Contributed by Joe Montero
Across Europe, social democratic political parties are continuing to find themselves in a deepening crisis. Only a few years ago, their popularity took a spectacular downhill plunge in Greece and almost fell as far in Spain. But the decline of social democracy in Europe is much broader than this. In the north of the continent, the downhill plunge has also been spectacular. The same goes for the east.What about France, where the Socialist Party was almost wiped out last year. In Germany, the situation in not greatly improved. It is happening in Italy too.
This is no accident. As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that Europe needs radically new answers to problems that have been festering for years. The European economy is sick and it is not delivering benefits for the largest part of the European population. In fact, for most life is going backwards, as incomes lag, unemployment grows and the impact of an era of austerity bites.Along with this there is a feeling that under the European Union as it exists, too much power and control is going to Germany first and France second.
Growing tension has intensified calls for greater autonomy across the continent. In Belgium, the Flemish independence party is the biggest political party in the country. The Bavarians want to increasingly free themselves from Germany. France has various movements wanting to break away. Spain has the Catalan crisis, the Basques, Galicians (Gallegos) and others. Italy has the north east that wants to go its own way.
The future does not look any better and this is changing political allegiances, as rising insecurity and anger harvest an ongoing tide of polarisation, to a level that has not been seen since the end of World War Two.
The continent wants an end to the years of cutbacks and the lavish welfare handed out to corporations. People want jobs, and governments that are pro-active in building economies for people and where the gains are shared fairly.
The social democratic parties are failing to deliver, because they cannot unlock themselves from the neoliberal neconomic and social policy consensus with the traditional conservative parties. This consensus is hurting the social democratic parties more, because their traditional supporters had expected them to be the progressive parties of change. While they remain locked in, they are not listening to what the base is saying.
Next Sunday, Italy goes to an election. Polls indicate that the governing Democratic Party will find its vote shrink enough to knock it out of any chance. This party was originally formed by former Communists, who had joined with a section of their formally rival Christian Democrats to form a new party, modeled after the American Democrats. When the Berlusconi administration collapsed, the Democratic Party found itself in government. Nothing much happened, except that business continued as usual. and the Democratic Party’s credibility began to quickly evaloporate.
As in the rest of Europe, Italy is experiencing a political polarisation. In the north east, the Northern League is set to increase its support and is pitching to build its support base in the south. Across the country, it is the Five Star Movement that is expected to become the party with the biggest number of votes.
But no party is likely to get more than 30 percent of the vote. In the circumstances, where something different from the same old is expected, the real prospect of either a minority government or coalition, is going to be problematic and more than anything else, could bring in a period of greater political instability.
What happens in Italy is vitally important to the whole of Europe. This is its third largest economy. If its foundations begin to shake, the shock will be felt across the continent. Italy’s economy remains one of the most troubled in Europe and mixing this with a growing political crisis, could be explosive.
It is not only a problem for Italy. In many ways, this is part of the unfolding of the story that is occurring through Europe. The decline of the two wings of the traditional political parties is opening the gate for the rise of the ultra-right, which which is able to capitalise in the situation, by presenting itself as being different from the traditional political elite and providing its own answers to what the average man and woman demanding. The threat from this corner is real.
However, the same situation is also creating opportunities for a movement seeking to move in the opposite direction and providing very different answers to the same problems.
Italy’s Five Star Movement emerged as a protest movement against the political elite. It began as a blog site against political corruption and struck a chord with Italians. It is big on changing the political system to one based on direct democracy, based on the use of computer technology. This means that everyone gets to vote on policies, before they become law. It is an anti-corruption movment that is also big on environmentalism, sustainable development, public water, sustainable transport, and the right to Internet access. These are represented by the five stars. The movement is also opposed to Italy’s involvement in foreign conflicts.
The party also holds that being a politician should not be a career and its members are not permitted to hold office for more than two terms.
In the 2014, the Five Star movement won the second highest vote of all parties. Feeling threatened, the surviving but hurt Democratic Party government, subsequently changed the electoral system, in a way that is widely seen as a move against the Five Star Movement. The proportional system where seats are allocated according to party vote, was partially changed to having some members of parliament elected on the basis on their name. This favours those who are cashed up, have long standing contacts and a big local party machine behind them.
There has also been a tidal wave of negative news stories and accusations from the largely Berlusconi owned electronic and print media. The new consensus between the traditional parties is to block the Five Star Movement.
There is a lot of debate, and not only in Italy, about whether this new Movement represents any real change. Experience may provide the definitive answer to this before too long.
Whichever way this goes, there is one important fact that should be considered. The rise of the Movement cannot be explained as plan hatched in a dark basement. It is the outcome of the underlying conditions that are driving calls for change, which are taking their own shape in Italy. At the very least, the political consensus of the traditional political parties is being shaken.
The Five Star Movement may not garner enough votes, to in its own right become the government. Neither will any of the other parties. The Democratic Party is tipped to get about 22 percent, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia 16 percent, the Northern league 13 percent and the pro-fascist Brothers of Italy 4.8 percent. The most likely outcome is that no party will do well enough to form government alone. This brings up two real possibilities. The Five Star Movement forming a minority government with the support of minor parties and the Democratic Party. A coalition has already been ruled out. The other is that the already already existing coalition between the Forza Italia, the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy, will form the government.
Both of these and the possibilities are a guarantee for deepening political instability. If the Burlusconi coalition gets the nod, it will open a door to the rise of fascism.
A minority government can expect to be frustrated, especially if the price paid in terms of concessions is too great. The options will continue to discredit the political elite and this will feed a counter wave.
If the Five Star Movement wins a miraculous majority and succeeds in becoming the government, it will write its own story.
Whatever happens, the decay of the Italian political system will continue, and the population will react. This is going to provide a tremendous learning experience for Italy. It will have repercussions through Europe.
Elections come and go. The political and economic trajectory continues. The economy is not performing. Inequality is growing, along with the sense of injustice, and the call for change will persist. The traditional political establishment will continue to be found wanting and millions will demand change.
Change comes about when enough people feel that they have had enough, to the point when they are prepared to act on it. The conditions under which they live, and work decide this, not the political parties that routinely misrepresent them. There is an important lesson here.
Although Australia has not at this point reached the level of crisis that Europe is finding itself in, the lesson applies to us as well.