Italian Elections: The Triumph of Alice? (Part II)

As mentioned in the first part of our overview, the (very) wild card of the recent Italian elections has been Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Let us take a closer look at it, and then at the possible solutions to the post-electoral conundrum.

Through the Rabbit Hole: Beppe Grillo’s Movement

Beppe Grillo has played the role of acidic (and comedic) commentator of Italian public life since the 1980s. In the last two decades or so, he has moved away from the public media, but continued to do the same through national theater tours and, increasingly, through the internet. Slowly but surely, and especially since the economic crisis, he has become the focal personality channeling the anger of many Italians at the failures of the political elite. Grillo then took up consciously this role of conduit and mover, and founded a political movement (“not a party”) intended to be a direct expression of the will of the citizens, and an anti-political alternative to the political-media establishment.

After participating in local and European election, his Movimento 5 Stelle started preparing for the 2013 elections, which were called after yet another failure of the main political forces, right and left, to support  a stable government in a time of crisis. M5S’s organizing and campaigning efforts respected its non-establishment roots: shunning traditional media, they concentrated on public meetings and on creating a huge online network of communication  – inspired and guided by Grillo’s Internet guruGianroberto Casaleggio. A sort of direct democracy, using the oldest as well as the newest forms of mass communication. The roster of candidates and the party platform were constituted in similar ways: the potential candidates posted their CVs and self-introductory videoclips, and the online organization voted for them; the main policy objectives included some of the original ideas of M5S (ecology), but most of them were collected and discussed on online forums.

The resulting platform reflects both its originating process as well as the nature of the movement: halving the size of the legislature; anti-corruption laws; state support for the people affected by the economic crisis; incentives for small businesses; an end  to public financing of political parties and of the media;  a new electoral system, based on proportional representation; support for renewable energy;  free and universal internet access; voting age reduced to 16 for the Chamber of Deputies  (from 18), and to 18 for the Senate (from 25); online referendum on leaving the Euro. Also, M5S representatives will serve only two terms and will accept only a part of their salary.

In translation: replacing the current political class; cutting the connection between power and the media; direct democracy as the alternative to politics as usual; the internet as the means of this new direct democracy; common sense ideas from ordinary people; the new generation as the solution to the problems of the old; enlarging the social protection network, to help the growing number of Italians descending into poverty every day; aiding regular people who have small businesses; making sure that the newly elected people are different, and will not profit from political power, but will be there only to serve the ideas of the Movement.

To put it even more directly: we are tired of the same people, who are only pursuing their own interests, and the ones dictated by the international structures of powers. such as “the markets”, the World Bank, IMF, and the European Union. What we need is the idealist politics of the young generation and the common sense solutions of good, ordinary citizens. We will change the political elite, using the horizontal, democratizing force of the internet.

In the run-up to the elections, Grillo skewered Monti’s technocratic cabinet, because of the austerity solutions they implemented in response to the economic crisis – saying that these were imposed at the bidding of the markets and of international capital. Instead of austerity measures, Grillo said that he wants to use the money wasted on the government itself and on subventions, and redistribute it to those affected by the crisis and to small businesses. If his proposals sound familiar, it is because you have heard them before, from other populist movements.

One of the key challenges of populist movements is that it is easy to ride the wave of popular anger at the given situation (economic crisis, political immobility), as voters and candidates are united by their opposition to the status quo. Once in power, however, it becomes obvious that no amount of revolt or outcry can provide, in and of itself, the solutions to the problems. Furthermore, it usually turns out that those simple solutions, which sounded so energizing during the campaign – “eliminate waste,” “use the internet to increase efficiency” – never actually produce large enough outcomes, to cover ambitious programs such as expanding the social net. 

Another main challenge of populist movements is that, in order to actually have an impact in politics, they need to develop the internal structures necessary for unitary and effective action.  In other words, what starts as an inchoate, granular, horizontal revolt, needs to coalesce into institutions (which are, of necessity, structured and hierarchical). Without a group of people acting in a concerted way, with consistency over time, and in pursuit of the same goals (i.e. institutions), no lasting results can be achieved.

These challenges became apparent for M5S immediately after the elections, during the voting for the Presidency of the Senate, when several representatives “defected” by choosing to support the candidate of the center-left, thus going against Grillo’s injunction which rejected any cooperation with the existing political forces. The idea of organizing as a network sounds attractive enough, and it did work in the campaign; in fact, Beppe Grillo himself said that he does not know and has not met all the M5S candidates who ran in the elections; and Grillo himself did not run for Parliament,  as a consequence of a manslaughter sentence from the ’80s. But a decentralized network does not act as one entity, and then who is to assure that the ideas of the movement are actually followed and pursued with constancy.

Well, it turns out that it is Grillo himself (and Casaleggio) who do have the institutional power to make sure that the movement remains true to its ideas. For example, during the campaign local representatives of M5S have been thrown out of the movement (by Grillo); however, he rejected the accusations of undemocratic behavior thrown at him on the online forums: “Don’t come and break my balls, me of all people, about democracy. I’m getting fed up, I’m getting angry, seriously angry”. And so it happened after the Senate debacle that a new informal policy was introduced, by which Grillo would constantly keep in touch with the M5S members in the Parliament through text messages, thus ensuring that they would toe the party line.

The problem with equality is that it requires a Leviathan to enforce it, a Leviathan who is the guarantee of ideological purity.

After the Elections: The Impasse

In a parliamentary political system, getting to power means obtaining a majority in the Parliament, which the allows those political forces to choose their own people as head of the executive (prime minister) and as members of the cabinet. In addition to the executive, other key positions in the Italian political system are those of President of the Chamber of Deputies and President of the Senate. In fact, filling these positions is the first thing to do, after the legislature gets together for the first time; but this is not an easy thing to do, if the initial goal is not met – that of having a working majority of seats in the houses of the legislature.

As presented before, this is indeed the situation after the last elections. The coalition of parties on the left, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, does have 55% of the seats in the lower house, but only a slim plurality in the Senate (see updated results).  Their main rivals are the center right coalition (the main parties being Berlusconi’s Poppolo della Libertà – PDL, and the regionalist-separatist Lega Nord), which, while receiving only 0.3% less of the national vote, lost the majority in the Chamber of Deputies (due to the electoral system) and is only a few seats behind in the upper house. Coming third in terms of voting percentages and seats obtained, receiving a quarter of all the votes, and getting close to becoming the largest single party in Italian politics, is Beppe Grillo’s M5S.  The fourth and last political group, with about 10% of the votes and of the seats, is Mario Monti’s civic coalition.

Given that the center-left and the center-right have been at each other’s throats for a good long time, and that Grillo has rejected any cooperation with the other parties, Bersani was in a very difficult situation indeed, when it came to trying to constitute the necessary, however slim, majority in the Senate needed to elect its president. In the end, he managed to do that, by relying on a combination of abstentions and dissident votes from M5S (hence the scandal), and also by nominating for these positions politically neutral personalities (and thus the impact of M5S’s electoral success is already felt).

Given how tortuous these votes were, the perspectives of the negotiations for the nomination of a prime minister became even more daunting. According to the constitution, the President of the Republic is supposed to ask the party (or coalition) that came first in the elections, and that has the highest chance of forming a stable majority, to try to form a government.  Although the center-left is the closest to this description, it does not fit these bills completely – and yet they had to take the initiative.

What are Bersani’s choices?  Theoretically, they would be:
1. to attempt to gather a parliamentary majority in alliance with other coalitions / parties; in exchange for this support, these partners could either take part in government (receive positions in the cabinet), or they could support  a “minority government”, only with their votes in the legislature, without becoming members of the executive.
2. a grand coalition between the two major political forces, of center-left and center-right, the kind Germany had between 2005 and 2009.
3. to organize cross-party support for a government of technocrats
.

What complicates the situation even further is that Italy is in the middle of an economic and social crisis, and no matter what government is formed, it needs to have a strong enough support to pass some of the necessary (and presumably highly debated) economic measures; or at least to pass some urgent measures and prepare for snap elections.

Let us examine the aforementioned choices, starting with the last one, of a technocratic government. Well, although it has proven to be a solution for Italy in similar situations before, it would not be possible at this time, for the simple reason that these last elections were preceded and partially brought about by the collapse of political support for the technocratic government of Mario Monti.  In fact, Silvio Berlusconi has openly ruled out supporting a second technocratic government.

So, could the center left form an alliance or system of alliances, that would give them a majority support in both houses of Parliament? (Recall that they have 55% of the seats in the lower house, but only about 123 of the 319 seats in the upper house.) The only “natural” ally (from the point of view of political pragmatism) would be Monti’s political group; however, the latter have only 21 seats in the upper house. The only other,  theoretically amenable political group, would be the Five Star Movement; but, as we know already, they are against giving support to the existing political forces, even “from the outside”. Bersani’s strategy, as evidenced by his nominations for the leadership of the chambers, has been to propose figures or policy points in which M5S could find a reflection of their own political ideas. Up to this point, however, his attempt has failed.

Meanwhile, M5S has declared that it would expect the president’s invitation to form a government, at which point they would reveal the names of the candidates and the policy program. Of course, the other political forces are not very receptive to such a cat-in-the-bag plan of action. Let us also not forget that Beppe Grillo has stated that he expects new elections to happen soon; in this context, letting the other political forces fail, separately or together, would only prepare the grounds for a more sweeping electoral success for the Five Star Movement, which would fit their goals of replacing the entire political class.

As for the center-right, it absolutely rejects the formation of a center-left minority government – a “governicchio”, but it might not be opposed to the other alternative, that of entering into government themselves.

Then how about a grand coalition between the center-left and the center-right? Such an alliance would surely have enough votes both in the lower and in the upper houses – comfortably so (within the bounds of Italian political fragmentation, of course).  Nothing is impossible in politics, but Bersani and the center-left seems to reject this idea quite fiercely, because of their personal opposition to Berlusconi (whose figure does dominate the center-right coalition), out of fear of his hidden or not-so-hidden intentions, and because of a lack of trust in the perspectives of such a government  (given last year’s events) . The center-right has made it clear that it would only support a government in which some of the key positions in the state would go to them. This would include not only cabinet positions, but also the Presidency of the Republic. Why the Presidency? It is widely agreed that this has to do with Berlusconi’s personal concerns: he is currently involved in several trials whose outlook does not look very promising; the President, however, has the power of pardon. 

Because, to further complicate the matters, Italy does not only need a stable government in the midst of economic and social crisis. In addition, the mandate of the current President of the Republic is constitutionally set to  expire in a few days (May 15), and by that time they need to have already chosen a new president.

How About the Italian President?

The Italian president is elected for a seven-year mandate by a special assembly of grand electors, constituted of all the members of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate, and delegates chosen by the governments of the 20 regions (3 from each, with a few exceptions). In order to be elected, a candidate (usually nominated by a major political coalition) needs to gather 2/3 of the votes; if, after three rounds of voting, this is not achieved, in the fourth round a majority (50%+1) is enough.

Giorgio Napolitano – the current president – is running out of time. The assembly to elect the new president will have to be called on April 15, 30 days before the expiration of his mandate (according to the constitution). At the same time, the developments of these presidential election will surely be influenced by the current negotiations for the formation of a cabinet – and they are currently are going nowhere. A possible outcome of the presidential elections would be for Bersani’s center-left to gather enough votes for a majority in the fourth round (perhaps with the aid of Monti’s civic coalition); however, the bad blood created by not agreeing during the previous rounds to a consensus, 2/3 candidate would probably doom any prospect of forming a cabinet afterwards. One must recall that the head of state in a parliamentary system is supposed to be the guarantor of the stability of the state, and to situate himself (or herself) above party politics. Perhaps by finding a presidential nominee who would also fit M5S’s profile – maybe that would open doors for a post-election formation of a stable government? But that would take us into June, and the effects of the political instability are already being felt on the economy.

In any case, President Giorgio Napolitano has made it clear that he will do his utmost to try to help the formation of a government while his mandate lasts; and he reminded everybody that there is still a caretaker government in place, managing the country, namely Mr. Monti’s government of technocrats (their mandate only ends when a new cabinet is elected).

In a move inspired by the models of government formation in Netherlands or Belgium,  on Tuesday, April 2, Napolitano announced the beginning of (maximum) 8-10 days of consultation with two groups of “wise men”, gathered both from the political and from the civic-economic sphere. The role of these “facilitators” is to help formulate a set of policy priorities for the country, around which the political parties can gather and which they can support. In other words, this is about supporting specific policy measures, and not personalities. One might assume that, once and if such a governing program is delineated, the parties would have to agree on  a cabinet either from their ranks (a sort of grand coalition) or from the outside (again technocrats), who would pursue a very specific,  limited agenda. One might also assume that the life-span of this target-specific cabinet would be strictly defined as well, and that among their key goals would be to organize new elections, within the next 6-10 months. It is not clear if Napolitano’s strategy of asking them to focus on urgent policy targets, rather than on people or parties, will work; right now, the turmoil goes on.

A Land of Wonders

Italy is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, both in terms of natural beauty, and of historical and cultural riches. It has one of the highest life expectancies in the world; its life-style, from the propensity to enjoy good life, to the siesta, to its family-oriented daily rhythms, make it a favorite destination both for tourism and for comfortable living. Its politics is also full of wonders: intricate, regionally and ideologically fragmented, filled with strong personalities. Its state budget seems to be chronically mismanaged, yet under the leadership of some of its technocratic governments it has produced some of the most impressive economic turnarounds of the last decades. Its system of public administration is widely considered to be inefficient, corruption is seen to be pervasive. Its politics seem to be dominated by the same people, and little seems to change structurally, no matter who gets into the seats of power.

Into this realm and against it comes Beppe Grillo’s movement, proposing an alternate land of wonders, somewhere at the intersection of dreams and pragmatism, that would turn the current reality upside down. One wonders, however, if one does not also hear the Queen of Hearts running around and asking “off with their heads!” In Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice slides into an alternate land of wonders; yet by the end of the narrative, we sigh with her of breath of relief, as she gets back into the (slightly less interesting) land of rules, reason and normality – no matter how fascinating (and frightening) that world of wonders was. At this point, we are right in the middle of the story of Italian elections, and the best we can do is to follow its developments.

Addendum: the Negotiations

Before the recent consultations between Bersani and the M5S representatives, the latter insisted that they would only agree to discuss, if the meeting would be broadcast live, on the internet. This happened, and Bersani made it a point to state that he was happy to oblige. Complete transparency; open politics to the masses, with the aid of the internet.

In the follow-up to that meeting, Movimento 5 Stelle needed to decide on the strategy to be pursued during the negotiations to come; the line its representatives should follow, especially given the Senate vote debacle. Thus, the leadership of M5S met behind closed doors to discuss and strategize; no media access, nobody from the outside was allowed. Some secretiveness seems to be in order.

You can watch the entire streaming broadcast of the Bersani – M5S meeting here:

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