In Italy’s Local Elections, a Professor and a Comedian Have the Last Laugh
TURIN—While important national elections were taking place across Europe this month, about 7 million Italians voted in local elections. Since these were the first polls conducted under Mario Monti’s government and were held during the current phase of an economic crisis marked by high unemployment and austerity measures, the two-round elections acquired a political significance that went far beyond the local dimension.
Under normal circumstances, the economic situation ought to have generated antipathy towards the government and translated into a boost for the opposition parties. But instead, the parties that were most vocal in their opposition to the Monti government — the Northern League, Italy of Values, and Left Ecology Freedom parties — were among the losers, while Monti’s leading supporters, the center-left Democratic Party and the centrist Union of Christian and Centrist Democrats, were among the relative winners. What was more unusual was that the center-right coalition of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi qualified for only 9 second round run-off elections, suggesting that the coalition has been reduced to a very marginal role. In total, it won only 1 contest, to the center-left’s 16. In 2007, the center-right coalition had won 17 provincial-level elections, with the center-left winning 9, and the centrists winning 1.
The biggest surprise of this round of elections was the victory in Parma of the Five Star Movement. Led by former actor and comedian Beppe Grillo, that party has focused on advocating for green energy and environmental sustainability and on criticizing the political elites. While Grillo has been vocal in his criticism of Monti’s fiscal austerity, EU inaction, and German arrogance, such rhetoric was also present in a number of other parties’ platforms. What was different about the Five Star Movement was its sophisticated use of communication tools, with a heavy reliance on social networking, and its sharp attacks against the political establishment. In that sense, the movement’s successful populism is neither short-term nor uniquely Italian (think of the Pirates in northern Europe). Surveys now show that the Five Star Movement could get between 8 percent and 10 percent of votes at the national level, which is remarkable for a movement that has very little in the way of formal structure, and that did not run in elections until last year.
Reducing the privileges of the elites has been one of the recurring themes in recent Italian discourse on austerity policies. Italians are more ready than most to accept fiscal discipline but they desire a greater degree of fairness in the distribution of sacrifices. This has translated into stronger arguments against the costs of politics: a recent referendum in Sardinia overwhelmingly approved the halving of compensation for regional legislators and cuts to the costs of public administration. In all likelihood, such factors will introduce major changes to the Italian political landscape. Unless the mainstream political parties change, Monti’s technocratic government and anti-establishment populism could result in a catastrophic double pincer for the traditional parties.
The impact of these elections on the Monti cabinet is likely to be very limited, given the performance of its main supporters, and it is now expected to survive until next year’s general elections.The only Monti supporter that proved a clear loser, Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, will probably avoid calling for early elections when it needs to redefine its identity and strategy. The cabinet will likely have enough time to deal with unresolved issues and advocate stronger policies aimed at growth.
The worsening economic situation at the European and global levels also reinforces the case for Monti’s emergency government, and should help avoid the temptation to revert to more partisan politics that occasionally resurfaces within the coalition. For this reason, Italy under the Monti government can be part of the solution to the euro crisis. The prime minister has been clear on the fact that all of Europe needs greater fiscal discipline, while acknowledging that the de-leveraging of public finances right in the middle of a recession may not necessarily be the most reasonable option. And it is also clear that the euro cannot remain an uneven mechanism whereby some countries reap the benefits of stability and global competitiveness while other countries pay higher prices. Monti is among the few eurozone leaders who can simultaneously speak the German language of fiscal austerity, the French language of growth-oriented policies, and the U.S. language of openness and positivity, a position he can leverage as southern Europe’s only representative at the G8.
Maria Elena Gutierrez is German Marshall Fund of the United States’ representative in Turin, Italy.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.