Italy has long been the political laboratory of the West. From Roman republics and tyrannies through the city-states of the Renaissance, into the Counter-Reformation and on to fascism, Eurocommunism, and homegrown terrorism, the Italians have provided us with advance looks at our future. We should keep that in mind when sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of the Italian elections at the end of February.

The polls, both the “serious” ones before the election, and the instant exit polls shortly after the ballot boxes closed, were way off. They overestimated the strength of the center-left, and underestimated both Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition and the movement led by the foul-mouthed comic actor turned populist orator, Beppe Grillo. The final results make it extremely difficult to form a government with any hope of stability. Thanks to the latest electoral system, the center-left is the biggest party in the chamber of deputies, but is nowhere near commanding a majority, while the center-right is the strongest force in the senate. The leader of the center-left, Pier Luigi Bersani, says he won’t even consider a grand coalition with Berlusconi. Grillo, in far more colorful language, says he won’t work with anyone. The comic stiff-arms journalists for the most part, but he blogs, and he quickly defined Bersani as “a dead man talking.” Grillo also warned that the country couldn’t be governed without his people, and predicted that his “5 Star Movement,” having won a quarter of the votes, would take over the country very shortly.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi, the political piñata of the European establishment media, was calling for calm, reminding all who were inclined to listen that somehow or other the country had to be governed, and declared himself open to negotiations with everyone.

The easiest way to describe these events is to say that the two colorful characters did much better than expected, while the boring party apparatchik flopped. Berlusconi’s story verges on the miraculous, as one of his associates admitted. Left for dead last November with his popularity around 22 percent, he damn near carried the day outright. Indeed, as Berlusconi staggered from gaffe to gaffe in the final days of the campaign, and canceled scheduled rallies on very flimsy grounds, Roman insiders whispered that he was terrified of winning and was trying to depress his vote. They believe there is no way he can be prime minister again—all hell would break loose, both in Italy and across the eurozone—and yet he’s the only figure in his People of Freedom party with any national standing. Whatever his intentions, he’s much better off where he is, not in the government, but strongly represented in parliament.

Grillo is the crude vessel into which the long-simmering popular rage has been poured. Most Italians have had it, up to their enviable hair, with the political/business/intellectual class, and Grillo doesn’t hold anything back in his denunciations of the ruling elite. He demands a purge. Out with the long-termers in parliament and the ministries. Slash their salaries and pensions. Reduce their numbers. Take the savings and distribute the cash to normal people. Enough with the relentless tax increases. Et cetera.

These elections actually accomplished part of the purge. Many famous names will vanish from the next parliament, including Grillo’s celebrated precursor, Antonio di Pietro, the crusading judge who decimated the political establishment during the Tangentopoli purge trials in the 1990s and then formed a party, Italy of Values, ostensibly based on high morality. He and it are gone, having been caught in financial scandals. Grillo would do well to take note, but probably won’t. Such types, from Savanarola to today, generally get sent to the stake, and Grillo has a flair for overstating his importance, as when he claimed, apparently falsely, that the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz supported Grillo’s program.

In any event, Grillo can’t lead from inside the government, because he’s barred from parliament, having been convicted of manslaughter in an automobile crash.

The other big losers include President Obama, who warmly welcomed Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to Washington a few days before the vote and spoke enthusiastically about the great accomplishments of the “technicians’ government” that had been installed last year in an amazing move that produced a council of ministers in which nobody had been elected to anything. It was headed by the biggest loser of all, the economist and former European commissioner Mario Monti, who got barely more than 10 percent of last month’s vote. The establishment had hoped that Monti’s parliamentarians, plus Bersani’s, would produce a strong majority, but the Italians were fed up with higher taxes in exchange for fewer services and fewer jobs, especially for young people. The street wit about Monti said it all: “He even looks like an undertaker.”

But nobody can match Angela Merkel’s opponent in the next German elections for sheer buffoonery. When asked to comment on Italy, Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück said that “two clowns won,” one of whom “would not be offended to be called that,” while the other is “definitively a clown with a high testosterone level.” This remark caused President Napolitano to cancel his scheduled dinner with Steinbrück in Berlin, but at least had the merit of identifying a third clown on the northern side of the Alps.

So whither Italy? If you’re superstitious—as Italians tend to be—the most dramatic augury for the immediate future came from Naples. There’s a volcanic area known as the Phlegraean Fields, where the ground is hot, and sulphurous smoke emerges from fissures. The ancient Romans had no doubt that Hell lay beneath. The National Vulcanological Institute just confirmed that, since the beginning of the year, the ground of the Phlegraean Fields has been rising by more than a centimeter a month.

There’s going to be Hell to pay.

Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author, most recently, of Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles.

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