Brace Yourself, Italy’s Politicians Will Soon Return

Italy’s technocrats have stabilized the country. But soon the politicians will return to power.

Open almost any Italian newspaper these days and you’ll see one constant theme: doom and gloom about the country’s future. The downward momentum of Italy’s still stagnant economy has slowed—at least for now—but the larger problem appears to be political. The country’s establishment remains entrenched along old party lines on a host of issues—such as judicial and electoral reform—even though the nation is facing an entirely new set of problems pertaining to the crippling recession.

By the time voters go to the polls to elect a new president next spring, at least one of the major political parties will likely implode, analysts say, and those still standing will probably be weakened—that is—if anyone still wants to be president. Silvio Berlusconi, the ribald media baron and disgraced former president announced last week that he won’t run, calling the country “ungovernable.” (Never mind that judges also forbade him from holding public office for five years due to tax fraud). And Mario Monti, who has the job right now, says he won’t run either, since politics would compromise his ability to do his job until then.

That might sound like an excuse, but it isn’t: Monti and his band of apolitical technocrats have been able to reign in the bevy of tax evaders and pass belt-tightening austerity measures precisely because they’re not facing reelection next spring. Monti was appointed as prime minister last November when Berlusconi lost a crucial confidence vote and resigned to a cheering populace that celebrated his ouster in the presidential palace piazza. Monti could be—and many say should be—reappointed if whoever wins decides to keep him on. But if it’s far from clear if any among the country’s circus of candidates will have the corragio to do the right thing. “Economically, the situation in Italy is slowly improving, with the emphasis on ‘slowly’—not on ‘improving,’” said Gianfranco Pasquino, a political science professor at John Hopkins University and the University of Bologna. “But politically, the situation is deteriorating.”

It may only get worse. The politicians will almost undoubtedly be back—whether the people want them or not. Berlusconi won’t be running, but predictably, he has vowed to keep his finger in politics with his primary goal being to thwart Monti’s brand of tough love. Berlusconi’s successor in the center-right Il Popolo della Libertà party (PDL) is Angelino Alfano, who never publicly stood up to the former president, and who may not be able to garner enough support to win the election. “The PDL seems in total disarray,” says Federigo Argentieri, professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. “But they could come up with a competitive candidate who would be neither the dominant Berlusconi nor the submissive Alfano.”

That leaves the center-left, which if last weekend’s regional elections in Sicily are of any indication, has a good shot to take back control of the country. The center-left Partito Democratico (PD)—led by Pier Luigi Bersani, a man so uninspiring that his opponents have called him a “zombie”—would have the edge if national elections were held right now. His main obstacle is the charismatic mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, though the elders of the center-left have all but discounted Renzi, 37, as too young and inexperienced.

Spoiling the party, however, could be Beppe Grillo, whose his Five-Star Movement fared well in Sicily, winning nearly 19 percent of the vote. Grillo, a well-known and wildly eccentric comedian—think Jon Stewart meets Jack Black—has taken his comedic star-power to the political stage. The scruffy non-politician has captivated the country in recent months by turning his stand-up routines into political rallies in which he entertains the masses with anti-establishment propaganda. Some have likened his appeal—though not his platform—to Berlusconi, who used the same “bread and circuses” approach to distract voters who would prefer not to have to think about what’s really facing the country.

In 2007, Grillo organized a series of popular rallies to protest the political establishment, in which he is now dubiously embedded. Yet voting for Grillo—who does not actually want to be prime minister, but prefers to use his party support to knock down other leaders—is widely seen as a protest vote. Perhaps that’s why Grillo did so well in Sicily, where less than 50 percent of the voters turned out for the elections. “Italians are fed up, and Grillo expresses something many Italians feel,” says Pasquino. “But both abstaining and voting for Grillo send the same message.”

If no one wins a clear majority when Italians finally go to the polls, most outside the immediate political establishment agree that reappointing Monti is the best option to keep Italy on the right track, though few agree that any in the race right now would actually step aside and have the humility to appoint him. “It’s difficult to see someone as capable as Monti with the same credibility entering the arena,” says Pasquino. “When the politicians come back, anything could happen.”