Several of the factors that have produced the likelihood of gridlock and a hung parliament in the aftermath of Italy’s general election are peculiar to that country. The most obviously culpable factor is an election system cynically devised by the centre-right to ensure that the Senate is always likely to tilt in their direction. It was this that brought down the last centre-left government, headed by Romano Prodi, after less than two years.
But the result this time around is a baroque one: Prime Minister Mario Monti relegated to a humiliating fourth place, Silvio Berlusconi once again rampant, and the overtly anti-political Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo coming from nowhere to become the biggest single party in the House of Deputies. If these extraordinary results do not shake Europe out of its apathy, nothing will.
With the feeble turnout for Mr Monti and the revival of Mr Berlusconi’s fortunes we see the centre-right recoiling from the technocratic Prime Minister’s politics of austerity and seeking refuge yet again in the delusive fantasies that the media mogul has been peddling for nearly two decades now. We may be appalled that such a substantial portion of the Italian electorate refuses to judge Mr Berlusconi by his past performance, but they may not be as foolish as they seem: they know that as long as he is close to the levers of power, the state is not going to chase tax evaders very hard. Mr Berlusconi has long represented a complicity in corruption which has enduring appeal.
What is new, and stunningly so, is the fact that fully one-quarter of the Italian electorate, faced with the most critical election in the nation’s recent history, chose not to scatter their votes among the innumerable fringe parties but to amass behind the one man who articulates their anger.
Mr Grillo’s message has been simple and consistent for many years, and has nothing to do with austerity: unlike Mr Berlusconi, he has never claimed to offer Italy a swift and easy route out of its difficulties. First as the nation’s most popular satirist, then as a hybrid comedian-agitator, and now as the unquestioned champion of this election, he has been telling Italians of all ages, but particularly the young, that Italian politics is rotten to the core.
An accountant by training, he has combined the forensic exposure of political and commercial criminality with an explosive and often hilarious repertoire of abuse. Imagine Ian Hislop of Private Eye, not needling the establishment in a television studio, but haranguing huge crowds up and down the country about the dirty dealings of the powerful, and one gets an idea of the impact he has had. In piazzas from Genoa to Palermo, Mr Grillo has threatened to drive corrupt politicians out of public life. Now they will have to look him in the eye.
Political corruption in Italy appears to be on a different scale from that found in Britain, but both countries, in common with the rest of Europe, face the challenge of navigating the longest period of economic misery in living memory. In times like these, as one election after another has shown over the past four years, the public has very little patience with the leaders it elects. We are willing to cut them very little slack. We see their faults and foibles more clearly than in the good times, and we have far less tolerance for them. In Britain the growing support for Ukip is one sign of this.
Whatever the immediate consequences for Italy’s governability, the urge to punish politicians who feather their own nests is a salutary one. If Mr Grillo’s startling success helps to keep our politicians, too, on their toes, it will have had a useful effect.