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|Italy must Prepare for Elections, and Fast|
FT - April 23, 2013
When you are in a hole, stop digging. A wind of change is in the air. Yes, it is a mixture of tired old metaphors, but that was the scolding and entirely justified message on April 22nd from a tired old man to Italy’s political class: face reality, he said, bring in long-delayed reforms, tell the truth. There was just one important thing President Giorgio Napolitano left out in his re-inauguration speech: prepare to fight new elections, and soon.
The fact that, after 50 days of failure to form a government following stalemated elections in February, and five ballots of failure in Parliament to choose a new president, the 87-year-old incumbent had to be begged to abandon retirement and accept an unprecedented second seven-year term as head of state, was a devastating indictment of the political class. Worse, it was living proof of the popular grievances about self-serving, antiquated politicians touted by the old parties’ new arch-enemy, Beppe Grillo and his internet-based Five Star Movement.
Responding to Mr Grillo isn’t easy. The fact that his movement rose from zero four years ago to 25% in February’s polls was a genuine shock, a shock that could easily prove a precursor for anti-politics campaigns elsewhere in Europe.His Parliamentarians are proving obdurately unco-operative, and if you take him literally his demands threaten both the euro and representative democracy itself.
Even so, the response to what his rise represents—a cry for change, for new faces, for a new generation of leaders—has been disastrous. The basic assumption, especially by the left-wing Democratic Party that thought itself entitled to govern, has been that the inexperienced Mr Grillo would soon lose popularity by misplaying his hand, and that his 163 new parliamentarians would soon start defecting to other parties. So this former comedian could be bluffed into self-destruction.
Instead the self-destruction took place in the Democratic Party, which has imploded. There was self-satisfaction for Silvio Berlusconi as his right-wing party at least stayed loyal. But the real winner has been Mr Grillo. With one exception—a call for a “march on Rome” that was redolent of Mussolini—he has played his cards like a pro.
So the question now is whether the political class will heed President Napolitano’s words, and at last rise to the challenge. Most likely, a government will be formed during the next few days, a grand coalition of left and right, headed by as neutral and inoffensive a political figure as possible. The danger is that this will presage another attempt to stave off reality and play for time.
Instead, the parties need to do three big things. First, they need to show that they are facing up to the new realities. The new political reality is that voters are rebelling against the old guard and demanding renovation. The new economic reality is that amid a deepening recession and record youth unemployment, voters are rebelling against a message full of austerity and devoid of hope.
This means, in the specific case of Italy’s left, that they need to jump a generation and give a chance to the 38-year-old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, a rebel who speaks a positive, Blair-like language. Elections this week in the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia showed that when a Democratic Party candidate exemplifies renovation—in this case by being 42 and female—the Grillo vote can be halved.
Second, the new government must set itself just a short, sharp agenda of reforms, mainly political, to respond to the legitimate anger of Grillo’s voters: a new electoral law that takes power away from party bosses, as well as ceasing to give an undemocratic “majority prize” of extra seats to the largest party; deep cuts in the number of parliamentarians, in provincial layers of government, and other political costs.
The third, however, is that after that spurt of reform the parties must be willing to fight new elections later this year. The fear is that new polls might give Mr Grillo even more power or, heaven forfend, send voters into the ever-welcoming arms of Mr Berlusconi. But waiting, and failing to respond, will make such outcomes even likelier. A strategy of wishful thinking is no strategy at all.