In Italy, only one thing is certain: Voters are done with politics of old

Protest alone will not save Italy.
Protest alone will not save Italy.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
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Last week’s Italian elections have yielded an uncertain result, as the center-left coalition led by Pierluigi Bersani’s Partito Democratico (PD) won the absolute majority in the lower house but not in the senate. Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition came in second, while the most popular party turned out to be comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement. While rumors abound about what the next government is going to be like—if there’s even going to be one—the fact that the three major parties only have slightly compatible agendas makes up for the current uncertainty: voters of any of these parties (especially PD and 5-S Movement) are deeply divided on what their leaders should do now.

Only one thing seems clear: Italians might not know what they want, but they surely know what they do not want: austerity and old politics—to say it better, old politicians. Let’s start with the latter.

Italy is in the midst of a recession that shows no sign of improvement. In the last year, unemployment, poverty, taxes and energy bills have all risen, while politicians have cut their expenses only marginally. Members of parliament and of the “technician” unity government, which has been in charge since the ouster of Berlusconi in Nov. 2011, have never looked so out of touch with the people. The best way to show disappointment toward the political system was obviously to not show up to the polls. Abstention reached 25%, a record in the post-war elections and a 5% increase over the previous election in 2008. More than 10 million constituents chose to desert the polls.

This number would have probably been higher if it wasn’t for the presence of the 5-Star Movement: Grillo’s party has been a vocal supporter of cutting the costs of politics for years. Grillo himself has denounced some of the major recent Italian financial scandals, and in 2007 he organized the V-Day, a mass protest against politicians. The V stands for Vaffanculo, which means “Fuck off.” So for those who wanted to let traditional parties know they were no longer welcome, the 5-Star Movement was the best option.

Grillo was also very vocal against the austerity measures implemented by the Monti government in its year and half in charge. As a matter of fact, the 5-S economic program—on which an economist with close ties to Nobel Prize Laureate Joseph Stiglitz worked—calls for reducing the public debt by cutting the costs of politics but also recommends supporting industries with a relevant domestic market, small and no-profit firms. While Grillo’s speeches against austerity and for a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the euro zone grabbed the headlines and explain a lot of the protest vote his movement received, it is also true that the 5-S economic program, in a certain way, appeals to voters on both the extreme left and extreme right. Furthermore, some of its local battles (against a contested high-speed rail system between Italy and France or against environmentally intrusive waste-treatment solutions like incinerators) brought it close to the people who voted for it at the local polls and eventually at the national polls. This share of constituents somehow represents the core of Grillo’s movement and cannot be dismissed as “anti-politics”; mediating between the expectations of these people (who actually want the 5-S program to be implemented) and those of the ones who just gave Grillo their protest vote will not be easy.

The anti-austerity front was indeed quite broad this time. Berlusconi’s campaign was all about rejecting Monti’s Merkel-imposed and Bersani-approved taxes and cuts; the fact that Berlusconi’s party voted for the unity government and all the relevant austerity measures it promoted was conveniently omitted. His promise to refund the much-hated IMU property tax proved to be a winner. But even Bersani’s program was against austerity: it just didn’t stress it enough and ended up with a slim majority while it was though to win comfortably until a couple of weeks ago. Throughout the campaign, the PD emphasized its role as a responsible, reformist party, steering clear of populism and anti-austerity slogans: the results show that this strategy backfired, at least partially.

While it is unclear how the next government will look, an alliance between the center-left and the center-right would be unpalatable to their respective constituencies and one with the anti-system Grillo movement seems unforeseeable in the near future. It is clear what its priorities should be: cutting the costs of politics and implementing an anti-austerity program.

The former sounds painful but doable. It will require the parties to support a slash in their paychecks, give up privileges, and cut the number of administrative bodies that are unnecessary but provide money and power to lower-ranking or defeated politicians (provinces are first in line). This will surely cause some problems, but in the end it will allow the traditional parties to show that they listened to the grievances of the people. Grillo would hail the passing of such measures as his movement’s political victory.

The war on austerity can hardly be staged, let alone won, as of now. Given the election result, the coming government, whoever joins it, will be short-lived, inherently weak, and focused on systemic reforms, starting with electoral law. To the international investors and the political partners, Italy’s public debt and stagnant economy is still a reason for concern. Investors will be watching very carefully and will be quick to withdraw their money should Rome opt for policies that would increase its debt. The coming temporary government will not be strong enough to demand a break from austerity, not until September at least, when Germany has its own national elections. While the EU and Germany may be slowly shifting away from an austerity-only policies, they’re still focused on debt reduction.

In the polls, Italians expressed (or by not going to the polls) their disdain for the current political class and for the austerity-only politics implemented in the last year and a half. They now look at the election result with a mix of uncertainty and disenchantment: it is hard to forecast what it means for Italy in the future, but the premises are far from encouraging. Protest alone cannot do the job.