The stockmarkets panicked at the Italian election result at the end of February. Neither of the major parties won enough votes to form the stable government that the EU, IMF and business want so they can keep imposing their vicious austerity plans.
The mainstream parties were humiliated by the success of wild card candidate Beppe Grillo, a comedian who ran an anti-establishment campaign that tapped into the hatred of austerity. He now holds the balance of power and is refusing to support any of the other parties to form government.
Mario Monti, the former banker installed in 2011 as Prime Minister in an anti-democratic coup, is gone. His newly-formed party received an embarrassing vote of just 10 per cent.
Monti was put in place by the EU and IMF in order to force through austerity and ensure Italy did not default on its debts.
This meant raising taxes on housing, increasing the retirement age and cutting $4 billion in spending. But, as in Greece and Spain, this has only pushed the economy further into recession. The economy shrunk by 2.4 per cent last year and is expected to contract another 1 per cent this year, as the recession stretches into a second year.
With neither the mainstream left nor Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition gaining a majority in the Senate, the next government faces paralysis and instability.
Silvio Berlusconi managed to come back from political death after he made a populist effort to position himself against austerity, promising to refund an unpopular new tax. He also attacked the mainstream left Democratic Party after they indicated they would consider forming a coalition government with Monti—the hated architect of cutbacks and austerity.
But the biggest winner was Beppe Grillo. His Five Star Movement came from nowhere to win 25 per cent of the vote. Grillo made his reputation as a political satirist who has raged against the corruption of the political elite. His party, formed just three years ago, called for a referendum on whether Italy should default on its debts and leave the EU.
However, his party is by no means left-wing. He mixes opposition to the EU with calls for unions to be “wiped out” and anti-immigrant outbursts, such as calls to deny citizenship to the children of migrants. He has even declared fascists from the CasaPound movement welcome in his party.
Grillo’s success mirrors the success of the Left Front, which scored 11 per cent in the French presidential election, and Syriza’s narrow second place with 26.9 per cent in Greek elections, as well as the growth of parties on the extreme right like the French National Front and Greece’s Golden Dawn.
The popularity of mainstream parties is being hollowed out by their support for austerity and their inability to solve the economic crisis.
The failure of the radical left in Italy to benefit from the anger at austerity is also striking. Just ten years Italy had one of the strongest left-wing movements across Europe, seen in the enormous anti-capitalist demonstrations against the G8 in Genoa in 2001 and an anti-war movement that brought three million people into the streets in 2003.
Central to these movements was Rifondazione Communista, a left-wing party that broke away from the old Italian Community Party, with 100,000 members and wide influence in the unions and social movements.
But after winning 6 per cent in the 2006 elections it entered into a coalition government with the mainstream left Democratic party. This saw it vote for sending troops to Afghanistan and supporting a government that continued its predecessor’s neo-liberal economic policies. In the following election Rifondazione lost all its seats in parliament and in the aftermath has been torn apart in by factional disputes.
With the left having deserted the stage, Grillo has been able to capitalise on the hatred of politicians and opposition to austerity. This is in constrast to Greece. Here, the struggle against austerity is at a higher pitch, with over 20 general strikes, and as a result it was a left party, Syriza, that capitalised on the discontent.
While the level of resistance to austerity in Italy has not been as high as in Greece or Spain, the unions did force Monti to abandon some of his attacks, including the watering down of a new unfair dismissal law making it easier to fire workers. The CGIL, Italy’s biggest union, also joined the Europe-wide general strike in November in opposition to austerity.
This is the power that can stop austerity in its tracks, defend living standards from the policies of the EU, the IMF and the World Bank and put a real political alternative back on the agenda.