ROME: Italy’s electoral earthquake seems to have condemned the country to the thing it needs least – a short-term government and new elections in as little as six months or a year.
A huge protest vote in the Feb. 24-25 election produced the worst possible result for Italy’s stagnant and recession-hit economy – a parliament in which no single group has a workable majority and populist leader Beppe Grillo has the whip hand.
Global markets plunged immediately after the election before calming Wednesday. But there are deep concerns that sustained instability in the eurozone’s third largest economy could reignite Europe’s debt crisis.
Italy has a long history through decades of instability of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemates but there appear to be only two options this time and neither of them looks very easy.
The first is a government led by center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who has a majority in the lower house but not the Senate, and backed by Grillo’s 5-Star Movement.
The second is an alliance between Bersani and those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, the center-right of Silvio Berlusconi, who staged an astonishing fightback to recover from scandal and humiliation and come within a whisker of beating the center-left in the election.
However, Grillo has dismissed the first option and there is great opposition among the center-left rank and file to any alliance with Berlusconi, who often dismisses Bersani’s supporters as communists.
Berlusconi, a 76-year-old billionaire media magnate, has been uncharacteristically quiet since the election, but appears to favor a pact with Bersani to stay in the game. Bersani’s leftist ally, Nichi Vendola, has brusquely ruled such a “grand coalition” out of court.
“Over both scenarios hangs a shadow of inescapable uncertainty,” said commentator Massimo Franco.
Grillo said Wednesday that he would not support a vote of confidence in any government.
He appears to want the right and left to discredit themselves further in an ineffective and fractious joint government – their only option without his support – before a new election in which he will score an even bigger victory. He expects it to take no more than a year for such a government to fall.
To make things worse, there will be a constitutional vacuum until after March 15, the earliest date that President Giorgio Napolitano, the head of state, can start consultations with politicians in order to find a government.
Napolitano himself leaves office in mid-May, adding to the uncertainty that has seen Italians faced by political deadlock and the shock resignation of Pope Benedict XVI all at the same time.
With a sophisticated campaign on the Internet and a tour of Italy in which he shouted himself hoarse insulting the politicians, Grillo scored one of the biggest ever victories for a populist party anywhere, taking 25 percent of the vote.
Grillo’s tactics may be astute.
Maurizio Pessato, vice-president of the SWG polling firm, told Reuters that an equal number of people agreed with Grillo’s denunciations of a tired political class but did not vote for him.
That gives him a potential voting poll of 50 percent of the electorate, according to Pessato. “We could say half the country agrees with him,” he said.
Before the vote, many analysts had warned Italy’s politicians that rage against their waste and corruption threatened a political revolution, but few took much notice.
Now they are fighting for survival with both the center-left and center-right facing internal splits that could blow them apart.
“They really must change their leadership or offer answers, or they will be swept away,” Pessato said.
There are, however, a few glimmers of hope for at least a temporary solution to the crisis, not least that early declarations by politicians may be negotiating ploys.
Grillo’s stream of insults against Bersani’s cautious overtures towards the 5-Star Movement did not go down well with many of the group’s supporters, who often seem more moderate than their outspoken leader.
An online petition supporting a vote of confidence in a center-left government committed to changing Italy has collected more than 100,000 signatures in the last 24 hours – apparently with support from many of those who supported Grillo’s campaign.
Bersani has proposed a list of reforms as the program for a new government, many of which coincide with the 5-Star Movement’s aims.
They include repealing the hated electoral law – which has been a major contributor to the crisis – a sharp reduction in the number of parliamentarians and their extravagant privileges, and a powerful new law against corruption.
Another possible source of hope is the fact that Grillo has praised the system in Sicily, where a center-left government is successfully supported by the 5-Star Movement. However, in the island’s regional administration there is no need for the vote of confidence that is essential for a national government.