Italian politics in the fog

Friends outside Italy often ask me what’s going on in Italian politics, and they know I am rarely at a loss for words. But these days, as the country appears to be lost in the fog, I find it hard to tell where we’re going.

An era ended in November 2011, although some of its protagonists are still stubbornly holding on to whatever consensus they can gather today. But we still don’t know what the new era looks like. We had about a year of Mr. Monti’s necessary but painful austerity; Mr. Berlusconi’s party eventually pulled the plug on Monti’s government, shortening its life by a few months. Campaigning was rough, bitter, and mostly content-free. The only party to campaign on a credible platform of economic liberalism and reform, newcomer Fare per Fermare il declino – which had ignited the hopes of many entrepreneurs and professionals -, was trounced in the February 24-25 elections, did not even clear the hurdle for a single seat in Parliament, and promptly proceeded to succumb to internal infighting; it didn’t help that founder Oscar Giannino turned out to have claimed a Chicago MBA he had never earned. Instead, the emerging force to be reckoned with turned out to be the Movimento 5 Stelle, a “non-party” led by Beppe Grillo, which readers of tea leaves had credited with about 20% of the vote in pre-electoral opinion polls, but which eventually got close to 25%.

With a tripolar Parliament, stuck in the sheer implausibility of a trust-building exercise among the troops of Messrs Berlusconi, Bersani, and Grillo (who personally hate each other’s guts), and with the poor showing of Mr. Monti (who only carried about 9% of the vote), it will be a tough task indeed for President Napolitano to pick a Prime Minister who stands a chance of forming a stable government. Napolitano himself is at the end of his mandate, and cannot send Italians back to the polls; his successor, to be elected in May by Parliament, would have to do that. Any government that is formed now will probably have a minimal mandate in view of a foreseeably short lifespan: electoral reform – something the parties could not agree on under Mr. Monti – would have to be its centerpiece, since everybody knows that the system bequeathed by a previous PdL-Lega government (and nicknamed porcellum) isn’t cutting it anymore. Fiscal reform, economic growth, and jobs, as crucial as they are in this emergency, just seem too big a mountain to climb for anybody in this political weather. Mr. Bersani briefly held out an olive branch to a disdainful M5S in the form of an eight-point program to build consensus; trouble is, not even his followers can remember what those eight items are about.

In the meantime, yesterday the newly convened House and Senate managed to choose their Presidents. They are two newcomers to politics, a former UNHCR spokeswoman and an anti-Mafia magistrate, voted into office in the lists of the Pd and its left-wing ally SEL, shrewdly picked by Mr. Bersani but shrilly denounced by Mr. Berlusconi’s people as “occupants”. The Senate presidential election only went through thanks to a few votes by M5S senators, whom Mr. Grillo promptly proceeded to excommunicate, although he cannot be sure of who they are (the vote was secret).

It is hard to tell whether Italians, in voting so massively for the M5S, have merely expressed their angst at the protracted recession of the past few years and their anger at the privileges of the old political caste, or whether they are truly buying into Mr. Grillo’s anti-Euro, utopian “degrowth” ideology. The threat to the European project, though, feels real enough that Giorgio Squinzi, head of industrialists’ lobby Confindustria, was compelled today to warn that its think tank had estimated at 30-40% the immediate GDP loss from a Euro exit by Italy.

This weekend, European institutions are not doing themselves a favor in the popular view by imposing a harsh haircut on bank depositors in Cyprus as a condition of the country’s bailout; and fears of contagion may cause yet more instability in the markets, playing into Mr. Grillo’s hands. True, Italy has a long tradition of short governments, unable to complete their full five-year term; and some believe that an M5S-led government would quickly flounder due to its members’ inexperience. Yet, such protracted instability is hardly to be wished for in a country that stopped growing practically a generation ago, and needs to find a way out of the doldrums more than at any point in recent history. Politics is the art of compromise: we will need all our artistry to pull this one through.