Six coalitions and a myriad of political formations. Career politicians and new faces. An electoral law that has been described by the man who created it as "pigswill." And an incredibly beautiful country that is increasingly difficult to live in, where one young person out of three can't find a job.
Welcome to Italy on the eve of national elections scheduled for Feb. 24 and Feb. 25. The center-left party led by Pier Luigi Bersani is the favorite, but the return of Silvio Berlusconi and the rise of comedian Beppe Grillo's populist Five Star Movement have made the situation unpredictable. For those just tuning in, here's a quick guide to Italy's elections: how we got here, who the main protagonists are and what the polls are telling us.
From The Cavaliere To The Professore, Toward An Uncertain Election
On Nov. 12, 2011, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (il Cavaliere), the man who dominated Italian politics for almost 20 years, handed his resignation to Giorgio Napolitano, the country's president. Italy was on the verge of disaster: the spread between Italian and German bonds had hit record levels, and the country risked bankruptcy. President Napolitano entrusted economist Mario Monti (il Professore), European commissioner and president of Bocconi University, with the task of creating a new government. Time dedicated its cover story to Monti with the title: "Can this man save Europe?"
During its 13-month life, Monti's government helped Italy recover its international credibility. Monti -- dubbed il Professore by the press -- proved to be a serious, impeccable person. His speeches are neutral and monotone, to the point where several comedians have compared him to a robot. The Berlusconian era of bawdy jokes and excesses seemed far behind: Monti speaks the cold language of numbers, and for this reason enjoys the respect of European and global leaders. But his government is technocratic, composed of academics and professors who prove incapable of communicating clearly with the people. Furthermore the country's coffers -- increasingly in the red -- require stringent austerity measures. The government approved labor and retirement reform measures, but these generated controversy and discontent, without stimulating growth. Pinned to the wall in parliament by Berlusconi's party, Monti decided to hand in his resignation, forcing elections a few months earlier than planned. Ultimately the government choose Feb. 24 and Feb. 25 for the elections.
Parties And Coalitions: A Group Shot
A tycoon, a professor, a politician, a comedian, a magistrate and a journalist. The clearest image we have of Italy's electoral anomaly is this collection of leaders of the six main coalitions set to challenge one another at the voting booth.
Only one of them other than Berlusconi, Pier Luigi Bersani, has accumulated significant political experience. Formerly president of the northern Emilia Romagna region and minister of economic development, Bersani is secretary of the Democratic Party and leads the center-left coalition. His main ally is Nichi Vendola, former communist and current governor of Puglia, a region in southern Italy that has enjoyed strong development over recent years under his leadership. Vendola has openly declared his opposition to any eventual alliance with Mario Monti, stating that in the event of a coalition, he would abandon its ranks.
The center-right coalition has risen rapidly in the polls over recent weeks and is presenting a brand new formation. For the sixth time in the last 19 years, the coalition's leader is once again Berlusconi. But in order to form an alliance with the regionalist Northern League party, the government's main ally and a strong political presence in the north of Italy, Berlusconi had to guarantee that in the event of victory he wouldn't run for prime minister. For this reason, Berlusconi has announced that he wants to become Italy's next finance minister.
Berlusconi led an electoral campaign heavily focused on TV appearances, going so far as to give eight different interviews in a single day. Despite the fact that he has guaranteed his support for Monti's government over the past year, Berlusconi has fiercely attacked his work, even going so far as to state that he "doesn't understand anything about economics."
In a surprising move, Monti decided at the end of December to prolong his "adventure" in politics. Monti leads a centrist party made up primarily of former allies of Berlusconi. His party, Civic Choice, is mainly composed of members of Italy's civil society: professors, economists, journalists, entrepreneurs and athletes. One of the most important supporters of the party is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari and former head of Confindustria, Italy's key employers' organization.
But the biggest surprise of these elections is the Five Star Movement, a party created by Beppe Grillo, a comedian from Genoa who has only been active in politics for a couple of years, but who has quickly earned widespread popularity thanks to his blog, the most widely read in Italy. After having won its first mayor in a major city (Parma), the movement is now ready to back more than 150 members of parliament. Each politician is chosen through primary elections held online, and most of them are regular citizens with no previous political experience.
The last coalition to join parliament should be Civil Revolution, a party led by Antonio Ingroia, a former magistrate from Palermo who is famous for his fight against the mafia. Over the course of his career, Ingroia also interrogated Berlusconi during the trial of his right-hand man, Marcello dell'Utri, who was investigated for potential mafia ties. Ingroia heads a far-left coalition that includes the remnants of Italy's communist party, green party and Antonio di Pietro's party. (Di Pietro was a leader of the "Clean Hands" inquiry which, at the beginning of the 1990s, uncovered the rampant corruption that involved almost all the main parties in government.)
Despite an excellent electoral campaign, pro-business Stop the Decline party, led by journalist Oscar Giannino, will probably not make it into parliament. At first, it was supposed to join forces with the centrists led by Mario Monti, but in the end the party decided to run on its own. Stop the Decline has taken an openly liberal position on the economy, proposing massive cuts in government spending and a reduction in fiscal pressure. Although it is right-leaning, the party's leader, Giannino, who has vetoed any suggestion of collaboration with Berlusconi and his allies, is considered "a self-styled liberal who is more to the left than Bersani." But with just a few days left before Italians vote, Giannino has been involved in a minor scandal that will most likely cost him a great deal of votes: one of his most important supporters has publicly accused Giannino of having lied about his resume, as he included a master's degree from the University in Chicago that the journalist never actually obtained.
The Six Candidates
Polls And Trends
The electoral campaign has played out primarily on TV, except for Beppe Grillo, who made a conscious choice to bet entirely on a blend of Internet campaigning and public forums in city squares. Silvio Berlusconi has confirmed his status as King of the boob tube -- it's important to remember that the Mediaset group, which Berlusconi founded in 1993, has a monopoly on private television in Italy. Compared to Pier Luigi Bersani and Mario Monti, Berlusconi's strength in communications is overwhelming. The former prime minister has repeated the key, more-or-less-realizable, concepts of his program like a mantra, alternating them with anecdotes on his private life and his inevitable jokes.
This is another reason his coalition has been climbing up in the polls: while in January, Bersani's center-left coalition enjoyed an 11-point advantage over the center-right, recent surveys have reduced this advantage by half. According to the most recent polls conducted by SkyTg24, the distance between the center-left and the center-right has dipped below 5 percent in six out of 20 Italian regions.
The Grillo factor overshadows everyone. The battle for the (decisive) third place will be fought between Monti and Grillo's Five Star Movement. The most recent polls reveal a slight edge for Grillo: the comedian's party is credited with just over 16 percent in the House, with a 22.3 percent spike in Sicily. Over recent weeks Grillo has filled city squares across Italy, proving he can boast a significant following even in the Northern League's backyard. In the House, Monti's Civic Choice is expected to reach between 13 and 14 percent, with polls showing a slight drop in support with respect to the early days of his campaign.
But the party showing the most significant drop in support is Bersani's Democratic Party, which was at least partially damaged by the banking scandal engulfing Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy's oldest bank, managed by a foundation with close ties to the center-left. Despite this, the Democratic Party continues to be Italy's primary political party.
Despite the drop in support over recent weeks, the center-left appears sure of a victory. The problem is that Italy's current electoral laws make everything more complicated (not by chance, these laws were nicknamed Porcellum, from porcata, or "pigswill," by their main author, Roberto Calderoli of the Northern League party).
The problem mainly affects the Senate, where the electoral law assigns a majority based on regional, rather than national votes. The regions with the most inhabitants put the most senators in office: a coalition that wins a majority in a given region takes 55 percent of that region's seats. Among the crucial regions, two are considered up for grabs: Lombardy in the north (which provides no less than 49 senators out of a total 315); and Sicily, the island located at the extreme south of the country (which puts 25 senators into office).
Berlusconi's party is quite strong in Sicily: the most recent polls conducted by SkyTg24 give him roughly 32 percent, while the center-left coalition has less than 25 percent. Berlusconi's main adversary here is Grillo, whose Five Star Movement has already won over more than 22 percent of the electorate. Given that currently around 47 percent of the island's voters have declared that they are still undecided, and that Grillo's movement exerts a strong draw on people who are disappointed with Italian politics at large, it is reasonable to believe that the Five Star Movement has further increased its support base over the last few days leading up to the vote.
Lombardy, one of the richest regions in Italy, is often compared to Ohio for the decisive role it can play in the elections. In reality, the comparison isn't quite accurate, because the center-right has held the region firmly in its hands for almost twenty years. Berlusconi's party and the Northern League enjoy widespread support, even though the credibility of the local leaders has been undermined in recent years by a long series of scandals. In Milan and other Lombard cities, the battle between the center-right and the center-left will play out on a razor edge, and a great deal will depend on what centrist voters (Monti's Civic Choice party) will decide to do.
In the worst-case scenario -- with Berlusconi winning in both Lombardy and Sicily -- Bersani's coalition would be unable to govern. While in the U.S., the president doesn't necessarily need a majority in both the House and Senate in order to govern, in Italy the government can't exist without it: if the government is voted down by one of the two chambers, the Italian prime minister has to resign.
One solution for Bersani would be to align himself with Mario Monti as soon as the elections are over. But there are plenty of reasons not to put faith in the feasibility and solidity of such an alliance. One of the forces within the center-left is Left Ecology Freedom, a leftist party led by Nichi Vendola. The economic visions entertained by Mario Monti and Nichi Vendola are, in many ways, light-years apart.
This may well be the real worst-case scenario for international observers. More than a right or left-wing government, people are scared by the prospect of uncertainty. Now more than ever, Italy needs a government with the authority and numbers necessary to lead the country from a position of strength for the next five years; one that knows how to speak out in Europe with a clear, united voice. For this reason, plenty of people are already looking ahead to next year. Without any sure majority, Italians may be headed back to the voting booth sooner rather than later, and perhaps as early as spring of next year.
Symbolic Moments From The Electoral Campaign: