September 20, 2014
Mermaids and messengers
For the Herald
Europeans voted irresponsibly in last week’s election but, for once, Italians were the voice of reason
THE HAGUE — For once, and possibly once alone, Italy has surfaced as the one country in Europe to respect the bounds of political sanity. Whereas France chose an extremist, Britain opted for a nationalist boozer, and a sliver of Germans elected the first ever Member of the European Parliament from a satirical non-party, some 40 percent of Italian voters got behind their briskly reformist prime minister.
Matteo Renzi, who took power in events akin to a palace coup within his country’s centre-left Democratic Party in February, defied the electoral drift in all senses. Neither secessionist nor separatist, revolutionary nor retrograde, the 39-year-old Renzi has transformed himself from an unelected apparatchik into one of the very few charismatic and kinetic personages now offered up by high-level European politics, most of whose members met for a lugubrious dinner in Brussels last week to contemplate the stirrings of their fish-head soup. It was that sort of week for the bigwigs; an “earthquake” in the words of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose Socialist Party came third with 14 percent of the vote, ten points behind the far right National Front.
Not unusually for modern Europe, it was an earthquake following which all the bone china seems to have slipped back into place unbroken. Many analysts observed that the results were caused by irresponsible voting for a powerless supra-Parliament. Threats from Nigel Farage, leader of the victorious UK Independence Party, to steal into the fortresses of the two main parties come next year’s general election have already seemed to recede in significance. Asked to graft some policy flesh on his anti-EU finger-wagging, Farage obliged by saying that he would like to cut tax for top earners — a policy as likely to repel as it is to attract.
More to the point, it is worth noting that despite the talk of tectonic shifts and racist effluvia seeping across the body of Europe, 467 of the 751 seats in the new European Parliament belong to the three main moderate, pro-EU blocs; only around 140 seats are now in the hands of eurosceptics and assorted radicals.
This sense of a confusing mix of results, in which progressive Italians chafe against German conservatives and French xenophobes, is strengthened when one’s gaze is cast towards the rest of the world. Alongside Europe, this has been a month of intense international electioneering, from which it would be incredibly hard to discern any clear trend. India has voted in a strongman after an epic, 500-million-vote tribute to democracy; Egypt has voted in a strongman after a travesty of democracy. Wartime Ukraine has elected a man of peace; peaceful Colombia has opted for a man of war, at least in the first round.
In spite of this diversity and all the peculiarities of the European vote, it is still worth contemplating the new batch of politicians and parties. Attention has so far been grabbed primarily by the radical right in northern Europe, though it would be a big risk to bet against its evanescence; the French FN has ballooned and punctured many times since the late 1980s. But it is Renzi’s success in Italy, and the opposition he faces, which may be a bit closer to expressing the truly important shifts in political life.
The Italian prime minister is clear that the primary issue he faces is unemployment. He also recognizes that the main political danger comes from the rage currently harvested by Beppe Grillo, an anti-system populist who came second in the EU poll with 21 percent. “Grillo is not finished,” retorted Renzi in a post-election interview. “He will be finished if we carry out reforms. If we carry out reforms and are credible, then the Five Star Movement will have no future… because among its parliamentarians, there are good people and some who believe in mermaids. There was a deputy who said she believed in mermaids.”
Renzi is now the advance guard in the European political establishment’s attempt to contain and channel the resentment over mass economic pain and political disenfranchisement. Much will depend on what precisely lies behind the perfume of reform. But as he indicates, it will also hinge on whether the political outsiders and rebels he and other face in southern Europe manage to maintain a clear head and a chord with the electorate.
In Greece, the left-wing Syriza party emerged as the dominant force last week, as it very nearly did in national elections in 2012: Brussels feared that outcome so strongly at the time that it was primed to handle a messy Greek exit from the euro. The Spanish radical left’s result was not nearly so impressive, though its parties came third and fourth, earning a total of 11 seats. Little in the entire EU poll, however, was as startling as the rise of the fourth placed party – a previously unknown entity called Podemos (we can).
Its “leader”, much as he seems to deride the label, is a 35-year-old temporary university lecturer who earns 950 euros a month, and lives in a solidly working class district of Madrid. Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues created from nothing a party that gained eight percent of the vote. Much of the credit must go to Iglesias himself, who has gained fame for journeying from one right wing shock jock’s studio to the next – there are a lot of them in Spain – and treating them to a machine gun tirade of finely argued and articulated polemic.
Iglesias looks like John the Baptist, and harangues with the precision of a Silicon Valley geek. More importantly, he captures the fury of the snubbed youth of Spain. His advisers include Juan Carlos Monedero, a political theorist formerly close to Hugo Chávez — though Monedero is an indubitably fine thinker, who has long been critical of Venezuelan authoritarianism. Spain’s political establishment quakes with indignation. But for now, no one in that rarefied and self-serving world knows what the new poverty in their country looks or feels like. Podemos certainly does.