Italy: the return of politics?

15 Dec

Originally published on the 14th December in the Monde Diplomatique

Last Friday, the secretary of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing People of Liberty party launched a vitriolic attack against the technocratic incumbent, Mario Monti. Stating clearly that Monti no longer enjoyed the support of his party, Angelino Alfano’s goal was to prepare the ground for Berlusconi’s return to Italian politics. Monti responded by calling everyone’s bluff. He promptly resigned, brought elections expected in the spring of next year forward to February, and made it clear that the rising borrowing costs and tumbling market confidence that followed were all Berlusconi’s fault.

Monti’s move reveals the shallow political foundations of today’s interim resolution of the Eurozone crisis. Temporary stability was bought in Italy via the suspension of partisan politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, economic and political crisis saw the ushering in of military rule in Greece and Turkey. Today, technocratic rather than military solutions are preferred. This was seen at the national level in Italy and Greece with governments led by Monti and Papademos. In Spain, Greece and Ireland, it was managed via bail-out agreements brokered between national and European officials. In the Portuguese case, its bail-out was carefully timed so that it would be finalized and signed off by a caretaker government. The incoming government elected in June 2012, led by Pedro Passos Coelho, was then able to declare that its hands were tied and agreements made by its predecessor should be honoured. The Eurozone crisis has been contained only via the suspension of politics, a course which Monti’s resignation would appear to reverse.

Monti may well now run for office. But on what ticket? If he stands as a candidate in the elections early next year, Monti will no doubt present himself as the candidate who is beyond politics. Already egged on by centrist Catholic parties, and feared by the main centre left and centre right parties, Monti’s whole political persona is that of a non-partisan figure who implements what is sensible and what interest-driven political parties cannot bring themselves to do. Monti’s personal austerity matches his political message. If he ran, he would be a serious threat to those mainstream parties, the Party of Liberty especially, who in the public mind encapsulate the corruption of the political process itself. Monti’s ticket would be a technocratic one.

Against whom would he run? Italian politics is dominated by the centre right and centre left parties. Berlusconi’s return is indicative not only of his relentless desire for public attention but also of the absence of alternatives to him within the party. On the centre left, the new leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, is generally seen as a pragmatic ex-Communist, willing to endorse much of Monti’s programme so far. It is possible, however, that both these parties suffer from public disaffection with organized politics. Many doubt the ability of Bersani to reign in trade unions and have few illusions about the direction Berlusconi would take if re-elected. The alternative to these mainstream parties is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement: a popular political movement that mobilizes the disenchantment widely felt with the political establishment. A well-known comedian in Italy, Grillo’s movement is explicitly anti-establishment and many of those involved in it deny that they are members of a political party at all.

In next year’s elections, Italian politics may find itself squeezed between the technocratic programme and figure of Mario Monti and the populist alternative of Beppe Grillo. Already, some support for the Five Star Movement has disappeared as Monti has soaked up the anti-establishment sentiment of Grillo’s followers. Squeezed in the middle, the mainstream parties are increasingly tempted by either the technocratic or populist alternatives. Berlusconi has already suggested that he plans a virulently populist campaign, focusing on anti-German sentiment in Italy. Bersani may seek to out-manoeuvre Monti by adopting his own version of technocratic austerity.

Italy is in this way a microcosm of wider trends present within European societies. The shrinking of the political mainstream and the rise of technocratic and populist alternatives appear to be one of the main leitmotifs of how the economic crisis is transforming social and political life in Europe. Europe’s political systems are slowly being transformed into populist technocracies. Italy will be worth watching as a barometer of these important trends.

4 Responses to “Italy: the return of politics?”

  1. davidbick01 December 15, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    In France, in 1981, the late comedian Coluche ran for president (as a joke), and he picked up hefty intentions to vote. His slogan, “Tous ensemble pour leur foutre au cul avec Coluche. Le seul candidat qui n’a aucune raison de vous mentir”, confirms the potential of anti-political establishment feeling.
    Italy is indeed well worth watching. Co-incidentally Coluche, born Michel Colucci, was the son of an Italian immigrant.

    • thecurrentmoment December 17, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      Indeed, anti-politics has a long tradition. Today, however, it seems to be establishing itself as the way of doing politics. As what politics has become. The alternative to it is the narrow and vitriolic partisanship of figures like Berlusconi. We seem stuck today between the self-interest of a political class and the selflessness of the technocrat.

  2. brent December 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    A very interesting situation, as you suggest. I wouldn’t compartmentalize Monti as ‘technocratic’ in the sense of apolitical, though: that may be the official story, but his austerity program is intensely political, his instincts in resigning were politically impeccable, and he is already building bridges to the center-right parties, who have every reason to promote him nel campo, on the field of battle.
    Bersani’s ‘pragmatism’ is also worth exploring, mainly because he has some obligation to placate the extremely UN-pragmatic Vendola on his left, Vendola who has denounced Monti’s policies, who stands for radically sustainable growth (and has achieved some in his region of Puglia), and who embraced ‘communist culture’ in his primary run. The push-pull in the center-left coalition between left and center, both now and in government if they win, could be the really interesting paradigm not just for Italy but for all the aging, recessive economies of the EU.
    More at my blog:

    • thecurrentmoment December 17, 2012 at 9:39 am #

      Thanks for an interesting comment. Certainly, Monti is political in the small p sense of the term. In fact, he seems rather of a master of the political arts: his resignation took everyone by surprise, including Berlusconi. What happens on the centre left is important but has parallels elsewhere. France for instance, with a centrist president and prime minister pushed by some within their party or government (e.g. Montebourg) and others from outside on the hard left (Mélanchon especially). What seems distinctive about Italy is the way populist and technocracy are entering electoral politics and beginning to reshape the political field itself. But much may change in the next few weeks. Over time, Monti may well end up leading the Italian right, but his selling point is still his distance from discredited parties and politicians.

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