Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Send in the clowns

There are plenty of people in Europe who hold stereotype-based views about Italy - that it is and has always been an ‘unserious’ country. Italian voters won’t have helped that perception over the weekend, when half of them voted for either a comedian or a clown to lead their country. “Do they think this is a joke?” one exasperated German asked me this morning.

Elections have consequences, and people get the leaders they deserve. Those Italians who insist on re-electing the clownish SilvioBerlusconi despite the ruin and shame he’s brought to Italy - and those Italians who decided they would rather see political anarchy by voting for a comedian who will not even sit in the parliament – will get the future they deserve. The problem is that because of the Eurozone debt crisis, we are all going to get the future they deserve.

Those outside Italy have long been baffled at how such a sizable portion of the Italian population could still support Berlusconi after the corruption allegations, Bunga Bunga parties, dalliances with underage Moroccan prostitutes and – most consequentially – the disastrous handling of the Italian economy. But what is newly shocking is the other surprise winner of this election – an anti-establishment comedian. The fact that so many Italians would vote for what is essentially an anarchist party, led by a comedian who does not even intend to take a seat in the Italian parliament, has rattled the world today.

The Beppe bomb

The newly formed ‘Five Star Movement’ (M5S) party, led by a foul-mouthed, erratic comedian named Beppe Grillo, received the highest number of votes of any individual party in this election. They won 170 seats, but what they intend to do with them is a complete mystery. Grillo himself does not actually plan to participate in the Parliament – he is actually legally forbidden from doing so because of a 1980 homicide conviction. The complete unknowns who make up his party – many of them jobless young men – are also largely planning to sit out. A vote for the M5S was a protest vote, a vote against governance itself. And if that is the outcome Italians wanted, that is the outcome they are getting.

M5S is not unlike the Tea Party in America – a vague expression of anti-establishment rage with no actual agenda or governing philosophy. But the comparison only goes so far. The Tea Party Republicans are a faction within a mainstream party, and they actually take their seats in the congress. Grillo has refused to join forces with any other party and will not even participate in the parliament.

Grillo’s success has meant that no mainstream party has enough of a majority in the Italian Senate to claim victory, meaning that a coalition is impossible and, in all likelihood, new elections will have to be held in a few months. Analysts are bracing for a long period of uncertainty. Such a political circus is not unusual in Italy, but the consequences of such chaos at this moment are huge. Italy is the lynchpin in the Eurozone crisis. Unlike Greece, it is too big to fail. And if Italy’s ability to pay back its debts is called into question, it could lead to a string of events that causes the euro to collapse.

That string of events may have started today. In the wake of the election result yesterday, shares in Italy’s main stock market index have fallen almost 5% today. Italian banks, which hold large parts of Italy’s state debt, are down up to 10%. The yield spread on Italy’s debt soared to 330 by midday Tuesday. The euro as a whole is trading sharply down.

For people here in Brussels, the situation is exasperating. They would have preferred a victory by former European Commissioner Mario Monti, the ‘technocrat’ prime minister hand-picked by Brussels and Berlin to replace Berlusconi after he was unceremoniously ousted by the combined force of the EU and the markets in 2011. Once it became clear this was impossible (Monti took the hit with Italian public opinion for introducing the austerity cuts demanded by Germany), they wanted to see a victory by centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, possibly in alliance with Monti.

The worst possible outcome for Italy’s European partners was a return to power for Berlusconi, who at this point is driven only by his lust for revenge against the EU and his desire to give himself immunity from prosecution for the many legal charges pending against him. Europe was spared this catastrophe; though Berlusconi did manage to get the most votes in the senate, he does not have enough seats to control the senate. But the actual result – gridlock and chaos – is not much better. In fact, it could be worse.

A vote for anarchy

Why would so many Italians vote for M5S, a party whose sole election promise was not to govern? Why would they vote for a comedian who has called for al-Qaeda to bomb Rome and kill the Italian political elite? Why, in short, have Italians chosen to sabotage their own country, and in so doing potentially sabotage all of Europe?

The contempt for politics and politicians by the Italian public is well-known. Decades of dysfunction, essentially perpetual since the founding of the Italian state in 1861, have left people both inside and outside the country with the general impression that Italy is ungovernable. It is perhaps of a reflection of the immense disdain Italians hold for their own government that they would vote for a man who pledges to dismantle it.

Ironically, it is this disdain for Rome that has historically made Italians one of the most Europhile populations in the EU. It is a population that is in a large part happy to have laws be set and enforced by Brussels instead. While knowledge of how the EU works sits at comparatively low levels (almost reaching British depths of ignorance), positive feeling about the EU is among the highest in the union.

That is, until recently. This election campaign was marked by fiercely anti-EU rhetoric. Grillo and Berlusconi both railed against the EU, Germany and the euro – and together they received 50% of the vote. Yet neither man offered any alternative. If the government in Rome is broken beyond repair, and the government in Brussels is driven by a self-harming German push for austerity that must be defeated, what does that leave us with?

It leaves us with a broken Italy, which is nothing new. But thanks to the euro, a broken Italy means a broken Europe. And a broken Europe means a broken world. Italian politics may have seemed like an amusing circus to watch from a distance in previous decades, but that circus may be about to turn into a nightmare for all Europeans. We have two clowns and half of Italian voters to thank for it.

1 comment:

Captain Kid said...

I think you're too harsh on the population. Europe needs a wake-up call, we have been under Germany's counterproductive austerity rule for too long and people have enough of Merkel's discourse of having no alternative.
I don't sympathise with Grillo, but why should Italians vote for Merkel-led politicians who would continue Italy's way into self-destruction?