Elections Plunge Italy into Political Chaos

5 MINS READFeb 26, 2013 | 03:32 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

When Italian comedian Beppe Grillo created his Five Star Movement three-and-a-half years ago, he probably wasn't expecting it to become the voice of a country beset by a deep economic and political crisis. The overwhelming performance of the Five Star Movement in the general elections that were held Sunday and Monday confirmed that the crisis of legitimacy that is threatening the traditional political parties in Europe has finally reached Italy. While Grillo's party ended up in third place, one in four Italians voted for it, and the party became the most voted-for single party into the Chamber of Deputies (the two mainstream parties, the Democratic Party and the People of Freedom, competed as part of electoral coalitions).

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The complex political and economic climate in Italy explains Grillo's success. For the past 14 months, the technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti implemented spending cuts and tax increases, following the dictates of the European Union with the support of Italy's main political forces. Although these reforms succeeded in temporarily reducing pressure from the international markets on Italy, they did little to improve the quality of life for most Italians. The country is experiencing its worst recession in 20 years; unemployment is above 11 percent, which is affecting young people in particular.

This gap between the policies promoted by the mainstream parties and the desires of the population worsened in recent weeks. Numerous corruption scandals in the banking, defense and energy sectors — involving members of the mainstream parties — made it clear that the economic crisis had not changed the habits of mainstream politicians. Grillo capitalized on this disconnect between the voters and elected officials; he was the only political leader in the elections who had not previously held any public office.

Grillo's emergence as the referent of the protest against traditional politicians in Italy is not an entirely new phenomenon. In 1994, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took advantage of a corruption scandal that prompted the popularity of traditional political parties to plunge. Berlusconi campaigned as an outsider who criticized traditional politicians and their corrupt ways.

Almost two decades later, Grillo is building power with similar arguments. He criticizes traditional politics (now to include Berlusconi), and promises a new way of doing things. Berlusconi benefited from his handling of the major television networks in Italy in the 1990s. In these elections, Grillo made the most of social networks and the call for mass rallies in Italy's major squares. He combined the tools of mass politics of the mid-20th century with the media tools of the 21st century.

Berlusconi's party ended up joining Italy's political elite and repeating their worst vices. The future of Grillo's movement is unknown. Its lawmakers — most of whom have no previous political experience — were elected online in the comedian's blog.

The rise of the Five Star Movement shares similar elements with the electoral growth of the Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, in Greece. Both are anti-system parties that have put the traditional parties against the ropes. Like Greece, Italy is approaching a situation where popular discontent is threatening the country's governability. The situation in Italy is not as severe as in Greece, but the Hellenic nation reminds one just how quickly the social and political situation of eurozone members can degrade. Other anti-system parties in the periphery of the eurozone may be influenced by the success of the Five Star Movement.

In addition, Grillo's remarkable performance reflects a growing fatigue among the Italian electorate with the German leadership during the European crisis. To varying degrees, all Italian political parties promised economic growth and to ease austerity measures. Italy's Democratic Party echoed French President Francois Hollande's campaign, promising a renegotiation of relations with Brussels without causing substantial disruptions in Italy's relations with the European Union. Berlusconi went further and openly criticized Germany's leadership during the European crisis, accusing Berlin of suffocating the economies of European periphery countries. But Grillo was the only political leader who spoke openly about the possibility of abandoning the euro. When the total number of votes for these three parties are combined, it becomes clear that more than two-thirds of Italians said no to austerity measures. Monti's poor performance in the elections confirms this trend. No matter what happens with Italy's political future, the new Italian government will have this mandate in mind.

Italians went to the polls Sunday and Monday hoping that it would be the first step to bringing Italy out of its political and economic stagnation. But they woke up on Tuesday to a country fragmented into three political groups with similar levels of support, where alliances will be extremely difficult to forge. Berlusconi's abrupt resignation in November 2011 — and his replacement by a technocratic government supported by the country's two main parties — began an unusual period for Italian politics. Sunday and Monday's elections were supposed to end this period. But any hopes that Italy would return to some kind of political normalcy vanished with these elections. Rather than solving Italy's problems, they have only made them more acute.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this diary incorrectly referred to Beppe Grillo as a candidate in the elections.

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