The party officials debated deep into the night on the popular Italian TV talk show "Porta a Porta" ("Door to Door"). That's their job, after all. The one from the center-right alliance and the one from Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition argued about who had won more -- even though both sides lost millions of voters. Mario Monti joined by live videolink to announce that he was actually quite satisfied. This, despite the fact that voters virtually shot his centrist alliance down in flames. It was political waffle, far removed from reality.
Journalists tried to point out the problems to the political professionals. One reporter spoke of a "landslide," while another said the election outcome "calls the whole system into question." But the politicians seemed bent on showing one more time why the voters had deserted them in droves and flocked to a former TV comedian. He, by the way, was already at home and in bed at that late hour. He doesn't go on TV, especially not to talk to politicians and journalists.
Italy's Angry Voters
He's called Beppe Grillo, he's 64 years old and he's the clear winner of the Italian parliamentary election. His "Five-Star Movement" emerged as the biggest single party in the lower house of parliament. The left- and right-wing party grandees -- Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi -- only managed to muster more votes than him with the help of their respective allied parties. Grillo, who already brought thousands on to the streets in 2007 for his "Kiss My Ass Day," is the mouthpiece of Italy's disenchanted, angry voters. The numbers of these protests voters are growing dramatically.
Incompetent political leadership has been running down the country for years. The state education system is poor, as are the universities and the health system. Most of the state-owned enterprises are hopelessly inefficient. Antique World Heritage Sites like Pompeii are crumbling away. And all the while the members of the political class are enriching themselves and handing out jobs and overpriced contracts to their friends. Some dodgy deal or other is uncovered almost every day. Sometimes someone ends up in jail -- but the system doesn't change. Nothing will change, in fact, unless everything changes. That is Grillo's logic. And many Italians, especially younger ones, agree with him.
And what about Silvio Berlusconi and his merry men? These prototypes of Italy's political failings and of the help-yourself mentality once again mustered almost 30 percent of the vote. Berlusconi's promises are outlandish, but many are intent on believing them, like one believes in the miracle cures of Catholic saints or in paradise. His voters are the poor, the elderly, people who aren't doing well, tradesmen facing bankruptcy -- they're all hoping for a miracle.
Like Mauro, for example, a truck driver in a small town in Tuscany. He's married, has two children and earns less than 1,000 ($1,307) a month. He's always just about managed to make ends meet. But then came Mario Monti with his austerity policy and Mauro had to start paying taxes on his apartment and everything became more expensive, including food, water, electricity. On every 26th of the month at the latest, he's run out of money and has to live on credit and buy the previous day's bread from the baker at half price. Mauro wanted a miracle -- lower taxes and higher wages -- so he voted for Berlusconi.
Mauro and legions like him have unwittingly tipped the country into political chaos. It will take a miracle to form a working government. Everything's simple in the lower house. Bersani's center-left alliance only has a lead of 0.4 percent but electoral law grants it 340 of a total of 617 seats -- a comfortable majority. But Bersani doesn't have a majority in the upper house, the Senate, even if he joins forces with Mario Monti's centrist coalition. As things stand, if Berlusconi and Grillo lower their thumbs, they can block any law initiated by a Bersani-Monti government.
All other possible coalition options are hard to imagine:
- Bersani and Grillo: mathematically possible, but Grillo probably doesn't want to be part of a government. After all, he doesn't want to stabilize the system, he wants to destroy it.
- Berlusconi and Grillo: they'd have a majority in the Senate but not in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.
- Bersani and Belusconi; it would be a stable government in mathematical terms, with big majorities in both chambers. Berlusconi even publicly made himself available for such an alliance on Tuesday. But it would be a political disaster, especially for Bersani's Social Democrats. Their voters would be appalled and would flock to Grillo.
- A temporary grand coalition, with Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti and -- if he doesn't say no -- with Grillo, in order to take care of everyday government business and solve two problems: reform the electoral law and elect a new state president. The incumbent, Giorgio Napoletano, will step down by mid-April at the latest. Then there could be a new election. But it's unlikely that the four sides could come to an agreement.
- A new election: no one wants it, apart from Grillo, perhaps. But even he would prefer to wait a little. "In three years," he says, "we'll be the strongest force."
It's a bleak prospect for Europe.
The overwhelming support given to populists in the election didn't just stem from homemade problems. It was directly linked to Europe. Many Italians -- just like the Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards -- feel like the losers of monetary union.
Germany and some other northern nations have become richer thanks to the euro but other regions, especially in the south, have become poorer. Their purchasing power has declined, their unemployment has risen and one in three Italians aged 18 and under lives close to the poverty line. And, under an agreement with the European Union, the country is supposed to dedicate 5 percent of its gross domestic product starting in 2015 to reduce its mountain of debt. That might be the right thing to do in macroeconomic terms, but it's an extremely painful policy to impose on ordinary people. They will become poorer each year because they won't be able to generate growth anywhere close to 5 percent.
Silliest Reaction in Berlin
They're not going to accept that, and even more of them will flock to anti-European populists. EU officials have negotiated manifold agreements to bail out banks and countries. But they haven't thought enough about the impact on people. The EU won't be able to go on like this in the long run.
Politicians in Berlin should spend some time thinking about that. The most nonsensical comment on the Italian election came from the German capital, where Economics Minister Philipp Rösler appealed to Rome's "political common sense." He added that "there's no alternative" to the political direction Italy has taken so far.
Evidently, there is an alternative -- Grillo, for example. "They're afraid of us," he recently shouted to a packed square in the northern city of Trento. "The whole of Europe is afraid of us."