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What Now for Italy

February 26, 2013 

The Italian voters have spoken-but what on earth did they say?

Two clear winners were anointed yesterday. First, Beppe Grillo, whose M5S placed first at 25% with the slogan "send them home," retire all the old guard politicians and replace them with citizen-legislators. And second, Silvio Berlusconi, the oldest of the old guard, the embodiment of everything Grillo and his followers railed against. So having yoked together this improbable pair, can the Italian voters honestly expect the state to move forward in any direction whatsoever?

Well, the drover charged with that task for the moment is the technical ‘winner,' Pier Luigi Bersani, whose center-left alliance won a razor-thin plurality and will thus, under Italy's bizarre election system, have a working majority in the Camera and the chance to form a government. But with nothing close to a workable majority in the Senate-even with Monti's handful of centrist senators Bersani comes up 20 votes short-how long will that government last?

Several implausible scenarios remain technically possible.

  • Berlusconi has already called for the ‘grand coalition' (with Bersani and Monti) which would create a numerical majority. Neither Bersani nor Monti seems likely to disgrace himself with such a deal, but people (like me) who consider Berlusconi politically dead are repeatedly surprised when the zombie walks.
  • Alternatively, the PD could call for new elections. This was the first reaction of the Democratic Party's deputy secretary Enrico Letta yesterday, but he was quickly walked back. In time there may be no other choice, but Italy seems likely to pay a steep price in borrowing costs-and angst-if it has to launch new elections.
  • Most intriguingly, a working relationship could develop between Bersani's center-left and the Grillini in both houses to produce some of the reforms Italy so desperately needs. This was the immediate response yesterday of Bersani's leftist partner, Nichi Vendola, who pointed to a long list of progressive proposals roughly shared by the two groups. Grillo himself this morning declared himself open to case-by-case consideration of reform bills emanating from Bersani's putative government.

Could such a governing alliance between an old-school political party and this self-described ‘tsunami' of anti-political populism actually function? The odds are against it, but the very possibility points to some fascinating ambiguities in Grillo's movement.

One notable point is that Grillo's long march had its base in left-populist challenges to the financial and business establishment, on behalf of dispossessed workers and farmers. More recently the M5S has opened itself to the right with anti-immigrant pronouncements and doubts about Italy's remaining in the Eurozone. But it could be argued that Grillo's base has anti-corporate leftist inclinations, is in fact a disenchanted remnant of Italy's traditional Left, and would not be entirely out of place in an enlarged center-left coalition.

But that question raises a more fundamental one: who are the 160 or so new legislators M5S is sending to the new parliament, and what will they do when they get there? Fact 1: Beppe Grillo will not be one of them. Because he strongly insists that no one with a criminal record should sit in parliament, and because he himself carries a conviction for vehicular manslaughter, he has barred himself from serving. The folks who did find places on the M5S lists by way of a thinly participatory on-line ‘primary election' are ... unknown. Novices. Amateurs by design. This is new territory for a legislative body-even those Tea Partiers who flooded Washington in 2010 tended to have been locally active Republicans.

Of course the expected answer is, they'll do what Grillo says. That's been the norm for M5S, a one-man operation with one voice, one world-view, one trademark owned by that one person, no internal discussion, no platform committee, no process. When several local movement activists complained about the absence of internal debate last fall, they were promptly purged, i.e., legally enjoined from using the proprietary M5S logo.

This may seem odd coming from Grillo, who has identified himself with internet freedoms, the ‘copyleft' commons idea, and the diffuse democracy of social media. M5S grew up as a network of local working groups, and has attracted the young people, elsewhere organized in Pirate Parties, who understand the on-line world to be a free preserve. Grillo's meteoric rise has been linked to the ‘virtual piazza' as a new forum for democratic expression. Will these self-recruited M5S legislators go to Rome in order to follow his top-down orders, or will they practice a form of horizontal democracy seen most recently in the Occupy movements, with which they share a visible affinity?

In short, M5S is riven by an enormous contradiction: on one hand, the authoritarian Grillo, whose famous blog is a personal platform and not a forum, and whose performances in actual piazzas are sometimes compared to Mussolini's. On the other, his movement, which thrives in the ‘virtual piazza' and may be inventing a highly decentralized, very new form of democracy powered by technologies that hardly existed five years ago. Can that New Italy somehow find terms of coexistence in Rome with the more tepid renewals proposed by the Bersani-Vendola coalition, while fully 30% of the voters still long for the archaic corruption and demagoguery of Berlusconi?

More than likely, this house of cards will collapse within weeks and Italians will be asked to vote once more. Who can guess what they will do then? Can the ECB and the Eurozone withstand this turbulence? The stakes are high. But I do think that the most durable effect of Sunday's election may be the emergence of this new electronic post-partisan form of democratic participation embodied not in Beppe Grillo but in his hosts of anonymous followers


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