The Professor, the Clown and the Mummy


by Mikhail Klimentov  

“I am appalled that two clowns have won”[1] remarked Peer Steinbruck, one of the leaders of the German SPD and opposition candidate to Angela Merkel. Though this remark shocked many Italians–– the Italian president cancelled a meeting with him in Berlin–– it certainly reflects the “international consensus” on the Italian election. The winner of this election could very well turn out to be Pier Luigi Bersani, the experienced leader of Italy’s main center-left party; however, there is much uncertainty due to Italy’s complex electoral rule and the possibility of a hung Parliament. The biggest lesson to draw from this election, however, has to do with the electoral fate of three men. The Italians rejected the Professor, Mario Monti, whereas over half of the electors voted for the Clown, Bebbe Grillo, or even, the Mummy Sivio Berlusconi[2]. Though this has shocked many observers around the world, their respective electoral fate is rooted in the growing skepticism of Italian voters towards their political class and Brussels.

Let us start with Mario Monti, the unelected technocratic incumbent Prime Minister. Since taking office from Silvio Berlusconi, in November 2011, Monti has been applauded by many international observers. During his short stint as Prime Minister Mario Monti was lauded for his strong reforms and serious demeanor. However, as of today, after collecting only about 10% of the vote, Monti is facing near universal rejection. One cause for this failure is that Monti, who headed a technocratic government without the backing of a party, failed to muster the electoral resources that other candidates may have had. Then again, one may object that Bebbe Grillo’s own M5S was only founded in 2009, relying mostly on the internet for campaign action. Likely, Monti is simply paying the price of his policies of austerity and is the last in a long line of European leaders ousted by popular opinion. Paul Krugman in his column commented that this failure was natural since Monti was “the proconsul installed by Germany to enforce fiscal austerity on an already ailing economy”[3]. Though this may seem harsh, it is true that Monti was always considered to be a loyal follower of the Brussels-Berlin axis.  A combination of harsh austerity policies and poor electoral skills may have condemned Monti from the beginning.

Beppe Grillo is a whole other specimen: how could a comedian, with absolutely no political experience earn so much electoral support? Grillo will not even sit in Parliament since he was convicted of manslaughter in 1980, and the ethics rules of his party, which he wrote himself, bar candidates with criminal record from office. Grillo is an anti-establishment, charismatic and populist politician whereas Mario Monti is an academic, dull, former European Commissioner. Grillo perfectly managed to channel the frustration of Italian voters: even more so than a morose economy, Italian voters have been seduced by his vow to cleanse Italian politics from the “zombies” that are the traditional parties. His populist economic agenda took a swing at Mario Monti, while his vow to moralize politics was a direct attack on Silvio Berlusconi. Grillo has also shown himself to be a remarkable candidate: he refused to appear on television and used his widely followed blog to set up his agenda. His emphasis on public rallies, use of the Internet and insistence on the youth capture the imagination of 25% of Italy’s electorate. The average demographic of his voter is in fact young, educated and frustrated with Italy’s job market. His policies may seem rather populist–– they include diverse pledges such as eradicating labor unions, a referendum on the euro, and a 30-hour week–– yet it seems unclear whether his movement can survive on its own (yet alone govern). Nevertheless, Beppe Grillo’s success is a clear sign that Italian voters are fed up with both austerity and traditional politics and he may help traditional governing parties finally come to terms with the public’s expectations.

Or it seems so. How could a country so fed up with traditional politics grant almost a quarter of its vote to the man it evicted a little more than a year ago on the grounds of his sheer incompetence? It is not even as if Silvio Berlusconi–– recently nicknamed the “Mummy” by Liberation and the New York Times–– has been able to redeem himself, since he spent most of the time since he left office fighting allegations of sexual scandals and formal corruption charges.[4] Many commentators have inferred from this election that the Italians are simply not serious people and unconcerned with their country. This is a wrong argument: the likely Prime Minister, Pier Luigi Bersani is a competent candidate with a seemingly compelling agenda. Mario Monti’s failure and Beppe Grillo’s success can be explained by the rejection of Brussels and austerity. What should we make of Berlusconi’s resurrection? First, we should render unto Caesar what belongs to Berlusconi and admit that he is a formidable campaigner and that his score in the recent election is an astonishing political comeback. Some detractors may point out that being a media mogul helps spreading a message and that unashamed populism–– whether under the form of German-bashing or praising Mussolini[5]–– is often a good electoral investment. There are many theories concerning Berlusconi’s return: some even argue that he isn’t so concerned with governing but wanted to take the Monti government down; others say that politics is for him the best way to escape his legal troubles and advance his own personal fortune. Yet, no amount of speculation can explain why people would trust “Il Cavaliere”, his irresponsible agenda, and seedy background. Moreover, he doesn’t even stand for change, considering that at age 76, he has been Prime Minister three times already and is to a certain extent responsible for the current economic and political mess. Berlusconi has not won this election, but his good standing gives him options: he could leverage his support or simply undermine the governing coalition in order to call in new elections. Whatever happens, the Mummy is not done haunting Italian politics just yet.

This election leaves many questions unanswered but it does send a clear and loud message to politicians around Europe and the world: the people are fed up with Brussels-imposed austerity policies.