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Is Italy becoming ungovernable?

The elections leave the country politically gridlocked, and its traditional parties battered

The Italian election results portend, for the near future, an ungovernable Italy and a European Union in which the markets may relapse into anxiety, and the euro into renewed crisis. The Italians have produced a parliament in which the social democrats control the Chamber of Deputies, but no group has a clear majority in the Senate. This seems likely to impede the implementation of the reforms so imperiously needed by the euro zone’s third-ranking economy.

The reason why neither of the two major political alliances, the center-left of Pier Luigi Bersani and the right of Silvio Berlusconi, have obtained a majority in the Senate — crucial for the governance and stability of Italy, since both chambers have equal legislative powers — is the spectacular electoral onset of the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, the most-voted non-party, which now stands as arbiter of the situation, though apparently lacking a plan to govern the country. A formidable protest vote against the inertia and discredit of the political establishment, whose magnitude had not been rightly gauged either in Italy or abroad.

Nor did the polls predict that Berlusconi’s alliance would obtain practically the same number of votes as the center-left favorite, in spite of the ex-prime minister’s sordid record — rampant corruption and a scandal-ridden personal life — and his impossible electoral promises.

Berlusconi is by no means dead and buried; Bersani has not achieved the victory predicted for him; and nor does Mario Monti possess even the slight strength he was thought to have. The campaign has been a wearing one for Monti, the acting prime minister being the clear loser in the elections. In spite of the EU’s incessant praise of the technocrat, his compatriots have turned their backs on his formula of extreme austerity, which is understandable enough after a decade of stagnation.

The general rejection of Monti’s policies (exploited as much by Berlusconi as by Grillo) constitutes, moreover, a serious warning for the European Union. As does the magnitude of the vote for the Five Star Movement, principally among the young, in a Europe that, with increasing frequency, has been seeing substantial advances made by heterodox and populist parties, even in consolidated democracies.

Italy, in any case, needs to be governed. Now a laborious and presumably lengthy process of haggling will begin, to form alliances that will make it possible to clear the blockage. The timid calls for a grand coalition — quite foreign to a political culture of hot-blooded confrontation — are as unlikely as the idea of holding new elections, which in the present scenario would represent further humiliation for the traditional parties.

Whatever shape the government that is finally formed takes, it will be facing the double and formidable challenge of lifting Italy out of its deepest recession in recent history, and of bridging the huge gulf between the government and a public that is openly distrustful of the politicians. The process is of interest above all to Italy, but of crucial interest as well to the whole of an expectant Europe.

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