Who will run Italy?

March 5, 2013

Lance Selfa analyzes the results of an election that left Italian politics in turmoil.

THE RESULTS of Italy's elections in late February threw international financial markets into a sell off, rekindling elite fears that the eurozone may face "ungovernability" and a crackup.

The voting for Italian parliament produced a roughly three-way split between the center-left Democratic Party-led coalition, the center-right coalition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the four-year-old Five Star Movement (M5S), led by popular comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo.

Above all, the election marked a repudiation of the policies of austerity and free market "reform" dictated by the European Union (EU)--and by extension, the German Bundesbank. These have made the lives of millions of average Italians miserable.

Secondly, and closely connected to the anti-austerity theme, the elections represented a giant "vaffanculo" (translation: "fuck off") to the mainstream political establishment which has presided over the austerity regime. When all the votes were tallied, M5S emerged as the single biggest vote-getter in the country.

Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo (Niccolò Caranti)

THE BIGGEST loser in the elections was Mario Monti, the colorless technocrat who served as prime minister for 13 months, until resigning last December.

Monti became prime minister after the sleazy and corrupt Berlusconi was forced to resign. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano invited Monti to form a government filled with unelected technocrats and charged them with carrying out unpopular austerity measures demanded by the EU after Italy joined the top ranks of the European countries caught in the continent's debt crisis. As SocialistWorker.org's Lee Sustar wrote in November 2011:

The bankers delivered the final blow when they demanded sky-high interest rates to buy Italian government bonds--and a new prime minister who would answer to them rather than the Italian voters. Berlusconi backed passage of an austerity program in parliament, and then made way for his successor, former European Competition Commissioner Mario Monti, a creature of the EU's administration in Brussels.

A year later, Monti and his technocratic government had accomplished what he was chosen to do. His government pushed through tax increases, cuts in pensions and crackdowns on tax avoidance. At the same time, it introduced "reforms" to Italian labor law to make it easier for employers to fire workers.

As last year wore on and Italy swallowed the austerity medicine, interest rates on Italian bonds dropped, giving the appearance that Monti's government had stabilized the situation. The "non-politician" Monti announced the formation of a "centrist" party, dedicated to carrying on the same EU-friendly agenda.

The European elite had convinced itself that Monti, who counted on the backing of the Italian ruling class and the powerful Roman Catholic Church, would emerge in a stronger position from elections. While not convinced that Monti would win a majority, most observers thought that he would be able to continue governing in a stable coalition with the center-left parties.

Instead, Italian voters nearly threw Monti and his party into the dustbin of history. Monti's coalition finished with about 10 percent of the vote, compared to nearly 30 percent each for the center-left and center-right coalitions, and 25 percent for Grillo's party.

The rejection of Monti followed the same pattern that toppled governing parties in Finland, Spain, Greece and other European countries where voters "threw out the bums" who had forced austerity on them.

But the European corporate, banking and government elite still haven't caught on. The Guardian's Ian Traynor described the bizarre spectacle of Monti's appearance at "a European Commission conference in Brussels where he enjoyed a standing ovation, almost as if he had been the victor [in the elections]. The mismatch between the popular and elite verdicts was striking."

Charles Grant, director of the austerity-promoting Centre for European Reform, sniffed that democracy "is the euro zone's Achilles' heel."

NEXT TO Monti's "centrists," the election's biggest losers have to be the center-left alliance of the Democratic Party (DP) and Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) Party.

Both of these groups, descendants of the Italian Communist Party that once dominated the center-left, have bled support for years since embracing "neoliberalism with a human face." They and their post-CP predecessors embraced neoliberal policies while governing the country in the 1990s and 2000s. As loyal supporters of the European project, the DP participated with the center right in the "grand coalition" government that supported austerity measures under Monti.

The center-left's commitment to staying the austerity course helped open the door for Berlusconi. The billionaire former prime minister's career appeared to be over due to a mountain of corruption and sex scandals. But he managed to return from the dead, and posting as an opponent of austerity, no less.

Though he forced through a savage program of cuts and regressive taxes before resigning in 2011 and then supported Monti until a few months before the election, Berlusconi lambasted what he called "austerity communists" like DP leader Pier Luigi Bersani. He likewise denounced the supporters of austerity in the EU and the German government. He even offered to roll back property tax increases.

Berlusconi's populist posturing contrasted to Bersani's "responsible" stance, bringing the center-right into a virtual tie with the center-left.

Supporters of the center-left had hoped for a strong showing from the more radical SEL Party within the coalition would have given it the chance to sand off the rough edges of Monti's austerity agenda. But as Lorenzo Fe explained in the left-wing magazine Red Pepper:"[E]verybody knew that this was highly unlikely and that probably, in the end, the center-left would have championed neoliberalism by governing with Monti. Certainly Grillo profited from this perception."

For the parliamentary left, the elections represented failure all the way around. The center-left has a slim majority in the lower house of parliament, but is a minority in the powerful senate. From this position of weakness, Bersani will try to cobble together a government.

The more left elements in the center-left coalition didn't fare any better. The SEL Party, a remnant of the once prominent Communist Refoundation Party, won only about 3 percent of the vote. And the Civic Revolution coalition, a collection of anti-capitalist and green groups, didn't elect a single representative.

Why did the left, even the sections of it most critical of austerity, do so poorly?

Certainly voters punished those on the parliamentary left who associated themselves with the austerity regime. But as Fe argues, there's more to the explanation than that. And that explanation leads to an understanding of the Five Star movement's unexpected breakthrough.

THE BACKDROP to the Five Star Movement's success is the rejection of the mainstream political establishment as it has existed in Italy for decades. This was reflected in a couple of ways.

First, in a country in which 80 percent or more of the electorate regularly turns out to vote, turnout dropped in this election to 75 percent. Second, in a system that many have called a "gerontocracy"--where career politicians accumulate wealth and power during decades in office--younger voters disproportionately supported M5S. Using a savvy campaign shaped around Internet social media, Grillo skillfully tapped into the alienation and disgust that millions of Italians--especially young Italians--feel at an unrepresentative and corrupt political system.

There was more to Five Star's appeal than simply "throwing the bums out." M5S's program is a mélange of disparate elements. But many of its core policy positions line up well with the demands of the extra-parliamentary left and the environmental movement.

Five Star calls for nationalizing the banks, rejecting the EU-imposed austerity measures of the last several years, canceling a bullet-train boondoggle to connect Turin and Lyons, France, that environmentalists have opposed, retaining public ownership of water and other natural resources, and establishing a guaranteed minimum income for all Italian citizens. For these reasons--and because M5S was the only political force that drew any public enthusiasm--the iconic left-wing playwright Dario Fo very publicly endorsed it.

Election returns showed not only that M5S drew its support disproportionately from young people, but also that it won votes in areas known as left-wing bastions. It took more than 60 percent of the votes in the Val di Susa, where the environmentalist campaign against the high-speed rail is based.

Significantly, too, it almost outpolled the DP in Mirafiori and other working-class neighborhoods of Turin, historically an important base of Italian communism and autonomism. Many unionists who had recently defected from the left to vote with the far-right Northern League appeared to have voted for M5S.

Fe is right to say that Five Star "stole the left's clothes"--but we should be careful not to proclaim the electoral support for M5S as a victory for the left. M5S is not, by any means, the Italian equivalent of Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left, known as SYRIZA. The M5S movement remains politically heterogeneous--and, in fact, Grillo runs it as a personal business venture.

Grillo is a millionaire comedian, entrepreneur and blogger. He uses rhetoric rejecting the distinctions of "left" and "right"--but that meant he was willing to accept support from Casa Pound, a pro-fascist organization. Likewise, M5S's proposal for a guaranteed national income would cover Italian citizens--it explicitly excludes immigrants. Grillo has blogged against the immigration of Roma from Romania. And his verbal bomb-throwing against the corrupt political establishment included denunciations of the trade union federations allied with the center-left parties.

Finally, Grillo's proposals to redistribute money to education rely on layoffs and pension cuts directed at civil servants. The mayor of Parma, a prominent member of M5S, has pursued an austerity agenda every bit as nasty as the other parties, according to the left-wing writers' collective Wu Ming.

As entertainment and marketing virtuosos, Grillo, along with M5S cofounder Giancarlo Casaleggio, a computer company entrepreneur, appear interested in winning the adulation of extra-parliamentary movements without encouraging their participation in M5S.

In its widely quoted statement on Grillo's rise, the Wu Ming collective noted that Italy had not experienced protest movements like Occupy Wall Street in the U.S., the Spanish indignados or Greece's "movement of the squares." It attributed this, in part, to M5S's ability to suck the energy out of protests:

Here in Italy, a large proportion of this "indignation" was intercepted and reorganized by Grillo and Casaleggio--two wealthy men in their 60s with a background in the entertainment industry and in marketing.

They created a political/economic franchise, with its own copyright and trademark, a movement rigidly controlled and mobilized from the top, hijacking slogans and ideas from social movements, and mixing them with apologies for an "ethical" capitalism, with superficial statements centered on the honesty of the individual/politician/administrator. They created a confused set of proposals, where neoliberal and anti-capitalist, centralist and federalist, libertarian and reactionary could co-exist. A manifesto for all occasions, cherry-picking ideas wherever they found them and whenever they considered them useful, typical of a diversionary movement.

As a supporter of "ethical capitalism" and opponent of anything that smacks of working-class struggle, Grillo will now face the challenge of M5S taking seats in parliament while the extra-parliamentary movements continue their struggles.

Grillo and M5S could potentially play the role of kingmakers in parliament as the center-right and center-left bargain to form a new government. So far, Grillo has refused to support any deals with mainstream political forces. He has given Bersani, whom he called "a dead man walking," the back of his hand.

The parliamentarians will have until April 15 to arrive at a government. Expect increasing external pressure on Italy to create a government that will continue to carry out the Monti-like austerity that the voters rejected. If the political parties can't reach agreement, then a new "technocratic" government could be installed, or new elections will be called.

Under either scenario, the contradictions inherent in M5S would come to the surface. In government, M5S would be forced to take positions on contentious issues that could end up setting it against the demands and aspirations of its voters.

For the Italian left, this presents an opportunity. M5S has helped to blow open the closed political system that sustained neoliberalism and austerity in Italy. But M5S can't provide answers for the millions of grassroots voters who supported it. For them, the future lies in building struggles on the ground while organizing an unambiguously left-wing political alternative.

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