Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Italy shows the weakness of the European left

The latest general election to take place in Europe, this time in Italy, seems to confirm that the political left across the continent will continue to suffer if it fails to present an inspiring alternative to austerity.

I say seems to, Italian politics and its shifting party names and electoral alliances makes it difficult for a occasional viewer to follow, but the result seems to match trends across Europe.

The Italian centre-left seems to have squeezed a victory but it could have and should have done better. 

After more than ten years of Berlusconi's leadership, riven with allegations of sleaze and corruption, and an economy that has contracted for the past six consecutive quarters under Monti's caretaker austerity administration, this was an election for the left to capitalise on a condemnation of neo-liberal economics.

But the main alternative to the disgraced Berlusconi, Pier Luigi Bersani and the coalition based on his Democratic Party, has reportedly secured only a 0.4% lead over Berlusconi in the lower house election.

Since the last election Berlusconi's vote has fallen by 7 million, but the left's vote fell as well. On Sunday, Bersani's coalition won 10,047,507 votes. In the 2008 elections, the party's coalition won 13,686,501.

Berlusconi's domination of the media gives him a huge advantage, but Bersani's failure to present a clear and decisive break from either Berlusconi or Monti's neo-liberal austerity agenda will have muddied the waters for those voters struggling in the recession. The political trajectory of the mainstreak Italian left has been to reject social democracy and shift rightward to replicate something more akin to the US Democrats, whilst breakaway groups and fringe left parties have risen and fallen without gaining a permanent foothold.

Alberto Nardelli has commented on how Italian opinion polls have over-valued Bersani and under-valued Beppe Grillo. A look at Bersani's economic messaging helps explain his inability to breakthrough.

Ahead of the election, he reportedly told the Wall Street Journal he 'would stick to the fiscal commitments Italy has made to its European partners, wouldn't roll back the pension and labor overhauls introduced by Mr. Monti and wouldn't be held hostage on labour issues.'

In December last year, he gave the Financial Times a conflicting message, 'The first thing that we should and can do is tighten budget constraints, but allow more gradual investments'. A bit confusing for an electorate looking for a decisive alternative. 

He has hugged too close to a discredited political orthodoxy, preventing a major breakthrough. As Nardelli wrote, 'both the centre-right and the centre-left share the blame for today’s malaise'. This has paved the way for Grillo's Five Star Movement to become the largest individual party, whilst refusing to co-operate in any electoral alliance.

Grillo's manifesto is confused, Vladimiro Giacché discusses it in more depth on Tom Gill's Revolting Europe blog, but his success represents a rejection of the cabal of austerity politicians, despite Grillos' failure to present a coherent alternative programme.

Though the ball is in Bersani's court, further elections seem likely. A grand coalition with Berlusconi's alliance, or with Monti's coalition, can only be based on further unpopular austerity leading to further political instability.

As in France, the centre-left was able to defeat the incumbent conservative government despite a strong alternative anti-austerity vote, but unless it delivers something different it could soon be destabilised.

The sooner the European left rejects the whole framework of spending cuts and deficit reduction, and stands instead on a new public investment programme, the better.

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