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Will Italian Politics Be a Threat for International Financial Stability?

The rise of Mr. Grillo and the Five Star movement is part of a trend across the developed world, as electorates become disenchanted with established parties and vote for a protest party. From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party to the EU's Pirate Party, an increasing number of transatlantic voters tire of the options presented by established two party systems. This may be driven by the failure of governing parties to adapt to societal tensions raised by the current economic crisis. In that light, the strong protest vote in Italy should not be seen as an outlier.

Despite the current uncertainty in the composition of the next government, Italy remains an important ally for the United States, and a key strategic partner in all future discussions about Europe and transatlantic relations. For this reasons America should follow carefully what happens in Italy. The demand for renewal and change that is the real message of recent elections is something too important to be considered just a local case. Understanding the political process of how Italian governments are formed is therefore key.

On February 25th the results of the political elections in Italy stunned all commentators by presenting a country apparently deeply divided and a parliament that seems not to allow any reasonably stable coalition for leading the country.

The polls gave a limited majority to the leftwing coalition (29.5% in the lower house) leading on Silvio Berlusconi's rightwing coalition (29.1%). But the surprise was the significant result of the "Five Stars movement" of Mr Beppe Grillo (25.5%) and the relatively low result achieved by current Prime Minister Mario Monti (10.5%).

The new electoral law (approved late in 2012, just few months ahead of the elections), allows the left to gain a solid majority in the lower house (with 55% of the legislature, although they led the right-wing coalition by only 0.4% of the vote), but in the upper house, there is an apparent stalemate, as the left elected 123 senators, the right 117, Five Stars 54 and Monti 18. A coalition government must include two of the first three parties mentioned, as a government requires a majority in both houses.

The problem is that, at the moment, there is not much appetite for an agreement. The left-wing coalition does not seem interested in a deal with Berlusconi and the Five Stars leader, Mr Beppe Grillo, suggested that he would not make any deal with anyone at all. It now appears that Mr Bersani would like to open a bridge to Mr Grillo rather than trying a grand coalition with Mr Berlusconi. It is unclear if he will succeed, but in any case it will be hard to imagine that Italy will have a strong government in this situation.

As the new parliament assumes office on March 15th, there is time for negotiations and compromise. But in the meantime, talks need to be held also in order to designate the new leadership of the lower house and Senate and its constituent committees and to elect the new president of the Republic, as the incumbent's mandate is expiring in May.

Who will govern Italy in the meantime? Currently, there is still a caretaker government in office, which is the existing cabinet of Prime Minister Monti. It is nevertheless expected that after the new parliament is fully operational, the president of the republic, Mr Giorgio Napolitano, will try to facilitate the forming of a government and is likely to give a mandate to a designate Prime Minister. As Bersani's leftwing coalition has the majority in the lower house, unless the coalition otherwise indicates, Bersani remains the likely next Prime Minister. But with no agreements for a majority, he will be rather unlikely to succeed.

The Italian system is a parliamentary democracy, and the new government, that formally takes office at the moment the ministers are sworn in, needs to win a vote of confidence from both houses of the parliament immediately after taking office. In the past, the tradition has been that, if the designated Prime Minister, after having made his consultations, realizes that there is no support for his government, he will indicate so to the President and resign his post. That meant that the previous government remained as caretaker until a new Prime Minister was selected and then formed the government, or, if no solution was available, the president of the republic called for new elections and dissolved the government.

Currently, Monti stays in office as Prime Minister until an alternative is selected, and the need for stability would suggest that until a solution is found the best is for him to stay. However, things are so uncertain, no one can predict when or if a new government would be formed.

Frank Sensenbrenner, PhD is a visiting fellow at the Center of Transatlantic Relations - SAIS Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC. Angelo Federico Arcelli, PhD is a visiting fellow at the Center of Transatlantic Relations - SAIS Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC.