The Chaos in Italy, thenewyorker.com, May 7, 2013
It would be a mistake to give too much weight to the desperate act of Luigi Preiti, the troubled, unemployed man who allegedly shot at and wounded two police officers in front of Palazzo Chigi, the official residence of Italy’s Prime Minister, late last month. And yet it is hard not to see something symbolic in the shooting, which occurred at the same time Italy’s new government was being sworn in. Preiti reportedly told police that he wanted to kill politicians, and anger against Italy’s political class has been the dominant mood in the country recently; politicians are routinely compared to zombies and vampires. In elections held in February, the Five Star Movement, a protest group led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, came out of virtually nowhere—with almost no television coverage or advertising—to win an astonishing twenty-five per cent of the vote on the anti-politician slogan “Tutti a casa!” (“Send them all home”). Italians have only grown angrier and more frustrated since then, as they have watched an election with a central message of “change,” written in the biggest possible letters, result in the formation of a government that looks very much like those that came before it.
In some ways, the newly formed government of Enrico Letta, an alliance of left and right that includes both the main center-left party, the Democratic Party, and the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right People of Liberty party, seems new: at forty-six, Letta is one of Italy’s youngest Prime Ministers; his cabinet contains more women than any before it, along with the country’s first minister of color. In other aspects, it is eerily familiar. Letta himself began his career as a member of the Christian Democrats, the party that governed Italy from 1946 until 1993, and his uncle, Gianni Letta, is one of Berlusconi’s closest advisers and an old Christian Democrat himself. And the country’s President is still Giorgio Napolitano, an eighty-seven-year-old who’s been in office since 2006. More troubling than the government’s content is the means by which it was formed: the usual bargaining among the big parties, exactly the kind of self-interested insider power politics that Italians have come to hate. Coupled with all of this is the death, on Monday, of seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—a pillar of post-Second World War Italy—which makes the old political order, itself no picnic, seem like a golden age of ordinary dysfunction compared to today’s new hyper-dysfunction.
February’s elections may have sent a clear message of change, but they did not produce a government to accomplish it. The left-of-center coalition, headed by the Democratic Party, won the largest share of the vote, with thirty per cent. In theory, this was a victory; in reality, it was a defeat, one that has only been compounded since the vote. By all logic, it was an election the left stood to win handily, thanks to the failures of Berlusconi, who was forced to resign his post in 2011 with the country on the brink of financial collapse, but it managed to prevail by only the narrowest of margins. Even so, leftists still came away with an opportunity to form the first left-wing government in modern Italian history. They failed, in spectacular fashion, to capitalize on it.
The Democratic Party, under the leadership of Pier Luigi Bersani, ran a bland, lackluster campaign that lacked a clear identity. “People didn’t know what we stood for,” Rosy Bindi, a party leader, said in a recent interview with La Repubblica. “Grillo stood for ‘Send them home!’ Berlusconi stood for ‘No property tax!’ But what did we stand for?” As a result, the Democratic Party and its coalition barely out-performed both Berlusconi and Grillo, and found itself in desperate need of a new partner.
The first natural place for the Democratic Party to turn after the elections was Grillo. Many in the party greeted the comedian’s stunning success as a welcome wake-up call, an opportunity to pursue a strong reformist and progressive agenda and regain an identity that had been blurred through compromises made in the course of cobbling together shaky centrist coalitions. Bersani’s strategy was to adopt the more reasonable proposals of the Grillo program—a new electoral law, reducing the number of and salary for members of parliament, a conflict-of-interest law, and a corruption law—and to ask for Grillo’s help in passing important pieces of the Democratic Party’s agenda. The left had successfully done this in Sicily, where the local Democratic Party has, with the Grillo movement’s help, made several positive steps, including, most importantly, the elimination of the area’s provincial governments—a costly and redundant structure on top of the municipal and regional governments that was mainly a source of political patronage and corruption. Bersani tried, quite cleverly, to maneuver Grillo into a similar solution on a national level in the elections for the presidency of the Italian Senate, in which he needed Grillo votes to get his chosen candidate approved. While Berlusconi offered Renato Schifani, a former mafia lawyer, as his candidate, Bersani—to everyone’s surprise—proposed the anti-mafia prosecutor Piero Grasso, thus forcing Grillo’s movement to face a stark choice: A mafia lawyer or someone who has dedicated his life to fighting the mafia? Although Grillo had strictly forbidden his followers in parliament from joining any coalition with other parties, the Grasso choice was too much for some of them, and a handful of defectors used the Senate’s secret voting process to elect Grasso and defeat Schifani. Bersani had hoped that there would be room for coöperation with the substantial group of Grillo’s followers who were prepared to support a reformist agenda. But he had not reckoned with the intransigence of Grillo and the strange, non-traditional nature of his movement. Grillo was furious, and threatened to excommunicate anyone who broke with party discipline. And his response to Bersani’s overtures was to call Bersani “a dead man walking” and repeat his goal: send all the politicians home, win a hundred per cent of the vote in future elections, and replace the party system with some form of direct, Internet-based democracy.
Members of the Democratic Party hoping to establish good relations with the scores of newly elected Five Star Movement deputies found it rough going. When I visited the Italian parliament in late March, many deputies I interviewed said that they had never met or spoken with a Five Star deputy. Grillo’s followers—many in their early twenties and showing up to their new jobs wearing baseball caps and carrying backpacks—resolutely refused to join the daily life of the Italian parliament, where deputies sit around on couches in the elegant long room outside the voting chamber or schmooze at the bar of the Lower House. One leading Five Star deputy even refused to shake hands with the Democratic Party leader Rosy Bindi when Bindi tried to introduce herself. Many of the “Grillini” showed up to work and placed can-openers on their desks to signify that they were going to open up the parliament and expose its corrupt ways. “The Grillini are nowhere around,” one member told me. “They move in groups so that they can keep an eye on each other and avoid individual members talking with us and becoming corrupted.”
The candidates on the Grillo slate were initially selected in online primaries involving an estimated twenty thousand people. Few of them had prior political experience. Many were young: students, unemployed or in the workforce for only a few years. This non-traditional group was precisely what Grillo had promised, but to some critics it seems more like a personality cult than a political movement. Some of the Five Star deputies, left to their own devices, might well have offered their support to Bersani’s proposed alliance, but Grillo, although himself not a member of parliament, was adamantly opposed, and maintained his group’s internal cohesion.
To make matters much more complicated, along with patching together a government, the newly elected parliament needed to vote in a new President of the Republic. Italy found itself in a devilish Catch-22: the President is the only one who can select someone to form a government (or dissolve parliament), but it is the parliament that must elect the President. And with Napolitano’s seven-year term about to end, Italy was rapidly approaching the point of having neither a government nor a President. And so, a parliament without a cohesive majority needed to quickly elect a new President before Napolitano’s original term ran out. Here, Bersani made what may go down in history as a genuinely tragic mistake. He did the one thing he absolutely shouldn’t have done: engage in direct one-on-one negotiations with Berlusconi. These private talks produced a mutually agreeable candidate, Franco Marini, a former labor leader and former president of the Italian Senate. Marini is a man of considerable merit, but he is also eighty years old, and as a candidate chosen through a back-room deal with Berlusconi he represented exactly the old-fashioned politics-as-usual that Bersani had promised to avoid. Quite predictably, the deal blew up in Bersani’s face. He was met with a massive internal rebellion from his party; Marini was voted down. And when Bersani tried to placate his fellow Democrats by proposing the more acceptable figure of Romano Prodi, his own party rejected that solution, too, forcing Bersani to resign as party secretary. It was a stunning sequence of events: in about forty-eight hours, Bersani had gone from being the head of the country’s largest political force to being a humiliated member of a party that had been reduced to a smoking ruin. It was a chilling spectacle—like watching someone commit hara-kiri in public. After that, the Democrats were terrified of being slaughtered in new elections, and were prepared to agree to almost anything. In order to stop the hemorrhaging, Bersani and most of his party quickly agreed to the humiliating solution of getting Napolitano to stay on a little longer. And so a shot-gun marriage with Berlusconi (which they had said they would never agree to) was arranged, and Enrico Letta was chosen to head the new government.
The traditional left in Italy is in deep despair, and Bersani may have signed his own party’s death warrant. Both Berlusconi and Grillo are in good positions to profit from his mistakes whenever the next elections arrive. (Although national elections are technically scheduled to be held five years from now, a vote will be held before then if the government falls, and given the shaky and contentious nature of this coalition it is reasonable to expect exactly that.) All that said, it is not impossible that something decent may come of the present government. Letta is a shrewd man, and everyone in his party understands that if they fail to make at least some real progress toward reform and economic health they will be flayed alive in the next elections. Some of Italy’s better governments of recent years—the governments of Giuliano Amato, in 1992, and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, in 1993—did some excellent things because the country’s then-major parties were fighting for their lives. Letta, who is a determined supporter of the E.U., is already using his good relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to give Italy some room for easing up on austerity measures. He is trying to move ahead with reducing the size and generous pay of the Italian parliament—a symbolic measure, to be sure, but an important symbol. Still, it’s hard to see how he can move on a variety of important issues, like an anti-corruption law, conflict-of-interest legislation, or major economic reforms, on which he is likely to encounter intense resistance from Berlusconi.
The genuine tragedy for Italy is that all of this inside-baseball politics occurs against a truly bleak picture for many of the country’s sixty million residents. Italy’s G.D.P. has grown hardly at all in twenty years. It has the highest level of inequality in Western Europe and the actual standard of living of millions of working Italians has dropped. The country has a bloated government sector but has failed to invest in important things like research and development. Taxes are exorbitantly high for those who are forced to pay them, but millions of self-employed Italians pay a fraction of what they should. Youth unemployment is at forty per cent, and many younger workers live at home well into their thirties because all they can find are temporary, low-paying jobs. Reversing this deeply-entrenched set of related problems would be a tall order for any government, but the task will be even harder for Letta, who must not only grapple with all these issues but somehow find a way to create order out of a government built in chaos.