Opinion: Italy experiments with the politics of farce
Published: Friday, March 8, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 20:03
Those who desire a government free from the influence of the usual coterie of crooks and rascals, politics without politicians, may have had their wish granted in Italy. In a chaotic and disordered election, made worse by the country’s deplorably irrational electoral system, Italian voters rendered an uncertain judgment on their country’s political future. The election essentially produced a tie, with the bland Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition having barely defeated an irrepressible Silvio Berlusconi and his center-right incumbent government. Such a state of affairs would be fairly commonplace for Italy were it not for the remarkable success of a new political party, the Five Star Movement, which didn’t even exist at the last election. The party finished with 25%, enough for a very close third-place finish within 4% of Bersani’s coalition.
The Movement is led by an Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, who riffs irreverently on Italian politics on his blog, showing the corrupt political class in charge of the country no mercy – Bersani is known to Grillo’s readers as “Rigor Mortis” and the preceding center-left leader who lost to Berlusconi in 2008 goes by the moniker “Waterloo Veltroni.” Berlusconi himself, a fantastically eccentric politician who has served as prime minister for most of the past two decades, is a “saliva salesman” and a “psycho-dwarf.” This sort of comic invective, coupled with the anti-politics message of Five Star’s political campaign, touched Italian voters to the quick during the campaign, and Italy now struggles to come to terms with a radically redefined political landscape.
The Five Star Movement’s voters entrusted the party with almost 150 legislative seats – nearly 20 percent of the total. Taking the reins of power now is a group of political neophytes, the majority of whom have no experience in governance whatsoever. From a movement and leader eminently distrustful of the existing political parties – even to the point of refusing, under any circumstances, to join a governing coalition with either of them – that much was determined in advance. Though the party’s “five stars” purport to represent principle on the environment, connectivity, development, sustainable mobility and public water, in spite of its vague and platitude-laden manifesto, it remains unclear how such a party can develop a coherent plan for governing Italy and hold its elected members to account for their votes and positions without transmuting itself into a rough copy of the same center-right and center-left-parties that it currently lambastes.
It certainly does not help that Grillo, and many of his supporters, are upset at the level of austerity imposed on Italy by the European Union’s financial caretakers in Germany and openly give voice to their Euroskepticism. Upon hearing of Italy’s electoral gridlock, financial markets reacted with panic, fearing the possibility of default and collapse of the Euro. All of the work accomplished under Mario Monti, the caretaker prime minister who took power in the darkest days of the sovereign debt crisis, seemed to be lost as the technocrat slid into electoral irrelevance last week. With the dual prospect presenting itself of weeks of acrimonious bargaining over electoral coalitions and possible new elections, should those negotiations fail, the Five Star Movement has come into the peculiar position of a kingmaker that objects to the idea of monarchy.
The idea of voting in protest for a party dedicated to the criticism of politics has its merits, if only in those cases in which such a vote has no bearing on the outcome of the election or on the composition of a future government. But Italy has reached a point of frustration with politics such that through the promotion of so many inexperienced citizens to legislative office, it risks the accidental
sacrifice of democracy amidst a frenzy of rage against the system. Just as Monti’s government was appointed without popular consent in a time of economic crisis, Italian voters may find that their Five Star legislators, having no ideological or programmatic cohesion, prove unable to be held to account for their actions. Such is the threat to Western democracy today - not disgust with politics but rather our
voluntary abrogation of it. Despite our exasperation with politicians of the same stock as “Rigor Mortis,” “Waterloo Veltroni” and “Psycho-Dwarf,” it is probably for the better that they rule us than do our comedians.