As results from Italy’s general elections on February 24-25 began trickling through, it was clear that the country’s scandal-ridden political class had received a wake-up call. Berlusconi put on a brave face by emphasising his comeback. But gaining five percentage points on his all-time-low of 17% in December would be nothing to cheer about, had his opponents’ campaign not been such an unmitigated disaster.
The Democratic Party was expected to win comfortably, and yet one of its leaders, Piero Fassina, sat stumped for words live on television, incredulous as he saw early results trickling in. Not only did the Democrats have a meagre lead over Berlusconi’s coalition, but they were being seriously challenged by a political movement that had never run in general elections, and didn’t even exist until a few years ago. Led by former political satirist Beppe Grillo, the Five-Star Movement (M5S) ran on a platform of social justice and rule of law which resonated with many Italians, tired of the old political class’ unwillingness to reform. Particularly at this time of austerity, when working people’s jobs and finances are being hit hard to pay for a crisis they were not responsible for, the lavish lifestyle of the political elites and their inability to pass seemingly basic reforms such as effective anti-corruption legislation has deeply jarred with much of the Italian electorate.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the M5S ended up being the largest single party by share of the vote with 25.5% of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies (109 seats) and 23.8% in the Senate (54 seats). The rest of the results for mainstream parties tell the story of defeat which is unequalled in Italy’s post-war history, save for the impact of the ‘Bribesville’ scandals of 1992-93. The Democratic Party coalition obtained 31.6% in the Senate (120 seats). In the Chamber of Deputies, their 29.54% share won them 345 seats, thanks to Italy’s controversial election law designed to keep new parties out, which automatically awards the largest coalition 55% of seats. But the PD itself got only 25.4% of the vote, down from 33.18% in 2008. Berlusconi’s coalition obtained 30.7% in the Senate (117 seats) and 29.1% in the Chamber of Deputies (125 seats). But his own party received a meagre 21.56% of the vote, a massive drop from 37.38% in 2008. Mario Monti’s hastily-gathered list which had hoped to attract centrists and conservatives, obtained a miserable 9.1% (18 seats) in the Senate, and 10.5% (47 seats) in the Chamber – nowhere is his grouping the decisive political force he had hoped it would be.
How did the Five-Star Movement do so well? M5S is a young political organization – as well as a political organization made of mostly young activists – with a very strong emphasis on honesty and transparency in public life as well as on social and economic justice which has attracted voters from across the political spectrum and from across the country. Commentators and the M5S itself strongly emphasise the movement’s reliance on the internet as a tool of political organisation, but many voters and activists have been attracted also by a ‘conventional’ political approach based on openness and on mass mobilization in squares across Italy rather than relying on television and newspapers.
But M5S’ success is also a product of the old political class’ failures. The challenges Italy faces are daunting. Unemployment and underemployment are rising steadily, particularly among the young. Small and medium enterprises, which have traditionally been the backbone of the economy, are suffering badly. In this context, the Bank of Italy estimates that every year the country loses over €120bn in tax fraud, state-to-private corruption is estimated to cost €60-100bn a year, while organized crime is conservatively estimated at over €100bn.
Both Berlusconi and his traditional opponents on the left have been in government over the past twenty years, and neither have been willing or able to begin tackling these problems. They have remained, however, the most numerous and best-paid political class in Europe, with parliamentary salaries averaging €15,000 (over LE130m). They are also the most scandal-ridden in Europe, with 10% of the former Parliament being either under investigation or sentenced, including Berlusconi himself, and close allies of his like Cesare Previti who has been sentenced for corruption, and Marcello Dell’Utri who has been found guilty of a decades-long association with Palermo’s notorious Mafia.
This political and economic context explains why the new Parliament faces deadlock. Italy’s two houses of parliament have the same powers, but while in the Chamber of Deputies, the PD-led coalition has a 55% majority thanks to Italy’s controversial election law, in the Senate no single party or coalition has a majority. The only possible majorities are between two of the first three parties (PD, PdL, M5S). However, an alliance between M5S and Berlusconi’s PdL is impossible because the M5S’ entire platform is built against the moral, legal and financial corruption of the old system Berlusconi represents. A PD-PdL alliance would be the political kiss of death for the Democrats, already tainted by their past collaboration with Berlusconi.
Meantime, the M5S will be carefully trying to avoid the accusation of stalling the entire Italian political system. Most observers agree that a second round of general elections will be necessary. In the short term however, the most likely scenario is the PD will try to lead a government and elicit M5S support in the Senate. M5S will try to use this leverage to push through key reforms in their programme, including laws on key issues like corruption, elections, and the media.
These laws may seriously damage Berlusconi’s financial interests, and he will certainly try to discredit the PD as subjugated to the EU’s directives and paint the M5S as ‘irresponsible’, as well as simply attempting to buy off opposition parliamentarians as he famously did in the past. But they may also damage the PD leadership’s interests, in which case an ideologically unlikely alliance of PD and PdL will probably try to discredit the M5S through smear tactics in an attempt to shore up a system that has worked well for these leaders – however frustrating ordinary voters might find it. Herein lies the real transformative potential M5S represents at home: the chance for Italian voters to finally opt for a party that is not part of the old complicit ballets of left and right.
Abroad, Italy’s precarious political equilibrium is worrying to key European leaders because its economy is simply ‘too big to fail’, and if Italy were to renegotiate its relationship with its European creditors, any concession might have significant consequences on countries like Greece and Spain.
But more widely, what the M5S’ success represents is a challenge to the approach to economic reform which has too often rewarded the rich responsible for the problems, while making the working classes pay for Europe’s economic mess.
Italians are neither Eurosceptic nor against economic reforms per se, but they want to see growth and jobs, they want to see effective anti-corruption measures, and they want to see tax evasion tackled. This is something they have in common with their counterparts north and south of the Mediterranean.
The EU and its most powerful Member States have thus far ignored those calls and preferred reforms which weaken working Italians by increasing their taxes, cutting services, and making their jobs less secure. Italy’s electoral result, like previous protest movements in Greece and Spain, is a wake-up call to Europe’s elites that they ignore the question of social justice at their peril.
This article originally appeared in Egypt Independent as “An Italian Spring? Italy’s 2013 General Elections,” 9/3/2013