Italy is currently at the centre of public attention.
There is, on the one hand, the Pope, the self-proclaimed representative of God on Earth (for Catholics), who has decided to resign because of old age, thus encouraging the hopeful conclusion that God may possess some common sense after all.
On the other hand, there is Berlusconi, media Czar and main proponent of ‘bunga bunga’ politics, who has managed a comeback in last week’s elections. What’s more, his vulgar and hyperbolic style is setting standards: at the other end of the political spectrum, the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo has managed to obtain a twenty-five percent of the vote, largely by giving free reign to his anger over politics and politicians.
Berlusconi has scored with the promise to abolish taxation. Grillo has a non-programme (available in German here) comprising a shopping list of some hundred or so propositions ranging from harmless (e.g. free Internet for all or more research on rare diseases) to green (e.g. no more private cars in cities) to reactionary (e.g. yes to austerity, no to Europe).
Together, Berlusconi and Grillo have captured more than fifty percent of the Italian vote.
How to interpret these results?
The conclusion that a large part of the Italian electorate is behaving stupidly appears inevitable, whereby I am here using the term ‘stupid’ not to refer to lack of intelligence but rather its intentional suspension in order to make a point
The point being made by Italian voters who have voted for either Berlusconi or Grillo, is similar to that orchestrated by an old man who crosses the street when the red light/hand is flashing despite his fragility or rather in its denial.
Italians have been told there is no way around reforms in the areas of individual and corporate taxation, the labor market, pensions and health insurance. Many of these reforms are necessary for the long-term sustainability of social infrastructures – and not only, or even primarily, as a result of the financial crisis. Rather the latter has thrown light on the many systemic weaknesses with which our economies, especially in Southern Europe, have been functioning during the last decades.
Still, many Italians think it is possible to go on pretending political institutions are unnecessary whilst treating citizen responsibility as a commodity to be traded for mere diversion.
What is going to happen?
Keeping with the analogy of the old frail man crossing the street with the red light flashing in order to prove he is still young: unless he changes his behavior and does so fast he will be run down by a car.
Italy’s woes are serious but not unmanageable. The reforms the country is facing are long overdue. Delaying them further will only make the transition more painful and increase the country’s dependency on European funds.
New elections are very likely and may help clarify the situation. At least it can be hoped that, given a second chance, some voters will opt to exit from their denial position that renders them dependent on populists.