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Sunday 3 March 2013

People are not laughing when they vote for 'jokers'

Remorseless austerity creates despair and encourages people to vote in anger.

CENTRAL to Italians is their obsession with fare una bella figura (making a beautiful figure), which involves making an attractive impression through one's appearance, style, possessions, taste, manners, and so on. They also want their beautiful country to cut a fine figure abroad.So things have come to a pretty pass when millions of Italians defiantly vote for men the world derides as clowns and jokers: Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo.

A few days ago, Giorgio Napolitano, the 87-year-old Italian president, was due to dine in Berlin with Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck, who in September will challenge Angela Merkel for the chancellorship. The Italian election had so stunned Steinbrueck that he told a rally that he was "appalled that two clowns have won".

Napolitano is no fan of either Berlusconi or Grillo, but this was an insult to his nation's figura. Saying the remark was "completely out of place", he cancelled the dinner and presumably spent the evening wondering how the hell he can find a solution to the present political imbroglio.

The president was in charge when in November 2011, Berlusconi, then serving his third term as prime minister, was forced out when scandal, ridicule, and the European debt crisis combined to lose him his parliamentary majority. To general rejoicing among the EU elite, Napolitano appointed academic economist, senior adviser to Goldman Sachs and one-time EU Commissioner Mario Monti a Senator for Life, and invited him to form the technocratic government that duly imposed the austerity and reform measures dictated by Brussels.

What everyone was sure of then was that Berlusconi was finished. Just over a year later, at 76, he's appealing a conviction for tax evasion and is fighting a charge of paying for sex with an alleged underage prostitute. Yet, in the election his People of Freedom party won 22 per cent of the votes, and his centre-right coalition won 29.2 per cent.

Apart from being found guilty of the manslaughter of three in an Eighties car accident, Grillo, who is a comedian by profession, has a clean record. His performances always had a strong political content and since the late Eighties he has been ignored and then banned by state television because of his trenchant criticism of political and corporate corruption. His antipathy to politicians increased and was expressed venomously and amusingly in a blog which became hugely popular with the young and the angry. His slogan is Vaffa! (Fuck off!), in 2007 he instituted a national 'V Day', and in October 2009 he founded the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) or M5S. With mostly young and untried candidates ('Grillini'), and a confused anti-austerity manifesto including tax cuts, spending increases, a 20-hour working week and a referendum on membership of the eurozone, his party topped the poll with just under 30 per cent.

Italian elections are complicated and the popular-vote winner reaps disproportionate rewards, so most seats in the lower house have gone to the centre-left 'Common Good' coalition (29.6 per cent) led by Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party. The 'With Monti for Italy' group staggered in with just 10.6 per cent.

Italians like big personalities: Bersani and Monti are dull, dull, dull.

M5S holds the balance of power in the Senate, but is so far refusing to consider doing any deals: Grillo describes Berlusconi as a "psycho-dwarf", Monti as "Rigor Montis" and Bersani as a "zombie", whom he accuses of being a "political stalker" who has been "pestering the Five Star movement for days with indecent proposals".

All this is making the markets jittery and has thrown the EU back into crisis mode. Italians have voted like this because they are sick and tired of austerity, rising unemployment, stultifying bureaucracy and a general feeling of hopelessness. This makes the rise of Grillo very dangerous, for, as students of Italian politics are pointing out, the wave of discontent that is lifting Grillo and his movement is reminiscent of the one that swept Mussolini and his fascists to power less than a century ago. When people feel despair, they vote in anger and flock to demagogues.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, remarked in 2010 that "decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong". This pretty much sums up the contempt the unelected rulers of the EU have for the citizens they aspire to rule as they insist on saving at all costs a single currency that is tearing the continent apart and encouraging the rise of political agitators.

Governments in Greece, Spain and France are scared of the prospect of popular and electoral revolt, and so should Ireland be. Rigid EU dogma and general discontent at remorseless austerity is creating the right conditions for the unscrupulous to flourish. We may not have comedians waiting in the wings, but in Sinn Fein, we have our own movement of jokers.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards