The Clown and the Italian Job

Imagine Trevor Noah or Loyiso Gola setting up a political party to contest the 2014 elections. Now imagine that the party wins more votes than any other opposition party and, in the process, pushes the ANC support below 50%. Well, that’s exactly what comedian Beppo Grillo has just done in Italy – and not everyone is laughing, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The Italians have now spoken and their answer is quite clear – or very murky. On the one hand, the country’s parliamentary vote represents a real thumbs-down on that nation’s existing political order as well as the austerity packages that came from the current government of Prime Minister Mario Monti. On the other, it is also seems that voters were rather less certain about whom they actually wanted to lead Italy in the future – splitting their votes right and left – as well as a big chunk of them to a political newcomer, comedian Beppe Grillo. And for the first time in rather a long time, Italy’s very own prince of darkness, Silvio Berlusconi, didn’t come out top of the heap.

After the election, Slate’s David Weigel wrote, “Today, the fate of the world economy rests with an Italian stand-up comedian. This was not supposed to happen. The centre-left Italian Democrats spent the entire campaign with strong leads in the polls. Foreign reporters swooned over ‘Operation Ohio’, fresh-scrubbed Italian politicos trained by the Obama campaign taking their new tactics into swing state Lombardy. Then came Beppe Grillo, a brillo-haired, economics-trained comic with a blog and a 1980 vehicular manslaughter conviction. His Five Star Movement ticket looked completely ridiculous, until it surged into third place… Grillo’s platform called for a living wage and for priests to have children ‘so they don’t touch other people’s’. That, added to his aggressive social media campaign – nearly a million followers on Twitter – carved out 25% of the vote, denying a majority to the centre-left, sending investors into a now-familiar panic, the Dow Jones index falling by 216 points.”

In giving Grillo’s quasi-nihilist political protest movement nearly a quarter of the total vote (let’s call them the radical centre, perhaps), voters have signalled some truly deep dissatisfaction with things as they have been going in recent years. To provide a kind of comparison, just imagine for a moment how it would be if Loyiso Gola or Trevor Noah (and not Dr Mamphela Ramphele) sets up a new political party and wins more votes than any other opposition party in South Africa’s own 2014 election, and – in the process ­– pushes the ANC’s support to below 50% in the process.

Not surprisingly, these unexpected electoral results roiled global financial markets – and in the process making waves about the future of the euro. Analysts are already saying the country will almost certainly need another election soon so as to sort things out sufficiently such that somebody can actually govern the place. For the moment at least, this amazing parliamentary electoral result has given the papal election and all those other troubles in the Vatican a run for their money as the lead story in the Italian media.

This newest results thing is complex, even for Italian politics, but given the nature of the country’s governing rules, an unstable stalemate seems the most likely outcome as a result of the voting. While a centre-left coalition may eventually claim a majority in the lower chamber of the Italian parliament, the upper house will be deadlocked with no party or likely coalition able to cobble together a working majority. Beyond that difficulty, because any laws require agreement from both houses of the national legislature, the lower house’s centre-left grouping would also have to call on the support of Grillo’s Five Star Movement (the “non-party”, “a plague on all your houses” choice for 25% of all Italian voters) or even Berlusconi’s centre-right party to pass legislation. And that is an unlikely prospect, to say the least, given the way Berlusconi and the left in Italian political behaviour have clashed in the past. As a result, if no governing agreement can be achieved, it’s going to be back to the voting booth all over again.

With results from virtually all polling stations now tallied, the centre-left was ahead of the centre-right by about 125,000 votes in the lower house. As a result, it now ends up with a larger share of legislators than the actual vote would indicate by virtue of a legislative winner’s bonus given to the leading party in Italian elections. However, over in the senate, seemingly demonstrating the kind of national schizophrenia increasingly common among electorates worldwide, the centre-left was on course to hold more seats than the centre-right (although it had a slightly smaller share of the raw vote), although it will not have an absolute majority, even if it entered a coalition with the discredited, outgoing technocrat-style prime minister, Mario Monti, who had entered government in late 2011 with genuine support backing him as a level-headed economic policy mister fix-it.

As soon as the results were known, the Italian bourse dropped sharply on fears the electoral results would now trigger a prolonged face-off between the parties with the best showings. Moreover, these results are also being interpreted as a thorough rebuke of Monti’s austerity policies.

Analysts now say the best-case scenario might be a wobbly, unwieldy coalition government stretching across some important ideological divides. That would, however, expose Italy – and, most importantly, the euro zone – to yet more turmoil if financial markets, and their electronic hordes of holders of hot money, start questioning the commitment of such a coalition to the measures that have, at least so far, kept the Italian budget deficit within a tolerable 3% of the country’s GDP.

News of this Italian political stalemate also sent some serious bad vibes throughout the rest of the globe’s financial markets. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 200 points as a result of the news. Meanwhile, the interest rate for Italy’s benchmark 10-year government bond has already gone up a quarter of a percentage point (an obvious indicator of a lack of confidence in the government) and the country’s FTSE MIB index sank over 4% as well. The euro, meanwhile, fell to a near-seven week low against the dollar on the basis of the results in Italy’s election.

As the euro’s de facto banker of last resort, unsurprisingly, Germany expressed concern about yet another weakness in one of its major euro zone partners and one of the EU’s major economies. Responding to the results, German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said, “What is now decisive for Italy – but, because Italy is such an important country for Europe, also for the whole of Europe – is that a stable government that is capable of acting can be formed as quickly as possible.”

Analysts have noted two particular reasons for what they see as a large protest vote for a comedian – aside from a kind of gallows humour aspect in that choice by one in four voting Italians. The first is voter annoyance with Italy’s long-time, ongoing political morass and its deeply troubled electoral system. Prior to Berlusconi’s ascension in politics with its own shambolic elements, the country had endured decades of revolving door coalitions and rapid changes of political leadership. Moreover, the support for Grillo also was a rejection of the rapid, painful deficit-reduction strategy set by the European Commission and European Central Bank.

Italy is a country too big to let fail even as it is also too big to bail out, hence Westerwelle’s expression of concern. Simon Tilford, chief economist of the Centre for European Reform, a London research institute, added further explanation, saying, “No doubt Italy has an imperfect political culture, but this election I think is the logical consequence of pursuing policies that have dramatically worsened the economic and social picture in Italy. People have been warning that if they adhere to this policy, there will be a political cost; there will be backlash. It couldn’t have taken place in a more pivotal country.” Except maybe Germany itself.

As things stand now, the centre-left Democratic Party was ahead in the lower house with nearly 29.6% of the raw vote, but the old rascal himself, Berlusconi and his centre-right People of Liberty Party was ahead in several populous regions such as Lombardy that have a large number of senate seats. As a result, Berlusconi could end up with a veto power over everything. And regardless of any other results, this election represents a clear victory for comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, contesting its first-ever national elections. Italians from both right and left – and from the wealthier north and poorer south – all seemed to have been attracted to Grillo’s vociferous opposition to the austerity measures earlier agreed to by Italy’s prime minister, their votes demonstrating the Italian version of “throw the bums out”.

Finally, of course, the results represent a real wallop of a rebuke to Monti, the man who is now the country’s caretaker prime minister. His appeal only came in at around 10% in both houses of the Italian parliament. Explains Stefano Folli, a political columnist for Italy’s daily business newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, “Grillo had a devastating success; the rest of the situation is very unclear.” Either the Democratic Party and the People of Liberty Party “will form a grand coalition committed to reforms and changing the electoral law, which would be very difficult, or Italy will be ungovernable.” And Nicolas Véron, an economist with Bruegel, a Brussels-based research institute, said regardless of whom eventually ends up in charge, “the key question is whether we can have serious structural reform. [Italy] was a work in progress before the elections, and I think investors understand that it will remain a work in progress for some time.”

Following this vote, Monti’s caretaker government now stays in place with full powers – but with virtually no authority – until a new government is finally formed. On Monday evening, Monti said on a television broadcast that he felt “tremendous regret” that during his time in office the nation’s political parties were not able to change Italy’s electoral laws to guarantee more political stability. Monti added, “It is a great responsibility of the political forces, and one of the reasons for the disaffection and distance from and the revindication of the political class”. Or maybe Grillo was just more entertaining? When Monti first came to power in November 2011, after Berlusconi had stepped down as prime minister amid market turmoil and a plethora of lawsuits over his complicated personal life and other miscellaneous business troubles, Monti had initially garnered praise for restoring international confidence in Italy. But, inevitably, perhaps, Italians grew to dislike him for raising the national retirement age – as well as tax rates. Death and taxes – nobody beats them, but nobody likes them either.

While Monti continued to campaign on the idea that if Italy succeeded in making its economy more competitive, taxes could eventually be lowered, that message vanished in the tumult of Grillo’s anti-austerity message, as well as Berlusconi’s continuing media-attracting antics (it doesn’t hurt that he owns most of the country’s media, of course). Berlusconi had told voters he would reimburse them personally for an unpopular property tax and even sent campaign literature out in envelopes with the words “2012 Tax Refund” on them, using the very same typeface used by the country’s tax authority. Has this guy been studying up on Karl Rove or Chuck Colson – or maybe Cesare Borgia?

Overall, of course, the most astonishing result of this election is the success of Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Besides his increasingly popular and populist message, his new party also made use of a powerful Internet-based initiative that attracted web-savvy young people and first-time voters, and even former supporters of Berlusconi. His voters were brought together more by virtue of their shared anger than by any shared ideology. This Five Star Movement ultimately scored votes that might otherwise have gone to the more mainstream leftist Democratic Party, especially after the party’s leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, a former industry minister who grew up in the Communist Party, had defeated Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence, in the party primary.

Summing up the uncertain outcome, the BBC argued, “The horse-trading will now begin. Pier Luigi Bersani has enough votes to dominate the lower house. That is not the case in the senate. Even if he were to join forces with the former prime minister, Mario Monti, he would not be able to command a majority there. He may try to operate a minority government but that will clearly be unstable. There may be an attempt to form a wider coalition to govern the country at a time of economic crisis but it is unlikely to survive the summer. One unanswered question is whether Beppe Grillo will be open to a deal. Would his movement support, say, a centre-left coalition in exchange for widespread reforms of the political system? We don’t know. Buoyed up by success he has only promised to clear out the political class.”

However, Davide Barillari, the Five Star Movement’s candidate for president of the Lazio region, said on television after the voting had taken place that his people would not line up with any others in coalition. “People want to send them all home,” he said of the current parliament. “Old politics is over.” Despite being led by an angry comedian, the results aren’t very funny – especially if you just happen to be an investor in euro bonds. DM

Unofficial results of the voting:

Chamber of deputies (lower house):

Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left Democratic Party-led bloc: 29.54% of the vote (will have 340 seats as the winning bloc)

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom Party-led bloc: 29.18% (124 seats)

Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity Five Star Movement: 25.55% (108 seats)

Current Prime Minister Mario Monti’s Civic Choice movement: 10.56% (45 seats).


The senate (upper house):

Neither of the two biggest parties and their allies is thought to be close to the 158 seats needed to have a working majority.

Latest figures show the Democratic Party bloc winning about 113 seats (31.63% of the vote)

The People of Freedom Party bloc to win 116 seats (30.72% of the vote)

Five Star Movement to win 54 seats (23.79%)

Civic Choice 18 seats (9.13%)

Read more:

  • Vote for the Italian Comic! in Slate
  • Italy’s centre left to win lower house, Senate deadlocked, at Global Post 
  • Split Vote Sends One Clear Message in Italy: No to Austerity, at the New York Times
  • Italy election: Deadlock after protest vote, at the BBC
  • Analysis of Italian Vote, at the BBC
  • Italian impasse rekindles eurozone jitters, at the Financial Times
  • Final vote results confirm Italy deadlock, at the Financial Times

Photo: Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo speaks during a rally in Rome on 22 February 2013. On Friday evening, tens of thousands attended the final rally in Grillo’s “Tsunami Tour” of the country in Rome’s San Giovanni square. The charismatic comedian whipped the crowds into a  frenzy as he railed against the establishment. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini


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