Italy’s elections, austerity, and the European Social Model

The message that seems to emanate from local elections in Italy as well as the European polls of the last weekend is a resounding mistrust in and repudiation of ruling politicians, their methods, and their policies – austerity first and foremost. Traditional parties should beware the costs of ignoring it.

Andrea Teti
11 May 2012

The shock results in Italy’s local elections have been variously dismissed by all major political parties – which is understandable, since the results for all of them ranged from bad to terrible. The main leftist Democratic Party (PD) more or less held, albeit wobbling amidst a crisis of legitimacy which has seen its recent ratings plummet as much as its centre-right counterparts’. The centrist coalition lead by former Christian Democrats has all but disappeared. And Berlusconi’s Freedom Party (PDL) has been virtually wiped off the electoral map.

As if this weren’t enough of a political earthquake already, the greatest surprise of all has been the performance of the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S) led by figurehead Beppe Grillo, a political satirist and stand-up comedian. Polling at just above 5% a month before the elections, voters propelled it to a 15% national average, electing its first mayors, and even overtaking Berlusconi’s PDL in important heartland cities like Verona.

Even more significant is the fact that these elections suggest more than a passing resemblance with the results of Europe’s ‘Super Sunday’, which also saw presidential elections in France, parliamentary polls in Greece, and Land elections in Germany, hard on the heels of the May 3rd local elections in the UK. The message that seems to emanate from all these polls is a resounding mistrust in and repudiation of ruling politicians, their methods, and their policies – austerity first and foremost. Traditional parties should beware the costs of ignoring it.


Is Berlusconi’s star waning?

Just before the elections, the PDL’s nominal leader Angelo Alfano – who some have dubbed ‘Berlusconi’s Medvedev’ – promised that he and Berlusconi were going to unveil “the biggest news in Italian politics since 1994” [referring to Berlusconi’s surprise electoral victory after the collapse of existing parties in a corruption scandal]. For the moment, the only big news is the spectacular scale of their defeat. In the main mayoral elections, Berlusconi’s PDL was routed. Its best result was in Genova, where it just about snuck into the run-off with 15% (the Leftist candidate scored over 48%). In Palermo, the incumbent mayor scored 12% and was knocked out of the run-off by two leftist candidates. But these were its best results: in Verona Berlusconi’s party scored a miserable 8%, while in Parma it barely managed 4%.

Scouring election results must have made depressing reading for the PDL leadership as well as the party faithful – not to mention Members of Parliament worried about forthcoming elections either in autumn or next spring. Alfano initially admitted as much, with ‘post-Fascist’ strongman and former Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa blaming ‘poor candidate selection’. Berlusconi, however, who on this momentous occasion thought it best to attend Putin’s presidential inauguration, managed to say he “thought results were going to be worse” with a straight face. Given his party’s electoral Armageddon, that in itself is no mean feat.

Local elections are easy to dismiss as the place of protest votes and local issues, and no one expects such dire results to be replicated exactly in a general election. However, traditional party leaderships – including the left – would be unwise to dismiss the messages coming from these polls. The most basic and parochial of these is that a personalist party like Berlusconi’s PDL is highly sensitive to its leader’s whims, reputation, and ability to maintain the clientelistic networks which sustain it (the recent obliteration of Mubarak’s NDP in Egypt testifies as much). The PDL has undoubtedly suffered from the lack of effort Berlusconi himself put into campaigning, and if there’s one thing Italians have learned in the past twenty years it’s that Berlusconi always fights back hard. But one should not underestimate the significance of in-fighting within PDL and the ruling coalition, nor of Berlusconi’s recent, relatively discreet negotiations with parts of Italy’s industrial and financial ‘aristocracy’ (e.g. his meetings with long-time opponent Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, whom the Wall Street Journal has called “the uncrowned king of Italy” and who was until recently close to Berlusconi’s former ally Gianfranco Fini).

Berlusconi will surely attempt to change his game, becoming increasingly populist and critical of the Monti government. Perhaps this will be enough to rally dissidents from within his party, both at grassroots and leadership levels. However, the cracks in his party machine have long been evident, and even if this strategy were enough to return him to government a fourth time, on the strength of his economic record it’s difficult to expect any of his European counterparts would be happy to see him return.


Beyond Berlusconi?

Italy’s centre-right parties generally suffered badly, while the mainstream left held on by the skin of its teeth. The elections were an unmitigated disaster also for the centrist ‘Third Pole’ (Christian democrats, Gianfranco Fini’s centre-right FLI), and after recent scandals, there were notable losses for the rightist populist and xenophobic Lega Nord. Despite winning in the first round of Verona’s mayoral elections, the Lega lost ground more or less everywhere, including in its founder and leader’s hometown.

By contrast, the centre-left Democratic Party managed to hang on to its share of the vote. However, the party’s leadership would be unwise to ignore the rumblings within its support base which, as in the PDL’s case, are not new. Its share of the vote, for example, has been declining just like the PDL’s. More importantly, the left’s most notable victories over the past year deliver a stark message: of the four major victories for the Left in mayoral elections (Naples, Milan, Turin and now Genova) three have been candidates who either defeated their PD competitors in primaries (e.g. Pisapia in Milan, Doria in Genova), or won outright against them (e.g. De Magistris in Naples, Orlando in Palermo). Most of the PD’s leadership – particularly Bersani, D’Alema, and Veltroni – are regularly heavily criticised by the party faithful and disenchanted voters for their systematic attempts to cosy up to Berlusconi and cave into his policy agenda. Similarly, the leftist populist Italia dei Valori (IdV), widely regarded as one of the few credible opposition parties, made virtually no gains, failing to pick up the protest votes which abandoned the centre-right, signalling an important challenge to its credibility.

The rise of the M5S is likely due to haemorrhaging votes from both right and left, although its heartland constituencies are mostly leftist. While this certainly includes a short-term protest vote in the wake of the scandals enveloping the Lega and the PDL, not to mention the ‘austerity coalition’ supporting Prime Minister Monti’s ‘technical’ but rather neo-liberal policies, the M5S – like the IdV before it –also captures a longer-term shift away from mainstream parties by progressive voters, disenchanted with their respective leaderships’ failures. This round of elections has certainly scored their most spectacular victory so far: they became the second party in Verona, beating the PDL with 9.5%, they scored 15% in Genoa, and made the run-off in Parma with a whopping 20%, averaging about 15% nationally. Considering they were polling at just over 5% a month before the elections, and bearing in mind neither the PD nor the PDL nor the centrist ‘third pole’ score anywhere close to 30% nationally, this result is significant indeed.

For the moment, the main parties’ reactions have been complacent: the PD has declared ‘victory’, Berlusconi has already signalled a populist shift taking aim at Monti, and the centrist ‘third pole’ leader Casini declared he’s ‘had enough of alliances’. All, however, seem unwilling to admit that their increasingly precarious hold on power has a lot to do with their handling of the financial crisis, not to mention their stark unwillingness to cut their own privileges. In particular, the voters who have abandoned traditional parties perceive these leaderships as not only self-serving, but also profoundly unwilling to respond to the crisis by addressing its long-run structural problems: the subsidies given to the private sector, tax fraud and elusion, corruption, organised crime, and unemployment. Addressing lost tax revenues, for example –which would pay for Italy’s budgetary problems several times over – means investigating Italy’s wealthy, which successive governments have proven unable or unwilling to do.


The ‘Merkozy medicine’

The European landscape is hardly more heartening than Italy’s. In France, where recession has certainly hit less hard than in Greece or Italy, the presidential elections have been won by a moderate centre-leftist like Hollande in no small part because of his scepticism towards Euro-austerity. Whether he is willing or able to change France’s economic direction will depend not least on the results of upcoming parliamentary elections, but few expect he will pursue radically different economic options to the ‘Merkozy Pact’. In Germany, Land elections have seen Merkel’s CDU hold so far, but the Pirate Party has made considerable inroads by gaining 7-9% of the vote in Berlin, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein state elections. Even the possibility of Merkel’s slash-and-burn approach to austerity being challenged has driven investors to start buying up insurance on German debt. And although it is not part of the Eurozone, the UK’s governing Liberal-Conservative coalition has also imposed cuts which have affected unemployment, and contributed to the government’s recent defeat in local elections. Here, Ed Milliband’s Labour Party, although still not untainted by the neoliberal heritage of ‘Blair’s Britain’, made inroads into both Conservative- and Liberal-controlled councils. In particular, according to one Liberal Peer, the Lib-Dems now “face the prospect of political oblivion” precisely because they failed to act as the progressive force they’d been elected as.

But the most important electoral protest against the ‘Merkozy medicine’ has come from Greece, where voters have abandoned mainstream parties PASOK and New Democracy (ND) in droves. ND lost 14.6% of its share, mostly to splinter parties, PASOK bled a massive 30.7% leaving it at 13.2%, while the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) tripled its share of the vote to 16.8%, becoming Greece’s second party. This collapse of traditional parties was no surprise after the massive protests against the method and content of the cuts which the ND-PASOK government forced through parliament. Just like their counterparts in Italy, Greece’s mainstream parties are widely regarded as unfairly targeting the poorest and not doing enough to tackle long-term problems like tax evasion and corruption. It is worth noting that while leftist Syriza is against the ‘Merkozy medicine’, it is actually a pro-EU party. Syriza, like many emerging parties across Europe, wants to see things done differently, especially avoiding hitting the poorest and weakest the hardest, not least because austerity has not worked for Greece, with unemployment around 20% and its debt-to-GDP ratio actually worsening.


The Euro-Vision thing

It is easy to focus only on Greece or Spain, but no one should underestimate how serious the situation is in Italy. The official unemployment rate of near 10%, for example, masks much higher youth unemployment. In certain parts of the South, this reaches over 40%, and although not close to Greece or Spain’s levels of youth unemployment hovering around 50%, these remain dire figures. Italy’s suicide rate has jumped since 2008, with suicide amongst the unemployed increasing by 40%. These days, Italy’s papers report ‘recession suicides’ on a virtually daily basis, and while none of these are yet symbolic and political such as those of Muhammad Bouazizi or Dimitris Christoulas, the police report an increasing number of people who commit suicide after having set fire to banks.

Italy’s predicament appears today symbolic of Europe’s deeper political problems.

First, there is the problem of macroeconomic policy. The financial world and most mainstream politicians continue to argue that austerity is ‘painful but necessary’, and that there is no alternative. Apart from serious questions about whether the picture they present is accurate, and quite aside from local but crucial issues such as tax fraud in Greece or Italy, an increasing number of voices have been arguing that current solutions to the crisis are at best insufficient. Among those pointing out the limits of slash-and-burn economics are Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Jo Stiglitz. Eut even the IMF’s Poul Thomsen has argued that austerity is harming Greece. Without a recipe for growth – which the private sector has been unable to deliver – economic recovery is nowhere in sight. Krugman, amongst austerity’s most vocal critics, has called it “Europe’s economic suicide.”

Secondly, Europe has asked its traditional political classes to find positive solutions to its crises (economic, but also social) and found them unable to do much except repeat old slogans patently out of touch with their voters’ daily lives. Across Europe, parties advocating some variation of (neo)liberal economics – both on the centre-right and for some time now also on the centre-left – have come under attack from two directions: the first is typical of the xenophobic right, but the second is what could once have been called broadly progressive politics, both from the left and from the liberal right. The disappearance of the ‘old left’ over the past two decades has been the subject of extensive debates. The disappearance of traditional liberalism and of a moderately progressive agenda – one of the hallmarks of post-World War II European politics – has been less frequently noted. This progressive politics, both on the left and on the right, is what lies behind the emergence of the IdV and M5S in Italy.

In the face of such a challenge, mainstream parties must adapt – including returning to their ideological roots – or face the prospect of rising social and political tensions as well as economic collapse. It is not enough to throw epithets at their new competitors labelling them ‘anti-political’ or ‘demagogic’. Nor are they doing themselves a favour by tainting all such new opposition movements as ‘extremists’. Although in certain cases this is certainly true (e.g. Le Pen in France, Golden Dawn in Greece) in many others this picture patently doesn’t fit: in Italy and Germany, alternatives are ideologically much closer to classical social democracy and the ‘European social model’, which Europe’s mainstream parties have, ironically, spent most of the last two decades undermining. Calling for a different approach to growth and a different model for society which reigns in financial capital’s excesses over the past three decades is neither radical nor extreme. What traditional parties would do well to ponder is what will happen if such calls are left unanswered.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData