Electoral stalemate threatens political instability for both Italy and euro zone
Voting officials count the ballots in a polling station in Rome yesterday. With half the count completed, the centre-left was strongly leading, according to polls. photograph: yara nardi/reuters
With half the count completed at press time, all the signs last night were that this weekend’s Italian general election has produced the worst of all possible results, namely a parliamentary stalemate that makes effective government impossible.
This result looks bad for Italy and Italians. Arguably, it is even worse for the European Union and the euro zone. For Italians, this means they will almost certainly be called back to the polls in a matter of months. For the EU and the euro zone, it means serious market turbulence, with a possible run on Italian bonds this morning.
When the polls closed at three o’clock yesterday, there was an immediately euphoric reaction when the initial “instant polls” suggested the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) was about to romp home, winning a workable majority in both houses. When the count moved on from “instant” polls to genuine results, the picture soon changed dramatically, showing at least three distinct trends.
Firstly, the old fox, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has done much better than anticipated, with his centre-right coalition polling nearly 30 per cent in the Senate and 25 per cent in the Lower House.
Secondly, as widely predicted, the protest “Five Star Movement” of ex-comedian Beppe Grillo returned an astounding success, winning 24 per cent of the Senate vote and 26 per cent of the Lower House vote.
Thirdly, not for the first time, the Italian centre-left has proved itself the uncontested maestro when it comes to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, returning a 33 per cent vote in both houses but crucially failing to win a majority in the key regions of Sicily and Lombardy. This result, too, comes in an electoral contest which saw the centre-left start with a 10-point lead over the centre-right.
If there is any positive outcome to this vote, it is that when Italians return to the polls, they may do so with new electoral legislation. For if there is a villain in this piece, it is the so-called “Pig’s Arse” electoral law introduced in 2005 by the government of Berlusconi, legislation designed to guarantee instability.
Were the PDs to come to an agreement with the Grillo movement, then it might be possible to draw up electoral legislation that would guarantee some level of stability.
In the meantime, the defeated were left with some nasty wounds to lick.
Current prime minister Mario Monti failed to return more than 10 per cent of the vote, while smaller parties such as the movement led by Palermo anti-Mafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia and the “Stop the Decline” movement of journalist Oscar Giannino both failed to make the parliamentary quorum.
Two immediate conclusions seem obvious.
Firstly, the strongest sentiment expressed at these elections was that of disillusionment with mainstream politics via the Grillo vote.
Secondly, the old-fashioned, promise-what-you-can politics of Berlusconi, who offered to re-imburse €4 billion of property tax out of his own pocket if necessary, still works with vast sections of an Italian electorate which would seem to have forgotten just how close Italy came to financial collapse under Berlusconi’s last government.
The biggest loser in these elections may be PD leader Pierluigi Bersani,who conducted a hidebound, old-fashioned campaign that offered little to the imagination. It could be that Mr Bersani will be the first casualty of this result with many in the party arguing that he should be replaced by Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi (38), a more dynamic, media-friendly figure.
Definitive results will be available only this afternoon when the key regional election count closes. The regional vote is key to the current electoral law since Senate seats are distributed on a regional basis.
In other words, a 32.8 per cent vote for the PD guarantees just 104 Senate seats, whereas a 29.2 per cent vote for the Berlusconi PDL results in 124 Senate seats, thanks to the regional distribution.