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Are Italians Just Greeks Decked out in Dolce & Gabbana?

Posted: 02/28/2013 3:45 pm

Are Italians just Greeks with better fashion designers?

After the elections held Sunday and Monday, one could be forgiven for asking. For all the talk of confusing results, the message Italians have sent with their votes is clear: we reject the necessary though painful economic reform and austerity measures brought in by Prime Minister Mario Monti's government in the past 15 months; we would prefer to kick the can down the road -- that is, if we can find the can; we would also like to kick German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who has worked closely with Monti in an attempt to bring Italy out of recession -- in the teeth, but instead we will reject her sensible ideas and send notice that we are dubious about our future in the Eurozone; we reject Germany, something we should have done, say, 75 years ago, but better late than never.

Well no, not exactly. Yes, rejecting Germany would have been a good decision back then, but now would be the time to follow the lead of your bossy-boots old friends. Instead, the adults in this scenario will be the bond markets, sure to impose discipline on the Italian markets, discipline the Italians seem reluctant to impose themselves. In short, these election results represent nearly the worst possible scenario for Italy's economy.

Another question that comes to mind is then: Do Italians not care about their country?

If they did, surely they would have given a clear majority in both houses -- the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate -- to someone rational and economically literate, or at least to someone willing to work with such people.

If they did, one imagines they would have taken the advice of the Economist:

The best result would be for Mr. Monti to stay on as prime minister. He is running on a pro-reform ticket backed by a coalition of centrist parties. Sadly, the professor is better at governing than campaigning: his poll ratings have seldom crept above 15%, putting him in fourth place.

Which is, more or less, where he landed. Still, as a second option, Pier Luigi Bersani and his centre-left coalition wouldn't be bad, were they to unite with Monti, bringing him on as economic advisor.

Bersani managed a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but not the Senate. In Italy, a leader needs a majority in both houses to govern. Bersani's options, therefore, are bleak: either join forces with Silvio Berlusconi and his centre-right party (People of Freedom) or comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement.

Both men are anti-austerity and both surprised pundits with their success on Monday. But while Berlusconi is familiar to North Americans -- like Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon and both Clintons, Berlusconi cannot stay away from the limelight -- Grillo is not.

I hope he won't become familiar to us, as the comic actor and writer is certainly not a harmless clown. His beliefs seem to encompass the worst of the left and the right -- he is prone to foolish rants about "big pharma" and has made comments about the Middle East and Israel that betray no knowledge of history and what could kindly be termed a bigoted attitude towards Jews.

He has expressed a wish to have Italian Nobel Prize for Literature winner Dario Fo named as president of Italy . It sounds good on paper, but a man who has suggested the American government was in on the 9/11 attacks doesn't strike me as someone who ought to represent a Western democracy. (Fo has since declined the "offer," though he hasn't recanted his paranoid truther-ism.)

Grillo's biggest fantasy is that Italy is autonomous and can abandon the Euro at will. Regardless of one's feelings about the creation of the EU or the need for EU reform, its collapse is not desirable. This hasn't prevented Grillo from spewing isolationist rhetoric and fear-mongering a la Savonarola. One can only hope modern-day Italians will get as tired of Grillo as did their Florentine forebears of the Dominican reformer.

Or perhaps he will be hoisted by his own petard. He has claimed he is too pure to join a coalition, but there are ways around that "purity."

His insistence that he won't form a coalition doesn't mean Mr. Bersani won't be able to form a government with Mr. Grillo's indirect support, however. Analysts noted that an obscure Senate rule would allow the Five-Star Movement lawmakers to stay out of the room during a confidence vote allowing a government to be installed. Mr. Grillo has said he is interested in supporting legislative proposals on a case-by-case basis, so there would be room for convergence on some points.

No one should be surprised if Grillo turns out to be as sleazy as the next politician. By his own words, he has already shown himself to be.

Another possibility is that new elections will be called. If they are, and if those new elections don't result in a dramatically different outcome, Italians can forget about any kind of real international investment coming along. Their stock market is going to suffer and the cost of borrowing will rise. Italy will go into deeper debt to pay its bills, which, in turn, will put even greater pressure on the ability of the Euro to survive.
A tweet from a faux Angela Merkel put it well on Monday:

Anyone seen this new horror movie,Two Comedians and a Communist?
But the rise of Grillo isn't the real horror here, nor is the resurrection of Berlusconi, though both are bad enough. The real horror is the resurrection and rise of failed ideas.
 

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