The Italian general elections, which take place on the 24-25th February, are shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable since Silvio Berlusconi first swept to power in 1994 on the ruins of the so-called First Republic. That one took place in the midst of the chaos brought about by the Tangentopoli corruption scandals pursued by the pool of Milanese magistrates led by Antonio Di Pietro. Oddly enough, both Berlusconi and Di Pietro are still around to slug it out this time as well, although both are looking slightly worse for wear, albeit for different reasons.
This time there is again an air of change, with some of the parties rushing to rid themselves of their more embarrassing candidates before it’s too late (although that hasn’t stopped Berlusconi from asking his favourite news reader Minzolini to join his team...), in a rush to clean up their act that reminds me of old jokes about virginity regained. Anyhow, here’s a quick summary of who is involved and how things are looking the moment. I’ll give a couple of updates in the coming weeks to see how things pan out.
PD - Partito Democratico: led by the unremittingly dour and uninspiring Pierluigi Bersani, the party formerly known as the ex-communists were last in power in 2007 under Romano Prodi, although they were quickly brought down by a mixture of centrist allies and assorted Machiavellian manoeuvres from Berlusconi. Be not misled by the heritage, there is barely anything communist remaining in the PD, so much so that they are desperate to be rid of their left wings allies SEL, led by the loquacious and charismatic Nichi Vendola. Bersani has been constantly courting Merkel’s man in Rome, Mario Monti, despite the fact that the man is a Neoliberal banker who has put post of the PD electorate to the sword over the past year. To put things in perspective, this is rather the equivalent of the British Labour Party under Tony Benn deciding to forge an alliance with Margaret Thatcher. Yes, it’s that bizarre. So why is this happening? Basically because Bersani knows that whoever allies with the centre is likely to win, and politically a PD-Monti government is his best option, keeping PD interests intact and the ECB wolves from the door.
Up till a couple of weeks ago Bersani was streaking ahead in the polls, but he was the only party in town, there were large numbers of undecided voters, Berlusconi was still sleeping and Monti had not committed himself to any cause. As polls now show, the more people make up their minds the less likely Bersani is to gain a majority. Hence the attempts to keep his electorate on board by talking up the threat from that eternal bete noir, Silvio Berlusconi. Which goes to show what many have been saying all along, Berlusconi and the Partito Democratico go together like squacquerone and fichi caramellati.
Mario Monti: ever since Monti decided to step down as Prime Minister and get involved in politics (rather than standing disinterestedly above the fray with Giorgio Napolitano, King George), right and left alike have been vying for his favours. Monti, much to our surprise, decided in the end to get in bed with an unholy alliance of centrists (possibly the most corrupt assortment of nepotists and fair-weather friends in a competitive field) such as Casini, the post-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, the Vatican, and an assortment of Fiat managers and bankers. Even the Financial Times isn’t buying this one, apparently. Online especially, Monti has been taking serious abuse (check out his Facebook profile for proof of that), but that perhaps doesn’t mean much in Italy, given the quite extraordinary rolling out of media support for him. Monti’s TV presence in all its monochrome glory has been second only to Berlusconi’s so far, indicative of the extent to which the big industrial players in Italy have lined up behind their man and ensured that the media groups have got the message. However, he is running with some of the most unpopular career politicians in Italy and has managed to make Berlusconi look like an economic genius, plunging large numbers of Italians into unexpected poverty and spawning figures of hate such as his erstwhile minister Madame Elsa Fornero, so it will be intriguing to see how many of the vast swathes of Catholic voters line up behind him when push comes to shove.
Berlusconi: What can we say about Berlusconi that hasn’t already been said. I’ve read more articles writing him off over the past twenty years than I’ve had pizze margherita, so I’m not about to make the same mistake. All the same, it is hard to see him coming back from the dead this time, but he may get enough leverage out of an alliance between his party, the PDL and the real unknown quantity in these elections, the Lega Nord, in order to protect his principal interests, i.e. his company and the desire to stay out of prison. Berlusconi still has enough power and media presence to make things very difficult indeed for his opponents, and (perhaps not to be underestimated), his statements on the economy ring a bell with many of his core voters. For better or for worse, the Berlusconi knows how to run a company that depends on getting bums on seats, and in that respect he has a huge advantage over his opponents (with the exception of this last guy).
Beppe Grillo: how can you explain a phenomenon like Grillo? He’s not even a politician, he’s a comedian. His Movimento Cinque Stelle isn’t even a party, and Grillo himself isn’t standing for election. The MCS is a grass-roots movement that has gained support by rejecting everything that the traditional parties appear to stand for, namely rampant corruption and cronyism, and by promoting the type of environmental and internet-savvy type of policies that are missing from mainstream debate in Italy. All of this appeals to both younger voters and the type of activist disillusioned with traditional party politics. More to the point, from nowhere only four or five years ago, MCS are now polling at over 10%, and have had major real-world results in local elections (including gaining control of the indebted and scandal-ridden Parma city council) and have scared the life out of the parties, especially the Partito Democratico, who have the most to lose. Apart from leading other parties to emulate or copy some of their policies (such as the ban on convicted criminals from parliament: radical indeed!) the main recent development is that the parties have started to use their media muscle, and any number of friendly dailies (I’m looking at you, Repubblica and Corriere della Sera) to pick up on any ill-advised statement from Grillo as evidence of his pseudo-fascist tendencies: and Grillo makes lots and lots of ill-advised statements, he’s a comedian after all... The take home message is that Grillo is a closet Fascist manoeuvred by the Svengali-like Casaleggio Associates and in thrall to CasaPound, a Neofascist movement . This ought to be enough to scare wavering lefties back to the PD fold. More likely, though, they will just abstain or - an even worse hypothesis for the PD, vote for Ingroia’s unlikely alliance of ex-magistrates such as the mayor of Naples, Luigi De Magistris, communists and journalists, called Rivoluzione Civile.