Empty house in Italy

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Italy has spoken. And what has it said? The post-electoral urge is always the same: give some meaning to these millions of voices, speaking through the electoral filter. Majority-based electoral systems, especially those with two rounds, force you to vote for second or third options, so that your real interests are not rightly represented. They also tend to displace minorities from the parliament, and award tempting clear majorities to the winners, who are wont to use them in contempt of parliament, which is the real seat of democratic life. Yet the alternative, proportional electoral systems, apparently fairer in representation of the citizens, have the disadvantage of blocking a central element of democracy: the capacity to oust a bad government and replace it with another. Worse, in so far as they give rise to governments of coalition between various forces, they have the effect of diluting the politicians’ responsibilities and the voters’ capacity to monitor them. Those election nights so familiar to Spain, in which everyone claims victory and none admit defeat, are perhaps the best example of this problem.

Italy is a good illustration of all the paradoxes, traps and unintended consequences that lurk within electoral systems, and of the extreme care than must be taken in attempting to reform them. The Italian electoral system, supposedly aimed at forming majority governments of a single hue enjoying strong parliamentary support, thus putting an end to political instability and the irresponsibility of parties hiding behind the screen of coalition governments, has turned out to be just as ingovernable, or more, than the system it was intended to substitute.

The problem is that in the present context, we are looking at a perfect storm in the making. Firstly, the ungovernability deriving from a dysfunctional electoral system, incapable of generating stable majorities. Secondly, the decomposition of a society broken and polarized between a populism that still casts the long shadow of Berlusconi and the anti-politics of the movement led by Beppe Grillo. Thirdly, an economy burdened by mountainous debt, which places the land at the mercy of markets and speculators. Fourthly, a European context in which it is impossible to carry out any policy other than that of extreme austerity. So we have Italy’s politics, society and economy, all under maximum stress.

At the end of 2011, Berlusconi attempted to play on the ECB and the Eurogroup the same repertory of tricks and lies that he habitually played at home. Faced with the sharp reaction of the markets, the Italian political system, incapable of governing itself, substituted democracy by technocracy, and put itself in the hands of Mario Monti. Many of us then criticized as a perversion of democracy the fact that Bersani’s left accepted this solution, instead of (as was its obligation) offering an alternative and calling for early elections. We suspected that technocracy would only fuel the flames of populism. The result says it all. His party, which had the obligation to take over after Berlusconi and Monti and attempt alternative policies, has lost 3.5 million votes with respect to the 2008 elections. Now, even supposing it can govern, it will be conditioned on the one hand by Grillo’s movement and, on the other, by the markets and the policies set by Brussels.

The social-democrat candidate to the German chancellorship, Peer Steinbrück, bewails the fact that the Italians have elected two “clowns.” Called on to apologize by the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, he said rather that the term clown had been “too soft” for the personalities concerned. Italy is split into shards, but Europe doesn’t seems to be in much better condition. Such is the outlook.

The article first appeared in El Pais.

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