‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Italy’s put-upon voters have echoed the agonised appeal of Howard Beale, demented TV anchor in the film Network, a call to viewers to go to their windows and roar against the tide overwhelming them. Former comedian Beppe Grillo is Beale, and his Five Star Movement has succeeded beyond expectations in getting Italy to roar its pain. It’s great therapy, but has served to plunge the country into what one paper has called “new depths of gridlock”. “The winner is: Ungovernability” ran the headline of Rome’s Il Messaggero.
The message of the electorate was predominantly anti-austerity – 57 per cent voted for parties (including Silvio Berlusconi’s) that explicitly oppose austerity. But the 8.7 million (25.5 per cent of voters) who backed Grillo were also saying something more complicated. His support is unlike the anti-establishment populist movements of the far right, many explicitly racist, which have mushroomed across the EU in recent years. The Five Star Movement’s instinctive, largely incoherent libertarianism and anti-corruption politics perhaps owes more to ground vacated by Greens or to the Pirate parties that have found support in Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic. The latter’s youth appeal, online campaigning and messages of internet freedom and clean energy are echoed by Grillo.
Grillo has made clear he does not intend to join any other party in coalition although he has the votes in the upper house, the Senate, to provide Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left bloc with a majority. Perhaps the reality that the country may be left without a viable majority, despite implausible Berlusconi appeals for a grand coalition, may tempt Grillo to reconsider . And the largely unknown ranks of his new parliamentary party may also produce the sort of “Realo”/“Fundi” divisions that would eventually pull the Greens from outright oppositionism into coalition politics.
The real danger is that otherwise the country will be propelled, against the better judgment of all, into another general election without any agreement on electoral reform. That would almost certainly produce a similar result, plunging Italy and the markets it depends on into further chaos and sundering the stabilisation programme put together by the technocratic government of Mario Monti, a combination of austerity and structural reform. EU capitals, which had desperately hoped for a centre-left-Monti majority government led by Bersani, are bewildered.
Bewildered not least because of the political resurrection of Berlusconi, apparently completely impervious to scandal. How many political stakes through the heart of this man will it take? That, Beppe Grillo notwithstanding, was the real shocker of this election.