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How Italy's Election Stalemate Is Playing Out On The Streets


Italy continues to reel from the results of this weekend's elections, where no party won enough seats to form a government, and - at least so far - talks to form a coalition have gone nowhere. To the consternation of many - of his many critics, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made an improbable comeback, but the real surprise was the success of the Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo. He's already said he will not work with any of the politicians currently in power. Beppe Severgnini joins us now by phone from Italy, where he's a columnist with the newspaper Corriere Della Sera. And thanks very much for being with us. Nice to have you back in the program.

BEPPE SEVERGNINI: It's lovely to be back on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm honored.


CONAN: Is anybody going to be able to form a government?

SEVERGNINI: Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement - which you mentioned - and the Democratic Party have the numbers to do that. And I think if the Grillo people are not - if they are wise and responsible, I think they should do something. They got a lot of votes, now they have to do something with that. Italy doesn't have the time to wait for another year, another election. The market cannot wait. Europe does not wait.

CONAN: Yeah, they're not waiting, but Mr. Grillo, so far, has been very uncooperative.

SEVERGNINI: Look, I read something that Mr. Grillo said today, and it is that he expect Mr. Berlusconi - therefore the right - and the Democratic Party - therefore the left - to form a sort of grand coalition government, and say - and then there will be a disaster. And there will be - and I will - and there will be another election, and I will be a winner on the rubble - he used the expression macerie, that means the rubble - of Italy.

We don't want rubbles. We are a good country of Southern Europe, and we want to be a successful country. So I think that even the deputies of Mr. Grillo are not happy with that. They're now in parliament. They've got a job to do. I'm sure they can find 10, 15 points that they share with the Democratic Party, and form some kind of government, and start from there. I mean, to just say, I want to destroy everything, so next time I've got to have(ph) 50 percent, it's totally irresponsible.


CONAN: What happens if no government can be formed?

SEVERGNINI: Well, in Belgium, they went - they said that they're surviving - they've been surviving without a government for some time. We're the master of surviving without authority, or despite the authorities. So in Italy, at the moment, in Rome, we have, from in a few hours, we have no pope. In a few days, we have no prime minister. In a few weeks, we have no president or republic. The head of Alitalia, the airline, resigned. The head of the main state-owned manufacturing company, Finmeccanica, is in jail. And the head of the Banking Association is actually accused of very serious crimes. Do you think there is panic in the street? Not at all. I'm in Bologna. Life is - goes on as usual.

CONAN: Well, that's good to hear, and I'm sure life is good for a lot of people there. But nevertheless, austerity has cut into many people's lives, and a lot of people would like the economy to start doing a lot better.

SEVERGNINI: It is true. In fact, you brought up a very good point. What happened is the austerity that followed the crisis of 2008 and 2009 - and I'm afraid your country, the United States, knows a lot about that, and it was part - actually, it helped start all that. We did our bit, as well, in Europe, of course. But - people and nations react in different ways. The Greek rioted in their squares. The French took to the streets. The Spaniards sort of sulked(ph) in their unsellable homes. The British swore at their bankers. Italians kept very quiet (unintelligible) Prime Minister Mario Monti. But obviously, something was sort of looming, and it happened. You know, this election, people had enough and say, austerity is not enough.

We've been suffering. And Beppe Grillo actually provided a way and a channel for (unintelligible), which is good. There was no violence at all in Italy, and the people protesting with their votes. I think it's very mature, very wise, in a way. Now it's time for Grillo to use those votes and do something with them.

CONAN: Other than describing him as a populist, can you describe his politics to us?

SEVERGNINI: Well, he has a combination of sort of radicalism, and he doesn't want high-speed trains. He want the unemployment benefits for everyone. But also, he said he wants a referendum on the euro - which, of course, is completely the pie in the sky. But these he's got, also, some wise - says some wise things, says, for instance, we have to stop showering political parties with public money.

I know you, in the United States, you have different problems with money and politics. But in Europe, especially in Italy, too much money - public money, our money goes to political parties. He say: Two terms is enough in parliament. And he says things that, actually, sort of people like to hear. And that's why he could share those points. You could leave the populist and the radical things aside and find those things that he share with the Italian Democratic Party - which, by the way, is not that different from your Democratic Party. The big difference, that you have Obama, and in Italy, we have Bersani.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people are interested in another name that begins with a B, and that is Berlusconi. He left office in disgrace. He is still facing numerous trials, and yet here he is, back, a major player once again.

SEVERGNINI: Look, I think modern democracy's all over, all of modern democracy, definitely Italy. They have become short memories, more or less a memory of a goldfish: four seconds. People forget. People forgot that it's actually Berlusconi who's abysmal performance as the prime minister - forget the scandals.

You know, Italy, in the - from 2001 to 2011, only few countries in the world grew, in terms of GNP, grew less than Italy: Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Haiti. Could you believe that? We're talking about Italy. We produce Ferrari and Prada and all that stuff. I mean, how could that - so Berlusconi was disqualified, but he's got television, and he knows how to talk to people. He knows he's - charming and simpatico, and he talks about soccer and women, and he winks. And so it - actually, he lost half of his votes, his own party from 2008. The latest election, 2013, he lost half, exactly half of his votes. So he was not a big success. But he's still there. He's a survivor. He's our illusionist-in-chief. You have a commander-in-chief. We have an illusionist-in-chief.

CONAN: One of the big losers, though, was the, I guess, outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was described as the technocrat, the sober realist who was able to push through a lot of the reforms demanded by Italy's bankers, demanded by the markets, those kind of austerity programs that people apparently really don't like.

SEVERGNINI: Look, Mario Monti is a professor. He was a former European commissioner. And really knows his economics. He put through labor reform and (unintelligible) reform. He imposed a harsh-but-necessary property tax. And so the parties were smart enough - or sly enough - to let him - to sort of - to get all the unpopularity, so all the blame for that. And so - oh, he was - and, in fact, he's been supported by all parties for a whole year, 2012. And so thanks, God, Mario Monti's here.

Monti is like, you know, you get - you have an accident, and you don't run to Silvio Berlusconi's disco tech. You run to Dr. Mario Monti's emergency room. But now, we are a little bitter. Actually, we are much better. And so you want to get out of that emergency room. It's was a big mistake to run, for him. I mean, emergency room doctors have a great job to do, but you don't really want to see their faces every day. And nations and children never forget the face of the person with - who gave them the bitter pill.

CONAN: So, effectively, the party that received the most votes, Mr. Grillo's Five Star Party, you're urging them to say, look, you've received a mandate, of sorts, from the people. You now have an obligation to govern.

SEVERGNINI: Absolutely. My name is Beppe. If you Google Beppe, number one is Grillo, number two is me. So I'm entitled to say to the other Beppe, just be serious. You got a lot of votes. Do something with them.

CONAN: Is he - I know he's the leader of the party, but as I understand it, he is not going to be a member of parliament himself.

SEVERGNINI: No. He's not a member of parliament - which is a bizarre choice, by the way. And also, that makes the political life very difficult. Can you imagine the leader of Democratic or Republican Party in America not being in the Senate, on the House of Representatives?

So every time that you have, you know, even life in a - in the House of Representatives means you need to be there. You need to deal and wheel and pork(ph) and everything. Grillo's going to be at home. So what is going to happen? His 150 MPs will go on the phone and say, Beppe, what are we going to do with this? It's ridiculous. So that's one point.

And the second point is Beppe Grillo's people and Beppe Grillo's deputies are actually younger, much younger, and I suspect much wiser and quieter than he is.

So expect some of them to say, look, we promised Italians to change this country, we're going to do that. And so they already proved that in Bologna, where I am, actually. It's - they've been successfully here in Emilia-Romagna. They were successfully in Parma and in Sicily. They cut deals all the time, American style, really cutting deals on the legislative floor without the parties, and they were very successful.

CONAN: Well, you've said what you thought should happen. What's your best guess as to what you think will happen?

SEVERGNINI: My bet is that they will find some way - some agreement with - between the Democratic Party and Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement. Actually, quite - they share - they both are sort on the liberal side of things, to use an American category. They're not right-winger at all. That's my prediction. If Beppe Grillo refuses to do that, he risks, number one, a kind of split within his party, number one.

And number two, if we go back to the polls in ruins next year, with, you know, the (unintelligible) and problem with our bonds, and all that, I think Beppe Grillo will have the hard time to tell Italians, look, I have so many votes and I just threw them away. And I think next time, he's going to have not 25, 30 percent, but 10 percent. It's not in his interest to do that.

CONAN: Beppe Severgnini, thank you very much for your time today.

SEVERGNINI: You're very welcome. Lovely to be on TALK OF THE NATION.

CONAN: Beppe Severgnini joined us by phone from Bologna, where he's a columnist for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.