Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Italians select a monster

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The winner of election in Italy this week was a mythical beast called "Grillosconi." That is bad news for Italy, for the single European currency, the euro and even for the future of the European Union. Not that "Grillosconi" will ever form a coherent government in Italy. The problem is that he -- or rather, they -- will prevent anybody else from doing that, too.

The newer part of this hybrid beast is Beppe Grillo, a former standup comedian who is essentially an anti-politician. His blog boils with bile against Italy's entire political class, and his public appearances are angry, foul-mouthed, arm-waving rants against the whole system.

Raging against Italy's privileged, corrupt and dysfunctional political class is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Grillo's Five Star Movement, which in just a few years grew from nothing to take a quarter of the national vote in last Sunday's election, has nothing useful to put in its place. Just "throw the bums out," and the democratic power of the Internet will solve all of Italy's problems.

"We want to destroy everything," Grillo said in a recent interview with the BBC. "But not rebuild with the same old rubble. We have new ideas." We have heard this sort of talk in Europe before, always from people who turned out to be totalitarians of some sort, whether Communist or fascist. It should not be necessary for Italy to go through all that again.

The older part of the beast is Silvio Berlusconi, the former cruise-ship crooner and billionaire media magnate (he's the richest man in Italy) whose cynical populism has dominated Italian politics for the past 20 years. For more than half of that time he has been the prime minister, and even when he's out of power he dominates the political stage.

Berlusconi is 76 now, but he still manages to generate constant sex scandals. (His "bunga bunga" parties are notorious, and he currently faces charges in connection with an underage prostitute.) He has been fighting charges or appealing against convictions for corruption for the whole time he has been in politics, and kept changing the criminal law to avoid doing jail time. Yet a large number of Italians go on voting for him.

Their devotion is even more inexplicable when you recall that Italy has been in steady economic decline for most of Berlusconi's two decades as the country's dominant political figure. The Italian economy is smaller than it was 12 years ago, over a third of the under-25s are unemployed, and the state auditor estimates 60 billion euros is stolen from the national budget by corrupt politicians every year.

So 29 per cent of Italians voted for Silvio Berlusconi's party in the election last weekend, and 25 per cent voted for Beppe Grillo's. More than half of Italy's voters preferred some part of the "Grillosconi" monster to more serious politicians who talked about fixing the economy, tackling the budget deficit, fighting organized crime and reforming the country's badly broken justice system.

The result is political paralysis: no party or group of parties is able to form a stable government, and there will probably be another election within a year. (Only one Italian government in the past seven decades has served out its full five-year term.) But why should we believe that will produce a better outcome? Grillo confidently predicts his Five Star Movement will win a majority next time, and he might well be right.

Meanwhile, the Italian economy continues to decay, and the government goes on spending money it does not have. One number says it all: about 70,000 Italian public officials are given cars with chauffeurs. (In Britain, the number is 300.) The risk grows that Italy will need a financial bailout so massive that it causes a collapse of the euro.

Why so many Italians put up with this kind of thing passes understanding. But so does the fact that so many of those who are infuriated by it turn to a clown like Grillo, who offers salvation in the form of a web-based direct democracy. The crisis will therefore continue indefinitely.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2013 A11

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