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?

8 thoughts on “Calling Italy’s Tune: I Pagliacci? La Forza del Destino?

  1. Ah, what a privilege being a citizen of such a lovely political mess!

    However, my take: as the bargaining over the new government continues, the markets become more and more nervous. The media amplify the situation and there is again to fear for an Italian bankruptcy. Then, in a new act of “responsibility”, the PD, PDL, and Monti form a political government.

    Vendola’s people drop out of the leftist coalition. In the meanwhile, the M5S becomes the target of a number of political, legal, and mediatic attacks. There are some isolated defections to the new government, but the whole thing holds after all.

    The Lega supports the government but is not part of it. Berlusconi gets a very minor role in the government – he was never very good at ruling anyway, but has a levy in parliament to keep the judges at bay. The bulk of the government comes from Monti, the Catholics, and the PD, with some more respectable PDL people thrown in.

    So the PD gets what they want above all: power. Berlusconi gets what it wants: protection from legal prosecution. Monti gets what it wants: austerity and a “bella figura” with his banking buddies. Vendola gets what he wants as well: a role in the opposition where he cannot be confused with the PD. Merkel gets what she wants: not a Berlusconi gevernment. And the Euro gods get a partly Monti government they can live with.

    The M5S would be the only loser, except that austerity does not work and people increasingly sympathize with Grillo just out of desperation.

    I think that, in the short term, a grand coalition would be the best solution for everybody – even Grillo. They only need some help from the “markets” to precipitate the situation so that a coalition becomes politically acceptable to the “moderates”. I bet on Cyprus becoming the excuse for a compromise – “we are going to turn into Cyprus any day now unless we provide immunity to Berlusconi!”

    But then again, Italy regularly puzzles her observers, so who knows.

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  3. @Diego Schiavon

    This would be complete political suicide for Bersani and the PD as a whole.
    While Bersani doesn’t look like the most aggressive politician in the market, I don’t think he will really be THAT stupid; In facts, he is restating like 5 times a day that he will nevermore side with Berlusconi and/or Monti (apparently he got the lesson).

    I think that he will play hardball with Grillo: if Grillo doesn’t vote the “fiducia” to Bersani’s government, he will look like a “mister no” who can only criticize but cannot produce positive results; If on the other hand he does govern with the PD and produce something, he will no more be able to delegitimize Bersani. Both would be net positives from Bersani’s point of view.

    I personally think that Grillo really, really hates Bersani and the PD, so he will refuse any compromise and we will be back to the vote in a very short term.

  4. @Random Lurker

    I agree, I would expect Bersani to try and side with Grillo to shame him if he does not compromise. That would surely please the electorate and is what – especially the far left – expects.

    However, I do not think Grillo has anything to lose by resisting, and the PD is doing just that: pretending to compromise just to blame the M5S when the deal tanks, and opening the way to a government with the real “responsible” forces: Monti, maybe camouflaged as some other prominent Italian economist, and Berlusconi, maybe dressed up as one of his numerous lackeys.

    Also, I just read the De Morgen (Belgian news) and they reported rumors of a “Belgian solution”: the current government stays is charge until a new government can be formed. Which is pretty much what I described above.

    Naked Capitalism reports something similar: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/03/quelle-surprise-technocrats-in-italy-scheming-to-steamroll-voter-rejection-of-austerity.html

    Yes, electoral suicide, but not if the crisis blows out of proportions, which is what I think is happening. 7% interest on 10-year notes and everything becomes possible.

  5. Addendum: In response to Liz Alderman and Elisabetta Povoledo’s adulatory profile of Beppe Grillo in today’s Times, I copy here the comment I submitted. Grillo’s seduction of Povoledo and Alderman is of a piece with his seduction of much of Italy–but seduction makes for dangerous politics.

    “At last a Times writer realizes that Grillo is not a ‘comic’ but a serious leader. But she misses a major point. Right now the M5S, Grillo, and his strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio need to make a choice. Option 1: They can make a pact to form a short-term government with the Democrats (who actually got the most votes–easy to forget) and push through a whole set of desperately needed reforms (anti-corruption laws, a rational electoral system, and more) already supported by both parties. Bersani and Vendola have put this deal transparently on the table, and are heaped with puerile insults in return. Or Option 2: Grillo and the M5S can abstain from any constructive cooperation, plunge the government into chaos (or force a corrupt coalition including Berlusconi into office), and then hope to seize complete control when the government collapses and new elections are held. While some may call Option 2 ‘democratic,’ I’d call it putschist–any real democrat would be negotiating to make Option 1 work.”

    @Random Lurker, Diego Schiavon
    I have to agree that Bersani CAN’T form any coalition that includes PdL. Also agree that Grillo loses his outsider advantage and ‘legitimizes’ the PD as soon as he works with them. Utter stalemate. Either Napolitano breaks it by anointing some Monti-bis, and we do it all over again in a few months … or the Grillini themselves step onto the stage of history, sidestep their bloviating ‘leader,’ and make a responsible PD-M5S short-term coalition government. Could this happen? Yes. Will it? I doubt it.

    Last point: in ALL cases the challenge to the Brussels/Frankfurt/Berlin axis is retained and intensified.

  6. @Diego Schiavon
    “and the PD is doing just that: pretending to compromise just to blame the M5S when the deal tanks”
    But this is the main point, that the PD isn’t really pretending anything: Bersani doesn’t really hope that the deal tanks, he doesn’t need it. Bersani is a super-pragmatic guy, he is very open about this, so going along with Grillo would not be a problem for him, he would “betray” nothing, his electors would like it.
    It is only Grillo who can’t compromise by anyone, because of his “all or nothing” stance; however this means that Grillo can do nothing until he gets his 51+% of the votes, that he won’t get anyway. His only hope is that Bersani does the “inciucio” with Berlusconi; if Bersani stands his ground (yeah, this sounds unlikely), the unrealism of Grillo position will became clearer and clearer.

    @Brent Whelan
    “Either Napolitano breaks it by anointing some Monti-bis”
    Even in this case, Bersani has the absolute majority in the “camera”, so if he wants he can block it (big if).

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  8. It simply looks that Italy can be wetitrn off, if that should not have been done earlier.Pre-crisis it had 1% max structural real growth with a several percent ‘overborrowing’ which works as a stimulus.Correct for that; correct for lower growth in the worldeconomy; correct for higher yields demanded by markets; correct for substantial lower growth in Europe especially, you end up with a structurul growth which is simply negative.Add the fact that no structural changes look to be possible, this scenario cannot be changed under the current circumstances. You simply have structural negative real growth until something structural happens (be it reform or in the markets).Add also the fact that Italy has ended up in the most overcrowded part (country-wise) of the worldmarket, with substantial parts of China and India, having catched up and other parts there and in other EMs, catching up fast, revenue or better the capacity to make revenue will be under pressure as well from this angle.Add aging hitting in.Simply the perfect economic storm with no proper captain on the helm.Very similar the Greece btw, and Spain in other aspects even worse off likely to follow next. As is France.Economic bad news not to be touched even with a pole.

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