ITALIAN politics are in chaos, as a comedian battles Silvio Berlusconi for control.
Imagine you need to get to the other side of a busy street in Milan. You go to the pedestrian crossing provided. Cars are obliged to stop when you step out onto the black and white stripes, but not before.
It doesn’t matter how evident your intentions, vehicles will not slow down unless you step right into their path. They are all travelling over the speed limit. Wise folks wait until there are no cars.
Rash people step out determinedly, provoking disbelief, swerving, fierce braking, insults. In the dry cleaners last week the nice lady said: “Signore. You should be more careful. Remember at the crossing yesterday? We would have knocked you down, but my husband recognised you were a client.”
Drastically simplified, this is the tone of public life in Italy and the atmosphere in which the country’s general elections took place on Feb 24. Yes, you have rights, but only if you’re determined to fight for them. It is always a little easier and safer if you are somebody’s client.
Essentially there were four players in this election. They can be categorised as on the right or left, or more usefully as having or not having balls. We assume people vote according to a combination of conviction and self-interest.
But in these confused times, many Italians simply went where the energy was, where someone else had enough conviction and self-interest to launch himself determinedly into the traffic.
The Partito Democratico (PD) is Italy’s big left-wing party, inheritor of the communist tradition. One expects the left to be reformist and radical, but PD is largely devoted to defending the rights of its clients, the trade unions, whose rights were won decades ago and are threatened now by the economic crisis.
The party’s problem was to look responsible and at the same time reassure core voters that they were not about to be knocked over at the crossing. Under lacklustre leader Pier Luigi Bersani, its candidates muddled through a dull campaign that mainly focused on their being nice people; leaflets stressed commitment to gay rights, help for immigrants, and equality for all, fine principles that were never likely to galvanise voters in the midst of the worst recession in decades.
After a centre-right government under Berlusconi had brought Italy to the edge of financial chaos in 2011, causing the need for a “technical” government, PD was expected to win this election hands down with 40% of the vote. In fact they polled 30%.
The most recent of the now endless list of English words Italians use is “lo spread”. It refers to the difference between interest rates on Italian and German bonds in euro, thus telling us how much more it costs to service the Italian public debt than the German.
It was when lo spread almost reached a critical 6% that economics professor Mario Monti was parachuted in to replace Berlusconi and run a government of unelected experts to right the economy.
At 70, Monti effects what Italians imagine is a typically British aplomb: He is serious, wry, and calm; after Berlusconi these qualities alone were enough to lower lo spread a point or two. For some weeks after his ascendance, while an Italian exit from the euro seemed possible, Monti was in a position to take drastic measures.
He let the chance slip, backing away from important proposals at the first sign of serious resistance. Nothing was done to curb the extraordinary privileges Italian politicians have voted themselves in the past, in particular the state subsidy parties receive for each vote cast for them, something that makes electioneering a profitable business.
After extenuating negotiations, his watered-down reform of the employment market, designed to attract now almost non-existent foreign investors, served only to underline how onerous it is to hire and fire in this country.
In a determined effort to balance the books, he introduced IMU, a heavy tax on property, including first homes, that hit an enormous number of Italians with little distinction as to wealth or income.
Why, after a frustrating year in power, did Monti decide to fight for an election, something he had never done in all his gentlemanly life? Here we come to a new phenomenon in Europe.
All involved as they are in the same currency and hence anxious about the economies of their neigh-bours, the major European countries inevitably seek to influence each other’s elections. German politicians in particular kept telling the Italians that Monti was the saviour of Italy and should stay. Perhaps Monti began to believe this.
A staunch Catholic, alien to the PD and to Berlusconi’s popularist right-wing party, he allied himself with tiny ex-Christian Democrat factions at some hypothetical centre of Italian politics. Every moment of his campaign indicated his disdain for conflict, reminding us how being an economics professor doesn’t mean you understand politics.
The last thing Italians want is a prime minister who, rather than having clients, seems himself to be a client of Berlin. Expected to arrive at 20% of the vote, he finished with barely 10%.
So much for the two disappoint-ments, one on the left and one on the right, men who portrayed themselves as nailed to the cross of economic necessity, offering wise words and dour predictions.
In contrast, Berlusconi is all bluster and transgression. He heads the Party of Liberty, but this is just a political extension of his vast commercial concerns: TV channels, publishing companies, advertising agencies, and so on.
He formed the party, he runs it, and it will live and die with him. His employees and his party colleagues are his clients. Italians understand this godfather relationship. In late 2011 Berlusconi seemed finished. Overwhelmed by corruption trials and sex scandals, forced out by an economic crisis, he withdrew, handing over control to the nobodies who deputise for him. But shortly before the election, seeing the size of the likely defeat, he bounced back (at 76), presenting himself with a new fiancée (27).
Campaigning with a vigour that bewildered everyone, he promised everything: He would abolish Monti’s hated property tax and return what taxpayers had paid last year; he would introduce a tax pardon for evaders (they are legion); he would reinflate the economy and create armies of jobs.
Lo spread, he declared, understanding his voters’ desire to keep their heads in the sand, was irrelevant. The drama of these statements, coupled with the frequent use of sexual innuendo, a word or two in favour of Mussolini, a proposal to abandon the euro, and accusations of German-led conspiracies, guaranteed him daily headlines, even in those newspapers he does not own or influence!. Expected to achieve less than 20% of the vote, he scored 30%.
But the real winner of the election was Beppe Grillo. To understand this bizarre man and his astonishing achievement, one has to imagine a country that for a decade and more has preserved the privileges of the status quo at the expense of the young.
Before Italy joined the EU, its structural inflation, due to programmed wage and pension hikes, was regularly offset by devaluation. Once in the eurozone and deprived of the devaluation tool, industry found it impossible to compete with its more austere neighbours.
Rather than taking away old privileges, laws were introduced that made it possible for companies to take on young people for long unpaid “work experience”. Many other forms of part-time, low-paid contracts were introduced, all completely out of line with the generous lifelong contracts for existing full-time employees.
It became normal for young people to work for years without being properly paid. A constant rhetoric in favour of the young was belied by a reality that has now created hosts of angry 30-year-olds. About 38% of young people are unemployed.
The interminable corruption scandals and revelations of the privileges of the rich compound the resentment. This is the energy Grillo has tapped into; it is as if he had gathered an army on the edge of the country’s busiest road and launched them into the traffic.
Chased off TV screens years ago for his beyond-the-pale political satire, ex-comedian Grillo has a long and honourable career as a maverick militant. This took off in 2005 when he began a blog to disseminate his views on the environment, political corruption, and the like.
What distinguishes the blog from others is its vehemence, its comic but ferocious insults of all opponents, and its intimate connection with Grillo’s charismatic public performances in theatres and piazzas, always in direct contact with his disciples, since he now refuses all TV and radio communication, anything, in short, that could be manipulated by an intermediary.
Soon the blog was recording huge audiences and winning plaudits far and wide, Time magazine included. A community began to build.
Grillo’s central policy is to kick all the traditional politicians out. Without exception. And disband traditional trade unions. Hence the organisation, in 2007, of Vaffanculo (“Fuck Off”) Day, with demonstrations and protests all over Italy.
This election, held in a moment of profound economic crisis, with two zombie figures on one side and an ageing cabaret entertainer on the other, was the perfect opportunity for Grillo. Bluff, bulky, ill-dressed, unshaven, he harangued, hoarse-voiced, in a hundred piazzas.
He promised that his candidates, mostly young and inexperienced, would not take state subsidies for political parties, would renounce a large part of their salary, and would never appear on television.
When elected, the party would remove all privileges, pay a survival wage to all citizens, and give free broadband to everyone. On French intervention in Mali, Grillo suggested that French missiles would more usefully be trained on the Italian parliament. Expected to poll 15% of the vote, he got 25%.
So 30% to grim support of the old workplace; 10% to the gentleman upholding the international monetary system; 30% to the rich old guy inviting us all to have a good time; and 25% to the wild man who wants to kick ass.
Italy has possibly the worst electoral system in the world. Electors do not vote directly for individual candidates but for parties grouped in coalitions. The parties choose candidates and arrange them in order of priority.
According to the number of votes it gets and the number of seats consequently assigned, the party sends the corres-ponding number of candidates — friends, business colleagues, mothers-in-law — to parliament from the top of its list. Basically, the parties control everything while candidates have no direct responsibility to any group of electors, only to party leaders.
There are two houses, the camera and the senate. To guarantee a majority in the camera, whichever party has the most votes is guaranteed 340 seats of 630. With half a percentage point more than Berlusconi’s PDL, PD won this.
Bersani controls the camera. However, in the senate, these “majority prizes”, as they are called, are arranged on a regional basis, and no overall majority is guaranteed. Since Berlusconi took the bigger regions, PD found itself with only 123 seats out of 315, nowhere near a majority. Both houses carry equal weight when it comes to legislation.
Stalemate. Traffic blocked. Here we have a country at the heart of old Europe with an economy in recession and decline. Most of its voters are hoping to hold on to past certainties, whether responsibly or otherwise.
A huge number of younger voters want to blow the whole caboodle away, unconcerned about the consequences, perhaps feeling that for their generation things could hardly get worse. What does Grillo want? We don’t know. He will do deals with nobody.
This is the “first step”, he says; he will “finish the job” at the next election in less than a year. Between now and then, he hopes that state subsidies to political parties and newspapers can be abolished; this should help him achieve an absolute majority next time around.
History’s wheel is turning. Grillo’s rude energy and the anger of millions of young men and women are freeing it from the mud. The order that has held together, in various manifestations, for 50 years and more appears to be collapsing. In structure and momentum, the situation is uncannily similar to a moment in the early 1920s when an endlessly blocked parliament and economic depression opened the road to another charismatic public speaker, Benito Mussolini.
Italian commentators have been observing what the two men have in common: the insistence that the old opposition of right and left is a thing of the past and that everybody against them is old and outdated; a promise to change everything; a cult of youth and personal vigour (Grillo recently had himself filmed swimming across the strait between Calabria and Sicily); and above all a rousing rhetorical style in the piazza.
It’s too early to fear the worst, but Grillo is accumulating power rapidly. One can only hope that when his bandwagon really starts to roll, it will not simply flatten all its opponents.
*Tim Parks’s new book, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo, will be published in June. This article copyright The Daily Beast.