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.

 

Berlusconi III: Revenge of the Sithio

Haven’t we seen this movie before? Will it be any better this time? Can Italy afford another round of Silvi B?

I know what could make this a great term of office! Start a new campaign: Tyrolia is only Italian! Because it’s worked so well for Greece

Update: I see that David is as enthusiastic as I am.