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Europe

Hung parliament plunges Italy into political crisis

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2013-02-27

Former PM Silvio Berlusconi (pictured centre) has called for talks with election rivals Pier Luigi Bersani (at left) and Beppe Grillo (right), a day after anti-austerity voters left the country with a hung parliament and a new political crisis.

Italy entered a new period of turmoil on Tuesday after one of the most inconclusive elections in its history. With all votes counted, the centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won the lower house vote by the thinnest of margins (124,000 votes) but fell far short of a majority in the Senate.

It was followed closely by the centre-right bloc of Silvio Berlusconi, who completed yet another spectacular comeback after lagging behind the left throughout the campaign.
Complicating matters further, an anti-establishment movement led by popular comedian Beppe Grillo picked up a surprise 25% of the vote, making it the single largest party in the country.

Grillo's 5-Star Movement (M5S) has ruled out forming any alliance in parliament.
Bersani suggested on Tuesday he would try and form a government but without specifying whether he intended to reach out to Berlusconi's centre-right bloc – a prospect unpalatable to many on the left.

Italy's Chamber of Deputies, or lower house, has 630 seats while the Senate has 315 seats (plus four senators appointed for life). Seats in both chambers are allocated on a proportional basis, with a variety of thresholds designed to encourage parties to form coalitions.

Whichever coalition comes first in the national vote is awarded a "majority prize" in the Chamber of Deputies that guarantees it has at least 340 of the 630 seats.

"Majority prizes" also apply in the Senate but on a regional basis, which makes it more difficult for any one coalition to secure a majority of seats in both chambers.

Berlusconi, the "Cavaliere", appeared to be pushing for a grand coalition, calling on all sides to “make the necessary sacrifices” because “Italy needs to be governed”.

Reflecting the chaos, stock markets were jittery in Milan and abroad, amid fears of political instability in the eurozone's third-largest economy.

Monti humbled

The uncertain outcome follows a campaign marked by mounting voter disaffection over a spate of corruption scandals and a worsening economy.

Deep resentment of austerity policies proved fatal to a centrist coalition led by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, which picked up a mere 10% of the vote.

Cheered on by his peers in Europe, the technocratic “Supermario” proved to be a disappointing campaigner back home, where his decision to enter the political fray was not popular with most Italians.

“Europe sees that Monti has balanced the budget, but crisis-weary Italians only see more taxes and a higher retirement age,” said Paolo Bellucci, a professor of contemporary politics at the University of Siena.

Sensing Monti's weakness, numerous candidates focused their attacks on the prime minister throughout the campaign.

“Berlusconi [and Grillo] managed to portray Monti as the incumbent and therefore as the man responsible for the country's many problems,” said Professor Bellucci, pointing out that the “Professore” had merely inherited problems passed on by his predecessors.

Two aggressive campaigns, and a bland one

While the outcome of the vote undoubtedly came as a surprise, it is perhaps not so surprising to see that the two “winners” of this election, Grillo and Berlusconi, were also the two protagonists of the campaign: the former through his hugely popular “tsunami tour” across Italy, and the latter by virtue of his unrivalled media power and scarcely credible – but highly appealing – promises of tax reimbursements.

Conversely, Pier Luigi Bersani, one of the great losers on Monday, also ran one of the blandest campaigns.

As Carlo Giusti, a 37-year-old supporter of the smaller “Stop the decline” party, observed, “Bersani is a reasonable man who says reasonable things. But after this campaign, can anyone remember what his policies were?”

Having led in the polls throughout the campaign, at times by as much as 15%, Bersani's Democractic Party opted for a conservative, risk-averse campaign.

“Ever since its primaries in November [in which six million Italians turned out to vote], the party has been resting on its laurels,” said Ezio Mauro, the director of left-leaning daily La Repubblica.

Unlike most other parties, the Democratic Party was also restrained in its criticism of Mario Monti's outgoing administration, knowing that it might need Monti's support to form a majority in the Senate.

Back to the polls?

As Bersani's hopes of a convincing win were crushed on Monday, his deputy Enrico Letta rushed to call for a new election, only to retract his call later in the night.

Given the bad blood that has reigned for years between Berlusconi and the left, many are sceptical of the chances that the two sides will agree to form what a “governissimo”,  or "great government".

Another remote possibility would be for the centre-left to go it alone and hope to secure enough support from Beppe Grillo's 54-strong Senate contingent to pass legislation there, effectively making it a lame-duck government.

President Giorgio Napolitano could also seek to form a caretaker government with the sole mission of writing a new electoral law that will make it easier to form a majority in the Senate.

Either way, the likelihood of a protracted period of instability and a new round of voting is very high indeed.
 

Date created : 2013-02-26

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