Around the World (May 18, 2013)

Italy: New President & New Government

After  an undecided election and two months of uncertainty (chronicled here and here) about the options available for forming a government and electing a new head of state, the main Italian parties agreed on re-electing 87-years old Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Italian Republic, and on forming a kind of “grand coalition” in support of a new government. Napolitano’s re-election, albeit contrary to his original intentions, of not standing for re-election, paved the way for reaching the more important goal, of forming a new and stable government. Why was Napolitano’s election conducing to the formation of a government?

On the one hand, he is a personality amenable to both major parties (center-left Democrats and center-right People of Liberty), and thus “finding” a compromise candidate was actually possible; although the Democrats could have pushed through a candidate without Berlusconi’s support, that would have doomed any chances of forming a government. It took five voting sessions, in the special electoral assembly, to return to the choice of the outgoing President; along this tortuous process, the center-left experienced significant turmoil, including a change in leadership (Bersani resigning), and that also contributed to making an agreement with the center-right possible. Finally – but just as importantly – at the swearing-in ceremony Giorgio Napolitano gave a powerful, emotional speech (video), in which he chastised with harsh words the entire Italian political elite; according to many, this was a catalyst that gave a significant impetus to the said elite, to reach a compromise in the interest of the country. The arrangement they reached is a coalition government in which both the center left, the center right, as well as Monti’s alliance would participate, thus giving it (at least on paper) the broad parliamentary support needed in order to attempt the serious economic, social and political reforms that Italy needs (composition of the cabinet). The new center-left premier, Enrico Letta, is a sober and moderate figure, one that is able to inspire trust, even beyond the political fault-lines. The only political force remaining outside these arrangements, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, whose representation in Parliament and anti-political stance had an important role to play in the recent impasse, has expressed its opposition both to Napolitano’s re-election and to Letta’s coalition government.

Serbia and Kosovo Reach An Agreement

On April 19, the leaders of Serbia and of Kosovo have reached an important EU-brokered agreement addressing the status of the four ethnic Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo (North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavić). Although “parts of” Kosovo, these municipalities have been under a sort of self rule, which actually translated into a weak rule of law and the flourishing of underground, even criminal economic activities, and a survival of the region only due to significant financial support from Serbia. Under the new agreement, however, this region will form one unit that will become an integral part of Kosovo, subject to its laws and institutions, while retaining  some autonomous decision-making powers in the realm of  economic development, education, healthcare and town planning, and populating its judiciary and police forces with local people. The consequences of the agreement, although interpreted differently by the two sides, are far reaching; for Serbia, it opens the doors for starting the negotiations for joining the EU; for Kosovo, it signifies an implicit affirmation by Serbia of Kosovo’s independent status; for the EU and its foreign minister (i.e. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Katherine Ashton, this is a significant success, and a step toward solving the long-term NATO and EU involvement in the region. It also demonstrates the continued attractiveness (and “soft power”) of the “EU carrot” – of the promise of integration into the economic, social and legal structures of the Union; in many ways, this is another instantiation of the accomplishment of the original objectives of the EU: to become a space of peace and prosperity. The signing of the agreement was certainly helped by the fact that the leaders involved have well-established nationalist credentials among their people: Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dačić, was at one time Slobodan Milosevic’s spokesman; the deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, used to be an extremist nationalist; Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaçi,  is a former guerrilla leader. The text of the agreement was approved with large majorities by both parliaments: by the Kosovo Assembly on April 22, and by the Serbian National Assembly on April 26. The only obstacle remaining – and quite a significant one – is the actual implementation of the agreement, given that the leaders and population of the said municipalities remain opposed to it; however, given that Serbia is the de facto financier of these municipalities, there are few options for them but to accept the deal.

The Obama Administration in Crisis

These weeks the Barack Obama-led executive is passing through what is probably its most difficult period, following revelations of abusive behavior by its tax institution, a continued lack of clarity about what happened in Benghazi, Libya last year, and the discovery of the fact that its Justice Department has been conducting wide-ranging investigations of journalists’ activities. The Internal Revenue Service-related scandal has to do with its targeting of “conservative” groups, while evaluating their tax-exempt status, i.e. in the course of deciding if they engage in political activities, which would make them taxable entities. The code words that the IRS used in selecting the targeted groups (such as “Patriots”, “Bill of Rights”), the sheer intrusiveness of the inquiries, and the slow response time of the agency, give the impression of a politically motivated activity by an institution of the state that has no role to play in politics. The events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have been used by the Republicans from the start, to attack the executive, accusing it of either being grossly incompetent, or of intentionally misleading the public and the Congress. The way in which the various actors in the administration have vacillated in their reactions to and description of the events, and the overall reluctance to provide, even nine months later, a transparent accounts of who did what, why, and under whose orders, did not help put an end to those accusations. Finally,  the DOJ revealed recently that it has secretly (albeit legally) obtained over two months of phone records belonging to 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press; in addition, the Washington Post recently described the extensive investigation of a Fox News journalist’s interactions with a government official, in relation to some leaked information. These recent revelations cement the image (that has been developing for a while) of a White House that is probable the most aggressive administration in documented history, in terms of aggressively fighting and pursuing such so-called “leaks”.

The intersection of all these “scandals” looks very much like a “perfect storm”, from the perspective of Barack Obama’s political adversaries, but the negative reaction extends beyond party lines.  A US president’s political power is mostly based on influence, and this is why presidents entering the last two years of their mandate are called “lame ducks” – because there is little public support, positive image, or positions n government that they can transaction, in exchange for support from members of the Congress or at state level. Barack Obama has started his second and last term determined to push through with a very ambitious agenda, including some political unicorns like immigration reform, gun-control legislation, entering the implementation phase of the new health care law etc. Fresh from a solid elections victory, he looked to be in the best position to attempt this, because of the public’s demonstrated support, and a lack of direction,  ambition or legitimacy on the part of the Republican Party. Right now, however, only six months later, the Republicans seem newly energized, trying to craft a narrative that would tie together all these scandals, in the hope of forcing this administration to turn the corner into the “lame duck” stage sooner than anyone would have expected (with added benefits for the Congressional elections of 2014).  How the Obama administration will fare through these scandals will be crucial, therefore, in terms of its objectives, and of the mark that the President wants to leave in US history (a central concern of all presidents). Until now, the White House has been taking a different strategy, regarding each of these scandals: reacting quickly and strongly against IRS’s abuses; taking the line that the DOJ is simply doing its duty, with regards to leaks affecting national security; and characterizing GOP’s attacks on the administration, in relation to Benghazi, as over-inflated political rhetoric. The success of these White House defense strategies, and the degree to which the President will maintain the public’s support, will also depend on how he will manage his relationships with the Democratic members of Congress (a relationship that has never been too simple or too close) and with a press corps that until now has been largely favorable (and even cooperating).

Syria: Where Is the “Red Line”?

In March of this year several reports signaled the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. This was followed by other incidents with allegations of chemical attacks, and by statements suggesting that this might not be the first time when such weapons have been used. Syria is known to have a large stash of chemical weapons, and the fear was always that the government might actually deploy them against the rebel forces. The matters are complicated by contradictory accusations, with the Syrian government and some international observers stating that it was the rebel forces who might have used chemical components, while most international actors (US, France, Britain, Israel) and the  Free Syrian Army (FSA) blame it squarely on the Syrian regime, saying that only they would possess the capacity and the will to do so.  It is also not clear if these were actual chemical weapons, like the (nerve gas) sarin, which the regime possesses and might have used before, or simply chlorine, which is a readily available cleaning supply, and thus accessible to any of the forces engaged in the conflict.  The reports have however put the international actors, and especially the US, in a difficult position, as the use of chemical weapons has been qualified a while ago as a “red line” that, once crossed, would necessitate a more direct intervention on behalf of the population.  It is also clear that the “red line” expression was used originally in reference to the possibility of large scale use of chemical weapons, which would have devastating consequences – and not about local incidents. However, if large scale is an issue, then one has to wonder what actually constitutes a “red line”, given that, since the beginning of the conflict, more than 90,000 people have lost their lives, and more than one million have become refugees (summary). The ongoing vicious war of the Assad regime on the Syrian population, and the messy civil war that is being waged today at the cost of thousands of innocent victims, might have already crossed that “red line.” Yet it is not simple to see through the various, more or less organized groups battling the regime; as always in a mass uprising, their motivations, goals and composition vary with the place, the moment, and the group in question.  It is clear however that there are institutionalized opposition structures, such as the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, which have become “official” partners of the international actors on behalf of the “rebels”, and who could be used more actively in the effort of ending the ongoing bloodshed. Meanwhile, Syrian society is being torn apart, probably with long term consequences (unsurprisingly similar to post-war Iraq); and those who bear the brunt of the conflict are, as always, the non-involved civilians and the minorities (eg. the Christians).

In Brief

According to the authorities, Hugo Chavez’s former right-hand, Nicolás Maduro, narrowly won the April 14 presidential elections in Venezuela, which were called after the former president’s death. The elections were followed by violent street clashes, amid heavy contestation of the results by the supporters of the opposition and of its presidential candidate,  Henrique Capriles – and amid a continued and vertiginous worsening of the economic situation.

On May 10, for the first time in history a former ruler of a country was condemned for genocide by a court from his own country. The trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala during a portion of its 36-years long civil war, concluded by finding him guilty of taking part in a genocide against the native Ixil Mayan population, and condemning him to 80 years in prison.

One of the defining political leaders of the second half of the twentieth century, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, passed away on April 8. As a Prime Minister she left behind a complex legacy, combining  political centralization with an emphasis on the free market and on individualism, and an aggressive foreign policy with a certain insularism. Illustrating the mark that her career left on the public consciousness, the funerals (video) were attended by notable figures from all aspects of public life, from politics to economy and entertainment.

Representatives of the Ladies in White Cuban opposition group finally managed to travel to collect the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded them by the European Parliament in 2005. The Ladies in White is  a Church-based group of wives and relatives of people jailed for political reasons in Cuba.

The new Monarch of The Netherlands, Willem Alexander, was enthroned on April 30 (video). He takes over as head of state after his mother’s, Queen Beatrix’s resignation earlier this year. (An interesting detail: the pop song commissioned to celebrate this event was met with widespread criticism and derision; see video.)

In April, at a distance of just a few days, different parts of Iran were rocked by powerful earthquakes (of 6.3 and 7.8 magnitudes on the Richter scale, respectively).  Iran sits on a major tectonic fault line, and its inner regions have been historically the victims of very strong earthquakes, such as the 2003 one in the Bam region, which resulted in over 25,000 deaths.

What Do Iranians Want?

[Press CC for English subtitles.]

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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:


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

Italia

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
Center-Left (Bersani)
– Democratic Party 25.42%, 292.
– Left Ecology Freedom 3.20%, 37.
– Democratic Center 0.49%, 6.
– South Tyrolean PP, 0.43%, 5.
29.55 340
Center-Right (Berlusconi)
– 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.
29.18 124
With Monti for Italy
– Civic Choice 8.30%, 37.
– Christian & Center Democrats 1.78%, 8.
– Future and Freedom 0.46%, 0.
10.56 45

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
Center-Left (Bersani)
– 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.

31.63 113
Center-Right (Berlusconi)
– 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.
30.72 116
With Monti for Italy
9.13 18

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.