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Italian indecision

Bernd Riegert, Rome / sad
March 16, 2013

The selection of a new pope has pushed the political chaos in Italy briefly out of the headlines. But the Italian parliament is still at it, seeking a majority and a government - any government at all.

The Senate in Rome remains without a clear majority
The Senate in Rome remains without a clear majorityImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The selection of a new pope has pushed the political chaos in Italy briefly out of the headlines. But the Italian parliament is still at it, seeking a majority and a government - any government.

"Black smoke above parliament," Italian television broadcasters announced on Friday, March 15, drawing from the imagery of black or white smoke signaling, respectively, the unsuccessful or successful selection of a new pope. Neither the upper Senate of the Republic nor the lower Chamber of Deputies were successful in agreeing on a president on their first attempt since the elections.

The more-or-less equally represented social democrats, conservatives and "Five Star" protest movement are apparently irreconcilably at odds, as demonstrated by their inability to select the rather representative post of president. Three weeks after the general elections, the resulting party constellation threatens to create political deadlock.

'Freeloaders and crazies'

Beppe Grillo, head of the Five Star Movement, said in an interview with German television, "The word 'govern' bothers me." In his view, the established parties of both the left and the right are all equally bad - this is the reason he gives for not entering into a coalition with either. "There will be no consensus," Grillo said.

Beppe Grillo speaking into microphone
Grillo gave the "clown" fiasco a positive spinImage: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Grillo himself, although his party received 25 percent of the parliamentary vote, is prevented by the protest movement's statutes from serving in parliament. The newly minted parliamentarians of the movement, the "grillini" - which in Italian means "little crickets," as well as being a play on Grillo's name - settled in to their new positions under the attentive interest of the media.

"We'll give the citizens their institutions back," said Roberto Fico, a Five Star presidential candidate. To the fresh parliamentarians, all other politicians are a bunch of freeloaders. Senator Vito Crimi, the Five Star Movement's party speaker, called his own party "a bunch of crazies."

Pier Luigi Bersani of the social democrats - which claims a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, but not in the Senate - sought nearly desperately to ally with the grillini, in order to gain at least a minority government. But despite an appeal from leftist intellectuals, Grillo rejected Bersani's overtures.

Although the grillini appear to want to decide policy on a case-by-case basis, Italy can only gain a prime minister through a vote of confidence in both the upper and lower houses of parliament. But social democratic parliamentarian Aniello Fornisano said that at the moment, this remains a "very difficult" proposal.

Figurines showing Berlusconi wearing underwear reading "bunga bunga"
Berlusconi sex-scandal figurines might again become a hot item if Berlusconi regains the prime minister seatImage: Carlo Hermann/AFP/Getty Images

Conservatives feel out options

Silvio Berlusconi's conservative party is already seeking new elections. With Berlusconi himself in the hospital with an eye infection, his deputy Angelino Alfano peremptorily named June for the new election date. Although Alfano is the national secretary of the conservative "People of Freedom" party, he lacks the political power to craft a governing coalition himself.

Berlusconi is therefore apparently flirting with the idea of forming a "grand coalition" between the conservatives and leftists - the most recent such coalition broke apart last December. Whether he can again become prime minister remains unknown.

Outgoing President Giorgio Napolitano has sought to begin consultations for establishing a government as set out in the constitution.


Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, whose centrist coalition performed poorly in the elections, may end up staying in office for a while. Monti spent some time seeking to clarify the tricky situation in Rome to European Union leaders, who are nervous at Italy's financial chaos, at an EU summit in Brussels this past week.

Interest on Italian national debt rose only slightly during the election. Italy's central bank announced on Friday that its debt would reach a billion euros by 2022 - a new record.

Silvia Francescon of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Rome told DW that new elections could mean the "worst-case scenario" for the eurozone. Numerous months of stagnation and increasing market pressure are likely making things worse for Italy, she said. "It's also possible that the crisis could spill over anew into Spain and other countries," she added.

Francescon thinks that Italy needs to continue on its course of structural adjustments, which would be possible through a grand coalition. Yet an alliance between Berlusconi's party and the social democrats, without elements from the far left or the center-right Northern League appears unlikely, at least at this moment.

Monti in Brussels
Unanswered questions: Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti in BrusselsImage: Reuters

The Northern League and Five Star Movement, for their part, are jointly seeking a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the eurozone at all. Naturally, this is causing even more furrowed brows in Brussels.

Political show

Since Napolitano's term as president ends on May 15, the Italian parliament has only two short months to resolve its deadlock. After the formidable task of choosing Napolitano's successor, the party blocs - aside from the grillinis - will aim to reform election laws before dissolution of the parliament. This is something from which they've profited in the past.

Keeping Italians entertained is an ongoing feud between Grillo and Berlusconi. Grillo accuses Berlusconi of seeking to evade ongoing legal trouble, including a case in which Berlusconi is accused of having sex with a prostitute who was a minor. Indeed, Berlusconi's current hospital stay is likely an effort to once again push back a decision on the case.

In reference to the German social democrat candidate's having called him a clown, Grillo replied, "I am a clown, but in the positive sense. A clown leaves behind a positive impression."

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