The Magazine

The Fall of Rome

Bankrupt and bloodied, Italy’s political elite clings to power

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The M5S opposes what it calls the casta, the Italian political “caste.” All party members are emphatic that the Italian press is part of this caste. “They want to speak to you just to make a movie of you,” one of the M5S deputies told me, “to put you in a bad light.” He did not think the press owned by Berlusconi was any more scurrilous than the press owned by his opponents. Grillo gave no television or newspaper interviews to the mainstream media during the campaign, and his followers have imitated his example. (This distrust does not extend to the foreign press.) With some exceptions, Italy’s big papers have reciprocated the indifference. Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper obsessed with sending Berlusconi and his wife to jail, has taken up Grillo’s cause.

The ideology of throwing the bums out has a name in Italy. It is called qualunquismo (“whoever”-ism). February’s election came within a hair’s breadth of bringing qualunquismo to power for the first time since the Second World War. People liked the Grillo message. A quarter of the country voted for it, including 40 percent of factory workers, according to a study at the University of Urbino. The result had been, until the naming of Letta last week, two months of deadlock. Much that happened in those two months has strengthened the M5S case that the state is corrupt. Little about Letta’s appointment will change this feeling.

The February elections ended with 26 percent for M5S, 25 percent for the left-wing PD, and 22 percent for Berlusconi’s PdL. Mario Monti’s technocratic government, which had been appointed at the urging of the European Union to facilitate Italy’s cooperation with international monetary demands, had “balanced” Italy’s books by leaving $92 billion in government contracts unpaid​—​many of them to small businessmen. When Monti’s Civic Choice party won only 8 percent of the vote, it surprised nobody but the casta. But this three-way split did not yield the results that one might expect in an ordinary electoral system. A decade ago, Berlusconi passed a reform guaranteeing a parliamentary majority to the largest party, no matter how small its percentage of the vote. Meant to rig the system in favor of his own struggling party, it backfired. It has wound up benefiting the PD. Because it ran in a coalition with a few smaller parties, the PD could claim an extra 3 percent of the vote—its 29.54 percent gave it 340 seats. Berlusconi, through the same means, bumped up to 29.18 percent, for 124 seats. Although, in narrow terms, Grillo had the largest party, his 25.55 won him only 108 seats.

So the left had a majority in one of the two houses, but this was a majority with very little legitimacy. What legitimacy it had was further diminished by the way it had run its campaign. A year ago, the PD was rallying behind Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence who proposed to reform the party and purge its old-left cadres in the way that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had done in their respective countries. And the party’s perennial foe, Berlusconi, looked to be in permanent decline. Berlusconi was weakened by various tabloid stories about teenagers, escort services, hair implants, and dissolute parties characterized by what he called “Bunga Bunga.” All polls showed it was an impossible election for the PD to lose. So strong did the PD’s position appear that its leadership began to ask: Why reform at all? The party changed its nominating rules and arranged that the wheezy old apparatchik Pier Luigi Bersani be given the top spot. It was an act so brazen that it brought Berlusconi back from the dead.

It also left the PD in a tricky position when the time came to build a coalition. With few workable political programs of its own, it had spent the past several years riding a moral high horse about Silvio Berlusconi, and chasing him through the Italian justice system. Was Bersani now supposed to promise Berlusconi (behind the scenes) some kind of immunity from prosecution in order to cling to power? Or was he supposed to approach Grillo, in hopes that an anticorruption party would form a governing alliance with the party it was accusing of corruption? Bersani chose to ask Grillo. Grillo’s response was to ask if Bersani was joking.


Elites on the left did not find Bersani’s approach to Grillo as ridiculous as everyone else did. They assumed Grillo was, at the end of the day, someone just like themselves. To the extent he had any intelligent protest to make, they figured, he would come to realize that they had the answer to every discontent. Writing in the philosophical review MicroMega, which plays the same role in Italian political-intellectual life as, say, the New York Review of Books, Giovanni Perazzoli seemed astonished that Grillo would not want to help liberate Italy from Berlusconi. “For Grillo, the PD and the PdL are really the same,” he wrote. “They’re the same because they’re both parties.” But that is to underestimate Grillo’s discrimination. They are the same in his view not because they are both parties but because they are both corrupt parties. If anything, the PD is the more dangerous to Grillo, because it is the party of skilled political operators. For a party of genuinely provincial and trodden-upon qualunqui like the M5S, the PD’s invitation to “share” power was an invitation to get taken to the cleaners.

The result was the deadlock that lasted until two weeks ago. It seemed worse because of a quirk in the Italian constitution, and the role played under it by the president, the 87-year-old ex-Communist Giorgio Napolitano. The presidency is mostly a ceremonial post, but there are a couple of important exceptions. First, it is the president who invites a party to form a government, rather as the queen does in Britain. And second, the president has a potential role in adjudicating future legal complaints against politicians, including (but
not limited to) Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s people dared not commit themselves to government until they knew what kind of president they were going to be serving under, and Napolitano was barred by the constitution from calling for new elections so late in his term. Ultimately, Napolitano agreed to run for reelection, which will allow him to serve as head of state until just before his 95th birthday. In agreeing to take up the presidency for a final (one assumes) seven-year term, Napolitano scolded Italy for its “regression” and its “ungovernability,” and urged the parties to act responsibly. But his election and Letta’s government do not solve Italy’s problems. They will even make the grillini say, “Aha! See?” The two main parties have colluded against an anticorruption movement in order to keep power, and to rescue Italy’s participation in the euro.

Letta wants a looser fiscal policy, along the lines of the one Berlusconi campaigned for—but minus the anti-German rhetoric. The property tax that Monti’s technocratic government introduced to help balance its books is not, Letta promises, gonna happen. The Italian people will like that. Letta has won himself some breathing room. But he has merely replaced Monti’s strategy (solving economic problems by creating political ones) with something equally risky (solving political problems by creating economic ones). Europe’s leaders still have not figured out a way to send the bill for recapitalizing the continent’s banks to anyone other than the continent’s voters. 

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek leftist party Syriza, told voters during his country’s last elections that they needn’t ever worry that an anti-European vote would mean the cutoff of European bailouts, because bailouts are for the bankers, not for the people. For a couple of years now, this viewpoint has been a mainstream one in Greece. It is now moving to Italy, and thus to Europe’s core. The consequences won’t be long to await.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers