I’m fascinated by the Italian election outcome – particularly the rise of “anti-establishment” comedian-turned-electoral-activist Beppe Grillo. Probably we will see a lot of elections elsewhere with parties emerging like Grillo’s “Five Star Movement”, which I would characterise as a kind of romanticist feelgood populist party which conceives of itself as tilting against a “political class” that dominates Italian politics.
That rhetoric about the “political class” is bound to seduce others elsewhere – and indeed, everytime someone interrupts a discussion of economic inequality and rule by big corporations to point out that big government is just as bad, and really big corporations are behind big government and vice-versa…well, movements like Grillo’s can count that as another boost.
What the meaning might be for Grillo’s comparative rise in Italian politics we will soon see. The plurality winner of the Italian elections was the centre-left coalition supporting Pier Luigi Bersani and Italy’s Democratic Party (known as the Partito Democratico, or PD, in Italian). The PD just edged out the centre-right coalition supporting Silvio Berlusconi and The People of Freedom party (Il Popolo della Libertà, or PdL, in Italian). Grillo’s Five Star Movement came in a close third, and all three of these parties absolutely crushed into a fine powder the small centrist party from whence comes Italy’s current creditor-imposed “technocrat” prime minister, Mario Monti.
Some pundits are apparently saying they expect Bersani to team up with Monti to continue with Italy’s commitments to austerity. That would be pretty unwise – Grillo’s party was rewarded handsomely for campaigning hard against austerity, and though Bersani’s centre-left coalition has a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the Italian lower house, it does not have a majority in the Senate, and thus will rely on Grillo’s supporters in the Senate to pass legislation in the upper house. Bersani’s coalition would not have a majority of votes simply adding the senators from Monti’s centrist coalition, and it is doubtful they would turn to Berlusconi for support – especially since the PD might well fracture under the strain that would cause. It seems much more likely that the PD will take Grillo’s movement seriously and cooperate with it in the Senate.
The real unanswered question, though, is what will Grillo’s party do when placed in a position to actually pass legislation. To call the Five Star Movement a little bit “policy-light” would be a massive understatement. This is not a party of policy wonks – this is a party that articulates feelings rather than prepare arguments. Much about the Five Star Movement activists reminds me of Occupy activists – they don’t trust government enough to imagine it actually accomplishing anything, so they don’t make demands on government, they just demonise it. At the end of the day, that’s not a radical politics, that’s the politics of a Ron or Rand Paul.
One possible direction the Five Star Movement might take would be to concentrate on pushing the PD to more fully embrace the politics of anti-austerity while in turn offering the PD its firm support in government. If the movement followed this course of action, I would heartily endorse it as providing a positive development in Italian politics.
The other possible direction, however, is for the new Five Star Movement parliamentarians to flip off the established parties and to use their position to demonstrate to all that Italy’s government is hopeless – the libertarian gambit of getting elected, performing badly in government, and thereby encouraging people to dismantle government, which was the ideological objective the whole time for an anti-government movement.
I’d like to think people in Grillo’s movement ran for office to do better than existing politicians, rather than simply to carp at those existing politicians. The movement does have a set of vague and weak goals, generally along the lines of “there should be more democracy” and “the environment is important to us”, but that’s at least a start. The real question that needs to be posed to the Five Star crowd is “Isn’t it important for you to feel like you’re doing something to forward those goals, rather than just complaining about politicians? And toward that end, shouldn’t you be trying to get some initiatives through the parliament?”
Though the Five Star Movement is not particularly well-spoken on matters relating to the economy, it is economic matters that will dominate Italy’s politics in the next few years. The movement is viscerally anti-austerity, and its success is a strong indication that the pro-austerity policies of outgoing Prime Minister Monti were rejected by Italians in this election. But is it concerned enough about austerity policies to support real alternatives to those policies? Or is it just concerned enough to protest those policies, but not to change them?
The PD should be encouraging the Five Star Movement deputies and senators to take some time to answer those questions. Depending on how they answer, Italy might either take the lead in promoting real reform…or allow its citizens to sink into their comfort zone by criticising politicians while daring to offer no alternative vision.