Austerity versus populism
Silvio Berlusconi wants to buy the Italian premiership. The multi-millionaire media baron and former prime minister - mired in scandal, yet still attempting an against-all-odds political comeback - has now cast himself as the anti-austerity candidate; the friend of the working family.
In the final days of canvassing, and attendant media reporting (which stopped on 22 February, ahead of elections on 24-25 February), Berlusconi has promised a tax rebate; in a letter sent throughout Italy, he has said he will not only abolish property tax in the country, if elected he will reimburse those who have already paid. Media reports suggest a lot of voters are willing to take the disgraced former PM up on his offer.
Berlusconi – who resigned from power in November 2011 amid sex scandals and allegations of tax evasion – is attempting an obvious populist ploy to gain power; and coming from a populist politician, this is unsurprising. Europe is waiting nervously.
The results of the Italian election will become known as New Europe hits the shelves, but it looks at this juncture that Berlusconi, despite his populist intervention, won’t quite pull-off that remarkable political comeback he so desires; instead paving the way for a centre-left government led by Pier Luigi Bersani, compared to Berlusconi is a terrible dullard, most likely in coalition with the centrist technocrat Mario Monti, the current prime minister, seen by many at home and abroad as a Brussels-favoured puppet leader.
But Berlusconi still commands large swathes of support in Italy, where dullness is a crime in itself, and the likes of the comedian Beppe Grillo is also proving popular, despite his jokey platform. But unlike Grillo, Berlusconi, rightly or wrongly, has a track record as a politician, and as such really has no excuse for his decidedly desperate attempts at courting the popular vote.
Berlusconi is a member of the EPP family, the largest pan-European political alliance, and as such should command the support of many powerful European allies; such as Angela Merkel. However, she dropped him some time ago, and many of his other supposed colleagues fear his re-election, bringing as it will an instability to the marketplace, as well as a touch of scandal to the European centre-right, currently engaged in a battle with social democrats over austerity versus growth policies; one coded-in to the very heart of the current EU debate on the budget, with budget conservatives such as Germany, the Netherlands and Finland doing all to preserve public spending cutbacks amid social pressures.
Social pressures, that is, that led to the surprise resignation this week of Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, a conservative who apparently buckled under pressure from civil protests against his government’s austerity policies. The centre-left opposition now appear to be in a good position to win elections is April.
Currently, the EU is in protracted negotiations over its long-term budget. The UK, backed-up by Germany (whose fiscally-austere, conservative-led government face elections in the Autumn, and who do not want to appear two-faced to domestic voters by agreeing to an expansion of European spending) have managed to get a decrease for the period 2014-2020. The institutional battle is now on for the perspectives of that reduced budget; old spending (on the CAP, for instance) versus new innovations. But while this battle continues in Brussels, domestic European governments continue to be vulnerable from a dismayed populace, leading the way for a populist opposition, and which at this juncture seems an altogether sensible response to the way things are.