Italian elections and the crisis of European democracy

The grave state of affairs in Italy ahead of the elections is yet another sign that European democracy is in crisis.

Italy elections - Reuters
5-Star Movement supporters wear masks depicting former Italian Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi during a protest in Rome, Italy [Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters]

“Perhaps only a war can wake our country from slumber and give direction to our politics.” Most people would be surprised to hear a young progressive utter these words in a cafe in Rome. But I have heard them more than once. And only a few weeks before the national elections on March 4, the question haunting Italy is familiar to many across the world: can democracy still bring about real change? 

The global success of Babylon Berlin, the German TV series portraying life under the fragile Weimar republic, signals a rising European fascination for the tumultuous inter-war period. Comparing the situation today to the 1930s has become something of a political cliche on the continent. The sense of dancing on the verge of the abyss seems real enough: exploding inequalities, threats of ecological catastrophe, disruptive technological change and rising extremism. Psychological distress seems to have crossed all class barriers, with the ultra-rich hoarding cash, preparing for the apocalypse, and purchasing foreign passports

Yet, in this very European obsession with historical repetition, one element seems too easily forgotten: the power of individuals to effect political change.

If an Italian citizen of the 1930s were tele-transported to the 1950s she would scarcely believe her eyes. Where the poor were left to die of curable illnesses, she would find a universal national health service. Where fascism ruled she would find a vibrant democracy. Where protectionist empires collided, she would find booming international trade. In the short span of 20 years a new world had emerged.

Today, as we stand at yet another crossroads, is politics still able to provide such transformative potential – peacefully? Dramatically, the upcoming Italian elections bring a response in the negative.  

The economic background is bleak. The country remains below its pre-crisis output, while the little economic growth there is concentrates at the top of the pyramid. Unemployment may be nominally decreasing, but only due to the spread of precarious, underpaid jobs. And while the national debate focuses on the effects of rising immigration, the number of Italians leaving their country each year often exceeds the number of migrants coming in. 

The political response to the grave state of affairs has been little more than feeble attempts to muddle through and petty squabbles. The incumbent Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi and its stitched-up coalition try to tout the economic “success” achieved in the last five years and promise more of the same. On the other side of the spectrum, a coalition led by former prime minister and convicted tax-fraudster Silvio Berlusconi puts together neo-fascists, nationalists, and old centrists in an incoherent alliance promising everything, and its opposite. Between the two, comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement seems willing to say anything its marketing experts recommend on any given day: tellingly, the party is both in favour and against Italian membership of the Euro, the EU’s single currency. 

Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition is leading the polls, but none of the contenders in the upcoming election seems to have a chance of securing an absolute majority in Parliament, leaving horse-trading, a grand-coalition, or a technocratic government as the most realistic options.

But regardless of the swinging electoral arithmetic, the upcoming elections bring further proof of the crisis of European democracy. At a moment when Italy and Europe need ambition, leadership and a clear vision for change, politics is turning parochial and short-sighted. Where the extraordinary economic, ecological and geopolitical challenges of our time would call for a battle of ideas and for competing world views, the electoral debate is solidly buried in the sands of insignificance. The sad truth is that China’s long-term planning increasingly appears as a captivating alternative to Europe’s petty bickering.

The outcome of this political abdication is a contradictory mix of apathy and extremism. In the upcoming Italian elections, abstention is expected to reach 50 percent among younger people, an all-time high. A sense of gloom and powerlessness prevails: “We need to hit rock bottom before anything can begin to change” is another refrain very commonly heard in the country. At the same time the debate becomes even more polarised, with increasingly toxic media coverage and openly racist claims from leading politicians encouraging a climate of fear, xenophobia, and even far-right terrorism. Recently, drive-by shooting targeted migrants in Northern Italy. 

As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats sung in 1919, these appear to be times when:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity”

Despondency grows all across European democracies. And during the 2017 French presidential elections I have heard many young people thinking that a victory for Marine Le Pen’s far-right party, however disastrous, might at least have provided a much needed wake up call. In the meantime, the far-right has entered government in Austria, Poland and Hungary, while in Germany it has become nearly as popular as the Social Democratic party.

Apathy and extremism are the bitter fruits of a failing economy and a political system that has renounced any vision or passion for the future. Ultimately, Italian elections will mean almost nothing. And this is precisely the problem.

Yeats ended his poem with a terrifying vision: 

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

It was the beast of war. History rarely repeats itself. But a feeling of political impotence coupled with material suffering has always been the premise of all catastrophe. Keeping the monsters at bay will require the courage of political renewal and transformation. But a tired and provincial European political class appears tragically unfit for the task.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.