- - Thursday, March 8, 2018


The Decline and Fall of Rome? Not quite. But the parliamentary elections in Italy bespeak interesting times ahead for the nation where a day without a government crisis is like a day without wine. Or sunshine or rain. Or something.

The elections were naturally “inconclusive.” Italian elections always are. The Italian political system, riven by factions and the inability of any party to come close to winning an electoral majority, nearly always produces a result kindly called “inconclusive.” Dog bites man, but on any other day the dog is simpatico and a big-hearted fellow, like Italians generally. What was particularly striking this time was the absolute pummeling that the traditional establishment political parties took.

The two parties headed by former prime ministers, Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party, are revealing cases in point. Signor Renzi’s Democrats could not even muster 19 percent of the vote. That represented a 6.5 percentage point decline from the last election, a pathetically weak showing for what is supposed to be one of the leading voices of the respectable European center-left. Signor Berlusconi’s Forza Italia couldn’t squeeze out even 14 percent, more than 7.5 points below its most recent performance. This was an astonishingly poor performance, given Signor Berlusconi’s usual electoral appeal. It’s small consolation for him that, given his felony convictions, he could not be prime minister again even if his party had won a majority.

The big winners were the upstart parties. The Five Star Movement, founded by a popular comedian not even 10 years ago, won a plurality, with nearly a third of the total vote. This despite the movement lacking a coherent ideology beyond “throw the bums out.” The Northern League, a right-wing party in the tradition of France’s National Front, took nearly 18 percent. The Brothers of Italy, an openly fascist party, won nearly 5 percent. Each party posted sizable gains from previous elections.

With well more than half the Italian electorate turning out for populist or anti-establishment parties, it’s clear that the anti-establishment wave continues apace across the Continent. There was hope among the Eurocrats that after establishment-friendly victories in France and the Netherlands, the peasants had calmed themselves. But there’s angst again in Brussels, for good reason. Italy has traditionally been one of the more pro-European Union nations on the Continent. This election result will be deeply worrying for Frau Merkel and her allies. The result was much like California electing a Republican to succeed Jerry Brown or Dianne Feinstein. It’s just not supposed to happen.

There’s no mystery about why Italians are unhappy with the status quo. Their economy is in the doldrums, even as Northern Europe has emerged from the Eurozone crisis in good health. Italy remains stagnant, with a laundry list of economic problems: Young people struggle to find work, national debt has exploded through the roof and banks are saddled with bad loans. Youth unemployment tops even that of France. Spain, traditionally a laggard, is growing faster than Italy.

Even more upsetting to Italians is the immigration crisis. Italy is often the first port of call for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and many have stayed. The Northern League made electoral hay by pledging to return some 400,000 illegal migrants to their countries of origin. The slogan the party took was a steal from another famous upstart politician, “Italians first.” The Five Star Movement pledged to deport illegal immigrants. The results speak for themselves.

So how will Italy now form a government? With such a splintered result, weeks of painstaking negotiations could be required to figure out how to put one together. The center-right coalition of Forza Italia and the Northern League together won 37 percent of the vote, short of the 40 percent required to form a governing plurality. That means either Five Star or a liberal party would have to join the coalition. There’s no guarantee of that. Other possibilities include an anti-establishment government of the Northern League and the Five Star movement, or a Five Star-Democratic Party coalition. Or Italy might hold yet another election, though it’s hardly clear that a second would be more “conclusive” than the first.

This is the devil’s detail in the parliamentary system, and it’s why the Founding Fathers decreed something better for the nation born in Philadelphia. We can be glad they did. Sometimes America elects good people, sometimes America elects not-so-good people. But there’s rarely suspense on the morning after, and that’s not nothing.

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