Bellwether tries to stay ahead of the headlines. Here’s one you’re likely to see soon: Italians, legendarily well-fed, are fed up. And that might just mean voters turn to a former comedian, who is also a convicted criminal, to solve their problems.
Like Greece, its neighbor across the Ionian Sea, Italy is unable – some think unwilling -- to restrain its government spending. That has put it in conflict with the budget hawks in the European Union, of which both countries are members. Unless it abides by E.U. insistence that it reduce its deficit, Italy may not qualify for future financial support from Brussels, where the E.U. is headquartered.
It’s all the result of Italy’s heedless spending in years past. Unemployment is 12 percent. Health care is free. Tax evasion is legendary. Corruption is commonplace, as is organized crime. And while its economy is the third largest in Europe, state-backed banks have billions of dollars of outstanding loans that will never be repaid. That has frozen businesses, which can’t borrow money to generate new economic growth.
None of which makes the ruling left-of-center Democratic Party very popular. Barely clinging to power, the party’s leader, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, is being challenged by two contenders even further to the left than he is. Renzi was shamed into resigning as prime minister last year after voters in a nationwide referendum rejected his plan to reform the constitution.
The defection of his left-wing cohorts increases the possibility that the Democrats will throw the Italian equivalent of a Hail Mary, and force early elections this year. Like the Mafia, this is something Italians are used to: there have been more than 60 government turnovers since the end of World War II.
The most likely beneficiary of early elections would be the Five Star Movement (M5S) an anti-establishment coalition founded in 2009 by a former television comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose rough language and bellicose speaking style bear resemblance to Donald Trump’s to terrify mainstream politicians. P.S.: He also tweets.
Grillo handed off leadership duties -- he was once convicted of manslaughter and is ineligible to serve in Parliament -- but is still the ideological soul of the Movement. That leaves him free to rail against corrupt government, the European Union, and the euro, which replaced Italy’s beloved lira as the country’s official currency.
Though unlikely to get enough votes to form a government by itself, the Five Star Movement has caught the imagination of young Italians who are tired of their corrupt, inept and, to date, firmly ensconced political elite.
An inveterate Twitter user, Grillo may have put his finger on the national pulse with one tweet just last week: “Italians’ patience has a limit.”
An arrogant ruling class has tested that patience for decades. Italians may be ready to prove that political revenge is a dish best served cold.