Italian politics seems set for a very bumpy ride. The technocratic government of Mario Monti, which was sworn in a year ago to tackle the economic crisis, is facing growing pressure from political parties in pre-election mode. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party provides vital external support to the Monti government, backtracked on his October 25 promise to end his political career in response to his four-year prison sentence for tax fraud. His announcement included an angry outburst against the judiciary and "hegemonic" Germany, and threats to revoke his support of the Monti-led government. This has added greater uncertainty to Italy's fluid politics, and it is now entirely unclear whether the general elections scheduled for April will generate a much-awaited "Italian Spring" of sorts marked by regenerating change, or whether it will accelerate Italy's downward spiral into populism and instability.
Italian politics has gone through such seismic shifts of late that we may be witnessing the demise of the so-called Second Republic, the political system dating to the 1990s when leaders such as Berlusconi arose from the ruins of discredited Cold-War ideologies and a decayed party system. Proliferating corruption scandals have sent shockwaves across the political spectrum, prompting high-profile resignations and further alienating a disillusioned electorate.
The parties supporting Monti suffer from burdensome legacies and association with unpopular austerity policies. While a center-right coalition still coping with its loss of power in 2011 risks disintegrating and plummeting, the center-left - which is ahead in the polls - faces internal challenges. Specifically, the Democratic Party primaries are exposing fault lines between its long-serving establishment and a rising faction led by 37-year-old Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, whom some characterize as a populist "Italian Obama." Renzi is accused of seeking the dissolution of the center-left coalition by forcing older leaders to resign while reaching out to constituencies that once supported Berlusconi.
Beyond the fragile centrist coalitions, fast-rising populist movements threaten to pierce through the collapsing political system. The largest such group is the Five Star Movement, led by a veteran comedian with a platform that has nothing funny to say about the Italian bureaucracy, established interests and institutions, and the European Union and international alliances. There is a good chance that long pent-up popular demands for political accountability and economic opportunity will be ill-served by a deteriorating political context that favors populism over rhetoric that is more realistic, or more democratic.
Only an unlikely alignment of domestic and international factors can fully protect Italy against such eventuality. But to prevent Italy's drift towards populism, apathy, weak governance, and instability, the constructive elements of Italian society have to recognize some key facts and coalesce around some urgent initiatives. They must recognize, for example, that weak political parties and institutions do not mark a victory for the people, as populist leaders seem to imply, but instead enable the rise of factional or personal interests. Second, they must acknowledge that the EU provides an anchor for Italy's continuing relevance on the international scene and for Italian democracy. The political and economic crises that Italy experienced after the Maastricht Treaty would have been far more severe and uncontrollable had it been less integrated.
The political forces that take the future of Italian democracy seriously, whether organized political parties or civil society, must work together to put in place at least three long-overdue pieces of reform that are critical to preventing new concentrations of power. These are a conflict-of-interest watchdog agency, the comprehensive reform of the judiciary towards greater efficiency and independence, and a stronger anti-corruption law than the one just passed. The first will be difficult to implement, but could be a point of convergence among populist and pro-change political parties after the elections.
Italian democrats should also work hard to keep Italy fully involved in Europe, both to ally with counterparts to stem populism and to push European governance and economic reform in a direction that benefits the people. The aim should be to re-create at the political level the same "European balance that helps Italy" that Monti helped create at the institutional level. The ongoing developments in Italy ought to remind European and transatlantic leaders that the euro crisis has political, and not just economic, implications. And they will consequently require a political, and not just economic, response.