Gridlock in Italy after huge protest vote for comedian Beppe Grillo
Fresh elections could be necessary as uncertain outcome spooks markets and fellow Europeans
SHOCKWAVES from Italy's uncertain election outcome rippled through European markets this morning as the country struggled to react to pressing questions about stability and governability.
With nearly all votes counted, Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left bloc led the race for the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) where electoral rules assured it an outright majority. But in the upper house – the Senate – neither Bersani's bloc nor Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc have a majority.
Instead, the balance of power is held by the comedian Beppe Grillo's M5S – not so much a political party as an anti-establishment force that won a staggering 25.5 per cent of the popular vote.
There are now basically two choices: form a grand (and prickly) coalition or hold new elections in a few months' time.
"This is a mess," said James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. "They will be wringing their hands and tearing out their hair in the seats of European power and in the markets."
Parliament meets for the first time on 15 March and a new president is set to be elected on 15 April. The country, for now, is in the hands of President Giorgio Napolitano, who today flew to Germany to face the hard questions of Angela Merkel, clearly worried that the uncertain outcome will turn into fresh turmoil for the eurozone. By mid-morning, the "spread" between Italian and German government bonds had spiked well above 300.
If one man, however, could be called the true winner in the general election it is Beppe Grillo. He wanted a tsunami – he got an avalanche.
"They're finished and they know it," he said in an audio message live streamed last night after the vast scale of his support became apparent. "We've started a war of generations. We will be an extraordinary force and we will do everything we said we would do during our campaign."
'Avalanche'... 'Grillo Shock'... 'Grillo Boom'... read the headlines in Italy's morning papers. For one in four Italians it was an act of double rebellion: a sign of hostility toward the political caste but also toward the austerity cuts and sacrifices dictated by EU leaders in Brussels and the non-elected technocrats who have been running Italy under their say-so since Berlusconi stepped aside in November 2011.
During the campaign, Grillo firmly ruled out supporting either side in a coalition, opting instead for "send them all home".
That he could draw 25.5 per cent of the vote came as a surprise to many mainstream party politicians in Italy because the last official polls had him at only 15 per cent.
But, as The Week pointed out last Thursday, the outdated polling methods sample only those who have landlines, failing to reflect the opinion of a huge section of young people who use only cellphones.
For those of us who followed Grillo on the campaign trail, it was clear he was a force to be reckoned with. The piazzas were filled with broad support that pulled from the right and left, from elderly and young, from factory workers and rowdy protest movements – in short, from a broad cross-section of interests that might not normally find common ground.
He never sat for a single Italian television interview, instead relying on media coverage of stunts such as his arrival in Sicily - not by ferry or by plane, but by swimming across the strait of Messina. Otherwise, he criss-crossed the mainland by camper van, visiting 77 towns and cities on his 'Tsunami Tour'.
As a result, Grillo's tidal wave has crashed over Italy's political establishment, sweeping in nearly 170 new parliamentarians, including many who have never had any political experience. Several are in their mid-20s.
If Grillo sticks to his word and refuses to co-operate with any traditional party in a coalition, then it is probable that fresh elections will need to be held soon.