The parliamentary elections carried out in Italy during the weekend of February 23-24 have created great worry in governments throughout Europe.
The principal issue was austerity: Anti-worker labor reforms were introduced by outgoing "technocratic" Prime Minister Mario Monti for the purpose of cutting the country's sovereign debt, which stood at about 120 percent of the gross domestic product, and restoring Italy's creditworthiness. These were imposed after the fall of Monti's predecessor, Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, in November 2011 amid massive scandals and looming criminal prosecution. This election was triggered when Berlusconi's followers pulled out of the broad coalition headed by Monti last year.
Monti himself fielded an election vehicle under the name of Civic Choice, but, as expected, this party was trounced, getting, with allies, only 10.56 percent of the popular vote and 47 seats out of 630 in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Italian parliament), and only 9.13 percent of the vote and 18 out of the 315 elective seats in the Senate.
A slight favorite going into the elections was the Democratic Party and its allies in the Common Good coalition, headed by Pier Luigi Bersani. Bersani was active in the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) which disintegrated after the fall of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Today his party represents centrist positions and not leftist or communist ones.
Common Good got 29.54 percent of the vote for the Chamber, but was able to elect a majority (340 seats) because the Italian constitution awards extra seats to the party that gets a plurality of votes. But Common Good fell short in the Senate, gaining 31.63 percent of the vote and 113 seats.
Silvio Berlusconi's own party, the People of Freedom, allied with 11 other right-leaning parties, did well in the Senate where it got 30.71 percent of the vote and 116 seats; it got 29.18 percent of the vote and 124 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
The big news was that the "Five Star Movement" (Movimento 5 Stelle) headed by former comedian Beppe Grillo surged hugely, getting 22.55 percent of the votes in the Chamber of Deputies with 108 seats and 23.79 percent in the Senate with 54 seats. This means that the Five Star Movement has surged from nowhere to become, overnight, the third largest party in Italy.
The Marxist left and allies did not do well. The two Italian communist parties, the Communist Refoundation and the Party of the Italian Communists, had for the purposes of this election, folded themselves into a united front called the Civic Revolution ("Rivoluzione Civile") which also included several non Marxist parties. Civil Revolution got only 2.25 percent of the votes and no seats in either house of parliament. Not very long ago, both communist parties had representation in parliament.
What Berlusconi and Grillo have in common is that they campaigned against the austerity program imposed by monopoly capital and against the euro, without a clear program of what they would do differently. That they are both wealthy men and that Berlusconi himself is a major figure in the broadcasting industry did not deter them.
On the other hand, Monti was punished for his "technocratic" role in implementing austerity, and Bersani's Democrats fell between two stools. They did not campaign on the basis of a clear program of reversing the austerity measures, but only on modifying them somewhat. But this did not stop Berlusconi and his allies from a vicious red-baiting campaign against Bersani. Berlusconi has always used McCarthyite tactics against his adversaries and even against prosecutors and judges who have been investigating him.
Why did the Civil Revolution ticket not do better? Its platform certainly took on austerity and strongly defended workers' rights and other popular causes.
The result of the election is likely to be a stalemate. In Italy, all laws have to be passed both by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and with the Democratic Party controlling the first and the Berlusconi forces the second, it is hard to see how any laws can be passed at all. It is not even clear that there will be a prime minister.
Bersani has the first shot at trying to form a government. In such circumstances the normal thing would be to build coalitions within each house in such a way as to form a cabinet and get things going. But with the big vote for the Five Star Movement, and with a declaration by Grillo that he will not join any coalition but will confine himself to supporting or rejecting bills on a case by case basis, this will not be possible.
The comeback of Berlusconi and the sudden rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement should be a wake-up call for the Italian and European left. All over the continent, voters have been rising up and protesting against the austerity plans imposed by their own ruling classes and the "troika" consisting of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Where right wing governments were implementing these policies, voters have brought centrist "social democrats" to power. However, where social democrats have been in power, they have ended up supporting very similar austerity policies. In response, voters in Greece, Spain and Portugal have thrown them out, bringing in right wing governments.
Parties of the left who have opposed the austerity policies, including the communist parties, have not been able to muster enough electoral strength to rule, though they have played a key role in strikes and protests.
Unless the left can take back the leadership of the anti-austerity movement, the danger will grow that covertly or overtly fascist elements will move into the vacuum.