The winner of last week’s election in Italy was a mythical beast called “Grillosconi”. That is bad news for Italy, for the single European currency, the euro, and even for the future of the European Union. Not that “Grillosconi” will ever form a coherent government in Italy. The problem is that he -- or rather, they -- will prevent anybody else from doing that either.
The newer part of this hybrid beast is Beppe Grillo, a former stand-up comedian who is essentially an anti-politician. His blog boils with bile against Italy’s entire political class, and his public appearances are angry, foul-mouthed, arm-waving rants against the whole system.
Raging against Italy’s privileged, corrupt and dysfunctional political class is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which in just a few years grew from nothing to take a quarter of the national vote in last Sunday’s election, has nothing useful to put in its place. Just “throw the bums out”, and the democratic power of the internet will solve all of Italy’s problems.
“We want to destroy everything,” Grillo said in a recent interview with the BBC. “But not rebuild with the same old rubble. We have new ideas.” We have heard this sort of talk in Europe before, always from people who turned out to be totalitarians of some sort, whether Communist or fascist. It should not be necessary for Italy to go through all that again.
The older part of the beast is Silvio Berlusconi, the former cruise-ship crooner and billionaire media magnate (he’s the richest man in Italy) whose cynical populism has dominated Italian politics for the past twenty years. For more than half of that time he has been the prime minister, and even when he’s out of power he dominates the political stage.
Berlusconi is 76 now, but he still manages to generate constant sex scandals. (His “bunga bunga” parties are notorious, and he currently faces charges in connection with an under-age prostitute.) He has been fighting charges or appealing against convictions for corruption for the whole time he has been in politics, and keeps changing the criminal law to avoid doing jail time. Yet a large number of Italians go on voting for him.
Their devotion is even more inexplicable when you recall that Italy has been in steady economic decline for most of Berlusconi’s two decades as the country’s dominant political figure. The Italian economy is smaller than it was twelve years ago, over a third of the under-25s are unemployed, and the state auditor estimates that 60 billion euros is stolen from the national budget by corrupt politicians every year.
So 29 percent of Italians voted for Silvio Berlusconi’s party in the election last weekend, and 25 percent voted for Beppe Grillo’s. More than half of Italy’s voters preferred some part of the “Grillosconi” monster to more serious politicians who talked about fixing the economy, tackling the budget deficit, fighting organized crime, and reforming the country’s badly broken justice system.
The result is political paralysis: no party or group of parties is able to form a stable government, and there will probably be another election within a year. (Only one Italian government in the past seven decades has served out its full five-year term.) But why should we believe that that will produce a better outcome? Grillo confidently predicts that his Five Star Movement will win a majority next time round, and he may well be right.
Berlusconi promises to bring back the good old days with a wave of his magic wand: 4 million new jobs, tax cuts, and even refunds for taxes paid in the recent past. But you have to shut your eyes to the financial disaster that is engulfing Italy to believe that, and it will be even harder to do that a year from now.
Grillo promises salvation in a fantasy future where everything happens on the web, but he’s really just getting the protest vote. Even he admits that “the (Five Star) Movement is a dream of what could happen in 20 or 30 years. Not now. Now, nothing will happen.” So why would anyone look to him for a solution to today’s pressing problems? Good question.
Meanwhile, the Italian economy continues to decay, and the government goes on spending money it does not have. One number says it all: about 70,000 Italian public officials are given cars with chauffeurs. (In Britain, the number is 300.) The risk grows that Italy will need a financial bail-out so massive that it causes a collapse of the euro.
Why so many Italians put up with this kind of thing passes understanding. But so does the fact that so many of those who are infuriated by it turn to a clown like Grillo, who offers salvation in the form of a web-based direct democracy. The crisis will therefore continue indefinitely.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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