FEBRUARY is carnival time in Italy. Parties take place across the country and children wear masks of old traditional characters such as Arlecchino, Pantalone and Pulcinella or modern superheroes like Batman and Spiderman.
Italians of all ages suspend disbelief and celebrate for a last time before the beginning of Lent and its privations. Carnival is a brief break from reality, a moment in which the outlandish, the theatrical and the grotesque dominate.
Almost like the current election campaign in Italy. Except the superheroes are less credible and the same old characters are with us all year round. And old they certainly are: none of the four major leaders – Pierluigi Bersani, Silvio Berlusconi, Mario Monti and Beppe Grillo – is under 60. To put that in some perspective: they are all older than the current leaders of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Britain and the US. Italy, as in so many other ways, remains a country for old men.
Superhero claims and the outlandish are in abundance, too. In part, from the comedian Grillo, whose ability to entertain a crowd and stir emotions is ideally suited to a campaign. But most notably from the eternal superhero, Berlusconi, who has promised not only to repeal property tax on people’s main homes, but to reimburse Italians for the property tax paid last year.
A proposal best filed under “fantasy economics”. The same could be said of his pledge to create four million new jobs – withdrawn when somebody remembered that Italy has less than three million unemployed. Reality and hard facts, of course, are incidental in the carnival of the campaign. It’s about the show. And nobody puts on a show better than Berlusconi.
Berlusconi is a formidable campaigner and fighter. This time has been no different. By leaving it unclear whether he would actually serve as prime minister in an eventual government, he has managed to convince his long-standing coalition partner, the regionalist Northern League, to come back on board. And, thanks to his promises and allegations, repeated in almost daily television appearances, he has been able to claw back much of the centre-left’s lead in the polls.
He has been helped by the appalling standards of journalism in Italy, which allow him to speak as though he had not been in power for eight of the past 11 years. But he has been assisted also by the dire campaigns of the more traditional, non-heroic figures of this carnival, Bersani and Monti.
Bersani’s strategy seems inspired by the Japanese proverb that if you stay sitting at the bank of the river, your enemy’s corpse will eventually float by. Armed with his initial lead, Bersani has tried to bide time. It is hard to recall a single policy proposal that has captured attention. His appearances on television have seen him either make vague, well-meaning sounds about jobs and growth or attempt to disparage Berlusconi. But without landing any memorable blows.
Monti’s campaign has been even worse. Moving from competent technocrat to awkward politician, he has looked like a safety car that stays out in the race rather than returning to the pits once its job is done. His efforts to recast himself as a regular guy, along with promises to promote women and the young, ring particularly hollow. Especially from an elite figure whose cabinet of 18 contained just three women and had an average age of 63.
Nonetheless, based on the most recent polls, those who lose the campaign may win the election. The centre-left remains around five points ahead of Berlusconi’s coalition, meaning it should gain a clear majority in the lower house. In the Senate, the situation is more complicated thanks to Italy’s bizarre electoral law.
Basically, if the centre-left does not win a majority in almost all regions and, in particular, the key one of Lombardy, where it is neck-and-neck with the centre-right, it will require a post-election coalition partner to govern. Given the implausibility of an agreement with Berlusconi or Grillo, the choice for Bersani would be Monti.
My guess is that, faced with the alternative of another general election, Bersani and Monti will come to an agreement. But such a “rainbow coalition”, stretching across very different ideologies, would be unlikely to last a full legislature. This outcome depends on the 30 per cent of the electorate still undecided, choosing not to vote or spreading its support relatively equally.
When I asked one undecided friend what she was planning to do , her response seemed instructive: “The campaign has been like a circus. I’d like to vote for Grillo – he allows you to express your anger at the political class, to show we are not a bunch of idiots. But, in the end, I’ll probably vote for Bersani. It’s the more useful vote.”
So, after the carnival and superheroes, Italy will return to boring old reality and the austerity of Lent? Probably. Whether the country’s long-awaited resurrection follows remains very much in the balance, however