Around the World – September 16, 2013

AUSTRALIA: LABOR PARTY CHANGES ITS PRIME MINISTER, BUT LOSES THE ELECTIONS

In June, Australian PM Julia Gillard was removed from the leadership of the Labor Party, which also meant that she lost her position as the head of the government (executive). Although it is fairly unusual, and potentially damaging, for a party in power to change its leader and head of the government, it is not unheard of; indeed, a famous recent case was the unseating of Margaret Thatcher from her leadership position, after a long reign over the UK and the Conservative Party. Given that in a parliamentary system the executive derives its legitimacy and power exclusively from the legislative majority, it is the party or coalition that has that majority, which delegates the executive function, usually to the party leader – and the  party can also take it away. But there is a significant risk in doing so, both in terms of public image and grip on power; so why did the Australian Labor Party do it?

Well, parliamentary elections were coming up, and Labor and its leader, Julia Gillard, were facing disappointing ratings in the polls, especially in the so-called marginal constituencies (the districts that do not “belong” clearly to one party or the other, but are actually disputed in the elections). By June, Labor was seeing the steady ascendancy of their main rivals, the conservative Coalition (which includes the Liberals, the National Party, the Liberal National Party, and the Country Liberals), under the leadership of Tony Abbott. A change was necessary, therefor, in order to salvage these elections.

And a change did come about, yet what deep irony that the person who replaced Gillard through such a palace coup is none other than former Labor leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who only three years ago had been removed from his leadership positions by  – yes, you’ve guessed – Julia Gillard, due to – yes, you know it! – low polling scores. Quite the Shakespearian turn of events.

Be it as it may, after yet again party becoming leader and Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd was quick to set the date of the elections for the House of Representatives for September 7, 2013 – only a month later. The House of Representatives is the lower chamber of the bicameral Australian Parliament (besides the Senate), and is the one within which the governing majority is formed; in other words, the formation of the executive depends on having a majority in the House, not the Senate (see Australian political system). In the brief time between the announcement of the date, and the elections proper, the parties engaged in a campaign to convince the voters that they are the more trustworthy choices to deal with the core issues: keeping the economy successful, improving the infrastructure, immigration and asylum seekers, managing the social benefits, climate change etc. Although not far from each other on the most basic aspects of these issues, a few items differentiated the parties and their leaders more sharply: an emphasis from Coalition’s Tony Abbott on eliminating the carbon and mining taxes; fierce opposition from Labor’s Kevin Rudd to the conservative plans of providing maternal leave with full pay to all families; and policy nuances about how to deal with the often tragic stories of boats filled with asylum seekers originating from the poorer parts of  the Asia, Oceania or MENA .

For a more detailed insight into the issues and the general rhetoric that characterized these Australian elections, watch the first, second, or third debate (below) between the two party leaders (and potential Prime Ministers), Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.

In Australia, voting for the House of Representatives takes place based on a preferential voting system: each voter ranks (#1, #2 etc.) all the individual candidates (each representing a different party) who compete for the one seat available in each division (district); the winner is decided after counting these rankings for each candidate (see detailed description). (As an interesting side-note: voting in Australia is compulsory.)

The elections of September 7 proved that the last minute leadership changes did not deliver the victory for Labor; instead, the Abbott-led Coalition won in a decisive fashion, garnering a strong majority of 90 out of a total of 150 House seats, while Labor’s share shrank to only 54 seats (see detailed and summary results). Tony Abbott has become thus the new Prime Minister of Australia, forming the cabinet and already starting to tackle some of the issues emphasized during the campaign.

GIBRALTAR TROUBLES

Gibraltar, the British territory at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, at the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, once again “flared” into the headlines, as the subject of dispute between the Kingdom of Spain and the UK – or, more precisely, between the Government of Gibraltar and that of Spain, with the British government as a proxy. The tensions increased after Gibraltar’s decision this summer to drop some 70 blocks of concrete unto the bottom of the sea,  in order to impede the Spanish fishing boats from trawling the sea floor, which Gibraltarians contend is destructive of the natural environment. The problem is of course complicated by the fact that Gibraltar does not possess an internationally-recognized maritime territory, and thus its attempts at protecting natural resources clash with Spanish claims to sovereignty over those waters. But, of course, the main question of sovereignty regards Gibraltar itself,

The situation is very interesting, because it raises – in a world of “nation-states” – the question of what criteria are to be used that define the boundaries and existence of a state. What makes a given territory and its population – a state? Should the main principle be, the will of the inhabitants? Many states, UK and Spain included, would not really subscribe to this criterion – at least, not unconditionally. Is it geography? – inasmuch as some territories seem to be “a natural part” of a geographic unit? Well, some are obviously not – see Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawai’i, or Guam.: all US territories, but hardly contiguous with the mainland. The answer – if there is an answer – is that statehood, just like everything else in the political reality, is a matter of history and existing arrangements, as much as it is of current power relationships; in other words, a combination of the status quo with the moment’s balance of forces (or relationship) between the interested parties.

What makes the Gibraltar case even more interesting, is that both Spain as well as the UK are confronted with similar situations, elsewhere: Spain with its Ceuta and Melilla enclaves, off the coast of Morocco, and the United Kingdom with regard to the Falklands / Malvinas islands, in Argentina’s territorial waters. On the one hand, Spain can point to Hong Kong, which was a similar UK territory, yet sovereignty over which was handed over, rather seamlessly, to the People’s Republic of China. On the other hand, the population of Gibraltar (just like that of the Falklands) have voted overwhelmingly, in several referendums, in favor of British sovereignty (in 1967), rejecting even tentative attempts at establishing a kind of shared sovereignty between UK and Spain (solution to which the British would have been amenable, in in 2002).

It does not help that in this type of cases bombastic rhetoric abounds, both in the media and in the political life, as all too many are all too eager to harp on the string of identity politics (the nation-state: that must be a nation, there must be a state). The Spanish state, however, has been facing much greater struggles about sovereignty, with regard to Catalonia and the Basque region; after all, those are larger, are in the heart of the mainland, and are much more significant than a “Rock” populated by 30,000 inhabitants. Britain, on the other hand, is a multi-national state (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland), with a complicated history of statehood and national self-definition; the next challenge it will face is the David Cameron-proposed referendum on Scottish independence.

Nationalism is the language of the age, still – but only one of the competing discourses that shapes politics today. Another, increasingly powerful rhetoric, is about a continuously increasing democratization, understood as the “horizontalization” of politics: direct determination, direct influence, and direct access of people over the political institutions and processes. In a world of (nation-)states, however, the first task is that of defining “the people” who are supposed to enjoy direct democracy – or, in other words, the populational and territorial parameters of the political unit within which this self-determination “of the people” is supposed to take place. Here is where the question of sovereignty (popular, institutional) still comes into play.

IN BRIEF

DETROIT, US: The city of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, becoming the largest municipality to ever do so, in the history of the US. Detroit’s long and relatively steady decline started in the 1960s, perhaps even earlier. In the 1950s, it was the fifth largest US city; today, its population is of only 770,000, among whom 18% are unemployed (in addition, 33% of its territory is vacant or unusable). Some say it all started with the riots of 1967, which only accelerated the already existing national trend of mass migration from the inner-urban, to the suburban areas. Coupled with this was the steady process of de-industrialization, which hit Detroit just like it did other major American cities (Milwaukee, Indianapolis etc.). Yet those cities have not yet declared bankruptcy. So, what happened in Detroit? It seems that what we are witnessing today is the result of several decades of mismanagement of an already deteriorating situation (see timeline), a process in which mayors, city governments, citizen groups, unions, and the media, all played their (negative) part (see this in-depth investigation into the manifold causes, from the Detroit Free Press.)

During the last four decades, a continuously shrinking population and property values lead to an ever-smaller tax base for operating the city; simultaneously, however, Detroit’s commitments to its workers, retirees, and health funds continuously increased. To close the resulting gap between income and expenditures, taxes were increased, and the city kept borrowing, and borrowing (last time, and most disastrously, under disgraced Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick); at the same time, the incomes continued getting smaller, and smaller, notwithstanding the profitable casinos opened in the late ’90s. With little money to spend on things other than these contracted debts and the aforementioned employee obligations, the services the city was supposed to provide kept deteriorating. If you add to this the high levels of taxation and a horrific crime rate, it is not surprising that people and businesses kept leaving, and never returning, further reducing the city’s income and the average quality of life.

Right now, Detroit faces increasing obligations, from debt and interest on debt – with no money to pay them: not now, nor in the foreseeable future. A “bailout” from the state of Michigan or the federal government is not possible, although some help has been promised, and an emergency city manager has been appointed by Michigan’s Governor. One of the key steps in moving out of this situation has just been done – declaring bankruptcy, and thus trying to tackle the ever-piling debt.

This is a tragic story, Detroit’s – perhaps the most tragic, of all the formerly glorious American cities, which have been devastated by suburbanization and de-industrialization.

BELGIUM: At the beginning of July, in a quite unexpected  move, King Albert II of Belgium announced his decision to abdicate in favor of his son, Prince Philippe (video). Only three weeks later, Prince – and now King – Philippe, age 53,  was inaugurated, becoming the new head of state (video). Unlike in other constitutional monarchies, or in parliamentary democracies in general, the Belgian head of state has had to play an important role in the recent political history of the country. This is due to the peculiar makeup of Belgium’s society, and of the political and administrative system it has engendered. Belgium is a multiethnic and multilingual (French-speaking Walloons, Dutch-speaking Flemish, and German-speakers), multiconfessional (Catholic and Protestant), federal state, based on asymmetrical federalism. There are several levels of government: national, regional – and ethno-linguistic.

Ethno-linguistic federalism? For example, the Dutch-speaking community has its own governing structures, with authority in matters of culture and education over Dutch-speakers across the borders of the regions – which have their own administrative authorities. In other words, federalism is regional, and cultural as well – and those borders are not the same (see this detailed map of Belgian federalism). Within Belgium, the socio-cultural divisions between the various communities are so sharp, that each of them has developed its own, community-specific, complete spectrum of political parties. For example, there is a Flemish social-democratic party, which is completely different from the social-democratic party of the Walloon part of Belgium – they ale elected and activate in different parts of Belgium, but are also supposed to work together nationally (at federal level).

Given that the centrifugal tendencies are so strong, the role of the head of state, which is usually only ceremonial and representative, becomes quite important, both as the unifying symbol of the nation (?) and of the state, and as the political arbiter. For example, following the federal elections of 2010, Belgium went for a world-record 541 days (or more, by some counts), without forming a new government (yes, almost two years!). Thus, the monarch, who normally has the duty to invite the winner of the elections to form the government, had to play a very active role in managing the lengthy transition, and the coalition-building process – all in the interest of fulfilling his duty, which is to maintain the integrity and long-term welfare of the Belgian state and society. (Indeed, this is not very different from the very active role that other, normally ceremonial heads of state, need to play, in similar situations of political instability – see the role of the Italian president.)

We can be almost certain, therefore, that the new King Philippe of Belgium will have to face true historic challenges in the years to come, in order to “observe the Constitution [and] preserve national independence and the integrity of the territory”, as prescribed in the Constitutional Oath that he took at inauguration.

MALI: In July and August the Republic of Mali held two successful rounds of presidential elections – orderly, with high participation, and with undisputed results. Quite a remarkable feat, considering that only a few months earlier the state was on the brink of collapse, with only the requested and welcomed intervention of French troops stopping the country from falling completely under the control of extremist Islamist groups. And maybe it is exactly for that reason  – for having been so close to the brink, and also by way of the strong encouragement from the Western backers (France, US), that the political class and the Malian people itself managed to get through such successful presidential elections, in very difficult circumstances – a necessary first step in the re-construction of a hopefully lasting and successful political system.

The winner of the elections, and the new president of Mali, is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), who in the first round of the vote obtained 40% of the vote, with Soumaïla Cissé, his main opponent, receiving 20%, and twenty other also-ran candidates obtained much less. Given that nobody received a majority of the vote (50%+1) in the first round, a second, run-off vote had to be held, with only the first two placed candidates in the running. Keita carried these elections as well, and in an overwhelming fashion, obtaining over 77% of the vote; Cissé had to content himself with just a tiny bit more than the percentage obtained in the first round – 22%, This is just an initial step toward the stabilization of the Malian state, but a relevant and promising one; the the challenges they face are many .

ZIMBABWE: Authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for the last 33 years, has won the fifth election in a row, becoming again president of Zimbabwe (see profile). Meanwhile, in simultaneous parliamentary elections, organized according to the revised electoral law and the 2013-approved Constitution, his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) won broad majorities in both the House of Assembly and the Senate, ahead of the main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T; whose leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, came second in the presidential election). The third party, which managed to obtain a few seats in the parliament, is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by the third-ranked presidential candidate, Welshman Ncube.

Contrary to the tragic happenings of the 2008 elections, which saw Tsvangirai win the first round of the presidential elections, and Mugabe “winning” a highly contested second round, results that led to clashes across the country that left some 200 people dead, this time the voting process and its aftermath were peaceful. This time, despite documented cases of intimidation, “voter tourism”, or incorrect or unreliable voter registration, there is a generalized sentiment among the observes that Mugabe might have actually won these 2013 elections. But, most of all, everybody is happy that the elections did not result in violence and bloodshed.

Up to this year’s elections, the country was run by a sort of “coalition” government, which came about after 2008, both as a means of pacifying the divided society, and as a natural consequence of the fact that the “opposition” MDC held the majority in the Parliament, while Mugabe had “won” the presidency. Part of the arrangement was that the parties would share positions in the cabinet and, more importantly, that Mugabe would continue as president, and MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai would be the Prime Minister. The period that followed actually saw some positive policy measures being implemented, which held the promise of bringing back Zimbabwe from the brink of the abyss, where the runaway inflation, collapse of basic services and spread of infectious diseases, and violent politics of Mugabe had taken it.

Zimbabwe_$100_trillion_2009_Obverse

The One Hundred Trillion Dollars Banknote – An Artefact of the Hyperinflation of the Late-2000s

According to the recently modified Constitution, Zimbabwe is now a presidential political system, with the President as both head of state and head of government (which means that there is no Prime Minister, anymore). This means that the main position in the system, at stake in these election, was that of President. As for the legislature, the new electoral law, pushed through by Mugabe in June, brought some interesting features, including a forced male and female parity in representation (!), as well as a complementing of the single-member-district, first-past-the-post voting system (which favors the larger parties) with proportional representation (!). According to the new rules, then, voters cast a single vote, for an individual representative in their district, deciding who would win that seat in the House of Assembly. However, that same vote is also counted as a party list vote (for the candidate’s party), determining the distribution of the 60 seats reserved in the same House of Assembly for women. Thus, the seats in the HoA come from both an SMD-FPP vote, and from PR lists that are reserved for women (the 60 seats are distributed based on the proportion of votes each party received – PR). Thirdly (!), the same vote for that individual candidate also counts as a PR vote for the given party for the Senate, deciding who will represent the given province in the upper house. Fourthly, and finally, that same vote also goes toward filling the seats in the provincial government – again, based on party lists. One vote – four outcomes (see detailed description). For all intents and purposes, it looks more representative, even forcibly so (gender parity); if only the voting process would not be marred by intimidation and manipulation.

Here are the results – which, as mentioned, have been contested only half-heartedly by most Western countries, and that have been equally half-heartedly endorsed by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. According to the official data, Robert Mugabe received an astonishing 61% of the vote from the first round of the presidential elections, versus Tsvangirai’s 34%, thus obtaining a majority and winning the presidency already in the first vote. In the House of Assembly elections,  Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won 160 of the 210 seats, while MDC-T (Tsvangirai) got 49, and MDC (Ncube) only 1. In the Senate (elected through proportional representation),  ZANU-PF obtained 37 seats, MDC-T 21, and MDC 2. (See detailed results here and at kubatana.net.)

Notwithstanding the generally peaceful elections, it is pretty clear that Mugabe is still in control  – like before them, like always; his reign is strong, he has purged the country of opposition many a time. However, he is now a “sprightly” 89-years old, and it is very possible that he will not live through the end of his 5-year mandate. Right now, however, he is as defiant as always, against the Western countries and his rivals, and continues to enjoy significant influence within the AU and the SADC. Furthermore, he pledged to continue his policies, including his signature “indigenization“, which has seen his governments presiding over violent take-overs of “white-owned” property (individual or business), by supporters of the regime, thugs, and the government itself.

Advertisements

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.