God Save Italy

Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi casts his ballot in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Italy votes in a watershed parliame
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi casts his ballot in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Italy votes in a watershed parliamentary election Sunday and Monday that could shape the future of one of Europe's biggest economies. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

The center-left coalition has won on paper. Theirs is a victory so close as to constitute defeat, compared to what they expected (and wanted) to pull off.

The real winner in this election is the Five Star Movement, both numerically speaking -- because it is now Italy's leading party -- and above all for reasons of substance. It is Beppe Grillo, founder of the movement, who has harnessed the approval of those wanting to change the system, and who gave a shape to that generational repayment which so many parties have desired for Italy. The Five Star Movement gathers around itself all of the "revolutionary" impulses that have so far mobilized the left. Perhaps later we will discover that this is also an illusion, but for much of the left, the standard-bearer of today's change is no longer the Democratic Party -- nor Di Pietro, Ingroia, or Vendola -- but the starred flag of the Five Star Movement.

Silvio Berlusconi is the second-place winner. The rapid ascent of his electoral comeback, fully due to the leader himself, has reaffirmed his role. The reason for this good showing is obvious: Silvio Berlusconi's promises still have strong approval.

I will openly admit that while I expected strong support for Beppe Grillo's movement and saw as obvious the fact that our political system is in default, I did not predict Silvio Berlusconi's excellent performance. Nor the Democratic Party's shaky support.

Once again, as in 2006, the Democratic Party started the race with nearly a ten-point advantage, and arrived at the finish line in bad shape. This downward slide should now open up a discussion within the Democratic Party. To my mind it is obvious that for whatever reason, despite holding primaries to elect their candidate, Pier Luigi Bersani's party failed both to evoke a sense of change and to reassure Italians about jobs. It would have been different, they say, if Matteo Renzi (the mayor of Florence, who ran against Bersani in the party's primaries) had been running as prime minister. I am among Renzi's supporters, but I do not really believe that history can be rewritten in hindsight.

At the moment, hindsight also applies to the election results of outgoing technocrat prime minister Mario Monti's. "If he had remained on the side, Monti could today be the central figure in the construction of a new government of reform/transition," they say. True, but the picture which emerged from the ballot boxes is too fragmented to allow a simple "technical" solution. Monti wanted to "put himself on the line," and his choice -- which certainly did not bring him the support he hoped for -- still seems to me a more courageous one than waiting in the shadow, protected from political mud-slinging, to receive his prize on a silver platter.

But all of this discussion about why and how is in many respects part of the past. The problem that the ballots have delivered is that none of the three major parties have the numbers of a solid majority.

Elsewhere on this site, Stefano Ceccanti (constitutionalist and centre-left senator) explains in his blogpost the obstacles of the institutional journey between nonexistent government and the government which should exist. Another post, by Andrea Bassi, explains the economic mechanism which holds us prisoners, and the aggression with which the markets are ready to tear us to pieces.

The gist of all these arguments is that we can't not have a government, yet we can't figure out how to build one. This is the catch-22 that currently dominates our politics.

There aren't many ways out. The simplest one, from a numerical perspective, would be a large coalition of Bersani's center-left Democratic Party and Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom Party -- but that solution goes against every other indication of change expressed by the popular vote. And it would support Grillo's idea that Parliament survives only as a gimmick which exponentially accelerates both parties' loss of consensus.

The other possibility under consideration right now, is that the center-left coalition offers Grillo's party a "public alliance proposal," perhaps even just temporarily, to make institutional reforms and then to see what they can build based on this. But the Five Star Movement does not seem inclined to explore that kind of possibility, since Bersani and Vendola (the coalition's main leaders) have been declared defunct by the movement.

Silvio Berlusconi has asked the interior ministry to recognize the tie -- as a way of delegitimizing the frail victory of the centre-left coalition. His position might end up being the easiest one: winner without really having won, he can stay in a role of denunciation and opposition -- perhaps even siding with Grillo's movement when necessary, without declaring it.

The British end every speech with "God save the Queen." We might paraphrase that with a "God save Italy."

Translated from the original Italian.