Published on March 18th, 2013 | by Leonardo Bianchi0
Understanding the Italian Post-Election Clusterfuck
The past 20 days or so have been at least politically hectic in Italy.
The general elections vigorously discarded the Brussels-approved austerity government of Mario Monti like a used condom and gave Italy a hung Parliament, a political stalemate of gigantic proportions and a frantic Mexican standoff between Silvio Berlusconi’s party (Popolo della Libertà), Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (centre-left) and comedian Beppe Grillo’s weird political creature, the Five Star Movement.
Looking at the international/European reactions, one can safely state that Italian elections sent shockwaves of sheer terror throughout Europe. Take Germany, for example. For the last few weeks I’ve been watching TV broadcasts showing concerned German taxpayers on the verge of crying vis-à-vis the danger of being deprived of their hard-earned money because these foolish Italians may need a bailout in the near future.
Germans are not alone in this. Politicians, correspondents, foreign journalists, analysts, scholars, etc., have all wondered: “Why did they vote like that? How could it happen? Italians are so irresponsible, so naive!”. The point is that they may be right – but at the same time they’re also failing to grasp the big picture.
The run-up to the elections has been nothing less than a mudslinging battle or a one-month backstabbing fest – basically, it was like watching ‘House of Cards’ without jokes. Rising once again from his political ashes (and from his boogie nights), Silvio Berlusconi altered the course of the campaign by proposing a ridiculous property tax (IMU) refund that greatly reduced the polling gap from Democratic Party, essentially putting the two parties on a par. Beppe Grillo wandered from piazza to piazza shouting populist rants and collecting the anger and social resentment created by four years of crisis and Monti’s harsh austerity measures.
Yep, Mario Monti. What about the former Prime Minister, described by The Economist as a “reform-minded technocrat who has led Italy for the past 15 months and restored much of its battered credibility”? Well, after the decision of entering the political arena with his slate (Scelta Civica, Civic Choice) he stripped himself of the “reform-minded” aura and started drinking beer and cuddling puppies on talk shows, trying pathetically to look “unpretentious”, “genuine” and “close to the People”. So much for his credibility.
But that was nothing compared to what has happened after the elections.
The results came in as a real shocker for the Democratic Party-led coalition, which put way too much confidence – a confidence fueled by skewed polls – in a landslide victory that was far from reality. Thanks to an idiotic electoral system (dubbed “Porcellum”, Piggy Law, a freakish semi-proportional system approved in 2005) there was a clear winner in the House (the PD), but none in the Senate. “Never in the history of the Second Republic […] did anything like this occur – wrote Il Sole 24 Ore, the main Italian financial newspaper – It is a clear indication of the disintegration of the current political system.”
Now, the Constitution prescribes that in order to be formed, a government has to win a confidence vote in both Chambers. With such an electoral outcome, the only way to form a government would be a coalition government. But this is a very unlikely scenario: the Partito Democratico and Popolo della Libertà hate each other; and Beppe Grillo rejects “any backroom deal with the parties he blames for dragging Italy into crisis”. In this grotesque chaos, only one thing is certain: any government that wins a confidence vote is poised to have a very short lifespan – and this means Italy will have a second round of elections, exactly like it happened in Greece.
So, let’s try to answer these two questions: How did we end up here? Why did Italians vote in such a fragmented and (apparently) irrational way?
To begin with, you have to look at Italy’s comatose economy. The website “Struggles In Italy” wrote a very detailed recap of a report issued on March 1, 2013 by ISTAT (the National Bureau of Statistics):
Over the past year, unemployment grew by 23%, with the total figure of unemployed now close to three million. Meanwhile, public debt reached 127% of GDP, an all-time record. Consumption decreased by 3.9% and that of individuals and families by 4.3%. In this bleak picture, taxation is the only growing factor, reaching an astonishing 44% of the GDP, the highest percentage since 1990. […] While purchasing power has gone back to the same level as 1983 (30 years ago), ten years of economic growth have been thrown away, with national GDP reverting to levels not seen since 2000.
On March 6, 2013 the Bank of Italy (Italy’s central bank) published two separated studies warning that 65% of families have insufficient income. The Bank of Italy also pointed out a “growing imbalance” in the concentration of wealth:
From 2008 to 2010, the proportion of net wealth owned by the three lowest income quartiles fell, to the advantage of the top category, and the tiny fraction of wealth held by young households has dropped even further.
This is social injustice at its cruelest, especially after being told that you have to swallow the austerity pill for your own good. As soon as you realize it’s not working, you just flush it down and wish you’ve never encountered that doctor.
Economy doesn’t fully explain the February vote, though.
After 20 years of malfeasance and scandals, the Italian political system is in full Götterdämmerung mode. Never in the history of the Republic have political parties been so much loathed by the people, and for very good reasons. Italians went to the polls amidst the debris of a collapsing system that is reeking of decay, and they were desperate to find someone with a vision. The problem is: no political party offered a long-term sustainable vision of the future.
This is the Big Picture I mentioned before – an angle of the story often overlooked by foreign media. When you have no perspectives, no job and no means to survive the month, you don’t care whether a government is formed or not; you completely ignore the byzantine intricacies of Italian politics; you don’t give a fuck if some cheap German politician babbles about “clowns”, or if Mr. Schäuble announces some kind of financial retaliation; you’re just going to vote whoever can give you the slightest glimpse of hope.
A conversation I had a few days before the elections is quite illuminating. A friend of mine told me that her grandmother was going to vote for Berlusconi. I was outraged: “What the fuck? Why is she doing this after all the things he has done?” “I know, I know – she replied to me – I was shocked too. But listen to what my grandma said: ‘Berlusconi promised to refund my property tax; I know he may not fulfill his promises, he didn’t fulfill them many times before. But I really need those 400 euros.’”
On March 16, 2013 the Italian Parliament managed to elect two Speakers that are respectable MPs, at last: Laura Boldrini (member of Left, Ecology and Freedom party, or SEL), journalist and former spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency, was chosen as Speaker of the House; and Pietro Grasso (member of PD), a former top anti-mafia prosecutor and a first-time senator, was the choice for Speaker of Senate.
Nobody knows what will happen next – except that the political freakshow will go on following its own unfathomable rules. An example? This is how Silvio Berlusconi, who has been suffering from an eye problem for the past week, looked like on Saturday in the Senate.
Antonio Gramsci once said: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.
Italian elections marked the appearance of a huge morbid symptom right inside Europe’s core.
(Cartoon by Matteo Bertelli)