Lessons for the Centre Left From Italy

by George_East on February 28, 2013

Beppe GrilloLast weekend’s Italian election was supposed to produce a relatively comfortable victory for Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the main centre left party, the Partito Democratico.   It was thought that the outcome would be a coalition between Bersani’s party and the centrist technocrats of current Prime Minister, Mario Monti.   This would provide continuity post-Berlusconi policies.

When I say supposed, it is exactly what I mean.  This was the anticipated and desired result in Berlin, Brussels and the international financial markets.  Such an outcome would embed the austerity measures adopted by the Monti government and see the final political demise of Silvio Berlusconi.   Things didn’t quite work out like that.

The result was a knife edge one.  The Partitio Democratico obtained 29.5% of the vote.  Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (a merger between his own Forza Italia party and the post-fascist National Alliance) were a whisper behind on 29.1%.  The real upset was caused by blogger and populist comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement’s third place with an astonishing 25.5% of the vote, with Mario Monti languishing well behind in fourth place with 10.5%.   Jackie South is pretty busy at the moment, but if he gets the chance he will, no doubt, provide his inimitable electoral analysis of the result in far more detail than I go into here.

Like Greece, Italy has an electoral system which for its lower house gives a top up bonus to the party which is in first place.   So Bersani has 345 members of the Chamber of Deputies.  But the upper house, the Senate, operates in a different way.  Here the position is that Bersani cannot command anything close to a majority, even with the support of Monti’s senators.

The Five Star Movement has been growing exponentially in support since it was founded at the height of the financial crisis in 2009.   It is pretty difficult to pin down where it sits on the political spectrum or what it really stands for on key economic issues.  It has been very largely driven by the charisma of its leader, Grillo.   

However, a look at its manifesto reveals that its primary concern is the way in which Italian democracy works (or from its perspective does not).  The main policies it advocates include term limits for politicians, a ban on politicians having other jobs, ineligibility of convicted criminals from office (something which ironically precludes Grillo himself from standing), and aligning the notoriously high Italian parliamentary salaries (the highest in Europe) with those of the average wage. 

The success of the movement reflects a crisis in Italian democracy and a desire for a break with the status quo.  It is therefore not surprising that a lot of the support for Grillo’s movement has come from otherwise left-inclined voters and the young.  It is particularly unsurprising given that the current government was in effect imposed upon the Italian people by Angela Merkel’s diktat. 

Grillo has described Bersani as ‘a dead man walking’ and is refusing to enter into coalition negotiations with the PD.  It may therefore be impossible for a government to be formed, unless there is a grand coalition between Bersani and Berlusconi.  The reaction of the markets has been savage, as the Italians did not do what they were told.

There are lessons here for the centre left and they are lessons we have written about before on Allthastleft in relation to Greece and Ireland.  The PD, like so many centre left parties in Europe, craves respectability from the European political and financial elites.  It, like PASOK and the Irish Labour Party, before it has embraced ‘austerity’ as the Very Serious and Grown Up thing to do, in order to get that respectability.  In doing so it has acted contrary to the interests of many of the people who would naturally look to it to represent their interests.  This is disastrous politics.  And not just for self-interested reasons.

The result in Greece has been the virtual destruction of PASOK as a political force.  The party of the Papandreou family, which did so much to resist the colonel’s dictatorship and which with New Democracy has held power continuously since the restoration of democracy, has, through its role as agent of austerity shrivelled to 5% in the Opinion polls.    It has no serious role any more.  The anti-austerity Syriza and the openly neo-nazi, Golden Dawn have filled the gap. 

Italy is not quite as scary as Golden Dawn – Grillo’s movement may be ill-defined in many ways, but it is not fascistic.   But there is a lesson here, which is that if, as a party of the Centre Left, you do the work of the right for it.  In particular if you do so by entering into a coalition in ‘the national interest’, don’t be surprised if your former supporters decamp elsewhere looking for others to represent their interests.  It is not true that your supporters have nowhere else to go and that they can be taken for granted.

Further government’s require opposition in democracies if they are to be challenged and held to account.  It is a way of channelling anger with the government’s actions without the system, itself, breaking down.  Opposing a government in the national interest may be more democratically valuable than joining a coalition in the national interest.

My fear for the PD is that, having been spurned by Grillo, they will now move to form a grand coalition with Berlusconi.  This would be utterly toxic for the prospects of its long term support,  even if it would please Berlin and Brussels and the financial markets.  Whatever the immediate instability, it would be better for the PD to seek to govern as a minority government and have an early second election than to form such a coalition.   It would be better for them and it would be better for the future of democracy in Italy.

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