Real danger of stalemate in wake of Italian poll

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

If you were to invent a sub-title for this weekend’s Italian general election, it would have to be Six Characters in Search of an Electoral Disaster. In terms of impending chaos, the cast holds promise: Old Fox Berlusconi; Uncomfortable Monti; former Mafia Investigator Ingroia; Gay Activist Vendola; Decent Muddled Man Bersani; and, arguably most interesting of all, former comedian and Anti-System figure, Grillo.

For an amateur production at the town hall, they might ensure an entertaining evening. As candidates for the general election in the EU’s fourth largest economy, there is the real danger they may guarantee only confusion, electoral stalemate and a hung parliament.

In the wake of such a result, will the markets then turn on Italy, in the process destablising the euro zone in a manner similar to November 2011 when Silvio Berlusconi was forced to resign? We will begin to know on Monday evening – voting ends at 3pm on Monday, after which counting starts. The potentially hung parliament is linked to an absurdly unbalanced electoral law that was designed by Berlusconi’s government back in 2005 to make the Senate almost ungovernable.

Given that the smaller parties of Monti and Ingroia will take votes from the two largest parties, whilst Grillo’s Five Star protest movement will take votes from everyone, a stalemate is clearly possible.

For the last 20 years, the tone of Italian general elections has been set by 76-year-old media tycoon Berlusconi. This time the “Five Star” protest movement led by Beppe Grillo represents the only truly innovative formation.

Amazingly for a first-time general election runner, with a virtual, online, grassroots base and without a single national public figure, Grillo’s movement is set to pick up 20-24 per cent of the national vote. This would make it the third strongest party, behind the probable winners, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi’s centre-right People Of Freedom (PDL) party.

Grillo talks the talk, and what is more, he has done so without going on television in a country where eight out of 10 people get their news information from TV. In what has been a peculiarly old-fashioned campaign, with just about everybody bar Grillo prepared to slit their granny’s throat for a bit of prime time TV coverage (but not a TV debate between candidates), the ex-comedian has gone his own way, travelling the peninsula in a camper van.

A skilled, high-decibel orator, Grillo tends to howl that “they” (mainstream political forces) have ruined the country and it is now time to get rid of them: “Send them home,” he says, at rally after rally.

In a country where a teacher’s initial salary is €1,136 per month and where one in 10 pensioners is paid less than €500 per month, Grillo touches a raw nerve when he points out that the average deputy’s salary is €20,000 per month.

Grillo’s “populist” proposals include the introduction of the dole, more incentives for solar panels, cuts to the privileges of the political “caste” and abandoning controversial projects like the TAV high-speed railway line linking Italy to France and the forever promised Messina Strait bridge in Sicily.

One of those most regularly criticised by Grillo is former prime minister Berlusconi who, after pretending for a long time that he was about to drop out of politics, returned with a flourish last autumn. Having made dramatic initial gains in the election campaign, Berlusconi’s progress has been at least partly stopped by an unexpected source: the resignation of Pope Benedict has limited his access to prime-time TV.

Berlusconi’s biggest wheeze this time round has been to offer to reimburse the property tax introduced by his successor, Monti. To underline that point, he sent out millions of letters this week containing a facsimile of a would-be reimbursement form. Confused pensioners have been turning up at the post office or the tax office with copies of the Berlusconi letter, thinking that they could sign on for the payback.

Bunga bunga

That was bad but worse for him is the expectation that his various Bunga, Bunga and other scandals will see him lose much of the Catholic vote which may head the way of Monti.

Widely admired internationally for his role in steadying the Italian economy in November 2011, Monti is no prophet in his own land where many Italians resent his austerity politics of tax hikes and public service cuts. His share of the vote should be in the 10-15 per cent bracket. If the latest polls are accurate, the PDs, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, will win the election in coalition with the SEL movement of gay activist Nichi Vendola, with a 32-34 per cent vote. This would give them a majority in the lower house but perhaps not in the senate.

At that point, the Five Star movement becomes all important. What way will this squad move? Grillo, who is not a candidate himself, says the movement will decide issue by issue.

Commentators would suggest confusion looms. In the end, Grillo remains the most symptomatic expression of this moment – an angry vote perhaps leading to nowhere.

The Democratic Party (the Partito Democratico, or PD, in Italian)is a mildly left leaning, social democratic party led by Pier Luigi Bersani and believed to be leading the race by a nose.

The party was founded in October 2007 as a merger of various left-wing and centrist parties from the 2006 general election.

The People of Freedom (Il Popolo della Libertà, or PdL)is a centre-right party led by Silvio Berlusconi and founded officially in March 2009 with the amalgamation of his Forza Italia and the National Alliance.

The PdL extols “Christian” and “liberal” values, saying it defends traditional values and the primacy of the individual.

Left Ecology Freedom (Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, or SEL)was previously known as Left and Freedom (Sinistra e Libertà, SL). It is a democratic socialist party, originally founded as a coalition of left-wing parties in 2010.

Its leader is gay activist Nichi Vendola.

The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle),was originally known as Movement of National Liberation (Movimento di Liberazione Nazionale). It was launched in October 2009 by its leader, Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger. M5S is populist, ecologist, and partially Eurosceptic.