Three weeks after Italy’s disastrous elections, the political landscape in Rome is still quite nebulous and uncertain. The election of the new Pope has distracted Italians from the stalemate generated by the electoral success of a professional comedian, Beppe Grillo. But now the country is back to its hard reality, patiently waiting for Grillo to solve his existential dilemma: acting as a responsible statesman or behaving as an insolent clown.
International investors, European technocrats and Italian politicians are all trying to anticipate his next move. But being a comedian-turned-political-leader, his incentives are different from those of a normal politician, his words rarely coincide with his thoughts and his actions are simply unpredictable. Regardless of his decisions, all those concerned with Grillo’s effect on the stability of the Euro or the rise of populism across Europe should not worry. He is just a meteor in the Italian political landscape.
When an antiestablishment leader enters the political arena, he does not just want to reform or renew the system. He wants to overturn it. Ideally, he would like to gain one hundred percent of the seats in the Parliament to accomplish his radical mission without compromises. In practice, an absolute majority would suffice. Yet, if this second-best scenario is not achievable, then a movement unwilling to negotiate with the old elite would prefer to obtain a limited electoral success. This way, it could act as an opposition force that keeps criticizing the system, without taking any responsibility.
What happened at the last general election is the worst political outcome Grillo could expect. His Five Stars Movement (5SM) turned out to be the third political force of the country, with 25% of the popular vote. Thanks to these numbers, he has contributed to increase the number of young and female Members of the Parliament. Nevertheless, he is neither strong enough to form an independent government and dictate his own conditions, nor weak enough to ignore his duties and simply attack the elite.
The only back-up plan for him would have been an agreement between Bersani -leader of the center left- and Berlusconi -leader of the center right. This way, he could have stigmatized the thirst for power of two politicians that disagree on everything but are willing to govern together to preserve their roles in the system. But Bersani repeatedly ruled out this option for moral, intellectual and political incompatibility with Berlusconi. And he is now cornering Grillo by saying that the only possible coalition government is between the center-left and the 5MS.
Grillo is victim of his own success and, for him, the farce is slowly tuning into tragedy. He is now faced with a dilemma: to govern or not to govern. Either ways his long-term influence over Italian politics will be radically diminished. If he accepts Bersani’s offer, he will lose his credibility for two reasons. First, his voters will criticize him for signing an agreement with the old establishment that he was supposed to overturn. Second, the whole country and the world will understand his inadequacy to lead a country in a time of crisis. Although some would argue that politics is too serious an issue to be left to politicians, leaving it to a clown, with no experience in policymaking, could produce even more dramatic results.
Exclusive explainers, thematic deep dives, interviews with world leaders, and our Year Ahead magazine. Choose an On Point experience that’s right for you.
At the same time, if he refuses to compromise right away, he will be seen as an irresponsible leader, blinded by his anti-establishment ideals. Also in this case, Italians will realize that his movement is just an opposition party, unable to lead the country. Thus, at the next elections, the center-left, led by a fresh face like Florence’s mayor Matteo Renzi, will better meet Italians’ needs of renewal and competence, downsizing Grillo’s movement. Of course, without a change in leadership in the center left, Grillo’s influence will keep growing.
From Italy’s standpoint, the first scenario will prolong the political and economic agony for a year or so until the next electoral round. The second one, instead, will create tensions and instability for a few months, hopefully paving the way to a better political outcome. In both cases, the Eurozone will be vulnerable to tensions on the Italian public debt as a result of Grillo’s effect. But this same effect will also benefit Europe by contributing to the renewal of a chauvinist, irresponsible and incompetent political class.
After 28 hours of Conclave, the world cheered the new Pope. But the wait for a white smoke announcing Italy’s new government is still long.