Is Italy governable?

The result of the Italian election on February 24-25th has caused widespread shock bordering on despair over the future of democracy in Italy. Both the German opposition candidate to be chancellor in the September 2013 German election, Peer Steinbruck, and the British Economist, said that the majority of the Italian electorate had voted for “two clowns”, namely Silvio Berlusconi, the media entrepreneur who has dominated Italian politics for 20 years, whose party and allies won 29.1% of the vote to the lower house, and Beppe Grillo, a political satirist with a hirsute appearance like the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, whose Five Star Movement won 25.6%, an effect that Grillo described as that of a tsunami. The left of centre alliance led by Pierluigi Bersani, who has supported the austerity measures necessary to avoid bankruptcy imposed by the outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti, scraped in as the largest grouping, with 29.5%, which gives it according to Italy’s current bizarre election system a majority in the lower house. However, he had lost millions of votes compared with opinion polls at the beginning of the campaign. Moreover, together with Mr Monti’s Civil Choice (10.6%), those voting for policy continuity were in a minority, an outcome which also had not been predicted in the opinion polls.

Does this make Italy ungovernable, as many inside and outside the country have said? Not necessarily.

The Berlusconi alliance, which brought Italy to the edge of bankruptcy in 2011 and whose voters succumbed to the offer of having a property tax repaid out of money which Italy does not have and many of whose members of parliament have been like Berlusconi himself convicted or are being tried for fraud or other financial crimes, has nothing worthwhile to offer.

Grillo was himself convicted of manslaughter for causing the death of three people in a road accident 30 years ago and for that reason did not stand for parliament. Those elected under his banner are free of any conviction or current prosecution. They are also free of any political experience, before being selected as parliamentary candidates via an Internet process in the last few months. They include job-seekers, housewives, pensioners and people with every kind of profession or business activity. Apart from the fact that 88% have degrees and the average age is a relatively low 37 they could be described as not dissimilar from those selected randomly to serve in juries in the UK or US.

The pronouncements of Grillo himself consist mainly of negative attacks on the previous ly existing political order rather than developing a coherent programme (although M5S has an admirably short manifesto consisting of a range of specific demands, under seven headings, State and Citizens, Information Technology, Energy, Transport, Economy, Health and Education). Immediately after having been swept by the election “tsunami” into a position of responsibility and now a part of the detested political order, he showed no sign of changing his approach when he unleashed a renewed invective against Bersani who, though the only person in a position to try to form a government, he described as a “dead man talking”. However, after Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano refused, on a trip to Berlin, to meet Steinbruck who had described as noted above described him as a clown, he gave fulsome praise in his blog to Napolitano.

More important is the fact that the disparate representatives M5S are now elected members of parliament and have the right to vote as they wish. During the campaign Grillo expelled one person from M5S for attacking his own autocratic style but he would be shooting himself in the foot if he expelled from his movement elected members of parliament for thinking for themselves and acting in a  responsible way to show that the success of M5S does not make Italy ungovernable. There is thus a reasonable possibility that M5S members of parliament will allow a government formed by Bersani to win votes of confidence in both houses of parliament–as it must do to take office–and then to pass legislation to reform the Italian political system, while not reversing the measures taken by Monti to avert bankruptcy.

Insight Europe does not believe there is any way out of the dire economic financial and fiscal condition of euro zone countries (and non-euro countries, such as the UK) other than years of hard grind to pay down public and private debt (in Italy’s case mainly public debt). A write-off of the debt may be the best answer for a small country like Greece but Italy is too big to fail and, even if they wanted to, its euro zone partners would not be able to prevent disastrous consequences from a default. But that constraint still leaves huge issues for example over how the pain is shared between rich and poor and what can be done in the situation to give opportunities for young people. The diverse group of people elected under M5S, who in their background represent the public much more than professional politicians, have a chance, together with Bersani’s Democratic Party, to change radically the political culture of a major European country. A start would be to insist on putting into effect rapidly M5S’s proposal for a radical cutting of the pay (the highest of any major EU country) of its parliamentarians and their number (also the highest). It is stated in Girl Friend in a Coma, a recent film made by Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist Newspaper and author of Good Italy, Bad Italy, and Annalisa Piras, an Italian journalist, that the cost of official cars paid for by the Italian taxpayer is more than total government spending in conserving the country’s magnificent  cultural patrimony. The figures can be argued over but Se non e vero e ben trovato: there is huge waste in Italy – in all levels of government—and reforming Italy should begin at the top. After that a new focus has to go into retrieving the vast sums lost by tax evasion.