26 February, 2013

Italy votes (3)

So, the initial polls were miles out. It is said that people don't want to admit to a pollster that they voted Berlusconi or Grillo. Berlusconi fought a brilliant, tireless campaign, coming from certain loser to parity in a matter of weeks. Grillo even eclipsed him, and without the aid of the media, which largely pretended he didn't exist. Bersani was lacklustre and boring, Monti was nowhere. In fact he was in Davos for part of the campaign.

Bersani just scraped ahead of Berlusconi in the lower house and gets a bonus of seats, giving him a working majority. Berlusconi came off best in the upper house. Italy is officially ungovernable. To have new elections would require a new president to be elected by this fractious new legislature.

So how has it come to this? Could it occur in any other country that the traditional two or three party system is interrupted by a comedian, whose movement is suddenly as big as the others?

What the papers are saying is 'Italy rejects austerity' on the grounds that both Grillo and Berlusconi disapprove of Monti's plan. But this is a respectable position: many economic commentators think that tax rises in the middle of a recession just make it worse. Austerity is unpopular but it's something else.

There are a couple of aspects to this. The first is that part of the reason Monti did so badly is that he never explained what was going on. It seems arrogance; it seemed that both he and the austerity programme had been parachuted in from Berlin, and that turned Italians against the need for the suffering it caused. Coupled with this is a burgeoning anti-euro and even anti-Europe feeling, with resentment that decisions are made for Europe, not for Italy. This supported Berlusconi, particularly in the northern industrial heartlands where the myriad small firms resent paying for everyone else.

The second feeling in Italy is that the political caste needs replacing: 'Mandiamoli a casa' shrieked Grillo: 'Let's send them all home'. A prime example was during the hustings, where a bank, controlled by a political party, was forced to fire its chief executive who immediately became Chairman of the Association of Italian Bankers! He is now being investigated for corruption. He was a member of the ruling caste, which extends though politics to industry, the trade unions and the education establishment, so he was always going to be looked after. This sort of thing - and there are countless examples - sent million into the arms of Beppe Grillo.

There is going to be considerable short-term embarrassment: Italy is renewing some €8.75 billion of short-term debt this morning and the rates will rise. But in some ways I think this election was good. It was after the Mani Pulite scandal of the 1990s, which brought Berlusconi to power, that things were gong to change, But they didn't: after nearly twenty years, for much of which Berlusconi has been in power, things are the same as they were. Now, they might indeed change. Beppe Grillo is not Garibaldi but he may ultimately be the saviour of his nation. 'Honesty,' he said, 'will come back into fashion.'

Let's hope it does.

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