Deadlock Looms After Italians Return Divided Parliament

Italy faces political paralysis as neither the left nor the right wins an absolute majority.

Rome, Italy at night, June 20, 2009
Rome, Italy at night, June 20, 2009 (lessandro Martino)

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition emerged from Italy’s two-day election with a plurality of the seats in the Senate while the left-wing Partito Democratico and its allies took control of the lower house of parliament.

The Southern European country that just over a year ago seemed to teeter on the brink of sovereign default entered a period of political instability if not paralysis as neither the right nor the left looked able to form a government.

A telephone survey published immediately after polls closed on Monday suggested that the left would win majorities in both chambers of parliament but projections in European and Italian media soon thereafter had it virtually tied with Berlusconi’s coalition in the upper chamber.

The left’s struggle to take control of the Senate was predicted in preelection polls. Unlike is the case in the lower chamber, where the party with most votes nationally gets the majority, winners’ bonus seats in the Senate are awarded on a regional basis. Berlusconi formed an alliance with the federalist Lega Nord in order to increase his chances of winning the elections in the northern industrial regions of Lombardy and Veneto which elect 73 senators between them.

Other battleground states included Campania and Sicily in the south which account for 29 and 25 Senate seats, respectively. Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libertà carried both regions in the last election.

While many Italians blamed Berlusconi for their nation’s economic predicament when he resigned amid rising borrowing costs and personal scandals in November 2011, the fiscal policies implemented by his successor, the former European commissioner Mario Monti, have been deeply unpopular. Monti raised taxes and reined in public spending, including central government subsidies for Italy’s many layers of government, to the chagrin of especially property owners and local party machines.

Dissatisfaction with Monti’s reform efforts, however lackluster, boosted support for Berlusconi’s conservative party, which rallied against what it described as the incumbent premier’s “German” austerity program, as well as comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement which got a plurality of the votes in several regions, including Sicily.

The Five Star Movement won 54 Senate seats in total, making it nigh impossible for either camp to govern without it unless, as Grillo suggested Monday night, Il Popolo della Libertà and Partito Democratico forged a grand coalition. That may only be possible if Berlusconi stepped aside.

International newspapers, including the Financial Times, tended to interpret the Italian election result through the prism of rising Euroskepticism. It described the outcome as “a clear basta to austerity” and quoted Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the Partito Democratico, as saying, “The absolute majority of Italians have voted against austerity measures, the euro and Europe.” He added: “This sends a very clear signal to Brussels and Frankfurt,” the seats of the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

Günther Nonnenmacher, a political editor for the liberal Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, similarly called the vote a “warning sign” for the rest of Europe. Monti, “the man who enjoys so much prestige abroad,” was punished for the austerity policies he enacted while half of Italians voted for parties that are “aggressively anti-European.”

Stefan Kornelius was more blunt in his report for the leftist Süddeutsche Zeitung, characterizing both Berlusconi and Grillo as “comedians” who deny the realities of Italy’s fiscal crisis; “are shifting the blame for the misery on enemies abroad and talk about simple solutions to all problems.”

How could this happen? Because serious politicians like technocrat premier Mario Monti and the left-wing candidate Pier Luigi Bersani hesitated, hummed and hawed and did things by halves.

German weekly Der Spiegel observed that Berlusconi’s and Grillo’s parties, which command a majority in the Senate between them, will be able to make life difficult for a centrist or left-wing coalition. “They can’t stand each other but they are both against Europe, against ‘those in Brussels,’ against the ‘diktats from Berlin.’ Consequently, they are against everything a Bersani government now wants to and has to do.”

New elections may be needed to break the gridlock. The conservative French newspaper Le Figaro even forecast the end of the “Second Republic,” an informal term to describe the period since the collapse of the country’s once dominant Christian Democrat and communist parties in the early 1990s. A similar party realignment could be imminent after Italians so massively vented their anger at the present political class by voting for Grillo’s Five Star Movement.

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