Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Fractured politics in a fragmented nation: on the Italian general election

In 1976, director Sidney Lumet and writer Paddy Chayefsky released a film called Network.

Ten years later, as the tendrils of corruption spread through the Italian political system and the rot began to show through in the media, Federico Fellini released a film called Ginger e Fred. Berlusconi was already a public figure then - not yet a politician, but a media magnate.

Now, as the battle for hearts and minds in Italy rages between Beppe Grillo, economist turned political satirist turned politician, and Silvio Berlusconi, whose media empire Fellini had already begun to critique nearly thirty years ago, it is hard not to think of both of these films as prophecies.

Having thought of Berlusconi as a harmless buffoon for most of the last twenty years, the rest of Europe seems to have finally woken up to the chaos he has caused. The most obvious parallel would be if an English-speaking country were to elect Rupert Murdoch as its prime minister, and all mainstream and publicly-owned TV channels came under his control. That’s missing a couple of puzzle pieces, though. Before Berlusconi was a media tycoon, he was a property tycoon. His alleged ties with the mafia are well documented in the international press.

I probably don’t need to talk about the prostitutes, about the women linked to him sexually who then rose to posts in local government and even his cabinet, about the orgies, the casual racism and homophobia. You’ll have heard that already. People had taken an interest by then - people besides writers at The Economist, who have been among his most prominent critics for the last five years.

This time yesterday, I was ready to write a lengthy diatribe about how Silvio Berlusconi is a  symbol of everything that is wrong with Italy. Now, these things are still true, but we’re not looking at him any more. He’s being usurped by a man who occupies the other side of his same coin; a man who - like Howard Beale in Network - has made his fame by urging the voting public to stick their heads out of the window and shout “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” A man who, like Howard Beale in Network, has been completely consumed by his own Messiah complex, and is now as dangerous as the people he is seeking to oust.

In a turn of events no-one would have predicted a year ago, his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) holds 25% of the vote, and is the largest single party in either house. There is no majority - the Democratic Party (PD) is the winning coalition by a single percentage point in the Senate - and, to complicate matters further, Grillo himself never ran for election. Like Berlusconi, who had hinted that he was angling for the post of Minister of Economics in the event of a win for his party, he is simply a figurehead for mass public discontent.

No-one is quite sure who will lead the version of M5S that has won so many parliamentary seats, or whether they will be willing to ally with anyone to form a government. Perhaps the quickest way to turn this shambles into a viable government would be for M5S to ally with PD, but it’s uncertain whether this will happen. Disturbingly, Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL) has made overtures to forming an alliance with PD. PD and M5S could, conceivably, make a positive difference to Italy’s fortunes. Any government where Berlusconi pulls the strings guarantees more of the same for a nation in trouble.

Grillo claims that he’s struck a blow against the political establishment, and for M5S to unite with an established party would be playing into their hands. And he’s right, but only up to a point. The thing is, he is very much a symbol of the only establishment that can really exist when Berlusconi has been in politics for over twenty years. In an era where all politicians are on some kind of stage, he’s a showman. Unlike PD leader Bersani, who had previously been considered Berlusconi’s main opponent, he has the charisma to attract a young and disenfranchised audience. He’s a personality, a talking head. A talking head who happens to know something about economics, granted, but when questioned on his policies, his habit has long been to fall silent or change the subject.

But to focus exclusively on party figureheads is reductive. With most discussions of Italian politics, the elephant in the room is the bloated, overcomplicated system for electing representatives to the Senate. I have frequently struggled (and failed) to explain the Italian electoral system to non-Italians, but this BBC article offers a simple summary. The reforms were cooked up in 2006, when Berlusconi’s government realised they might lose the next election, to make it as difficult as possible for any party to achieve a majority in the Senate, and boy howdy has it worked a treat.

And as the struggle for power goes on, ordinary Italians continue with their day-to-day struggles: the over 36% rate of unemployment among people aged 15-24; the continuing lack of representation and opportunities for women; the lack of rights for LGBT, disabled, black and minority ethnic citizens; the endemic corruption and organised crime that thwarts local government and judicial procedure; the festering north-south divide; a healthcare system that declines in quality as it rises in price. We can only hope that, at some point in the next few days, someone remembers what this election was all about.

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