Presidential election campaigns in the United States are always carefully — even anxiously — watched in Europe because even before the collapse of the Soviet Union the American government had become the world’s most powerful, and therefore political and economic decisions made in Washington can have serious consequences around the globe.
Today, however, the situation is momentarily (at least) reversed. Americans are joining the rest of the world in watching political developments in Italy — hardly an international powerhouse in the 21st century — because voters there are deciding who will emerge as their new prime minister. The question of the day is: more or less austerity? The outcome of the two days of voting will have an important influence on whether the unpopular austerity measures favored most notably by Germany and the United Kingdom will prevail as Europe’s solution to the enduring economic problems dominating the continent’s political discourse. And Europe’s approach is sure to have important repercussions for the world’s other major economies, especially at a time when the United States is considering a major trade agreement with the European Union.
By American standards, the array of candidates for the top political job in Italy seems rather exotic. The leader appears to be Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist. His strongest rival may be the extremely controversial and colorful billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who, at 76, seeks a comeback after being driven out of office in large part because of Italy’s crippling debt crisis. (When Berlusconi went to cast his ballot in Milan on Sunday, three women bared their breasts to display the slogan “Basta Silvio!” or “Enough of Silvio!”)
Then there’s the incumbent, Mario Monti, a colorless technocrat praised for saving Italy from financial ruin. To gain that worthy goal, however, he alienated so many voters that experts believe his chances of remaining in office are slim. Beppe Grillo, a popular comedian with a bushy beard, has drawn support from those who argue that Italy’s entrenched political class simply cannot be trusted to run the government for the benefit of the people.
It is not inconceivable that Grillo’s popularity — he has drawn huge and enthusiastic crowds to his rallies — will at least earn his political colleagues enough seats in the Parliament to become a force to be reckoned with. The world’s financial markets, however, might not welcome Grillo’s success with the same excitement his supporters have demonstrated.
Although Bersani’s politics used to be to the left of the mainstream, he strongly supported the more conservative Monti during his difficult tenure as prime minister. (Bersani is respected more as an economist than a politician.) Also, in key positions in earlier center-left governments, Bersani shed his communist ideals and fought to free up areas of the economy such as energy, insurance and banking services from government domination.
Italy has a parliamentary and multiparty political system that is unlike America’s. The prime minister — the leader of the party that captures the most, although seldom a majority, of the votes — needs the support of at least one other party in the Parliament to have enough votes to pass legislation.
The anti-austerity argument has its supporters in the United States, and they’ll be watching closely to see what happens after the votes have been counted in Italy. Also, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron, two of the strongest political figures in the European Union, both are supporters of austerity as the answer to the region’s lingering economic woes, but will their constituents support them the next time they vote?
American politicians will be watching.
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