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Italy's 'Perfect storm'

More than a week after the elections, the situation in Italy is as hazy as ever, with no obvious way out of the political deadlock.

Carlo Ungaro
7 March 2013
A float representing Silvio Berlusconi during the 5th parade of the Viareggio Carnival in Tuscany. Demotix/Federico Scoppa. All rights reserved.

A float representing Silvio Berlusconi during the fifth parade of the Viareggio Carnival in Tuscany. Demotix/Federico Scoppa. All rights reserved.

Some foreign publications, in commenting on the situation in Italy after the recent electoral results, have reverted to the offensively superficial and trite image of “bring on the clowns”. The term could be used both in a derogatory and a purely descriptive sense, as the only real winner of the election, Mr. Beppe Grillo, a professional comedian, could be called a “clown” without causing offence.

Politically speaking, however, the epithet would not apply. Grillo has shown remarkable ability, and has created a powerful political movement, the party which has received the greatest number of votes (around 25 percent), from scratch, with no public financial backing, and in the teeth of first ridicule and then very violent criticism on the part of almost all the media. Whether this structure will show itself to be stable and lasting is another question, but it certainly wields decisive weight at this time. The same publications apply the epithet also to Mr. Berlusconi, mainly because, in their very superficial view of the situation, they consider him one of the “winners”, even though his Party has had the poorest electoral result in its history.

The Italian press, in this case perhaps more imaginative and aiming at a higher cultural level, has preferred to describe the present political situation with the term “Perfect Storm” - much more suitable.

It would be wrong to state that there is no solution to the problems arising from Italy’s recent elections: the art of politics, after all, thrives on the search for unlikely solutions to complex situations, and this has very often been the case in Italian republican history. Doubts can be raised, however as to whether there are any good or lasting solutions to the present state of chaos.

Italy is no stranger to tense, unwieldy and even potentially dangerous political situations, but never, not even in 1948, when the charismatic leader of Italy’s powerful Communist Party was shot and severely wounded as he left Parliament, not even during the terrorist years in the seventies, culminating in the kidnapping and assassination of a former Prime Minister, has there been a storm as “perfect” as this one.

The elections held last February resulted in a virtual tie among three political groups which show no inclination of wanting to work together towards a solution, albeit temporary, for the crisis. Former Prime Minister Mario Monti, had he abstained from entering such a violent, unproductive electoral fray, could have emerged once again as a suitable choice to lead an emergency government, with the aim of guaranteeing sufficient stability to enable the government to continue on its very controversial path towards reform. As it is, having suffered a humiliating electoral defeat, he appears to have burned his bridges, and one of the few areas of agreement among Bersani, Berlusconi and Grillo is their refusal to envisage any form of cooperation with Monti or his coalition.

Political analysts , at this point, see only three possible outcomes:

- a German style 'Grand Coalition' in which the two archenemies, the Democratic Party and Mr. Berlusconi’s "People of Liberty”, both heavy losers in the recent elections, unite in a majority and form a government mandated to solve the country’s more pressing problems;

- a 'minority government', in which the ostensible 'winner' of the elections (i.e. the coalition with the greatest number of votes), the Democratic Party, would be asked to form a government, having negotiated an unsteady truce ensuring the remaining forces in parliament will not mount a 'no confidence' motion;

- a 'President’s government', in which, with some analogy to the Monti experience, and to some precedents in Italy’s recent history, president Napolitano asks an outsider – possibly one of the numerous 'elder statesmen' so abundant in Italy – to form an 'apolitical' Government, with the support of both the major contending coalitions.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that president Napolitano, being in the last semester of his mandate, has his hands tied and is prevented, by the Constitution, from dissolving the parliament and calling for new elections. 

None of the above scenarios appears realistic, at least given how things stand now.

In the thirteen months of Professor Monti’s 'technocrat government', its supporting majority in parliament was massive, ensured by the very two parties which would be now called upon to cooperate, and yet nothing was achieved outside of the measures imposed by the government itself. The result, in electoral terms, was the loss of an estimated five million votes by Berlusconi and three million by the Democratic Party, all to the benefit of Genoese comedian Beppe Grillo’s essentially populist “Five Stars Movement”. There never was a desire to work together, and now, of course, especially after the heavy-handed insults traded during the electoral campaign, the very idea would appear repugnant to their electors. 

A 'minority government', headed by the Democratic Party, would have to rely on Grillo’s external support, thus allowing him to hold the Democratic Party hostage - and perhaps attempt to impose measures totally unpalatable to its more 'reformist' members, with the risk of the party splitting into splinter groups. Grillo could also, at any moment, withdraw his support and force new elections.

A 'president’s government' could cause a veritable upheaval and provoke violent criticism from the Italian people, mainly, of course, amongst Grillo’s supporters, who could immediately accuse the president (and the 'establishment') of flouting the Constitution and ignoring democratic principles. It could be done, but with scant chances of lasting success, since it would be seen as carrying further votes to the Genoese comedian.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and some are already putting forward a solution which owes more to fantasy than to political realism - but this does not automatically exclude it from succeeding. If president Napolitano, tearing a leaf out of Benedict XVI’s book, should resign ahead of the end of his mandate (May of this year), the parliament would be compelled to elect a new President. Once elected, he (or, as some would prefer, she) could undertake a new attempt to form a government with the impending threat of calling new elections right away in case of failure. At this moment, both leading coalitions fear elections like the Bubonic Plague, and could therefore feel compelled to toe the line. This unprecedented situation, improbable though it may appear, is not outside the realm of possibility.

At the moment, however, the impasse appears to be total, and the solution, when it will be found, will most probably only have temporary and unsatisfactory results, leaving Italy's most pressing problems unsolved.

This indeed has all the makings of a “perfect storm”.

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