Deadlock Looms After Italians Return Divided Parliament

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

The facade of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament, in Rome
The facade of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament, in Rome (Shutterstock)

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

Italy, which just over a year ago seemed to teeter on the brink of sovereign default, now enters a period of political instability, if not paralysis, as neither the right nor the left looks able to form a government.

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

Bonus seats

The left’s struggle to take control of the Senate was predicted in preelection polls.

Unlike in the lower chamber, where the party with the most votes nationally gets a majority, winners’ bonus seats in the Senate are awarded on a regional basis.

Berlusconi formed an alliance with the federalist Northern League in order to raise his chances of winning seats 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, with 29 and 25 Senate seats, respectively. Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libertà carried both regions in the last election.

Anti-austerity

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 to Italy’s many layers of government, to the chagrin of especially property owners and local party machines.

Dissatisfaction with Monti’s reforms, however lackluster, brought voters back to Berlusconi’s conservative party, which rallied against what it described as the incumbent premier’s “German” austerity program.

Comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment and anti-austerity Five Star Movement also gained. It won a plurality of the votes in several regions, including Sicily.

The Five Stars won 54 Senate seats altogether, making it almost impossible for either the left or the right to govern without it, unless — as Grillo suggested Monday night — Berlusconi and the Democrats form a grand coalition. But that may only be palatable to the left if Berlusconi steps down.

International perspective

International newspapers, including the Financial Times, tend to report the Italian election result through the prism of rising Euroskepticism.

It calls the outcome as “a clear basta to austerity” and quotes Enrico Letta, the deputy leader of the Democratic Party, as saying,

The absolute majority of Italians have voted against austerity measures, the euro and Europe.

Günther Nonnenmacher, a political editor for the liberal Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany, also believes the vote is a “warning sign” for the rest of Europe. Monti, “the man who enjoys so much prestige abroad,” was punished for his austerity program, Nonnenmacher writes, with half of Italians voting for parties that are “aggressively anti-European.”

Stefan Kornelius is more blunt in his report for the left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung, characterizing both Berlusconi and Grillo as “comedians” who deny the realities of Italy’s fiscal crisis. According to Kornelius, they 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.

The German weekly Der Spiegel points out 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 goes so far as to predict 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.


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