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 guru, Gianroberto 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.
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:
Why would we care about the Italian elections? Isn’t this the country that has had over 50 governments since 1945, that is in a seemingly perpetual crisis, that is governed by picturesque characters like Berlusconi? Isn’t this also the country that, in terms of GDP, is the third in Europe and the eighth in the world? Whose population of 60 million people is the fourth largest in Europe, and thirty-third in the world? A key member of the G8 and of NATO? Whose cultural footprint is truly unparalleled, possessing more UNESCO world heritage sites than any other country while remaining a trend-setter in the arts, fashion, and high-end craftsmanship?
What Do the Italians Elect?
In order to counteract the famed Italian political instability, and to ensure strong parliamentary majorities for any given cabinet, a reform of the electoral system was passed in 2005. Pursuant to these reforms, the 630 members of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) are now elected on closed party lists from 17 districts (details), by a proportional representation system. If this is a proportional electoral system, how would this avoid fragmentation? Well, there is a major corrective to proportionality, namely that, by law, the party that wins a plurality of votes nationally, automatically obtains 55% of the seats in the lower house (340 seats). The irony is that, given the fickleness of Italian politics, this 55% does not always represent a strong majority.
Unlike in other parliamentary systems, the upper house (Senate) has about as much power as the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house is usually the more powerful). This makes Italy one of the most balanced bicameral systems around. And, since the Senate is not only called to pass legislation, but also to approve the prime minister and the cabinet, a majority in the upper house is essential for appointing and maintaining a stable government. However, this majority is not simple to obtain. According to the new electoral system, most of the 319 members of the Senate are elected on closed party lists, in 21 different constituencies (regions). Each region has a number of Senate seats allotted; however, in order to “force” a majority, in each region the party that obtains the plurality of votes, automatically receives 55% percent of that region’s seats. The problem is that, given Italy’s socio-political fragmentation, and the significant cultural differences between the various regions, this does not necessarily add up to a Senate majority.
An interesting detail is that the minimum age requirement for voting for Senate candidates is 25; it is enough to be 18 years old, however, to be able to vote for the lower house.
The (First?) Elections of 2013
The elections of 2013 were called after the announced resignation of Mario Monti’s technocratic cabinet, which (as its “technocratic” attribute indicates) initially came to power as a government of non-political specialists, called in to take care of the economic crisis, because none of the political parties was able or willing to assume that responsibility. The advantage of technocratic governments is that they are not indebted politically to anyone, and can assume the risk of implementing difficult, even harsh policies, which would otherwise destroy the support of any party attempting them. The major disadvantage of such governments comes from the same feature; since they do need a majority in the parliament to pass these policies, they depend on a frail constellation of political support, which is never guaranteed, given their lack of political affiliation. This is what happened in Italy, with Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition withdrawing their support from Monti’s cabinet. Without this support, Monti could not continue implementing the austerity measures that brought upon him the anger of many Italians, but which may have started putting Italy on the right track.
With Monti for Italy! In a surprising move, however, Monti, who is a respected economist and academic, decided to remain in politics, taking into account both the need for a responsible, efficient government, as well as the general public dissatisfaction with the existing political alternatives.
To the Right: Berlusconi. These existing political alternatives include, on the center-right, the coalition led by the seemingly inexhaustible Silvio Berlusconi, who has staged a comeback that was unimaginable only a couple of years ago – when he resigned his prime-ministership in less than honorable circumstances, with both the Italian economy and his public image in shambles. But his sizable resources and high public profile constitute a capital that few others have in Italy; thus, the many parties of the center-right could only agree to a renewed Berlusconian leadership. And, in the run-up to the elections, this effective communicator managed to promise (again) to the economically afflicted Italians that he will undo many of the austerity measures (some introduced by Monti, and some by the same Mr. Berlusconi, during his previous tenure in government).
To the Left: the Center-Left. This coalition is composed by some of the recent incarnations of the Italian left-of-center, whether with Christian-democratic or with social-democratic roots. Among them, the most important is the Democratic Party of Mr. Pier Luigi Bersani. With Berlusconi’s blemished public image, and with Monti’s low popularity, the center left looked prone to winning these 2013 elections; which meant that Bersani chose the path of least resistance during the campaign, making few promises and relying simply on the inertia of the situation.
Nobody Expects Beppe & the Grillini. For more than a couple of years now, comedian and public personality Giuseppe (Beppe) Grillo has been loudly and emphatically announcing the demise of the entire existing political system and the arrival of a new politics. In preparation for this, in a pure anti-system fashion, he abjured any apparition in the Italian media (a good part of which is under Berlusconi’s influence), and confined all his mobilizing efforts to the internet and to the public squares of Italy. And, to many observers’ surprise, the impact was notable; in fact, it might be the first time that a movement built only on the newest and on the oldest means of mass communication has had such a significant impact in politics. And, as in a sketch by his confrères, although nobody ever really expected it, the grillini‘s suddenly entered Italian politics – and turned it upside down. Or, rather, they allowed the Italian people to turn upside down a political and economic situation that was already topsy-turvy.
And Here Are The Results:
In a sign of the Italian public’s disaffection with politics, but also of its high levels of political participation (both, indeed), 25% of Italians chose not to attend these elections; and this still represents one of the highest levels of participation among industrialized countries, although it is lower than the usual rates in Italy.
Of those that went to vote, a similar, relatively low percentage of electors chose the two major coalitions – of the center-right (Berlusconi), or center-left (Bersani): about 30%. Only 10% had the sense of civic responsibility, or comfortable enough life, to choose Monti’s alliance. Some 5% percent of the vote was distributed among the very many ideologically or geographically marginal political groupings that populate Italian politics; none of them made it into the parliament. But about 25% percent of the total vote, in both houses, and from all regions, went to one party and one party only – Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) – making it the largest single party in the Italian parliament.
Here are the complete results, for the Chamber of Deputies:
|COALITION / Party||% of National Vote||# of Seats|
|Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement||25.55||108|
– Democratic Party 25.42%, 292.
– Left Ecology Freedom 3.20%, 37.
– Democratic Center 0.49%, 6.
– South Tyrolean PP, 0.43%, 5.
– People of Freedom 21.56%, 97.
– Northern League 4.08%, 18.
– Brothers of Italy 1.95%, 9.
– The Right 0.64%, 0.
– Great South… 0.43%, 0.
– Moderates in Rev. 0.24%, 0.
– Pensioners’ Party 0.16%, 0.
– Popular Agreement 0.07%, 0.
– Indep. for a Fair Italy 0%, 0.
|With Monti for Italy
– Civic Choice 8.30%, 37.
– Christian & Center Democrats 1.78%, 8.
– Future and Freedom 0.46%, 0.
You might have noticed the strong discrepancy between percentages obtained and seats assigned; the center-left and the center-right are separated by only 0.37 % of the Italian vote, yet the Bersani coalition was assigned 340 seats, while Berlusconi’s coalition received only 124. The reason is that those 340 seats represent 55% of the seats in the lower house, which are given automatically to the coalition obtaining a plurality (however slim) of the national vote. The remaining seats are then divided among the other parties or coalitions, in proportion to the percentages obtained.
You should not miss out on checking the full results list (reference; official), which includes the 30 or so political groups that received votes but did not obtain seats in the Chamber; their names will take your imagination on a very pleasant ideological trip .
Here is the summary of the results, for the Senate:
|COALITION / Party||% of National Vote||# of Seats|
|Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement||23.79||54|
– Democratic Party 27.43%, 105.
– Left Ecology Freedom 2.97%, 7.
– Democratic Center 0.53%, 0.
– The Megaphone … 0.45%, 1.
– Italian Socialist Party 0.18%, 0.
– Moderates 0.04%, 0.
– People of Freedom 22.30%, 98.
– Northern League 4.33%, 17.
– Brothers of Italy 1.92%, 0.
– The Right 0.72%, 0.
– Pensioners’ Party 0.40%, 0.
– Great South… 0.39%, 1.
– Moderates in Revol. 0.22%, 0.
– Sicilians’ Party 0.15%, 0.
– Popular Agreement 0.08%, 0
– People’s Work 0.07, 0.
– Enough Taxes 0.06%, 0.
– Independents for a Fair Italy 0.02%, 0.
|With Monti for Italy
You might have noticed that, for the Senate, the number of seats obtained by a coalition does not seem to correspond to their percentage of the national vote; the reason is that the seats are not assigned nationally, but separately in each region. In other words, each region has allotted a different number of seats in the Senate (as they are of different sizes), and in each region the coalition winning plurality receives 55% of the seats allotted to that region, while the rest of the seats are divided among the other political groups, in proportion to the vote obtained there. For added political delight, you can check the full results list (reference; official).
Please be mindful that the names on the lists above have been translated, and some had to be abbreviated, for reasons of space.
What Does This Mean?
This is indeed the 1 million Euros question. The situation goes beyond the usual political gridlock between left and right, being complicated by the ferocious enmity between the current center-right coalition (with and because of Berlusconi), and Bersani’s center-left, and by what is widely considered to be a protest vote of the Italians, through which both traditional alternatives, as well as Monti’s “professional alternative”, have been largely dismissed. Instead, the most relevant single party in both houses of the legislature is now a group whose very origins, goal and tactics are, very simply put, the rejection of the entire Italian socio-political status quo. A rejection that is present not only in message, but is also translated in a programmatic, already announced refusal to cooperate with any of the existing political groups in Parliament.
Indeed, Beppe Grillo movement’s motto is, “throw them all out!” (they use a more direct expression – see video below). But doesn’t the new electoral law give to the party that wins a plurality of votes, a secure majority in the lower house, at least? Indeed; but in order for laws to be passed – and, even before that, for a prime minister and cabinet to be elected – majorities are needed in both houses; and in the Senate, no party, coalition or presumable alliance looks able to garner those 50% +1 seats. Furthermore, let us remember that even that 55% majority in the lower house is, based on the Italian experience, actually a fragile one.
What then? Examining the current situation and the possible alternatives, and looking into the characteristics of the Grillo movement, will be the subject of the second part of this analysis.
I discovered Timothy Garton Ash many years ago as one of the leading voices within the renaissance of scholarly and literary interest in Central and Eastern Europe – its culture, politics, history, all that belongs to that world. Those might have been the circumstances of my discovery, but Timothy Garton Ash is much more than that: he is a “historian of the present” – part investigative journalist, part public intellectual, part witness to current events, and part essay writer. A wonderful mix, I might add, and one that he delivers in an exquisite manner.
What I always found attractive about his voice is its “groundedness”, which might have several sources: maybe family and education, perhaps from having lived through different things, in different places, or maybe simple English common sense. I am referring to the ability – which should be normal, but is not – to look at things, and talk about them, as they are, and not through the ideological lens of the hour.
Perhaps this instinct, this capacity to be “normal”, this awareness of the common human condition, comes from the combination of professional and personal paths that started with him studying life under Communism in East Berlin, and then led to an involvement with the anti-Communist dissidence of Central and Eastern Europe. A common trait of the writings of these dissidents was an antipolitics (to use György Konrád‘s coinage) that simply opposed to the regime’s ideology simply the truth of human existence; opposing normal life to the abnormality of the “new man” that Communism wanted to create. This “living in truth” (as Vaclav Havel says) was the common ground which united many of the named and nameless members of those networks of solidarity. Timothy Garton Ash’s writing very often reflects the freshness of that approach to life and politics.
In Facts Are Subversive, which is a collection of essays spanning the first decade of the new millennium, covering all the regions of the globe (most appropriately, especially those afflicted by oppression), his voice is at its best when it recalls this existential knowledge about what human beings are, and what normality is, and opposes it to the abnormality of the given situation.
However, without the pressure of an oppressive regime, pressure that continuously purifies one’s understanding of what is and what is not “normal”, it is hard to cling to that sort of an experiential knowledge. There are slips and slides, therefore, even in the work of person so well “trained” by what he has experienced. Such “slips” are made even more probable, because of the inherent pressures in the life of a public intellectual. Being a public intellectual is a function of public reception, and one is shaped by that public’s feedback; it is a function of being fully and continuously engaged in the public dialogue, therefore that public dialogue shapes you, and its shifting posts will keep reframing your thinking and writing – especially (to repeat the above) when the pressure of the evil alternative is not as poignantly felt. Without that abusive governmental pressure, the public space is relaxed and the living is comfortable – and it is easy to go sideways.
This is not to say, or even suggest, that the book reveals a Timothiy Garton Ash who “went sideways”; but the public conversation has gone sideways, and some of his answers will reflect that. I am referring here to a specific occasion, namely his back-tracking after the “scandal” which erupted when he characterized the attitude of some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s fervent (even militant) admirers as “enlightenment fundamentalism” (while also praising Hirsi Ali for many of her contributions). While Timothy Garton Ash’s essays on Islam are characterized by groundedness, pragmatism, and even wisdom, as he is trying to not give in to any of the idealisms of the usual antagonists in the “debate”, but to see the richness of the encounter with Islam as well as the inherent tensions, in the specific case of Hirsi Ali he had to give up this groundedness, and to renege on his “enlightenment fundamentalism” characterization. But he should not have done that, because he was actually correct; just as there is religious fundamentalism in the world of Islam, there is also anti-religious fundamentalism in the West, very closely (and unsurprisingly) mirroring one its historical predecessor, the French Revolution. A French Revolution that was the precursor of quite a few good things, but also of several murderous fundamentalisms that we know from recent European history.
There is one other instance that, although really minor, it aggrieved me: his off-hand dismissal of the events of the anti-Communist revolution in Romania as simply a coup d’état covered by street theatrics. For someone who had the privilege of witnessing some of these events (on the streets), and who is well aware of the innocence of the sacrifice of the youth who, unarmed and peacefully manifesting, were shot at and murdered by the regime, this qualifies as a “grievous” statement. The reality of the events on the streets of many of the cities of Romania, and foremostly of Timisoara, is in no way affected by the (equally) real but much less significant maneuverings in some of the government buildings of Bucharest; these are two different planes, that existed concomitantly, in no way annulling each other. But I am making too much of a few remarks that are really made only in passing in the book; and one must also understand that, unlike his reporting from Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Poland, these fleeting remarks did not come from first-hand witnessing of the events.
Notwithstanding such (really) minor slips, this is a lovely, living book. True to form, i.e. true to the fact that many of the politically engaged intellectuals whose friendship shaped his formation were writers, firstly and foremostly, there is a whole section in the book gathering articles dedicated to the art of writing; also true to form, that section contains two extensive essays on George Orwell and on Günther Grass, respectively: two politically engaged writers, yet also two real writers. Other chapters in the book collect essays on Central and Eastern Europe (naturally); on Europe as a whole (including Britain’s position within Europe, and issues concerning the European Union); on the United States (where he lives and works); on the developing world (from Asia to South America); and on “general considerations” about our time(s) and civilization(s).
Reading the book will be a very pleasant experience, I can guarantee that – and one from which you will learn. Timothy Garton Ash travels , and reports from the spot. His “politics” is a lived one – lived, mostly, together with the man of the street; of course, within the constraints of a longer or shorter exposure to the given situation. He is a writer, and it shows; his concern is with people (first), and with ideas (second), which is the right order – and it shows.
Looking forward to his next books, I would express the hope that he will be able to reconstitute the intellectual – and, in fact, existential – scaffolding that he acquired during his years lived with the dissidents to the regimes of lies and terror. This challenge, of rightly grounding the “history of the present”, is especially relevant from my perspective, because it points to a deeper and broader problem with the field of journalism, in general (even if TGA’s writing is much more than journalism, and even if he is less affected by it). Although reporting is ideally conceived as an objective relationship with the facts on the ground, understanding and describing those facts is not an activity that can ever be value-neutral. Judgments about what is right or wrong, about the essential truths of human existence, are inherent in any “story” about people. Even reporting on the Syrian regime’s brutal (in fact, murderous) treatment of the people of Syria starts from the basic assumptions that democracy is a good, and that killing must be justified. While these might be assumptions shared by most readers, they are not shared by all; also, as soon as we go beyond these generally shared assumptions, we are in the weeds of endless ideological debates, which the journalists usually escape by taking refuge in one of the dominant ideologies of the day. This is understandable, given that few journalists have had the leisure or the existential opportunity, to construct a more solid, longer lasting scaffolding, than the “enlightened” assumptions that carry the day. And thus it is that, underlying reporting, one encounters clichés instead of thinking, and commonplaces instead of understanding.
Timothy Garton Ash is aware of the need to define for himself an existential/intellectual scaffolding, because he knows that what drives him is an interest in human beings, and in their welfare; and for that, he needs to define what that good is, and why. Accordingly, he defines himself as a European liberal (in the traditional understanding of the word, and not the usage current in the US, for example) – someone interested in human beings, in the good of the human beings, and in their ability to live freely and without oppression. Yet somehow this definition feels insufficient. Why it is so, and inquiring into the necessary philosophical foundations of journalism, perhaps some other time.
As said, Timothy Garton Ash’s writing is at its freshest and most illuminating, when it is at its most human, coming from what he instinctively and experientially knows to be true about human beings and their world – even if it conflicts with the fads, currents, media noise or loud politicos of the day. If you are interested in putting a finger on the pulse of the political events of the last decade. as seen from the level of ordinary human existence, this is a delightful and most recommendable place to go.
On January 23rd, the day following the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty (which, as mentioned in an earlier post, was a key moment in the construction of the European Union), the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave an important speech addressing the future of the EU, and also the futures of the Tory party in the UK.
Besides addressing two different sets of worries, the speech was necessarily directed at two different audiences, which resulted in a difficult balancing work, trying to combine and present these as one coherent program – probably reflecting Cameron’s own complex position on the issue, as well.
The two major problems identified in the address are the crisis of the Euro zone (or, on a broader scale, the economic competitiveness of Europe facing the rising economies of Asia) and the crisis of democratic legitimacy of the EU’s governance structures; briefly put, prosperity & popular support.
Nobody would disagree with this twin diagnosis; many would, however, with the solutions proposed by the British PM. Even more so, it is highly debatable if the very definition of the EU offered in the speech fits the reality of the EU’s origins and purposes, even 50 years on.
On December 4, 2011 Slovenians voted for parties vying to win a proportion of the 90 seats of the lower house of Parliament – the National Assembly (Državni Zbor). In fact, this is the only directly elected chamber of the Parliament in this small, two million strong country.
The upper house, the National Council (Državni Svet), containing 40 seats, is constituted based on corporatist principles, its members representing either the regions of Slovenia, or each major socio-economic group in Slovenian society. Thus, the NC has 18 seats reserved for representatives of business, trade unions, farmers, crafts, students etc., while 22 seats are elected by regional electoral colleges. This arrangement reflects the strongly consociative nature of the Slovenian political system, another sign of which being the relatively frequent (constitutional) use of the referendum, as a means of passing decisions (in Europe, this might be second only to Switzerland). Another feature of Slovenian politics, namely its decentralized nature, might be a reflection of the peculiar history of the country, who only acquired independent existence very recently (early 1990s); throughout history, Slovenians have been just one group among many, or a smaller part of, large and powerful states (mostly under Austrian / German influence). The German connection is still very much evident, in the daily life of both politics and the economy, and also in the political self-understanding of the Slovenian society. Indeed, corporatism, regionalism and consociational arrangements are key aspects of German politics and society.
But back to the elections for the National Assembly: they were early elections, called after the center-left government of Borut Pahor was toppled, through a vote of no confidence, as a result of general dissatisfaction with its economic policies, its overall performance, and recent corruption scandals. This came only two years after Pahor’s Social Democrats had won the elections, replacing Janez Janša’s center-right Slovenian Democratic Party, notwithstanding the economic boom Slovenia had experienced under that government.
In the preamble to these early elections, several new forces appeared on the political stage in Slovenia. Was this a sign of general disappointment with the entire spectrum of the existing, established parties, in addition to the growing economic difficulties? It is very possible, given that the main parties and leaders have been around basically since independence (early 90s). This is also confirmed by the profile of the new political groups: Zoran Janković’s List – Positive Slovenia is formed around the attractive populist profile of a successful businessman, former head of the handball federation, and current mayor of Ljubljana. Although with some previous affiliation with the Social Democrats, his entry into national politics (only about a month and a half before the elections, when he formed the new party) has not been greeted with cheers by the establishment. The other brand new political force is the Citizen’s Alliance of Gregor Virant; again, formed only about a month and a half before the elections, around a stand-out personality. The non-ideological, generic and positive names of these new groups, and their very recent “history” suggest a generalized rejection of the political establishment, and of the existing partisan alternatives – and the need for fresh faces, and (possibly) new solutions.
This is a real moral victory for “the West” (if there is such a thing), “whose” intervention to protect the thousands of civilians threatened by Ghaddafi with imminent death has been accompanied, from the beginning, by ignorant recriminations from the general public about “starting yet another war in the Middle East.” Echoes of this mood affected even the political scene of the primary campaign in the US, as evidenced by some of the populist isolationist rhetoric exhibited during their first debate by most Republican candidates, some of whom have been very muscular at the time of the Iraq intervention (which was anything but a humanitarian intervention).
For once, the governments of European countries and the US had the courage to intervene when genocide was imminent. One would think that, after Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan the general public would be more aware of what happens when… nothing happens; when those who can do something, do nothing. Most of it is ignorance, all too often accompanied by some of those wonderful conspiracy theories, from the usual “it’s all about oil”, to other, more darkly elaborate and farther removed from reality ones. For once, however, the governments of influential countries in the West dared to invest money, resources, and human lives, to save the lives of thousands of people.
The conquering of the capital Tripoli by the so-called “rebels” – who are in fact ordinary Libyans who rose up against Gaddafi regime – comes at a moment when there were renewed discussions about the will and the ability, both political and material, of these Western governments, to continue the aerial and logistical support they have been giving to the battered members of the uprising.
Of course, the fact that a genocide has been stopped, and that the population has removed Gaddafi’s regime from power, does not mean that Libya will become a safe, democratic country – not overnight, and perhaps not even on a longer term. The intervention was about saving people, about stopping a murderous ruler’s forces from carrying out the massacre of the population. For anyone not remembering what this was about, here is a short reminder: “140 ‘massacred’ as Gaddafi sends in snipers to crush dissent“. But we have to look no further than today’s events, to remind ourselves of the true nature of Gaddafi’s regime:
(See this timeline of events in Libya, from the beginning of the uprising, for a memory refresher.)
Libyan society is divided by tribal allegiances, and there are tribes who have been close to the Gaddafi regime, and have probably profited from it. This predicts serious challenges to establishing a functional, perhaps democratic political system. This, at its turn, raises new questions about the Western governments’ duties with regards to a continued commitment. Do they want that? Should they get involved? To what degree? In what sense? These are not easy question, but for now let us just state that, for once, the responsibility to protect has been assumed by the international community, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.
See the website of the The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) for more information on this recently assumed new principle in international relations:
Recognizing the failure to adequately respond to the most heinous crimes known to humankind, world leaders made a historic commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity at the United Nations (UN) 2005 World Summit. This commitment, entitled the Responsibility to Protect, stipulates that:
1. The State carries the primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
2. The international community has a responsibility to assist States in fulfilling this responsibility.
3. The international community should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.