and morally.
Berlin, and in fact the whole European Union, were dreaming this dream because it’s in their interests for Italy to do well. And now for the brutal wake-up to reality: only one Italian in 10 voted for Monti. The elections were an opera buffa, but a truly unfunny comic opera. A cunning faun, half-human, half-goat, and a fulminating clown were the surprise winners.
Berlusconi and his coalition are now nearly as strong as the left in parliament. Grillo’s party got more votes than any other single party, with Bersani and Berlusconi both relying on allied parties. Together, Berlusconi and Grillo, both of whom rail against the EU, took 55% of the vote. Monti and Bersani cannot govern. It’s not only a disaster for Italy, it’s a disaster for Europe.
Why are the Italians doing this to themselves and the continent? One possible reason is that many Italians simply no longer believe in the state and the common good. Their hopes for change have been dashed for decades. Whether they voted Christian Democrat, Communist, Berlusconi or the reform-minded left, not much changed in the inflated, ineffective, and corrupt party state – except that taxes went up.
Facing frustration with their own country, Italians used to turn to Europe. No other people was as gung-ho as they were about the EU. But Italians no longer perceive Brussels as an anchor, but rather just a sinker, pulling Italy down.
Monti’s reforms have made the lives of many Italians worse, at least for now. Young people still have trouble finding fixed employment. Older people can barely manage on their pensions. The economy is in recession. The German “reform realism” that imbues the EU is seen as a hostile diktat.
To many Italians, the cure was worse than the disease, and Monti and Bersani – and Berlin and Brussels with them – were unable to make them see it differently.
Old fights, new beginnings
People everywhere who feel their situation is hopeless are attracted by demagogues. Berlusconi embodies the cynicism of the disappointed, the “it’s okay to do whatever you have to to make a few euros” kind of cynicism. Before the elections, he promised Italians they would be reimbursed billions in tax money. There’s a name for promises like that: buying votes.
Grillo on the other hand is the Utopian, the great cleaner-out of the Augean stables, the New Beginnings man.
These elections also mark a change of system for Italy. The First Republic after the war was dominated by the Christian Democrats who allied with small parties and governed from the middle. That system gradually succumbed to corruption. In the early 1990s Berlusconi came along and promised a better Second Republic, a U.S.-style bipartisan system that would alternate between the right and the left, and in so doing, strengthen Italy. The idea wasn’t bad, but it failed.
Historically, Italy has tended to a kind of angry dualism: Guelphs vs Ghibellines, Don Camillo vs Peppone, North vs South, Lazio vs Roma soccer rivalry. Now the Berlusconi bloc and the left are facing off, and both of them have a major weakness: Berlusconi is clearly not about reforms, but rather his own power and business interests; and the left is prey to constant bickering within its own ranks.
The Third Republic shows an Italy divided in three: Berlusconi’s right, Bersani’s left and Grillo’s angry men. For Italy to have a government, two of the big three have to form a coalition – something that’s difficult to impossible right now. The left can never trust Berlusconi, and he’s more unpresentable than ever at the European level.
Grillo on the other hand has made it clear he thinks all the others are corrupt deadbeats. Nobody really knows what his party stands for. Yet a fast return to the polls serves nothing if election laws aren’t changed beforehand. And the parties would have to agree on that.
So, right now, Italy seems ungovernable.
Maybe something else is possible: maybe the Grillo movement’s parliament members and the parliament members on the left will discover they have something in common: the well-being of Italy. Maybe Grillo’s angry men will morph into citizen-friendly reformers and govern with the moderate left. That would cut Berlusconi off from power and maybe he could even – finally – be brought to justice! But we're dreaming again...