Silvio Berlusconi looms over now-former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, January 14, 2013. (Reuters/Allesandro Bianchi)
Rome—There was one sunny week this spring when it looked like change might finally come to Italy. A week when an ossified and gerontocratic political class looked like it might give way to new faces and new ideas. When the combined forces of youth and progress looked strong enough to defy European austerity. When—after almost twenty years!—it seemed Parliament might finally pass reforms restricting Silvio Berlusconi’s perverse claims to power once and for all.
For when the votes had been counted after the late February elections, something new had emerged. The center-left side of the chamber was smaller than predicted, but also younger and less exclusively male. The Five Star Movement (M5S) led by Beppe Grillo had triumphed, gaining 25 percent of the vote. There had been “a participatory explosion,” wrote commentator Barbara Spinelli. It was an “uprising of the under-forty-somethings,” said another editorialist, Michele Serra. The new Parliament had an unusual number of women representatives and many fresh young faces, both in the Democratic Party-Sinistra Ecologia Libertà alliance (PD-SEL) and in the M5S. If the two sides (in a Parliament split three ways, the third part devoted to Berlusconi) could drop their mutual antagonism and find accord, Italy might make a fresh start, thought many on the left, including a group of respected intellectuals and constitutionalists who made a heartfelt appeal to the leaders in question.
It was a hope (or a hope against hope) that failed, thanks to a stubborn, suicidal division in the ranks of the center-left and an equally stubborn determination to dictate the rules of the game on the part of Grillo. After an awkward and fruitless two months of trying to forge an alliance with the M5S, center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani resigned and the PD fell back on the other alternative: that alliance with Berlusconi’s Party of Liberties (PDL) that Bersani had vowed it would never make.
On April 30, Parliament approved a bipartisan left-right government headed by PD exponent Enrico Letta and backed by his party and Berlusconi’s PDL. It was certainly a victory for Berlusconi, and probably a blessing for Grillo, who quickly labeled the new government an inciucio, a nefarious inside deal among politicians in defiance of what the voters wanted. In some ways he was right about that, and there is every reason to think his noisy opposition will continue to leach support from the PD. The center-left, meanwhile, risks coming apart at the seams. Nichi Vendola and his SEL have abandoned their electoral alliance with the PD and gone into opposition. Many PD voters, particularly the younger ones expressing themselves on the web, say they are horrified to find their party co-governing with Berlusconi.
Just to remind everyone what Italy’s real and pressing problems are, an unemployed construction worker opened fire outside the prime minister’s office while the government was being sworn in, injuring three people, one gravely.
While the man gave no particular political significance to his act except to say he wanted to shoot “some politicians” and then kill himself, mad gunmen are a rarity in Italy, and the general diagnosis was that the shooter had been unhinged by divorce and economic hardship. Suicides due to unemployment, failed businesses and sheer poverty are on the rise here and have been much in the news. The brute absence of jobs for the young has led hundreds of thousands to emigrate, or despair.