The logo of the Banca di Roma bank in downtown Rome FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

The Upheaval Italy Needs

While Italy remains without a new government, it would be foolish to believe that a country where anti-system parties won 55% of the popular vote will continue to behave as if nothing had happened. But political upheavals sometime provide a unique opportunity for addressing seemingly intractable problems.

FLORENCE – Two months after the Italian general election on March 4, amid continuing uncertainty about what kind of government will emerge, a strange complacency seems to have set in. Yet it would be foolish to believe that a country where anti-system parties won 55% of the popular vote will continue to behave as if nothing had happened. The supposed “barbarians” are not at the gate anymore. They are inside.

The populist Five Star Movement, which won by a landslide in Southern Italy, has promised to increase spending on public investment and social transfers, while reversing the pension reform enacted a few years ago. The League party, which captured the North, also promises to dismantle the pension reform, as well to cut taxes, and has openly mooted the idea of leaving the euro. Both parties want to relax the European fiscal straitjacket, though in different ways. At least one of them is bound to be part of the governing coalition.

The economic consequences could be profound. With a 132% debt-to-GDP ratio, Italy’s public finances are precarious. Should markets start questioning their sustainability, the situation would quickly spiral out of control. Italy is far too big for the European Stability Mechanism to tackle a debt crisis there in the same way it did in Greece or Portugal. The European Central Bank would need to come to the rescue. The debt might even end up being restructured.

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