Italy's political situation: hubris and nemesis in slow motion

The concept of a "grand coalition" in Italy is unlikely to work due to a history of distrust between the two main parties, and the emergence of Beppe Grillo's Five Stars Movement as a considerable political force.

Enrico Letta has the unenviable task of forming a new coalition government. Demotix/Simona Granati. All rights reserved.

The media, both Italian and international, as well as the financial markets, appear to have responded with understandable but scarcely justified optimism, almost enthusiasm, at the outcome of the deepest crisis encountered in the short history of the Italian Republic.

It has to be said that, by Italian standards, the presidential elections, which took place between 18 and 20 April, were not particularly disorderly or drawn out: for example, one of the most popular of the 11 presidents who have led post-war Italy – Sandro Pertini – was elected on the sixteenth ballot, whereas the re-election of the incumbent Giorgio Napolitano was concluded in six. The outcome of this electoral process, however, enhances the feeling of decay in the country’s political and social structure, and is bound to have negative reverberations.

Moving at a breakneck pace, the newly elected President has given the task of forming a “grand coalition” government to Enrico Letta, the 46-year-old deputy secretary of the majority Democratic Party. Should Letta succeed, he would be the youngest Prime Minister in the world, serving under the oldest head of state – Napolitano, born in 1925, barely noses out Queen Elizabeth, who was born in 1926.

Starting on Thursday, April 18, a body of about 1000 “great electors”, formed by a joint session of Parliament with the addition of regional representatives began the electoral process, which, though relatively brief, has introduced a deep and probably long-lasting crisis into the Italian democratic system.

In the past, the basic superficiality of the Italian approach to political problems discouraged foreign observers from using overdramatic terms in describing them and from hinting at the possibility of a tragic outcome: somehow, at the last moment, the Goddess Nemesis, in her Italian version, always spared her intended victim, allowing life to continue without missing a beat. 

But the unbelievable hubristic attitude adopted by the main political parties in Italy, as shown on the occasion of the complex procedure devised for the election of the President of the Republic, could well indicate a much more dramatic outcome than what normally emerges from political sparring in Italy.

In spite of the existence of a very unfair electoral law, designed to muzzle opinion rather than to encourage it, the remarkable, almost incredible, electoral victory of comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars Movement appeared to give a clear indication that  Italians had voted for a radical change. Grillo’s Movimento emerged as the single largest party in Italy, with almost 25% of the popular vote attributed to an electorate composed of people of various ages, of different political provenance and of all professions. It was evident that this very variegated electorate had really had enough of the political posturing that had become particularly unproductive and sterile during the past two decades - and that these voters had voted as they did in the hope of radical change.

At first, the leading coalition, the Democratic Party-led centre-Left, which holds an absolute majority in the lower house but not in the Senate, seemed to have accepted the message and began, albeit sluggishly and with visible reluctance, to undertake token gestures in the right direction (e.g. pay cuts for parliamentarians, reduction of political expenditures, attempts at “outside the box” dialogue with Grillo).

The imminent election of the new head of state, appeared, however, to reverse these timid approaches towards innovation, and the most negative aspects of the old secret dealings re-emerged, with a vengeance. Only Grillo’s Movement, later followed by a minor left wing party, SEL, acted with transparency and managed to nominate a few very interesting candidates through an online method of selection. There always was little chance, however, that the voice of Grillo’s electorate would be heard and the two “old” parties, with the addition of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti’s centrist party, evidently coalesced on the selection of personalities who, by now, are politically burnt out and by and large mistrusted by the population.

The astounding re-election of an 87 year old veteran politician by a parliament ostensibly bent on “innovation” may well buy some time, but is difficult to imagine that a viable, lasting and, above all, efficient government will be formed in these tense circumstances. Before the end of the year, in all probability, elections will have to be called and the traditional parties may well suffer another humiliating defeat, as they did last February, but this time, perhaps, with even more damaging long-term results.

The choice of Napolitano – the first incumbent Italian president to be re-elected to a second term - does not, at this stage, have as much relevance as the method of selection and the consequences of the main parties’ conspiratorial behaviour. The result, though much acclaimed by the mainstream media, is far from popular and is being seen as a product of all too familiar unsavoury back-room deals. It will certainly not be respected by the majority of the Italian people. In the current fragile state of Italian political life, this exercise in political wheeling-dealing while the country is visibly in a state of collapse will be bound to leave traces and to create a bitter legacy for the future.

The concept of a “grand coalition”,  forcing coexistence between two rival parties, can work in some social structures – such as Germany – but is unlikely to last long in Italy, especially in the climate of tension and reciprocal distrust between the two principal rivals (the Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s People of Liberty) which has poisoned the political atmosphere for years and has brought about a virtual paralysis in government activity. The situation, difficult enough, is further complicated by the sometimes erratic behaviour of Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars Movement, which, having emerged as the strongest single party from last February’s election, is in a position to wield considerable weight.

It is what could be called a no-win situation with the principal loser, of course, being Italy itself.

About the author

Carlo Ungaro is a former Italian diplomat. He spent sixteen years serving in Afghanistan.  Between 2000 and 2007, he served as political adviser to the Italian led ISAF forces in Herat