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The Italian puzzle - austerity, corruption, and the man next door

The chaos that followed the Italian elections might be the foretaste of bigger changes to come. But which ones?

Lorenzo Marsili Alessandro Valera
4 March 2013
Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, seems to hold the political future of Italy in his hands. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, seems to hold the political future of Italy in his hands. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

Most international press has identified the results of the Italian elections as a vote against austerity. We find this analysis inaccurate, and with this article we explain why and present some likely scenarios. The message of the electorate is that before any macroeconomic or financial change can be considered, Italy's institutions and their representatives need to be reformed and the impoverishment of the country must be addressed.

Italian oddities                

Homework first. Italy enjoys a bi-chamber system: the lower Chamber and the Senate have an equal say on all matters including the appointment of the government. The electoral law was changed in 2005 by Berlusconi and his allies to make it very difficult for whoever does not win Lombardy and Veneto, the most populous and traditionally right-leaning regions, to win both chambers. Italians under the age of 25 are still shockingly not allowed to vote for the upper house, making it traditionally more conservative.

Although the centre-left coalition won by a whisker the share of votes in both chambers, it now enjoys a majority of more than 200 MPs in the lower Chamber alone, while gaining only a relative majority of 121 seats in the Senate, short of the 158 needed to back a Government. This electoral law was created with a bi-polar system of two competing coalitions in mind. The results of the latest election show Italy moving towards a three or four party system: Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, Bersani’s centre-left coalition and Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, “five start movement”) are each appealing to roughly a quarter of the electorate, with the rest going towards a disappointing centrist coalition led by Mario Monti (10%) and other minor parties.

Right and left converge to impotency

Berlusconi’s actual share of the votes dropped dramatically compared to five years ago. Nevertheless, everyone outside of Italy is surprised that he received a single vote. Even within Italy, none of the 200 or so surveys that were polled in the last month put Berlusconi and his allies remotely close to the 29% it reached.

This can be explained by a variety of factors. The main one is clientelism in different nuances, often dangerously coincident with mafia networks. This 29% was reached by a coalition of nine parties, most of which did not exist a few months ago. Nine parties, each with twenty regional lists for each of the two chambers, each with a few dozen candidates in turn, makes a good network of thousands of candidates spread around the country, each capturing the vote of their affiliates.

Berlusconi’s campaign, played on an anti-tax and anti-Europe basis, had an appeal mostly to the rural, low-educated, older population. Even in right-leaning regions, all major cities did not vote for Berlusconi as their first choice. It is still hard to piece together how even these people could find his promises believable. The case of Abruzzo, where an earthquake destroyed the regional capital L’Aquila, is a case in point. The earthquake occurred under Berlusconi’s government and no serious political response was taken (the town’s centre is still inaccessible and full of rubble), yet Berlusconi’s party won this traditionally swing region. It is unconceivable to most, yet it happened. The degeneration of Italian public discourse over the last fifteen years of rule by Berlusconi, corroborated by long-standing control of the media and the appointment of docile journalists, plays a strong part.

The centre-left coalition, on the other hand, repeated almost exactly the mistakes of 1994 and 2006. Despite enjoying a double digit lead in the polls, it has failed to run a convincing campaign. The coalition leader and secretary of the Partito Democratico (PD), Pierluigi Bersani, despite having been endorsed by a process of primary elections open to all citizens that saw over three millions choosing him as a leader, proved to be a weak candidate. Matteo Renzi, the much younger and much more charismatic (but slightly more centrist) mayor of Florence, lost the final round of primary elections against him. As usual, the left militants chose a candidate for his ability to keep together all the different souls of the left, rather than a charismatic one that would appeal to a broader electorate.

Nichi Vendola, an openly gay former communist who won third place in the primary elections, also failed to run a convincing campaign, and his green-left party Sinistra, Ecologia, Liberta (SEL) (part of the coalition), received a disappointing 3% in the polls. Bersani’s party, however was the real loser, with support collapsing to 25% from the expected 34% and from the 33% received in 2008. The centre-left coalition, which rules most Italian cities and some of its regions, failed to gain support of those who were fed up with Berlusconi and with Monti’s austerity. Rather, it was perceived to be part of the same political class that governed Italy and its institutions and brought it to its current state of decline.

However, the political movement (they shun the word party) that capitalized on the general discontent, in a manner that is likely to become part of the manuals of electoral studies of the future, was Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle. 

Movimento 5 Stelle and resistance to austerity

Started by Beppe Grillo, a millionaire comedian ably guided by an obscure communication guru, the M5S is the real game-changer of Italian politics since Berlusconi’s appearance back in 1994. Steadily growing since the mid-2000s, the M5S has been able to achieve a level of popular mobilisation - chaotic, contradictory, and mostly destructive - unseen in Italy since Berlusconi.

The movement is allegedly run on radically “horizontal” bases, with parliamentary candidates chosen online and, in a move reminiscent of the German or Nordic Pirate Parties, political decisions taken after online consultation with voters. However, the M5S has a strong reliance on its comedian-leader, who really calls the shots and owns the legal rights to the logo and party name. 

Worryingly, the M5S appears to have no intermediate structure between its charismatic leader and the mass of its supporters - several activists running for local elections have been “purged” with a tweet after airing dissent with decisions taken by Grillo. And yet, disenfranchised citizens claim to finally have someone who represents them, long-time absentees claim to finally have someone who gives them hope. What are the messages conveyed by the movement?

We might at first find a familiar, anti-austerity and “radical” left rhetoric in many of Grillo’s public statements. Renegotiation of public debt, basic income for all, immediate suspension of large infrastructure projects, and in particular the Turin-Lyon high-speed venture, attacks on finance, etc. This has led many commentators, in particular in the international press, to associate the explosion of votes for the M5S with anti-austerity sentiments spreading in the country. Replicating a parabola seen recently in Greece, austerity is seen to lead to social radicalisation, which in turn leads to exponential growth of “radical” fringe parties in Parliament. 

This reading is not entirely accurate. All the “anti-austerity” positions above, plus many more, have been more concretely advanced by at least two left-wing parties running in the elections. The “semi-radical” left-wing SEL party, in coalition with other left parties, has been collecting over 50,000 signatures to establish a minimum income in Italy. It has denounced the international high-speed train project. It has called for a European turn away from austerity and towards public investment. Voters convinced of these messages, but wishing to convey them within the sphere of “governability” as part of the next likely government, had the party to vote for.

For all those suspicious of the trap of governance and the constraints of parliamentary leadership, the “Rivoluzione Civile” list, outside of any alliance and bringing together most of the former “radical left” in Italy, offered the perfect alternative: renegotiation of debt, rejection of the European Fiscal Compact, basic income, etc. 

Yet, both parties, and in particular Rivoluzione Civile, performed abysmally, convincing just 5% of the electorate.

What is more, listening to the electoral speeches of M5S candidates' anti-austerity messages are nowhere near as present as in Grillo’s own incendiary shows. Candidates are instead heard speaking of urban sustainability, good governance, merit, public access to fundamental goods, morality. Why was the message of the M5S so much more powerful then? 

At least part of the answer lies in the way it was conveyed. Grillo has successfully reinvented the way electoral campaigns are run, demonstrating an exceptional ability of mixing online campaigning with presence on the ground. The “liquid democracy” professed by the M5S has a substantial online presence (despite no online advertisement of any kind), with Grillo’s own blog rating as one of Italy’s most influential web pages. And yet, Grillo is a showman, and the sheer amount of public appearances - and the crowds gathered - should make all other parties blush, culminating in 800,000 people gathering in Rome for the closing speech the evening before election day. Not to forget the occasional stunt, including swimming unaided across the Sicilian strait in a symbolic “landing” to free Sicily from corrupt politicians - a mediatic and symbolic winner.

But there is more than communication. Where Grillo has hit hardest is in his attacks against the fossilised, corrupt, and aged Italian political and economical system and its governing elites - understood simplistically to encompass nearly everyone in a position of relative power.

For years public resentment against a political class seen as inefficient, predatory, and self-interested have been growing at every level of Italian society. Calls to cut the costs of politics, to rein in clientelism and favoritism, and to reduce the privileges of the political class have been met with utter silence and corroborated by the explosion of the greatest series of corruption scandals of the last twenty years. Grillo’s most successful public chant is “vaffanculo”, “screw you all” - a chant now echoed by ten million Italians.

There is much to agree in this reading of Italian elites and of their sclerotic political system. Italy has indeed been a country run by over-aged, white, provincial and corrupt politicians. Thanks to the M5S - but equally to the internal change initiated by the PD - the incoming Parliament will be the one with the highest presence of women (1/3 of the total) and with the lowest average age (the youngest MP is a 25-year-old woman) in Italy’s republican history.

Who are the MPs elected with the M5S? Engineers, plumbers, teachers, nurses, plus the occasional seasoned activist and ever-present opportunist. They are “the man next door”. There is perhaps more than a chance connection between the recent fascination for reality shows and the success of the “unknown candidates” of Grillo’s movement: the man or woman entering Parliament could be you, or your friend, or your neighbour. The sacrality of “the political” is broken.

And yet, we find the emphasis on an inflammatory rhetoric against political elites problematic on at least two levels. The slogan “sono tutti uguali” - “they are all the same”, - is the perfect protection for the dishonest, the corrupt, and the opportunist, while it disarms the honest and all those who work daily for the common interest. It is simply not true that Berlusconi’s minions are “the same” as the precarious youth that has been campaigning with SEL; it is simply wrong to put on the same footing Berlusconi’s lawyers-turned-MPs or girlfriends-turned-MPs with PD politicians demanding laws against corruption, against homophobia, and in favour of citizenship for migrants. When everyone becomes equal, the thief is elevated, the honest debased.

But most importantly, the exclusive focus on public morality risks side-lining social and economical problems. Far from representing an “anti-austerity” front, Grillo risks turning dissatisfaction away from the social and economic contradictions deeply entrenched in Italian society - and exacerbated by austerity measures - offering in its place the palliative of individual honesty and good governance. In this sense the M5S is very far from being an “anti-systemic” movement: it does not attack the structural foundations of the system, choosing to focus instead on the morality coefficient of its “governance”.

That said, any analysis of what the M5S stands for, and who its incoming MPs are, cannot but be deeply flawed. How will they behave in Parliament? No one is probably asking this question as forcefully these days as the incoming MPs themselves. With no political history behind - either as a collective movement or as individual militants, - with no previous experience of representative politics, and with no clear internal structures of party governance, their future behaviour remains to a good extent still a riddle.

Scenarios

The current allocation of seats in the Senate leaves only limited choices to Bersani, who as the leader of the winning coalition in the Chamber will be asked by President Napolitano to try and form a government. The centre left can form a grand-coalition with Berlusconi or it can run a minority government with external backing by all or part of the Movimento 5 Stelle.

The first option, preferred by the markets and often chosen in countries such as Germany, Austria or the Netherlands, is considered by most only an unlikely last-resort. Berlusconi’s party is not comparable to other European centre-right parties. It includes Silvio Berlusconi himself, people who have been condemned for all sort of crimes and the people directly responsible for Italy’s decline. Furthermore, everyone understands that such an alliance, necessarily short-lived, will lead to Grillo’s movement climbing to absolute majority in the next electoral round.

This leaves the Left with the option to strike a deal with the M5S. They are unlikely to want to join a government, but they might concede external support for a few key policy decisions that Italy absolutely needs to take. The two political forces (and their supporters even more) share a compelling need of radical changes to make Italy a fairer place, where it’s easier to study, to start a business, to find work and in which politicians and other state figures (from army officers to managers of public quangos) stop enjoying unlimited privileges while the population is increasingly reduced to poverty.

Such a government could not last long, but it would have to take crucial decisions, not only on the social, labour and economic side, but also on an institutional side. Italy now has a chance to do this without Berlusconi. Furthermore, as Napolitano is retiring, a new President of the Republic needs to be nominated by the Parliament by April. The President cannot dissolve Parliament in the last six months of his mandate, and so fresh elections are not theoretically an option.

It remains to be seen whether the M5S representatives will consider this as a viable option. After all, they have described the Left representatives as equally incompetent and decadent until the day before yesterday. Irresponsibly, Grillo seems to be tempted to promote a stalemate in Parliament in order to force through a “grand-coalition” between left and right - a situation that would most likely deflagrate the Partito Democratico and propell the M5S, as the only opposition force, as the probable winner of the next (early) elections.

One hopeful precedent, however, is the situation of Sicily. Sicily is known to have given Berlusconi 61 seats out of 61 in 2001 and to be the place where Berlusconi’s new “project” was experimented. Last year Sicily elected a centre left minority government that currently survives with the votes of the M5S representatives. The government has been one of the most successful that Sicily has seen in decades, with access to water made public across the island, the building of an American military infrastructure halted, public electoral reimbursements given back to the state to finance an entrepreneurship programme for SMEs.

Running the third economy in the eurozone in its current financial and social state will certainly be a much more difficult task. It could represent a tragedy for Italy and for Europe and pave the way for yet another government by Berlusconi. Or it could be the most progressive government Italy has had in its Republican history. Only time will tell. 

This article has previously been published on the European Alternatives website.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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