The general election has put the Italian Left in a state of shock. In December, the coalition led by Pierluigi Bersani had a fifteen points lead in the polls, while more than three million people turned up to vote in the leadership primary election. But last week’s election made that seem a long time ago. The final vote produced a new political reality: a hung parliament and the bitterest defeat for the Left in 20 years.
The vote spelled frustration at a whole generation of politicians. The parties which stood for parliament in 2008 collectively lost roughly 13 million votes. The centre-right parties lost more than half of their votes (about nine millions), even though Berlusconi managed a spectacular comeback by leading an unapologetic campaign. It proves that he can still dominate the debate. Mario Monti’s centrist coalition intercepted a further 2.5 million votes, mainly from the centre-right. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, lost 3.5 million votes compared to the last election, which also resulted in defeat. After months of successes in local elections and in the polls, the party portrayed itself as the only responsible force in a country in disarray. But just like Neil Kinnock in 1992, Bersani took the victory for granted. He ran a political campaign where the main objective seemed to reassure the party militants that a victory was finally at hand.
Victory went instead to the Five Star Movement. It received over 8.5 million votes (25%) under the tutelage of maverick front-man Beppe Grillo, who ran a populist campaign demanding cuts to property taxes and a universal basic income of Euro 1,000 per month. His overwhelming — and unifying message — was for the political class to go home.
Grillo’s movement was underestimated by all, especially the Left. Electoral maps published byYouTrend show that the Five Stars Movement had exceptional results all across Italy and it peaked where the centre-left suffered the sharpest drops.
In the aftermath, Bersani is calling the election a “non-victory”. He wishes to form a minority government with the support of the Five Star Movement. This will probably last less than a year, and with Berlusconi still holding ground in key regions, a snap election will only result in another hung parliament.
The biggest mistake would be to pretend that the movement is akin to a seasonal malady. Many in the Left thought the same of Berlusconi in 1994. It is not, and Grillo has already proven to be much shrewder than expected.
Where does the Left go from here? It has not convincingly won an election since 1996. Regardless of the next government, there is a more urgent need to stop peddling policies and to recreate a minimal degree of trust between the political class and the citizens. The Democratic Party has its last chance: to win or to perish. Instead of trying to re-educate the Five Stars supporters, it must finally challenge them on their own ground.
First, Italy desperately needs new laws to prevent corruption, regulate the media and it needs to slash the costs of the political apparatus. Salaries are a good place to start. Yet more important than the policies themselves, it is crucial that the citizens understand that the Democratic Party is championing this cause, not following orders to do so. Perceptions matter immensely.
Second, politicians need to learn to engage with citizens who don’t have a fixed political affiliation and who don’t feel represented by organised civil society (e.g. trade unions, professional associations, and the Church). The priority should be to target swing voters rather than planning alliances with other parties.
Third, individual citizens should have the opportunity to petition the government directly. The White House petition website is a good example that should be copied.
Critics will reply that cutting MP’s salaries and a petition website would be mere symbolism. It will not give Italy the economic growth it so desperately needs. On both counts they would certainly be right: last year’s GDP fell by 2.4% and the country is in a depressive spiral. However, the political deadlock is so deep that the Left needs to restart from scratch. Restoring trust is the precondition for everything else, including a new election in a few months. Perceptions matter as much as policies. This is our last chance.
A version of this column was published on Policy Network.