AJC Analysis: Italian Elections

Lisa Palmieri-Billig

March 1, 2013 


The political situation in Italy is fluid, with no definitive solution in sight. True to Beppe Grillo’s electoral platform as expressed on his blog, the comedian-showman-politician, Italy’s new and determining player on the political scene, has refused to accept the offer of an alliance with the Center-Left, preferring the absence of a working parliamentary majority and the freedom to vote independently on single issues. Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), which achieved a thin, relatively insufficient majority in parliament, thus received a slap in the face by an uncompromising and rather insolent newcomer who has repeatedly insisted that the entire ruling class are dead-men-walking and must go home.

A series of surprises and some major points of concern for the future of Italy, with consequences for the EU, as well as for the future of Italian Jewry and relations of the country with Israel, emerged from Italy’s national elections that took place February 24 and 25.

The surprises can be seen on the chessboard of election results. Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right “Popolo della Libertà” (People of Freedom) party bounced back to life after its “mummification” had been predicted by the majority of political analysts. It won around 30% of votes, approximately the same as Bersani’s PD, which had been expected to gain a more sizable victory. Premier Mario Monti’s party, originally forecasted as the PD’s crucial partner in a future alliance, gained only 9.14% in the Senate and 10.57% in the Chamber of Deputies. Several former political players totally disappeared from the parliamentary scene, including Speaker of the Chamber Gianfranco Fini and the leftist PD leader Pietro Ingroia. There was the dramatic demise of “La Lega” (the League) within Berlusconi’s party. And, the whopping success of the “5 Stelle” Party (“Five Stars”) founded in 2009 by former comedian Beppe Grillo, selected by one out of every four Italian voters.

Now, an impasse threatens Italy’s future stability and poses the risk of either new elections (where a repeat performance is most likely) or a lame duck government unable to form a coalition in the Senate where a proportional rather than amajority electoral system reigns, contrary to the more governable Chamber of Deputies -- although in both Houses the Center-Left is ahead by the slimmest of margins.

While the Senate hovers without a majority and is presently ungovernable, the Chamber of Deputies, thanks to its electoral system, will be dominated by Bersani’s Democratic Party. Here the Center-Left won by a mere 0.36% over Berlusconi’s Center-Right (29.54% to 29.18%) while Grillo’s 5Star Movement tolled a close third with 25.55% of votes. The Center-Left will occupy 347 seats, the Center-Right 125, Grillo 109 and Monti 49.

In the Senate, the Center-Left won 31.63% (124 seats), the Center Right 30.72%(117 seats), Grillo’s 5Stars 23.8% (54 seats) and Premier Monti’s Party 9.13% (20 seats.) But with no alliances between parties forthcoming, no group can guarantee control over parliament, where Bills must be passed by both the Lower and Upper Chamber to become law.

The enthusiasm generated by Beppe Grillo’s populist party snowballed with each of his frenzied speeches to masses of young people in Italy’s towns and cities as he traveled in a trailer across the country, performed stunts such as swimming across the Strait of Messina, and culminated two days before elections amidst a sea of more than 800,000, packed together in Rome’s historic Piazza San Giovanni, known for hosting famous post-war rallies of the once largest Communist party in Western Europe.

The 5Stars movementabsorbs the anger and hopes of Italy’s younger generations, who face a fierce economic depression, a rising rate of unemployment prompting thousands of college graduates to emigrate and a consequent brain drain, an expanding trail of businesses closing shop, seemingly endless cases of political corruption and graft of the country’s elected representatives who also enjoy undue privileges, punitive new tax measures imposed on the middle and working classes dosed out as “necessary medicine” by Premier Monti’s government while failing to counter widespread anxiety over the looming specter of impending personal poverty by not simultaneouslyproducing projects that would stimulate economic growth;the dismal bureaucracy that discourages all creative enterprises; the indomitable and ubiquitous penetration of different mafias; the overcrowded prisons condemned by the EU as violating human rights; the uncontrollable influx of penniless illegal immigrants seeking jobs and falling prey to drug traffic rings; the consequent increase in racism and anti-Semitism, etc.

The 5Star Party’s twenty programmatic points for the country are mostly reasonable, although a proposed national referendum on the Euro might produce another catastrophe. They include various economic, legal, streamlining reforms to help eliminate the ills listed above and enable more direct participation of the population in governance.Beppe Grillo himself will continue to lead the party but not as a parliamentarian.He refuses to form alliances, but declares his readiness to cooperate on single issues. He threatens to withdraw his party if, in order to form a majority the Center-Left (PD) and Center-Right (PdL) join forces -- a most unlikely scenario. Given the lack of choice, and despite a bitter denigrating campaign against 5Stars, the Center-Left has now begun to offer Grillo its cooperation -- which he promptly refused.

JEWISH CONCERNS

But what raises the greatest concern to Italian Jews and Israel is a suspicion, based on statements made by Beppe Grillo and online comments by his bloggers, that reflect ignorance about Middle East affairs at best, and at worst present confused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories reflecting the conditioning of age-old anti-Semitic canards.Among other infamous stereotypes, bloggers repeatedly accuse “Jewish banks” of triggering the present economic crisis.

Last June, Israel’s Yediot Aharonot published an interview with Beppe Grillo by the paper’s Rome correspondent, Menachem Gantz, in which the comedian-politician inferred that news regarding the Middle East is filtered and censored by Israeli Secret Services. He stated that “Everything we know about Israel and Palestine is translated into European languages by an agency called ‘MEMRI’ and behind that agency is Kroin, an ex-Mossad agent. I have proof, because when the ex-Mayor of London used independent translators to translate books, it was shown that the reality is completely different…the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone…translated books and discovered incredible things with opposite meanings. When I heard Bin Laden speak, the father of my wife told me the translation did not correspond to the truth.” (Gantz noted that by “Kroin” Grillo was referring toMEMRI founder Yigal Carmon and that Grillo’s father-in-law is Iranian).

When the interviewer asked whether he had doubts about Bin Laden’s intentions, Grillo replied, ”I have doubts. Was he killed? Was it him? The dynamics are suspicious.It’s strange.”

He also seems to have little awareness of the serious threat posed by a nuclear Iran, indicating hopes for change by Iran’s courageous bloggers “who live a parallel life to that mad dictator.And then, when scientists are blown up and viruses introduced – he finds himself under continuous attack.He has to defend himself.”However, said Grillo, “I don’t think the young people in Israel want a war. I’ve seen the blogs of Israeli pacifists.”

While much of Grillo’s talk is due to a simple lack of knowledge of the intricacies of international issues and an underestimation of the significance of specific events on the global scene, the bloggers on his site and his vast circle of supporters show worrisome signs of populist anti-Semitic tendencies. The movement was born four years ago as a furious reaction against Italy’s governing class and was first named as the Italian equivalent of “F--- off”, then abbreviated to“Vafa”. The conditions for joining the movement include a clean civic history with no pending penal records and the absence of membership in any political party.Although 5Stars has not yet taken an open stand against expressions of racism and anti-Semitism, regarding the content of his bloggers Grillo said, “I asked the former Minister of Justice to take action against this phenomenon of racism and Holocaust denial.”

Stefano Gatti, a researcher of Milan’s Jewish Documentation Center, has noted that these “anti-Semitic stereotypes, rooted in the infamous canards of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” find ample space on Grillo’s and other popular blogs, “exerting a perverse kind of fascination” at a moment “favored by the global European economic crisis” and a “progressive loss of many taboos against the free expression of racist and anti-Semitic prejudice.”

The Italian Jewish Community is alarmed.However, although research into Beppe Grillo’s past statements brings forth disturbing and nebulous opinions about Israeli, American and Jewish world power, it reveals above all his lack of general and specific knowledge of global international affairs.The 5Star Party is essentially interested only in solving Italy’s severe domestic problems.

The presence of two Center-Left Jewish parliamentarians in the new constellation is an encouraging factor. In a shifting scenario, MP Emanuele Fiano, who was a former President of the Milan Jewish Community and now serves as Director of Security for the Democratic Party, was re-elected.Yoram Gutgeld, an Italo-Israeli businessman who helped organize a major Israeli fair in Milan (“Unexpected Israel”), will serve his first term.Alessandro Ruben, a former MP with Silvio Berlusconi’s Center-Right coalition, was not re-elected. Fiamma Nirenstein, also a former Center-Right MP (a journalist and a major pro-Israel activist in the past governments which she served as Vice President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies, and Chairperson for the Parliamentary Committee for the Inquiry on Anti-Semitism as well as for the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians) decided not to run for another term and is leaving the Italian scene to make aliyah and return to her writing career.

MP Emanuele Fiano declared, “For the good of the country it is advisable for us to try to initiate a dialogue with the Grillo movement. This is already taking place in Sicily.”Yoram Gutgeld agrees, expressing his hopes for an accord with Grillo on specific points.“This is certainly preferable,” he says, to an alliance with the Center-Right or new elections.” Their hopes are invested in the sense of ethical motivation, the solid academic background and professional capacities of several of the newly elected young 5Star parliamentarians.

However, while the EU, the U.S. and Israel observe Italian developments with trepidation regardingtheirpossible international repercussions, the present climate of harsh hostilities between old and new political parties replete with offensive language is not facilitating efforts to navigate this crisis.

Lisa Palmieri-Billig is AJC’s Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See.

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