Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What Now?

The Italian voters have spoken—but what on earth did they say?

Two clear winners were anointed yesterday. First, Beppe Grillo, whose M5S placed first at 25% with the slogan “send them home,” retire all the old guard politicians and replace them with citizen-legislators. And second, Silvio Berlusconi, the oldest of the old guard, the embodiment of everything Grillo and his followers railed against. So having yoked together this improbable pair, can the Italian voters honestly expect the state to move forward in any direction whatsoever?

Well, the drover charged with that task for the moment is the technical ‘winner,’ Pier Luigi Bersani, whose center-left alliance won a razor-thin plurality and will thus, under Italy’s bizarre election system, have a working majority in the Camera and the chance to form a government. But with nothing close to a workable majority in the Senate—even with Monti’s handful of centrist senators Bersani comes up 20 votes short—how long will that government last?
Several implausible scenarios remain technically possible.
  • Berlusconi has already called for the ‘grand coalition’ (with Bersani and Monti) which would create a numerical majority. Neither Bersani nor Monti seems likely to disgrace himself with such a deal, but people (like me) who consider Berlusconi politically dead are repeatedly surprised when the zombie walks.
  • Alternatively, the PD could call for new elections. This was the first reaction of the Democratic Party’s deputy secretary Enrico Letta yesterday, but he was quickly walked back. In time there may be no other choice, but Italy seems likely to pay a steep price in borrowing costs–and angst–if it has to launch new elections.
  • Most intriguingly, a working relationship could develop between Bersani’s center-left and the Grillini in both houses to produce some of the reforms Italy so desperately needs. This was the immediate response yesterday of Bersani’s leftist partner, Nichi Vendola, who pointed to a long list of progressive proposals roughly shared by the two groups. Grillo himself this morning declared himself open to case-by-case consideration of reform bills emanating from Bersani’s putative government.
Could such a governing alliance between an old-school political party and this self-described ‘tsunami’ of anti-political populism actually function? The odds are against it, but the very possibility points to some fascinating ambiguities in Grillo’s movement.

One notable point is that Grillo’s long march had its base in left-populist challenges to the financial and business establishment, on behalf of dispossessed workers and farmers. More recently the M5S has opened itself to the right with anti-immigrant pronouncements and doubts about Italy’s remaining in the Eurozone. But it could be argued that Grillo’s base has anti-corporate leftist inclinations, is in fact a disenchanted remnant of Italy’s traditional Left, and would not be entirely out of place in an enlarged center-left coalition.

But that question raises a more fundamental one: who are the 160 or so new legislators M5S is sending to the new parliament, and what will they do when they get there? Fact 1: Beppe Grillo will not be one of them. Because he strongly insists that no one with a criminal record should sit in parliament, and because he himself carries a conviction for vehicular manslaughter, he has barred himself from serving. The folks who did find places on the M5S lists by way of a thinly participatory on-line ‘primary election’ are … unknown. Novices. Amateurs by design. This is new territory for a legislative body—even those Tea Partiers who flooded Washington in 2010 tended to have been locally active Republicans.

Of course the expected answer is, they’ll do what Grillo says. That’s been the norm for M5S, a one-man operation with one voice, one world-view, one trademark owned by that one person, no internal discussion, no platform committee, no process. When several local movement activists complained about the absence of internal debate last fall, they were promptly purged, i.e., legally enjoined from using the proprietary M5S logo.

This may seem odd coming from Grillo, who has identified himself with internet freedoms, the ‘copyleft’ commons idea, and the diffuse democracy of social media. M5S grew up as a network of local working groups, and has attracted the young people, elsewhere organized in Pirate Parties, who understand the on-line world to be a free preserve. Grillo’s meteoric rise has been linked to the ‘virtual piazza’ as a new forum for democratic expression. Will these self-recruited M5S legislators go to Rome in order to follow his top-down orders, or will they practice a form of horizontal democracy seen most recently in the Occupy movements, with which they share a visible affinity?

In short, M5S is riven by an enormous contradiction: on one hand, the authoritarian Grillo, whose famous blog is a personal platform and not a forum, and whose performances in actual piazzas are sometimes compared to Mussolini’s. On the other, his movement, which thrives in the ‘virtual piazza’ and may be inventing a highly decentralized, very new form of democracy powered by technologies that hardly existed five years ago. Can that New Italy somehow find terms of coexistence in Rome with the more tepid renewals proposed by the Bersani-Vendola coalition, while fully 30% of the voters still long for the archaic corruption and demagoguery of Berlusconi?

More than likely, this house of cards will collapse within weeks and Italians will be asked to vote once more. Who can guess what they will do then? Can the ECB and the Eurozone withstand this turbulence? The stakes are high. But I do think that the most durable effect of Sunday’s election may be the emergence of this new electronic post-partisan form of democratic participation embodied not in Beppe Grillo but in his hosts of anonymous followers.

[cross-posted at on February 26]

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jiminy Cricket, It's Grillo!

It's Grillo, isn't it? After all my wishful thinking that the Italian election would be about Bersani-Vendola and the center-left's resistance to Merkel, the ECB, and austerity doomsday policies ... by Monday, none of that will matter, will it? All my efforts to downplay this blowhard comedian with his crude rhetoric and atavistic notions ... useless, niente, nada. As Beppe Severgnino put it in the Corriere a couple days ago: "Whoever wins, this will be remembered as Grillo's election."

So I'm resigning myself to a 20%+ showing from Grillo, an effectively deadlocked parliament, an ungovernable Italy (again). And better late than never, I'm learning what I can about the Grillo phenomenon, starting with this article by a couple of professors at the University of Urbino. It's smart, comprehensive, and ... it's in English. Have a look.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rounding the Last Pole

[Cross-posted today at A fistful of Euros]
Launched in an act of treachery that brought down Mario Monti's technocratic government, the Italian national election campaign will end one way or another, to the relief of many, Saturday evening. What might have been a sustained debate on the merits of austerity measures in a prolonged recession, on the future of Italian employment and its welfare state or a host of other pressing issues, has instead taken on the quality of an unsavory burlesque revue. Its stars: authentic if acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Stars protest movement may yet shape the outcome, and sick joker Silvio Berlusconi, whose foolish headline grabs have used up much of the electoral space. But it has been a lavish, large-cast production, with indictments flying, old allies back-stabbing, off-color jokes and evanescent affiliations, a Fellini-esque procession of oddities and crudities unworthy of the noble republic Italy could nonetheless become.
What to expect? Given Italy's ban on published polls in the final two weeks, calling this one from Boston is something like watching a horse race through the wrong end of the binoculars--but I'm going to do it anyway. Bersani and the center-left have led all the way, notwithstanding the Monte dei Paschi banking scandal that implicates Monti as much as Bersani, and neither man in any direct way. Bersani's campaign has been steady if utterly unflamboyant; he conveys an avuncular credibility that makes it hard to brand him a flaming radical despite Berlusconi's many tries. He has sought international credibility in Berlin and in the American press, and has scrupulously balanced his attachments to rising centrist Matteo Renzi on his right and leftist but circumspect Nichi Vendola to his left. Nothing suggests that Bersani will be dislodged from the #1 spot, and thus control of the lower house.
But can he form a stable government? That's a question about the Senate, and really about 2 or 3 key regions that will decide it: Lombardy, Sicily, maybe Campania. This interesting poll predicts a one-vote plurality for the center-left: it may be a long night for Pier Luigi. If he falls short, Monti's centrist coalition acquires what corporate types call a 'golden seat' at the table, with considerable leverage over fiscal policy.
But Monti himself has been the great disappointment of the season. All the EU heavies have lobbied for him, with possibly negative effect. Italian voters may respect him but don't seem to like him, and his campaign has never achieved lift-off. With fewer distractions this could be the real story of the campaign: even Italy's desperate straits and Monti's exemplary financial credentials are not enough to sell austerity to a chronically hurting electorate--liberal politicians throughout Europe, beware! As I've noted elsewhere, Monti's persistent efforts to split Bersani from Vendola have miserably failed, and Monti has lurched from accomodation to hostility to a final call for a renewed 'grand coalition.' He may yet find himself part of one, but no thanks to his nondescript political skills.
Vendola, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a team player, capable of flashes of wit such as this wonderful Tweet. He has hewed to a steady left line, insisting that workers' rights and the full social safety net must be cornerstones of any 'reform', but like Bersani he seems a lot less scary than his right-wing detractors would prefer. Look for Vendola in a prominent place in Bersani's government.
But will Grillo's anti-political movement obtain an intractable bloc in the new Parliament? Populist protests are notoriously hard to measure, though Grillo's internet-savvy and personally charismatic style have made an indisputable and perhaps permanent impact. My own hunch is that on Sunday Grillo may underperform, losing a share of his 15% to that other discreet contender, Abstention. This shadow-candidate is thought to command 30% already, and I wonder: instead of showing their disdain for politics by going out to vote for Grillo, why won't a fair proportion of his supporters send the same message by staying home? Well, maybe because they love Beppe--we'll see.
In any case, Berlusconi's faux-populism can't hold a candle to Grillo's real deal. The Cavalier still stands to win a substantial fraction--25%?--but without Grillo he would have had a better chance to harvest the broad dissatisfaction with Monti. Why this cadaverous has-been still gets even 1% is a mystery to me, but I remain confident that he will be shut out of any new government. Why? Because he is pure poison.
So I'm among the few who wait optimistically for Monday's verdict. Last spring I hoped Hollande would feel empowered to contest Merkel's disastrous orthodoxy. I noted the brief but surprising flourish of the Dutch Socialists last fall; I observe Alexis Tsipris's recent arrival on the main stage, and sense a gathering change of mood in much of Europe, perhaps in time for next year's Euro-elections. A Bersani-Vendola government would move the Old Continent a few more cautious steps in that direction. Avanti!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Euro-lover Jilted!

Maybe it was the photo of the happy de facto couple (see yesterday's post). Or maybe, as he noted in Rome yesterday, Monti wants a shot at directing traffic himself, rather than letting Bersani have all the fun. Whatever the reason, it looks like it's all off between Monti and the center-left: "With this left-wing coalition I don't have and never will have anything in common," he huffily declared.

But Mario, can this really be the end, after all our hopes and dreams? Of course not. These daily games of push-and-pull are, as I've said, the vital center of this campaign, as Monti and Vendola jockey for position in the new government. Right now Vendola may be a few lengths ahead--that is the real point of Monti's remarks. But whether Bersani can afford to let him walk away depends on whom the voters in Lombardy and Sicily choose to send to the Senate, and we won't know that for a few days more.

So Mario, don't throw out those long-stemmed roses--your courting days may not be over yet.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Even Couple

The hour of gay marriage has not yet arrived in Italy, unlike France, various of the United States, and a handful of other countries around the world. That hasn't stopped Nichi Vendola from enjoying life in a long-term couple, nor from being the object of homophobic taunts from the Cavaliere and others. But in this charming tweet, where he labels himself and and his pal Pier Luigi a "de facto couple" (unless there is some nuance to the phrase I'm missing), he not only makes a well-aimed political point about the center-left alliance, but he shows that he at least, and Bersani too, are relaxed enough to have a little chuckle about the 'gay thing.'

He gets a perfect "10" on my scorecard.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Traffic Cop

Just as an addendum to yesterday's long post: everywhere he goes Bersani is asked about how it would be to govern with both Vendola and Monti on the team, and today, with his penchant for metaphor unabated, he had a clear answer: "The [Democratic Party] primaries determined who directs the traffic, and if the problem arises, I'll take care of it."

Meanwhile Bersani's nuanced endorsement of Vendola--"He knows what it is to govern and what sorts of compromises are necessary"--was exceeded by Vendola's own mash note to the Secretary: "a competent and passionate administrator ... and a stand-up guy [persona perbene]."

We'll see soon enough who gets the right-of-way ...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Point Counterpoint

[Note: This is my first try at cross-posting: this article is appearing simultaneously at A Fistful of Euros, whose readers I cordially welcome to this blog if you find your way here.]
Let's forget about the Pope's retirement, OK? Not that it doesn't have huge implications for the theology of the Church and the role of future tenants of St. Peter's see, but none of that is an electoral matter. And please, let's pay no further attention to the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, that bad little boy who wants all our attention, all the time. Just ignore him. Let's notice instead where the Italian electoral campaign is really happening, where it has always been happening, and where in the aftermath of next Sunday's vote all the political action will be concentrated. Let's look at the wonderful triangulation between Pier Luigi Bersani, Nichi Vendola, and Mario Monti.
For background, recall that Bersani and Vendola both came of age in the old Italian Communist Party, both participated in the Rifondazione movement in the '90s, and both retain a fondness for working people and the venerable culture of the Left that comes with that territory. When Bersani was consolidating his hold on the big-tent Democratic Party a half-decade ago, Vendola still held on to his Left purism, enough so, some say, that he helped bring down Romano Prodi's center-leaning government in 2008. Since then his SEL (Left Ecology Freedom) Party has governed Puglia with a red/green slant, but has embraced as well the business growth and market logic that have made Puglia a rare success story in Italy's Mezzogiorno.
What does any of this have to do with the technocratic Monti, the former EU Commissioner, professor at an elite business school, unelected premier in the 'government of the professors' that made Italy take its austerity medicine for the last year? Well, all parties declare a grudging mutual respect, and indeed Bersani's PD was a solid if reluctant pillar of Monti's reformist government until Berlusconi chose to kick out the props and make it fall. More to the point right now, though Bersani still polls well ahead in the race for the lower house, and thus the premiership, his alliance seems unlikely to pick up enough seats in the regionally skewed Senate to control it. He can't govern without it. SEL's seats won't do it--he'll need the centrist senators controlled by Monti. Which may explain that grudging but persistent respect.
Meanwhile day after day Vendola and Monti go at each other, like rival siblings competing for the attentions of a fond but slightly absent-minded father. Except of course for a few things: Bersani's aloofness is anything but accidental, Monti HATES being bracketed with a leftist politican, and the differences they are flourishing are the essential policy questions that will determine Italy's future. Such as:
  • On Monday Monti declared he could sit in the same government with Vendola as long as it was 'reformist'; Vendola quickly noted that for Monti 'reform' means rolling back workers' rights, while for his part those rights are the cornerstone of any reform.
  • Vendola has consistently deplored the benefit reductions Monti has imposed at the behest of the ECB, referring yesterday to his austerity measures as the "same old conservative ideology." Bersani meanwhile lamented Monti's "lack of gratitude" for the support his government received from Bersani's Democrats.
And so forth. What is playing out is a classic competition between management strategies, as Vendola advocates for activist stimulus and Monti calls on Italians to tighten their belts for one more round. Bersani meanwhile tries to walk a fine line he calls "austerity with justice," whatever that turns out to mean. But as Hollande waffles along the same line, and Merkel prepares to defend her mercantilist fundamentalism this fall, Italy--for all its woes, still the Eurozone's 3rd biggest economy--will be helping to arbitrate the larger EU's path through this intractable crisis. And it is Vendola and Monti who are waging that struggle day by day.

Sadly, American readers are at risk to miss the whole show. Rachel Donadio, the Times's estimable Rome correspondent, managed to write a whole story about the election last Friday without mentioning Vendola's name. But that's OK--as I noted at the time she wrote a similar article a month ago that lovingly catalogued Berlusconi's clown acts but failed to even mention Bersani, the clear front-runner. With the EU leadership openly campaigning for Monti, along with David Axelrod (hired by Monti's campaign) and maybe President Obama himself (Gianluca Luzi in today's Repubblica calls the President's support for continued reform "a sort of endorsement for Monti"), one might almost suspect an aversion to the ex-Communists of the center-left. But like 'em or not, they are poised to take over Italy's government, though on what terms is precisely the contested terrain of this election. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Two Weeks' Notice

For all the solemnity of his Latin declaration, Pope Benedict's surprise announcement lands with a certain banality in the modern world. We get old, our powers diminish, we relinquish responsibilities; in sum, we retire. In acknowledging this all too human condition Ratzinger has perhaps done the papacy a great service, and in any case has effected a profound change, just by acting on that commonplace of human experience.

But therein lies the radicalness of the gesture. Despite the tawdry stories of much earlier papal resignations--bribery, scandal, schism--the papacy since at least the Counter-Reformation has aspired to a transcendental identity, famously in the doctrine of official infallibility, that has nothing to do with the claims of human frailty. While his more seriously disabled and suffering predecessor, John Paul II, made the astonishing declaration that "one doesn't climb down from the cross"--an assertion of mystical transcendence it would be hard to top--Ratzinger's decision is grounded in the pathos, and the rationality, of the finite.

And yet in its timing, two weeks before what could be a pivotal national election, the Pope's announcement imposes its spiritual temporality on the secular, with consequences it is still too soon to quantify. What seems to be clear is that the Pope was perfectly indifferent to the effect his announcement would have, sucking all the oxygen out of the media at this crucial moment in the campaign. Such are not the concerns of an eternal, Catholic, divinely-inspired institution. While the Pope allegedly made his decision months ago, and could have announced it well outside the electoral cycle, or waited, my suspicion is that he worked within the framework of the Church calendar, timing his announcement so that the election to succeed him would take place during Lent, with the new Pope elevated just in time for Easter. Fair enough. Between the parallel planes of national and spiritual life, the superiority of the latter is implicitly asserted.

Still, the introduction of that much-discussed social question, old-age retirement, into the papacy, which got along for nearly two millenia without it, does bring the two spheres closer together. Though the Pope's announcement has made it harder for Italy's candidates to speak into the public microphone at all in these wind-up days of the campaign, in the long run Ratzinger's historic improvisation,whatever its motivation, will reduce the impediment of religion in the public sphere. At the last, then, we have something to thank him for.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Quo Vadis, Italia?

I began following the Italian election some months ago with high hopes that they would point the way forward for all of Europe, but now I have to admit that my attitude veers from disillusionment to disgust. How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways:

  • Berlusconi's zombie show. Honestly, I thought this bad joke was all played out, but no, there he is, making absurd promises of tax give-backs, taking tastelessness to its outer edge with his paean to Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day, still ducking morals charges ... and moving up in the polls to the point where he will almost certainly deadlock the senate and maybe even realize his twisted ambition to be--hunh?--finance minister!
  • And Monti. The self-effacing brainy fellow who would restore dignity to politics as he did to governance, but instead took a course in bare-knuckles nastiness from an American political consultant. Now he's all poke-'em-in-the-eye, and counters Berlusconi by promising his own give-backs on a more gradual schedule. We can now say with some authority that Italian politician disease is contagious.
  • At least Bersani still shows signs of winning the premiership, though without a senate majority he may not keep the keys to the Palazzo Chigi long enough to unpack. But other than appearing to be a decent, calm, serious sort of guy, does Bersani have ANY program whatsoever (other than denying all knowledge of MPS's financial shenanigans)? Austerity with justice--the man is a walking, talking oxymoron. Like many a mediocre politician he has decided to sit on his lead in the polls, and in this volatile Italian electoral climate, that 'strategy' could prove fatal.
  • And Vendola, my friend Nichi, the man whose original, idealistic blend of communist social values crossed with a fundamental commitment to environmental justice led me to over-read Europe's destiny in his heartfelt lisping remarks ... well, it seems Nichi is a pragmatist after all. He wants to be in the government, and if that means sitting on his most important convictions so as to make a smaller target for Berlusconi's outrageous attacks, so be it. 
  • Who's left? Beppe Grillo, of course, the iconoclast who calls on Al Quaeda to bomb Rome--right, Beppe, can you hear them laughing in New York, London, and Madrid? But as Philippe Ridet points out in today's Monde blog, Grilllo's blend of old-fashioned retail politics--he has stumped through the peninsula day after day, greeting crowds and shaking hands--with the far-and-away strongest internet and social media presence may point the way to a new and more authentic political culture, despite Grillo's severe deficiencies as a candidate and--God help us--statesman. 
But if the road out of this morass passes through Grillo and his foolish, post-ideological a-pox-on-both-your-houses populism, then I guess I'm not surprised so many Italians are threatening to go that way, and not look back. Alas, paesani, there's not much there to see.