Calling Italy’s Tune: I Pagliacci? La Forza del Destino?

It’s been less than a week since the cataclysmic vote counts came in, but somehow it feels as though we’ve lived through an entire season of some new psychodrama. Or, recalling how the sequence began with Monti’s technocratic government falling to the tune of Lohengrin, are we perhaps trapped in a little-known Verdi opera? Allow me to offer a synopsis:

Scene 1: A chorus of Italian voters, overtaxed and underemployed, their retirement benefits  sent off as tribute to the Prussian Baroness, bewail their fate. The honorable but impotent Pierluigi tries to rally their spirits by singing to them about Justice, but he is driven from the stage by the irascible buffoon Beppino, who hurls insults at him and demands that he be “sent home.” The Italians rally round their new champion, who leads them in a March on Rome–or rather, they converge on Rome, with plans to blow up the houses of parliament.

Scene 2: The evil Don Silvio comes onstage surrounded by his harem of underage prostitutes in hot pants, neo-Fascists with hunting rifles, and salesman carrying suitcases stuffed with kickbacks. He sings nostalgically of his many seductions over 20 years, but his good humor turns to wrath as a messenger appears, telling him that Don Gregorio, his old partner in subversion, has turned state’s witness. Don Silvio storms off, singing “They’ll never repeal the amnesty so long as they need my votes in the Senate.”

Scene 3: In a chariot pulled by Republican steeds, the wizard Napolitano traverses Europe in a quest for probity. Accosted by the sneering Lord Steinbrück, the wizard brandishes his Republican scepter and drives him away. The despondent Monti, hiding behind a pillar, sings to him of the perfidy of the Italians, and predicts catastrophe. Monti shrinks back as Pierluigi appears and throws himself at the wizard’s feet. They sing a duet in which Pierluigi promises to bring an agenda of reforms to the Camera, while Napolitano recalls to him the ungovernable state of the Senate. They are just reaching a defiant crescendo, with Pierluigi singing “I will govern with an 8-point program” while the wizard sings”You must govern with a voting majority.” Suddenly both men stop, as the voice of Beppino comes to them from offstage, denouncing their “politics of prostitution,” but then reprising the chorus of their duet, with the new lyrics “We will govern by our program, law by law.”

Scene 4: Pierluigi’s faithful steward Nichi, driven out of Puglia and wandering aimlessly in the direction of Rome, crosses paths with Pierluigi’s apparently loyal seneschal Matteo, and the two tenors sing of their contrasting fates. “I so wanted to be in the government,” sings Nichi, “to help the poor and free the prisoners, to bring pure water to the people and drive away the toxic fumes.” Matteo answers, “Soon the party will be mine, and then the government, and then the nation. All will be mine.”  As their intertwined arias conclude they are overtaken by Pierluigi, who commissions Nichi as ambassador to Beppino, and sends Matteo to tell Don Silvio that he will never corrupt the government again. The two go off in opposite directions, while Pierluigi sings of his ill fortunes, his rejection by the Italian people and the insults he must bear from the corrosive Beppino. He vows to continue his quest to form a government founded on justice and equity, as the curtain falls on Act 1.

So now it’s intermission at La Scala, and the audience is wondering what might happen in the second act–which is frantically being written in the wings. Here are some possible scenarios:

  • Might the ‘grand coalition,’ which no one but Massimo D’Alema among the Democrats seem to have any interest in, come back into play after all? Napolitano’s insistence that no sort of minority or provisional government is constitutionally possible seems to raise it as a necessity. Berlusconi’s new legal troubles, which carry political fraud to new heights, push it back into impossibility. But outside Italy the EU autarchs haven’t entirely abandoned its promise of ‘stability.’
  •  Might the Democrats and the Grillini find enough common ground to install a government after all? There’s an interesting program to be moved through parliament: conflict of interest laws, reductions in publicly-funded political slush funds, parliamentary term limits and most definitely a new electoral law (interesting that the French model is being actively proposed). Some of Grillo’s economic populism–guananteed minimum income, tax reduction–would make for lively debate, though it’s hard to see how the Democrats could spring for massive deficits.
  • But let’s face it: Grillo’s intractable hostility to Bersani, to Vendola, to constitutional niceties like organizing the chambers of parliament–it all feels less like a bargaining position and more like his core persona. And furthermore, the M5S has every reason to think, as Casaleggio and Grillo have both suggested, that by precipitating new elections they stand a chance to win the whole thing.
  • But then there is the massively unknown variable of the new M5S legislators, now 24 hours into their new roles. Might these, both the elected ones and their many supporters, put enough pressure on Grillo and Casaleggio so that they give in and authorize a limited-term vote of confidence around a strictly delineated program of reforms? As Bersani and Vendola have been insisting, the working majority that exists for that program is the electorate’s gift to the nation, and it would be a shame to squander it. With a more equitable electoral law, the M5S could compete some months from now, and might indeed win a legitimate majority. But along the way they might also confer legitimacy on the Democrats, and thus undermine not just Grillo’s political advantage but–apparently–his entire world view. If taking that chance represents Italy’s only way out of its intractable stalemate–and it may well–will the M5S go ahead and take it? And if not, what?

Italy After the Vote: What Now?

The Italian voters have spoken—but what on earth did they say?

Two clear winners were anointed yesterday. First, Beppe Grillo, whose M5S placed first at 25% with the slogan “send them home,” retire all the old guard politicians and replace them with citizen-legislators. And second, Silvio Berlusconi, the oldest of the old guard, the embodiment of everything Grillo and his followers railed against. So having yoked together this improbable pair, can the Italian voters honestly expect the state to move forward in any direction whatsoever?

Well, the drover charged with that task for the moment is the technical ‘winner,’ Pier Luigi Bersani, whose center-left alliance won a razor-thin plurality and will thus, under Italy’s bizarre election system, have a working majority in the Camera and the chance to form a government. But with nothing close to a workable majority in the Senate—even with Monti’s handful of centrist senators Bersani comes up 20 votes short—how long will that government last?

Several implausible scenarios remain technically possible.

  • Berlusconi has already called for the ‘grand coalition’ (with Bersani and Monti) which would create a numerical majority. Neither Bersani nor Monti seems likely to disgrace himself with such a deal, but people (like me) who consider Berlusconi politically dead are repeatedly surprised when the zombie walks.
  • Alternatively, the PD could call for new elections. This was the first reaction of the Democratic Party’s deputy secretary Enrico Letta yesterday, but he was quickly walked back. In time there may be no other choice, but Italy seems likely to pay a steep price in borrowing costs–and angst–if it has to launch new elections.
  • Most intriguingly, a working relationship could develop between Bersani’s center-left and the Grillini in both houses to produce some of the reforms Italy so desperately needs. This was the immediate response yesterday of Bersani’s leftist partner, Nichi Vendola, who pointed to a long list of progressive proposals roughly shared by the two groups. Grillo himself this morning declared himself open to case-by-case consideration of reform bills emanating from Bersani’s putative government.

Could such a governing alliance between an old-school political party and this self-described ‘tsunami’ of anti-political populism actually function? The odds are against it, but the very possibility points to some fascinating ambiguities in Grillo’s movement.

One notable point is that Grillo’s long march had its base in left-populist challenges to the financial and business establishment, on behalf of dispossessed workers and farmers. More recently the M5S has opened itself to the right with anti-immigrant pronouncements and doubts about Italy’s remaining in the Eurozone. But it could be argued that Grillo’s base has anti-corporate leftist inclinations, is in fact a disenchanted remnant of Italy’s traditional Left, and would not be entirely out of place in an enlarged center-left coalition.

But that question raises a more fundamental one: who are the 160 or so new legislators M5S is sending to the new parliament, and what will they do when they get there? Fact 1: Beppe Grillo will not be one of them. Because he strongly insists that no one with a criminal record should sit in parliament, and because he himself carries a conviction for vehicular manslaughter, he has barred himself from serving. The folks who did find places on the M5S lists by way of a thinly participatory on-line ‘primary election’ are … unknown. Novices. Amateurs by design. This is new territory for a legislative body—even those Tea Partiers who flooded Washington in 2010 tended to have been locally active Republicans.

Of course the expected answer is, they’ll do what Grillo says. That’s been the norm for M5S, a one-man operation with one voice, one world-view, one trademark owned by that one person, no internal discussion, no platform committee, no process. When several local movement activists complained about the absence of internal debate last fall, they were promptly purged, i.e., legally enjoined from using the proprietary M5S logo.

This may seem odd coming from Grillo, who has identified himself with internet freedoms, the ‘copyleft’ commons idea, and the diffuse democracy of social media. M5S grew up as a network of local working groups, and has attracted the young people, elsewhere organized in Pirate Parties, who understand the on-line world to be a free preserve. Grillo’s meteoric rise has been linked to the ‘virtual piazza’ as a new forum for democratic expression. Will these self-recruited M5S legislators go to Rome in order to follow his top-down orders, or will they practice a form of horizontal democracy seen most recently in the Occupy movements, with which they share a visible affinity?

In short, M5S is riven by an enormous contradiction: on one hand, the authoritarian Grillo, whose famous blog is a personal platform and not a forum, and whose performances in actual piazzas are sometimes compared to Mussolini’s. On the other, his movement, which thrives in the ‘virtual piazza’ and may be inventing a highly decentralized, very new form of democracy powered by technologies that hardly existed five years ago. Can that New Italy somehow find terms of coexistence in Rome with the more tepid renewals proposed by the Bersani-Vendola coalition, while fully 30% of the voters still long for the archaic corruption and demagoguery of Berlusconi?

More than likely, this house of cards will collapse within weeks and Italians will be asked to vote once more. Who can guess what they will do then? Can the ECB and the Eurozone withstand this turbulence? The stakes are high. But I do think that the most durable effect of Sunday’s election may be the emergence of this new electronic post-partisan form of democratic participation embodied not in Beppe Grillo but in his hosts of anonymous followers.

Italian Elections: Rounding the Last Pole

Launched in an act of treachery that brought down Mario Monti’s technocratic government, the Italian national election campaign will end one way or another, to the relief of many, Saturday evening. What might have been a sustained debate on the merits of austerity measures in a prolonged recession, on the future of Italian employment and its welfare state or a host of other pressing issues, has instead taken on the quality of an unsavory burlesque revue. Its stars: authentic if acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Stars protest movement may yet shape the outcome, and sick joker Silvio Berlusconi, whose foolish headline grabs have used up much of the electoral space. But it has been a lavish, large-cast production, with indictments flying, old allies back-stabbing, off-color jokes and evanescent affiliations, a Fellini-esque procession of oddities and crudities unworthy of the noble republic Italy could nonetheless become.

What to expect? Given Italy’s ban on published polls in the final two weeks, calling this one from Boston is something like watching a horse race through the wrong end of the binoculars–but I’m going to do it anyway. Bersani and the center-left have led all the way, notwithstanding the Monte dei Paschi banking scandal that implicates Monti as much as Bersani, and neither man in any direct way. Bersani’s campaign has been steady if utterly unflamboyant; he conveys an avuncular credibility that makes it hard to brand him a flaming radical despite Berlusconi’s many tries. He has sought international credibility in Berlin and in the American press, and has scrupulously balanced his attachments to rising centrist Matteo Renzi on his right and leftist but circumspect Nichi Vendola to his left. Nothing suggests that Bersani will be dislodged from the #1 spot, and thus control of the lower house.

But can he form a stable government? That’s a question about the Senate, and really about 2 or 3 key regions that will decide it: Lombardy, Sicily, maybe Campania. This interesting poll predicts a one-vote plurality for the center-left: it may be a long night for Pier Luigi. If he falls short, Monti’s centrist coalition acquires what corporate types call a ‘golden seat’ at the table, with considerable leverage over fiscal policy.

But Monti himself has been the great disappointment of the season. All the EU heavies have lobbied for him, with possibly negative effect. Italian voters may respect him but don’t seem to like him, and his campaign has never achieved lift-off. With fewer distractions this could be the real story of the campaign: even Italy’s desperate straits and Monti’s exemplary financial credentials are not enough to sell austerity to a chronically hurting electorate–liberal politicians throughout Europe, beware! As I’ve noted elsewhere, Monti’s persistent efforts to split Bersani from Vendola have miserably failed, and Monti has lurched from accomodation to hostility to a final call for a renewed ‘grand coalition.’ He may yet find himself part of one, but no thanks to his nondescript political skills.

Vendola, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a team player, capable of flashes of wit such as this wonderful Tweet. He has hewed to a steady left line, insisting that workers’ rights and the full social safety net must be cornerstones of any ‘reform’, but like Bersani he seems a lot less scary than his right-wing detractors would prefer. Look for Vendola in a prominent place in Bersani’s government.

But will Grillo’s anti-political movement obtain an intractable bloc in the new Parliament? Populist protests are notoriously hard to measure, though Grillo’s internet-savvy and personally charismatic style have made an indisputable and perhaps permanent impact. My own hunch is that on Sunday Grillo may underperform, losing a share of his 15% to that other discreet contender, Abstention. This shadow-candidate is thought to command 30% already, and I wonder: instead of showing their disdain for politics by going out to vote for Grillo, why won’t a fair proportion of his supporters send the same message by staying home? Well, maybe because they love Beppe–we’ll see.

In any case, Berlusconi’s faux-populism can’t hold a candle to Grillo’s real deal. The Cavalier still stands to win a substantial fraction–25%?–but without Grillo he would have had a better chance to harvest the broad dissatisfaction with Monti. Why this cadaverous has-been still gets even 1% is a mystery to me, but I remain confident that he will be shut out of any new government. Why? Because he is pure poison.

So I’m among the few who wait optimistically for Monday’s verdict. Last spring I hoped Hollande would feel empowered to contest Merkel’s disastrous orthodoxy. I noted the brief but surprising flourish of the Dutch Socialists last fall; I observe Alexis Tsipris’s recent arrival on the main stage, and sense a gathering change of mood in much of Europe, perhaps in time for next year’s Euro-elections. A Bersani-Vendola government would move the Old Continent a few more cautious steps in that direction. Avanti!

Point Counterpoint in the Italian Campaign

Let’s forget about the Pope’s retirement, OK? Not that it doesn’t have huge implications for the theology of the Church and the role of future tenants of St. Peter’s see, but none of that is an electoral matter. And please, let’s pay no further attention to the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, that bad little boy who wants all our attention, all the time. Just ignore him. Let’s notice instead where the Italian electoral campaign is really happening, where it has always been happening, and where in the aftermath of next Sunday’s vote all the political action will be concentrated. Let’s look at the wonderful triangulation between Pier Luigi Bersani, Nichi Vendola, and Mario Monti.

For background, recall that Bersani and Vendola both came of age in the old Italian Communist Party, both participated in the Rifondazione movement in the ’90s, and both retain a fondness for working people and the venerable culture of the Left that comes with that territory. When Bersani was consolidating his hold on the big-tent Democratic Party a half-decade ago, Vendola still held on to his Left purism, enough so, some say, that he helped bring down Romano Prodi’s center-leaning government in 2008. Since then his SEL (Left Ecologist Freedom) Party has governed Puglia with a red/green slant, but has embraced as well the business growth and market logic that have made Puglia a rare success story in Italy’s Mezzogiorno.

What does any of this have to do with the technocratic Monti, the former EU Commissioner, professor at an elite business school, unelected premier in the ‘government of the professors’ that made Italy take its austerity medicine for the last year? Well, all parties declare a grudging mutual respect, and indeed Bersani’s PD was a solid if reluctant pillar of Monti’s reformist government until Berlusconi chose to kick out the props and make it fall. More to the point right now, though Bersani still polls well ahead in the race for the lower house, and thus the premiership, his alliance seems unlikely to pick up enough seats in the regionally skewed Senate to control it. He can’t govern without it. SEL’s seats won’t do it–he’ll need the centrist senators controlled by Monti. Which may explain that grudging but persistent respect.

Meanwhile day after day Vendola and Monti go at each other, like rival siblings competing for the attentions of a fond but slightly absent-minded father. Except of course for a few things: Bersani’s aloofness is anything but accidental, Monti HATES being bracketed with a leftist politican, and the differences they are flourishing are the essential policy questions that will determine Italy’s future. Such as:

  • On Monday Monti declared he could sit in the same government with Vendola as long as it was ‘reformist’; Vendola quickly noted that for Monti ‘reform’ means rolling back workers’ rights, while for his part those rights are the cornerstone of any reform.
  • Vendola has consistently deplored the benefit reductions Monti has imposed at the behest of the ECB, referring yesterday to his austerity measures as the “same old conservative ideology.” Bersani meanwhile lamented Monti’s “lack of gratitude” for the support his government received from Bersani’s Democrats.
And so forth. What is playing out is a classic competition between management strategies, as Vendola advocates for activist stimulus and Monti calls on Italians to tighten their belts for one more round. Bersani meanwhile tries to walk a fine line he calls “austerity with justice,” whatever that turns out to mean. But as Hollande waffles along the same line, and Merkel prepares to defend her mercantilist fundamentalism this fall, Italy–for all its woes, still the Eurozone’s 3rd biggest economy–will be helping to arbitrate the larger EU’s path through this intractable crisis. And it is Vendola and Monti who are waging that struggle day by day.
Sadly, American readers are at risk to miss the whole show. Rachel Donadio, the Times’s estimable Rome correspondent, managed to write a whole story about the election last Friday without mentioning Vendola’s name. But that’s OK–as I noted at the time she wrote a similar article a month ago that lovingly catalogued Berlusconi’s clown acts but failed to even mention Bersani, the clear front-runner. With the EU leadership openly campaigning for Monti, along with David Axelrod (hired by Monti’s campaign) and maybe President Obama himself (Gianluca Luzi in today’s Repubblica calls the President’s support for continued reform “a sort of endorsement for Monti”), one might almost suspect an aversion to the ex-Communists of the center-left. But like ‘em or not, they are poised to take over Italy’s government, though on what terms is precisely the contested terrain of this election.