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Silvio Berlusconi in 2011. (Tony Gentile / Courtesy Reuters)
Italy's inconclusive election on February 25 did nothing to help the country's image abroad. In noting that more than half of Italians cast their vote for either Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, or Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Stars Movement, international observers resorted to familiar tropes. Painting Italy's political system as farcical and chaotic, the German Social Democratic leader Peer Steinbrück commented that Italy had elected two clowns. Of course one of them, Grillo, is an actual comedian, whose party polled an extraordinary 25 percent of the vote in its first national election. But Steinbrück should not have been so quick to condemn: the results of the Italian election are a reflection -- albeit an exaggerated one -- of trends that all European democracies are facing.
Italy's political impasse is the direct result of declining popular support for the two broad political coalitions that have shaped its politics for the last two decades: the center-left, currently organized around the Democratic Party (PD), and the conservatives, dominated by the People of Freedom (PDL), led by Berlusconi. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, one of these coalitions generally won enough parliamentary seats to form a government, albeit often by including unpredictable minor parties in their governing majority.
This time, though, neither has garnered anywhere near enough support to form a government. The Italian constitution requires a government to win a majority in both houses of parliament before it can take the reins. The PD has a comfortable majority in the lower house, thanks mostly to electoral laws that grant a generous number of bonus house seats to the winning coalition. The party is far short of majority in the Senate, though, since the law allocates Senate bonus seats at the regional level, which benefited the PD and PDL more or less equally.
The current Italian electoral law was passed in 2005 by Berlusconi's government in an attempt to cement his grip on power. By allocating seat bonuses to the winning coalition, it was supposed to ensure a secure parliamentary majority for the government. But this only works if the two main coalitions dominate the contest. Together, the lists of Pier Luigi Bersani (of the PD) and Berlusconi pulled in only 59 percent of the vote in this election, almost 30 points fewer than their results in the last election in 2008. Widespread surprise at the Berlusconi coalition's strong comeback in the election, coming close to winning victory in the lower house, has distracted from the fact that it has hemorrhaged more than seven million votes since 2008. The center-left coalition, meanwhile, lost more than three and half million votes. The outgoing prime ,minister, Mario Monti, who unwisely stood at the head of a centrist coalition, also performed well below expectations, coming in at only ten percent of the vote.
One reading of this extraordinary outcome is that it was a protest against the painful spending cuts, tax increases, and economic reforms that Monti's government implemented as a precondition (albeit an unstated one) for European Central Bank support. The fact that, together, Grillo, who promised a referendum on the euro, and Berlusconi, who took a euroskeptic stance throughout 2012, won more than half of the votes was described by the economist Joseph Stiglitz as "a clear message to Europe's leaders: the austerity policies that they have pursued are being rejected by voters."
But the Italian election is telling us much more than that. In fact, Grillo's party, founded only in 2009, focused less on euroskepticism than on a blanket rejection of the established Italian political elite and its way of doing politics. Rejecting traditional campaign techniques in favor of social media, the party pushed its agenda of, first, ending the generous state subsidies and salaries paid to Italy's political parties and elected politicians and, second, replacing them with a vaguely conceived Internet-based representation system. The Grillo phenomenon is a challenge not only to austerity politics, but to the traditional party system itself. The economic crisis gave Grillo a favorable wind, but his offensive against Italy's corrupt and self-serving politicians was brewing even before the downturn began.
It would be unwise to dismiss the election results as yet another Italian anomaly. All across Europe, membership of political parties is at its lowest level since the World War II. Voters are also less loyal than ever to traditional parties -- they are more likely to switch votes to a rival party or an entirely new one. Only days after Grillo's triumph, the UK Independence Party, which campaigns for British withdrawal from the EU, came to within 2,000 votes of winning a by-election held to replace a disgraced Liberal Democrat MP, pushing the ruling Conservatives into third place. And the success of the Pirate Party in Sweden, the anti-Islam party led by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and more established populist parties such as the French Front National, confirm that Italy is far from being an outlier.
The economic crisis in Europe is threatening the very survival of the mainstream political parties. European citizens have been showing signs of frustration and dissatisfaction with their elected politicians for years. Even before the crisis, voters had tired of choosing between broadly similar political parties whose policy options are constrained by European laws or the pressures of globalization. Faced with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, this frustration is boiling over into resentment and rejection. And the imposition of draconian measures by supranational institutions only makes things worse. All that has created a crisis of legitimacy for Europe's ailing political parties. If the established political class can be blown out of the water in Italy, politicians Europe-wide must be wondering how safe they are from a similar fate. Political parties not only need to address the economic crisis, they also need to reconnect with voters and revitalize their central role in democratic politics. If they do not, what happened in Italy may soon repeat.