WASHINGTON—In the run-up to this week’s Italian general elections, the focus is understandably on which political party will win. Will the center-left Democratic Party maintain its longstanding lead in the polls or will technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti’s centrist alliance have a good enough showing to lock itself into the next governing coalition, thus ensuring continuity to his agenda and the appreciation of Brussels and international investors? Or might former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, given up for politically dead just months ago, be able to recover his traditional electoral base and even win one of the two chambers of Italy’s bicameral legislature, a development that would plunge Italy into political paralysis? These are all certainly important questions. But one that is arguably more fundamental is: will Italy win?
The overarching challenge Italy faces is growth. If Italy does not break out its long, 15-year cycle of slow growth and allows its competitive outlook to deteriorate, there simply will not be resources for families, companies, and institutions. More critically, if the metaphorical pie does not grow in size, the fighting between various lobbies and interest groups under threat will continue, taking Italy down a path of inexorable decline.
If Italy’s imperative is to break the chains of its stifling clientistic structure, however, there are reasons to be concerned about the next election’s outcome. Virtually every party of significance — including Monti’s — is touched by established interests that identify their existence with the status quo. In fact, as the political class has come to represent a stagnating society, politics has degenerated into the protection of privileges, rather than the liberation or generation of new resources. As he transitioned from technocrat to political leader, Monti has had to work with centrist parties, from former elements of the Christian Democratic Party to segments of the post-Fascist Right, which for a long time were partners of Berlusconi’s governing coalition and have a dubious record of reform. Any reformer should be concerned about how Monti’s team can structurally change the country when it is supported by forces that have been structurally part of Italy’s dominant interests.
Is Italy therefore doomed to lose, no matter what the outcome is of this week’s election? Not necessarily. There are a few reasons for optimism. A first reason is the signs of a partial renewal among traditional party elites. Under the pressure of its younger members and its own frustrated electorate, the Democratic Party has boldly gone through a primary selection process for its leader and candidates. The process was accompanied by infighting but the result ushered in a real generational, and perhaps also a cultural, change. Many of the newly elected leaders represent constituencies that are traditional political outsiders.
A second reason is Monti’s decision to enter the contest, which despite the above mentioned challenges will give Italy’s moderates a centrist alternative to Berlusconi’s coalition, which has drifted toward populist, anti-European positions. The emergence of a more open center-left, together with a less personality-centric and moderate center-right, could enable Italy to grow beyond its present power balances. A third positive element, albeit a counter-intuitive one, is the revelation of a growing number of scandals, such as massive corruption cases involving a powerful bank and a strategic defense firm. These scandals are feeding public rage and helping drive support for various populist movements that have emerged in recent years. But the very fact that such scandals are coming out into the open suggests that regeneration might be possible after all.
These partial and uncertain — yet important — steps toward breaking a system that has been reluctant to change may be part of Italy’s path to long-term growth. Beyond who wins the upcoming electoral competition, which will be very important to know, these trends should be closely followed by all those in Italy and abroad who care about the country’s future.
Emiliano Alessandri is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.