'Clean' Grillo stirs Italy's political mess
By Francesco Sisci
ROME - No government can be formed, and Italy will be impossible to rule. This is what most commentators and traditional political leaders have been saying in Rome in recent hours, in the wake of momentous general elections that expressed no clear parliamentary majority and saw the rise of the anti-system "5 Stars" party, led by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo.
The result may cast a dark shadow over the future of the country and of the single currency in Europe. Without a stable political leadership, the Italian economy, too big to be saved by external intervention alone, could spin out of control, and it could take
most of the continent with it. It could be the end of the euro and the beginning of a global financial crisis.
The Italian parliament will be largely split in three, a very difficult balance as Stefano Folli, Italy's foremost political commentator, put it. The left, led by Pierluigi Bersani, won just with a razor-thin majority of 31.6%, while Silvio Berlusconi scored 30.7%, a sensational feat as only few months back he seemed politically dead. The greatest success, the one that is changing Italian politics, is Grillo's result. He got over 25% of the vote, well above the best forecasts of 20%.
Mario Monti, who saved Italy from economic disaster last year, underperformed with a dismal 8%, half of what was considered his threshold for a bad result. After being prime minister, he seemed a likely candidate for the presidency, and yet now Monti has become a very weak contender even for a ministerial post in a coalition government.
Because of byzantine electoral laws, the left should get most of the seats in the lower house, but there is no clear majority at the senate. The three main forces, Left, Right and Grillo, are at odds with each other, so many believe Italy will go back to the ballots very soon.
The political landscape is like after a massive earthquake. Bersani has the majority, and he should form the new government, perhaps with Monti. But Berlusconi and Grillo combined won more votes than Bersani and Monti combined.
Moreover, Bersani must carry out the severe economic policies imposed by Brussels, but this will increase public resentment and swell the ranks of Grillo's anti-system supporters. Berlusconi then, as the opposition, will have the choice to support the government as a junior partner (perhaps getting Paris and Berlin to beg him to do so) or voice his antagonism by siding with Grillo.
If Grillo and Berlusconi both fight the government, their efforts would put enormous pressure on the Bersani coalition. Bersani's left wing, headed Nicki Vendola, may have to listen to its populist soul if people were to take to the streets in protest against cuts and restructuring. Then Italy would go back to the polls in a few months, and Grillo could win an absolute majority.
From the early comments on the election, it is clear that the left does not want to be squeezed onto the path of unpopular economic measures without a solid parliamentary majority. This immediately opens the door for new elections.
Of course, a different scenario is also possible. Bersani could lead a grand coalition, joining Monti and Berlusconi and also talking to Grillo. But why should Grillo join a coalition when he could win hands down in a few months if he lets the situation fester? Why should Berlusconi lend a hand to Bersani at the risk of being squeezed between Grillo and the left? President Giorgio Napolitano could try to break the deadlock by giving Grillo, the real winner of the current elections, the task of forming the new government. Grillo could then prove his worth by trying to lead a coalition with the others, or he could fail.
A Grillo government, however, could be very risky for the traditional parties, who could be gobbled up by Grillo's possible new good government performance. If Grillo fails, his anti-system movement could vanish. Then, in this picture, either traditional parties or Grillo could be vanquished. In either case, Italy and Europe could be clearer. Anyway, so far things are still very confused in Rome.
Politics in Italy was already fractured enough without the present fissures. It would be a miracle if the country found unity. A test for unity will come soon. In May, parliament will be called to elect the next president of the republic. This is largely a ceremonial post during normal times; but in exceptional times, like the present, it is of great significance. President Napolitano managed to get Berlusconi to resign and Monti to become prime minister at the height of the economic crisis in 2011. The next president could be even more important in a greatly divided parliament.
The choice of this man could happen without consulting Grillo. But to move on this road would be risky, as Grillo could thrive by being isolated by the old parties, which he could portray as corrupt and the source of Italy's current troubles. Can Grillo be talked to? Will he be willing to play ball? Or can he be effectively isolated?
Anyway, these are all tactical moves; strategically they are in a desert. Opinions in Italy are commonly divided into just two camps: follow Brussels and stick with the euro, or exit the single currency. If an exit strategy is impossible, then the remaining option sticking with the euro. But why should Italy really stick to the euro? What is the idea of the single currency besides the momentary economic convenience of not breaking the continental financial order? No Italian party has a broad answer, and there is no idea or ideal shouted in the streets. What should the role of Italy be in the EU? No answers. What could the real Italian contribution be to the EU? No answers. The policy is just the accountant's answer, received from Brussels: get your accounts in order.
Yet to put accounts in order and impose a major restructuring, with great social costs, you cannot give people who are going to suffer just an accountant's solution. The general leading the army to war can't say: 5% of you are going to die, but this has to happen to win the battle. Soldiers and common people are willing to suffer and make sacrifice, but must have a higher end in mind: save the country, save your home, bring paradise on Earth. They need an inspiration, a deep sense of the meaning their own sacrifice. Otherwise it's just a stampede: everyone tries to avoid being crushed and complains about the new chaos.
Italy needs a strategy, a goal. So does Europe, if it wants to get out of the predicament of being blackmailed by the crisis of this or that member state. The left and Monti didn't give one, but presented an accountant's bill to the people, who then stampeded and ran to the candidates who gave them promises no matter how unreasonable or far-fetched.
A new policy for Italy can't simply be more or less flexible working hours, more or less state power in the market. It should be a vision that Italy has for its future in Europe and the world. Berlusconi promised a sort of paradise of plenty, and Grillo a redde rationem. They may both be excessive and unreasonable. How can you believe Berlusconi after the disaster he produced? How do you believe a comedian who makes policy with jokes?
But their success compared with Bersani and Monti, who campaigned on reasonable but projectless bills, shows that people prefer Berlusconi and Grillo, who at least offer them a higher although unreasonable idea. If someone had a reasonable platform, he would have won in a landslide.
This, in the end, is the political project that voters saw in Berlusconi or Grillo: greater independence from Brussels' orders. It can be demagogic, but it is better than the tacit acceptance of the will - reasonable though it may be - of others.
Here is the real political space for Grillo. If nobody has a project for Italy, and in the end politics is only execution of decisions from Brussels, then at least you want honest politicians. Grillo, being brand new and making a case of being clean, could win over the dirty old parties in possible future elections. He does not need a platform: his being clean and new is already a platform. Bersani or the left desperately need one to stay in power and navigate the country in the coming, very difficult months.
The left has however already declared defeat, as some of its leaders, despite their majority, publicly declared Italy has to go back to the ballots after it changes the strange electoral law. It was hard to change the law without Grillo, and now with him it could be impossible. Or they will have a law ultimately favoring Grillo.
Italy and Europe may have no time to explore all these complicated alchemies. In a few months, there could be nothing to save in Rome, which could become a larger, failed Greece and scarily close to Egypt, an extension of North Africa in Europe, not a projection of Europe to Africa.
Political leaders have to act quickly to save themselves, the country, and Europe before it is too late and the panic spreads. They have not done it so far - will they do it now?
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org