All quiet on the Italian front?

After the seemingly unending crisis that followed this February's elections, Italian politics seem to have finally found some stability. And yet, recent events may be the sign of greater trouble to come.

Carlo Ungaro
19 June 2013
Ignazio Marino, the newly elected Mayor of Rome, addresses the public in Piazza del Campidoglio. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

Ignazio Marino, the newly elected Mayor of Rome, addresses the public in Piazza del Campidoglio. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

To the inexperienced eye, all appearances would seem to indicate that the Italian political scene – normally rather colourful and volatile – has quieted down to a considerable extent, to the point of having now become rather humdrum, devoid of general interest.

Since the formation of Enrico Letta's coalition government (which, theoretically, brought to an end the generalised chaos that followed the February elections), significant municipal elections have been held in many cities (including Rome), both on the continent and in Sicily, with no major surprises and in an atmosphere of good-humoured tranquillity. The conclusion, therefore, would seem to indicate that all is quiet on the Italian political front - but the reality is quite different.

Our extremely odd “grand coalition” government, even more incongruous than its “technical” predecessor, emerges weakened and condemned to impotence, as it is already being described as one of the most unproductive governments in the country's recent history. Yet paradoxically, its survival seems guaranteed (at least over the next few months) because of the two leading parties' fear of facing an increasingly angry and unpredictable electorate in the case of early elections.

An analysis of the local vote (which were held over the past two weeks and are still underway in Sicily) indisputably shows that just as in the February national elections, there have been no winners, but only losers. Except that this time, the 'losers' include the maverick 5 Stars Movement founded and led by comedian Beppe Grillo.

Local elections tell a lot…

…and four key factors have emerged from these.

The first is the ever increasing abstention rate. In a country where only a couple of decades ago a 90 percent electoral turnout was considered normal, the percentage of voters has dropped to just over 50 percent, and the non-voters now thus form a considerable political force. There are mixed reactions to this phenomenon. The prevailing feeling is that the exceptional rate of abstention, and, above all, its vertiginously rapid increase, denote a growing sense of disillusionment and anger on the part of the electorate, and that this widespread feeling could play into the hands of any new populist movement, especially if it is right-wing, anti-European and hostile to immigrant labour.

More optimistic, or at least more cautious, observers, however, seem to believe that this is a normal trend which brings Italy closer to older democracies. Usually cited are the examples of France, the United Kingdom and the United States, where the rate of abstention is normally just as high or even higher, with no doubts being expressed about the legitimacy of the resulting governments. This more positive assessment, however, fails to take into account a fundamental aspect of political life in Italy as compared to those countries. The Italian electorate’s role in the democratic process has always been exclusively limited to the vote, after which things tend to be “left to the boys” until the next electoral appointment. There is no significant participation in the political process at the grassroots level. This is what, in the prevailing view, makes turnout such a vital issue in Italy.

The precise reasons that explain this exceptional rate of abstention will need more time to be determined. But a superficial analysis seems to indicate that it mostly affects the younger electorate – which is, of course, a worrying conclusion.

The second element to emerge has been the virtual collapse of the Five Star Movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. Triumphant at the outcome of its first ever national electoral test last February, the Movement emerged as Italy’s strongest single political party, creating a virtually unmanageable three-way tie with the left wing Democratic Party and Mr Berlusconi's “People of Liberty”, only to become the last days' biggest loser.

Third, the further weakening of Berlusconi’s party also has to be taken into account, mainly because, in spite of its miserable showing last February, it is still an influential participant in the “grand coalition” and, for the time being, seems to be in a position to call many of the shots through a masterful use of the threat of causing paralysis by refusing to play the game, as temperamental children threaten to do on the playground. As a perhaps marginal (but not insignificant) corollary, it has to be noted that Berlusconi’s traditional ally, the Northern League, now torn apart by internal rifts and fighting, has lost key positions and major cities in the North and the North East, an area which has always been considered its home ground.

“Athens cries but even Sparta can’t laugh” is a popular saying in Italy – referring to the end of the Peloponnesian conflict in the fifth century BCE, when Sparta's victory over Athens weakened both and paved the way for Philip II of Macedon to invade Greece a few decades later. It is much quoted these days to illustrate the paucity of the Democratic Party’s victory.

This is a prime example of the paradoxes that abound in the sometimes indecipherable Italian political context: the leading political party, victorious in February’s general elections, has just made a record-breaking clean sweep of all the municipal elections, winning them all and leaving none to the opposition. Yet all observers conclude that it has been weakened by the experience. This ongoing, apparently incurable weakness of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party is the last of the four factors that became clear following the recent elections.

What can they do now?

It is difficult to foresee what the future holds in store for Grillo’s movement, but there are signs of a growing disaffection not only in the electorate, but also within the movement itself, due to Grillo’s excessively dictatorial stance, some very obvious tactical and strategic mistakes made when the movement was on the crest of the wave, as well as the confusion which seems to reign over the movement’s official position on many key issues. The fact is that, politically speaking, the entire movement, from Grillo down, is basically made up of political amateurs who proved to be no match against their much more seasoned peers in the traditional parties. There is still time to regroup and heal the wounds, but perspectives appear rather negative at the moment.

Berlusconi’s party, a bit like Grillo’s, suffers from the fact that it is essentially a one-man show, and the “Cavaliere”, as he is known, has never really attempted to groom younger party members in the art of political leadership. In fact, he has always appeared to be suspicious of political allies who might have be seen as “charismatic”, systematically and ruthlessly eliminating them. The crisis within the party is very deep, and Berlusconi’s advancing age (he is 77) and his legal problems, which might make him ineligible to run for office, are all elements which add to the visible discomfort of Italy’s centre-right.

By contrast, the Democratic Party suffers from a lack of leadership and of internal cohesion. A Party Congress will be held in the fall, but the danger of a split is ever present, and would certainly further complicate the situation.

The present government, holder of a massive parliamentary majority, has not achieved much in these first weeks of existence and arouses almost no confidence in the Italian public opinion. Grounds for optimism have always been tenuous, and are now very quickly disappearing.

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