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The Italian Lesson to the World

Interviewed by the BBC on the radio, I was asked immediately how I felt about the rising presence of the extreme right in Italy, as in Austria. It took me at least three seconds to reply, not having the faintest idea of what they were talking about.

So I was inspired to write to my non Italian followers and clarify with a few remarks what is Italy and, in particular, what we are truly dealing with in the next upcoming elections.

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If there is something extraordinary about this political Italian situation, headed toward its March elections, it is the fact that for the first time we will have 3 major parties/coalitions truly competing one against the other: a moderate right, a moderate left and the “for some out there scary” 5-Stars Movement created by Mr. Grillo. In the 2013 previous elections the majoritarian method of converting votes into seats did not allow the latter party to stand a chance for government, even though it obtained a quarter of the national vote. Today, to the contrary, since the voting system is likely to be proportional (major landslides of one party aside), we have more uncertainty on the winner than last time, each one of the three having a chance of grabbing a hold on executive power.

Not much else is new, not even the fact that a coalition will very likely need to be formed at the end of this election, just like it did last time when the center-left had to find an alliance with the center-right to rule. More importantly, there is nothing new about the presence in the ballot of a strong so-called “scary” new player, that worries the establishment and the markets for its chances of winning: we have been there before.

Indeed, if you look back at the history of Italy after WWII, the fact that one new party (and for some people a highly “dangerous and unreliable” one, like in this recent case the 5-Stars movement) is on the verge of success is not that extraordinary. Indeed, Italy has always been able to generate what in the mind of many were “dangerous and unreliable” strong parties: first, it was the Communist party, then Silvio Berlusconi’s (allied with the then xenophobic and secessionist Northern League and the post-fascist National Alliance) party and now the 5-Stars movement. And?

And nothing. Nothing because, on a purely fact-based evidence, the big threatening new party has always found worthy (moderate) opponents that have frequently ended up defeating them. First, through the then existing Democratic Christian party that until the late 80s stopped the rise of the Communist party, then through a more moderate party, successor of the Communist party itself, whose leading figure was the one of Prof. Prodi, also a President of the EU Commission, who twice stopped Mr Berlusconi.

So now the question in the mind of many is: will the moderate forces manage also this time to stop the threat of a scary challenger, which today has the face of Mr. Grillo? A purely numerical answer would lead us to say yes, thanks to the new electoral method. Technically speaking, since to win the majority of seats the 5-Stars would need 40% of the vote (for the proportional seats) plus a 60% success (in the first past the post seats), it seems basically impossible that the 5-Stars movement will be able to rule on its own, even though it is the leading party today in the polls with an almost 30% consensus and might well end up being it in the ballot. Since nobody wants to ally with the 5-Stars party (nor do they seem keen in allying with anybody else) we are likely to observe a coalition government between the moderate left of Mr. Renzi and the Berlusconi plus (former Northern) League conservative alliance.

Fine. But all what above is, I am sure, capable of making every curious observer scratch his/her head over two evident paradoxes regarding Italian politics.

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Please note this first paradox of Italy: constantly, those parties which were initially considered scary or dangerous have become over time those capable of rescuing the country from the new so called threatening parties. The once feared Communist party became the moderate leftist party capable of fighting Mr. Berlusconi and its “little presentable” allies. And today we have Mr. Berlusconi himself who is headed to “save us” from the “danger” of the 5-Stars movement.

The lesson is stark even though surprising: democracy in Italy, after WWII, worked so well in normalizing “extreme parties” that I suggest one should worry more about systems that appear stable but have not been able to cope well with sudden polarisation (see UK with Brexit, Germany with the AfD and Spain with Catalunya).

This paradox of Italy, as all paradoxes, leads to a wrong conclusion that perhaps needs a re-formulation. Maybe, after all, we should not worry that much about the 5-Stars movement. If they were to win (an unlikely event, as said above) let them rule, like they are already doing with mixed results in some main Italian cities like Rome and Turin, and relax: see to it that in at most a decade they will turn out to be under most dimensions a more effective, more competent and definitely less scary (to those who feared it) party they might appear today (with some reason).

But there is also also a second Italian paradox that is worth mentioning from which we have to learn. We do make an historical mistake when we call the Communist Party, Mr. Berlusconi’s and the Northern League and the 5-Stars Movement, as threats – past or present – to the so-called “system”. To the contrary, they have often saved it from its mistakes. Indeed, it is fair to say that these “scary” parties have always played a key positive role in Italian society, able as they were to represent those who suffered and who were left hanging out in the cold by the then dominant parties: whether it was the working class, the heavily taxed small Northern entrepreneurs, or the ones hit by the unmanaged effects of the last financial crisis. Without these parties, without their effective even though often vociferous representation, we would have certainly seen Italy devoured by chaos and revolt, disrupting tremendously those very same interests represented by the dominant parties and the dominant class.

This, again, shows how much Italy seems to have a democracy that is more reliable than many others among the ones of the Western world. Our Constitution, 70 years old, has worked fine: but simply do not praise the norm and ts articles, but rather those who have respected it with pragmatism, realism and passion for the past decades, i.e. the Italians.

The conclusion is once again the same: do not blame the 5-Stars movement, praise it if you can, for what it has done in representing – so much imperfectly – those more in pain during the last decade. And if you are a true moderate, and you want to blame someone for this sad state of affairs of political uncertainty, blame the only ones that have made Mr. Grillo and his movement so popular: the abysmal policies followed by some abysmal Italian “leaders”, advised and ordered around by an abysmal and myopic European set of “leaders”.

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