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July 26, 2021

Italy and the European political trend

The election in Italy, on February 24-25, carries the kind of importance that goes beyond the political life of the peninsula, acquiring a decisive European perspective. The reference is made to the eurozone crisis, as well as the trend of the electorate in the EU, especially the Southern states. Most assessments of the poll come to the conclusion that it was an anti-austerity verdict. Therefore, in the EU, where the sovereign debt crisis has triggered an unprecedented crisis in the eurozone in the last two years, leading to a serious discussion on a possible collapse of the organisation and the end of European integration, Italy gave a majority vote rejecting the identified prescription for this organisational ‘illness’ – austerity. The prescription of austerity stemming from the philosophy of the German bank in Frankfurt, according to which a strict budget discipline – avoiding deficits beyond the limit agreed under a European fiscal compact – combined with massive savings achieved through drastic cutbacks on the welfare state concept is the only way out.

But the Italian electorate refused the prescription.And here is why.What, according to the austerity prescription, Italy would need now to emerge out of the crisis – manifested by a huge public debt, considerably above the country’s annual GDP, and soaring unemployment surging to a staggering 40 per cent among the younger generation – are measures designed to tidy up national finances and resume growth. The vote of the electorate however went to candidates on the Left and Centre-Left side, as well as to Berlusconi’s Right-wing party. How could this be explained? Both winning trends counted on anti-austerity promises, even pension and pay rises and deductions or even cash refunds of paid taxes (as Silvio Berlusconi did, whose Centre-Right alliance won about 30 per cent of the vote). The realistic depiction of the situation and drastic structural reforms needed for economy to become healthy again (a trend represented by former technocrat PM Mario Monti) hardly harvested 10 per cent of the vote. Are we seeing here derailments of the democratic process – the voters’ falling for the charms of populism and the temptation of a common hope in desperate situations – or mature electoral reasoning? The most appropriate answer to this question is that the result of the vote is the expression of a major dissatisfaction of the public with the ‘fiscal austerity’ so far pursued by the previous technocratic government headed by Mario Monti and, in essence, with the inability of traditional political parties to deal with the problems of Italian society. Here seems to be a substantial part of the complex explanation of this current phenomenon – voters’ preference for new political expressions, even unorthodox in their manifestation, and becoming popular due to the very absence of a programme. The Centre-Left party of the clown Beppe Grillo, which will have an important, if not crucial, role in the new government, had developed around its founder’s blog and uses – as it has happened with the ‘pirates’ party in Northern Germany – social networks in order to bring onto the platform of discontentment with the political tradition and consequences of a faulty society management practiced for years (jobs, equal opportunities, social solidarity and so on) large masses of voters. The vote given to this new party – so strange when compared to traditional parties – represents a quarter of the options expressed by the voters. Even if Beppe Grillo used to be a communist, his political expression is nuanced today compared to the tradition of Italian Left, better suited for meeting the expectations of supporters recruited from various social classes and orientations (perhaps this is also the explanation for the parallel drawn by some commentators between Beppe’s movement and the beginnings of Mussolinian fascism.Under the Italian legislation, in the new Parliament resulting from last month’s election, Left-wing Partito Democratico will have majority in the Chamber of Deputies (29 per cent of the vote), but not also in the Senate, both chambers having equal powers in Italy. , Equations for setting up a new Executive are numerous and one will have to also consider the option of a new election for coming out of the impasse. Numerous analyses of the Italian election suggest the outcome has induced a state of non-governance in the country, as no party obtained the kind of majority that would have allowed it to rule alone and possible political alliances come against the inherent hardships of a partnership of parties of new trends and traditional ones. What the Italian electorate expects is a state of political normalcy it sees possible only by breaking away quickly and finally with a politicised past characterised by instability, corruption and opaqueness. But last month’s Italian poll also has a European importance. Quite a few informed observers have shown that the result represents Germany’s defeat and especially blow on the bank in Frankfurt show policy is to curb unsustainable public debt in the Southern states and remove the acute threat lurking down on the single European currency. Such an analysis says the result of the Italian election is an indication that the threatening euro crisis and other dangers to the existence of the EU will be back: ‘This /…/ election leaves slim prospects for a durable, reform-minded government in Rome and exposes a flaw in the bond-buying defence plan the European Central Bank put together last September — a weakness that could see the eurozone crisis roar back to life’.The anti-austerity orientation of Italian voters is not a premiere in Europe (especially Southern Europe). The first sign came from last year’s spring presidential election in France, who elected a Socialist head of state by a tight margin. The recurrent trait of his programme was anti-austerity, in other words economic growth without neo-liberal recipes. What renders the recent Italian election exceptionally meaningful is the fact that its result comes to strengthen a continental trend that may become predominant in Europe. As British ‘The Economist’ magazine states, this could be a premonitory moment in a historic perspective: ‘history may conclude, /it was / when Europeans made clear that they were not interested in reform. Nine months after the French ran away from change, the Italians sprinted past them. As many as two-thirds of Italians rejected not only German-imposed austerity but the entire reform agenda that was designed to improve their economy’s dismal record of near-zero growth. Follow that path, and it leads to the economic paralysis and political decline that Japan has endured for the past 20 years.’

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