By Charitha Ratwatte –
Italy had an election recently. Germany too. Within Europe, Germany has been playing the aggressive Big Brother and trying to impose some welcome fiscal discipline on nations which are dragging down the European economy with their welfare largesse, like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
After the Italian election results were announced, Peer Steinbrink, candidate of the centre left Social Democratic party for the post of Chancellor in Germany, mocked the outcome of the Italian election. He declared himself ‘rather appalled that two CLOWNS had won’. The remark was obvious reference to Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned politician who founded the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
Who was the other clown? Steinbruck clarified by referring to ‘a clown with a testosterone boost’. He added: “My impression is that two populist clowns have won.” This definitely fixes the identity of the second clown as Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the People of Freedom Movement; he presided over a decade of economic stagnation and his fainthearted response to the euro crisis brought Europe to the brink of collapse.
Berlusconi is famed for his infamous Bunga-Bunga parties, with pretty scantily dressed starlets performing pole dances, among other things, it is said. He is accused of paying for sex to an underage Moroccan girl. After the German politician’s comment was made, Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano cancelled a dinner engagement with Steinbruck.
A recent magazine article compare the two clowns as follows: Grillo – won 22% of the popular Italian vote. His is the single largest party in Parliament. Age 64. Profession – stand-up comic. Economic novice. His party’s official line is that all Italian politicians are crooks. He will suspend Italy’s national debt payments to creditors who bailed Italy out of the economic crisis. On the other hand, Silvio Berlusconi, excluding the recent hair transplant on his otherwise bald pate, is 74 years old, won 30% of the vote – economic policies when in office were a tragedy for Italy, divorced and with a reputation for dalliances with pretty women. Might end up in jail on a number of cases relating to the abuse of power.
Berlusconi is also accused of violating secrecy laws by leaking privileged information to the newspaper he owns – Il Giornale. The leaks were about the attempted takeover of BNL bank by insurance giant Unipol. Berlusconi faces two more verdicts from the Italian courts for tax fraud and as earlier mentioned for having sex with an underage minor and paying her. Presently taking refuge in a Milan hospital, hounded by the courts, Berlusconi is plotting his next move, which may result in Italy facing another election soon. The Court sent its own doctors to check Berlusconi’s health, a supposed eye infection; the Court’s doctors ruled that Berlusconi was in fact fit enough to attend Court!
Beppe Grillo, the comedian and fulminating satirist, has won more votes than any other politician at the election. There is an old saying that that in most countries, the political situation is serious but not desperate. The presence of clowns in Italy turns this adage n its head. The situation in Italy is desperate, but due to the presence of these ‘clowns’ it is not serious!
Grillo campaigned for the election by touring the country in a camper van, swam the Straits of Messina and used the internet as an electronic platform for communication. He used this to counter Berlusconi’s huge multimedia arsenal, which is used by Berlusconi’s party with great effect. Grillo has an appeal to the average Italian voter, as one of them, an ordinary sort of guy – he gets angry while speaking, he swears , he jokes. He whips the crowds in the plazas into a kind of hysteria with his flamboyant oratory.
Grillo has relentlessly campaigned for a clean Parliament purged of those with criminal records. Commentators say that Grillo the comedian has learnt from one-time Italian political leader Umberto Bossi that Italians favour warm leaders who turns the air into rancorous colours with hysterical rhetoric and regularly performs the ‘umbrella gesture’ – smashing a flat palm into the inside of the elbow – a very Mediterranean expressive gesture. Grillo the populist with a wild uncontrollable main of hair, a booming voice and untucked untidy shirts, now holds the fate of Italy and according to some analysts the fate of Europe in these comedians’ hands.
Grillo refers to Berlusconi – the other clown, as defined by the German politician – as ‘that psycho dwarf’. Grillo has refused to negotiate with the leader of the centre left democratic part Pier Luigi Bersani, to form a coalition, calling him a ‘dead man walking’! He called Italy’s former technocrat Prime Minster Mario Monti – Mario Mortis! Grillo has said forming a coalition would be similar to Napoleon cutting a deal with Wellington!
Barefoot and wearing faded jeans and a greasy T-shirt with an image of Gandhi on it , Grillo was recently shown on television saying that his goal for Italy was to do away with a system that had ‘disintegrated the country and build something new which would transform Italy into a real participatory democracy’. He said: “We can change everything in the hands of respectable people, but the existing political class must be expelled immediately.”
Grillo: New type of politician
Grillo the comedian exemplifies a new type of politician emerging from the Europe’s long-festering economic crisis and mounting voter discontent. In Greece there is Alexis Tsipras, who came from nowhere to lead an anti-austerity drive and heads the second largest Parliamentary party, and Tair Lapid of Israel, who tapped into a wave of national frustration with deep social inequality and rose to prominence. These are reformists.
Grillo also tapped into the frustration to by promoting his Five Star Movement into an anti-establishment force to contend with. Despite being barred from Italian television in the 1980s for mocking corrupt politicians, Grillo has gathered a humongous following by using the power of the internet and social media.
When he started a political blog in 2005, Italians logged in by the millions to engage in debating hot political issues. Soon the candidates put up by Five Star, nicknamed the ‘Grillini’ by the press, began making a mark at local elections. Their manifesto was populist – improving public water quality, transportation, internet connectivity and cleaning up the environment.
The Grillini, mostly young professionals, post videos and profiles of themselves on Grillo’s blog and then are selected through an online vote. Ethical standards are strict; those with criminal records and previous political affiliations are eliminated. Not using official cars and other perquisites of office is compulsory. They have to quit office after two years (term limits) and are allowed to keep only a small percentage of the salary they get as an elected representative. The rest goes into a fund to support small and medium businesses to expand.
Five Star pre-election promises include many lavish promises, such as giving a ‘citizenship wage’ to all Italians. But how they are going to raise the money is not disclosed, except for some vague utterances to cut the cost of government. They want to scrap the public funding of political parties, a two-year term limit for elected officials, more use of renewable energy and energy saving measures, more dedicated bicycle lanes, free internet access, assessment of university lecturers by their students, abolition of stock options, limits of the salaries of senior executives, scrapping the proposed high speed rail link between Italy and France, wider use of generic drugs, and the wildly popular and revolutionary proposal to limit the pay of elected representatives to average national wage! Five Stars got a quarter of the votes on this classically populist platform.
At the local level, Five Star has proved its ability. They took over the local government in Parma, which was broke, they refinanced the debt and rammed through spending cuts. Grillo is on record wanting a referendum on whether Italy should default on its huge debts and leave the euro zone. Analysts say that Grillo has successfully harvested the Italian protest vote.
A spokesman for Confindustria, the business bosses club, says: “The scandals, the serious economic crisis faced by the country and the failure of the state to modernise and become more efficient, all contribute to a powerful sense of disillusionment and feeling of disorientation.”
The people feel neglected by the state. Grillo is tapping into the young upper middle class electros with professional qualifications, who are sick of Italy’s corrupt crony politicians. A comic’s ability to combine anger and humour works politically, Italy has shown. They make unconventional proposals to the frustrated electorate that subverts the pomposity of the traditional political class, whom the average voter has come to detest. Even in Iceland, where the economy was devastated by a financial crisis, the voters elected a stand up comic as mayor of the capital city Reykjavik. Jon Gnarr’s pledges included a drug-free Parliament within a decade!
Hugo Chavez, the former President of Venezuela, elected democratically but soon turned autocratic, succumbed to cancer a few weeks ago, after unsuccessful treatment in Cuba, on 8 March. Rory Carroll has written a biography entitled ‘Commandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela’. Carroll was reporting for the London Guardian newspaper in Caracas and according to a reviewer he has collected snippets about Chavez’s rule in Venezuela that he has woven into compelling story that comes close to answering the riddle of Chavez, an autocrat, a self-proclaimed champion of his country’s poor and a clown!
A post-oil boom decay had set in Venezuela towards the end of Chavez’s rule; even in the Miraflores presidential palace, water leaked into the President’s private lift, due to inefficient maintenance. Chavez did many clownish things – like enacting legislation to make the horse on Venezuela’s coat of arm face left, to symbolise socialism and his solidarity with Castro’s Cuba, which at the same time was slowly unshackling the economically-crippling bonds of socialism under Fidel Castro’s pragmatic brother president Raul Castro.
Chavez in another clownish move one day decided that there was too much red, the colour of socialism, around and started wearing yellow! Causing panic among his flunkeys who were caught wrong-footed in their socialist reds! Chavez had a weekly live television program called ‘Alo Presidente’ on which orders were given and opponents denounced. When the Opposition surprisingly won the mayor’s election in Caracas, Chavez created a new capital district which took over the mayor’s powers and put a socialist crony in charge. When faced with a problem Chavez fired the minster in charge or created a new ministry. In 10 years he ran through 180 ministers!
Venezuela was inflicted with crumbling bridges, thieving politicians, uncontrolled inflation and high crime rates, due to Chavez’s clownish rule. One of the best quotes in Carroll’s book is from a producer of Alo Presidente, who recounted how “Chavez chose locations, camera angles, themes, guests and nobody ever dared to contradict him. People would call in, but it became like a lottery, everyone looking to get a job, a house or something. That’s no way to run a country.”
Among mourners at his funeral were autocrats: Raul Castro of Cuba, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. Reports indicate that Ahmadinejad is in trouble with Islamic clerics in Iran, over a ‘sinful hug,’ given while condoling with Chavez’s mother.
Democratic politics has always thrown up such irresponsible populists as leaders, who make wild promises to the electorate, which will cause financial ruin to the national economy. Unaffordable giveaways, freebies and economically-disastrous policies attract poor and marginalised voters.
We have seen it in Sri Lanka over and over again: ‘Sinhala Only’ in 24 hours, eight pounds of cereals free, free rice from the moon, a grant of Rs. 25,000 for every poor household, peace in 24 hours, waiving housing loan and farmer instalments, etc.
We also find populist politicians making vicious attacks on public officers who have to responsibly manage public finances, against senior government officers whose right of reply is restricted by the provisions of the Administrative Regulations and the Establishment Code. Tax money is wasted on ventures for politicians’ personal glory, which cannot ever pay a return.
There are many such other clownish acts, which cause frustration and anger among taxpayers, public administrators and voters. When a majority of the voting public is dependent on government handouts and largesse, the opportunity for irresponsible populists to make wild promises presents itself.
In fact, one-time Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew once argued that the principle of one person one vote should be reconsidered and that wealth creators, those who pay income taxes to government revenue, should be given an extra vote, compared to pensioners, government employees, and social welfare recipients who receive their sustenance from taxpayers’ money, who can be swayed with wild promises of largesse.
In Singapore, where the majority of citizens live in State-provided apartments for which they are on a subsidised rent purchase scheme, an Opposition politician bent on taking power at any cost can offer to waive the repayment of housing loans. In the same way, they can promise to raise pensions, government salaries and social welfare payments to unaffordable levels. The national budget deficit will go through the ceiling. The nation will end up living on borrowed money and having to raise fresh loans to settle earlier loans – like some international Ponzi scheme!
This is why issues like fiscal responsibility are legislated, placing limits on deficit budgeting, and a politically independent and autonomous central bank to limit the creation of artificial money is put in place. When these safeguard are whittled away, the clowns take over.
One commentator has expressed the view that democracy is a very an expensive process of selecting a country’s political leaders. The common people are in fact only given the choice of electing the candidates put forward by the country’s dominant and powerful vested interests. Democracy sounds wonderful as it gives the common people the illusion of thinking that they have the freedom to choose whoever is going to lead them.
In fact candidates are preselected by the dominant vested interests, and whoever wins is there to ensure that the policies favourable to the kingmaker’s vested interests are implemented. These vested interest include, race, caste, tribe, religion, money, land owners, tycoons, you name it – they are there. In theory winning candidates should be answerable to the people who elect them. But in reality they owe their loyalty and allegiance to the group who made it possible for them to join the race, which provided the money.
Considering that running for office is very costly and mostly beyond the legal means of most candidates, the commentator deduces the criteria behind the selection of candidates in a democracy: They have to be good talkers and liars, to sway over diverse people with flamboyant verbosity. They have to be rather short on intelligence, otherwise they will, once elected, betray the interest group that sponsored and funded them and actually do the right thing! They have to be presentable. Even if someone is endowed with supreme intelligence and righteous patriotic inclinations but lacks the ability to speak loudly or does not look presentable enough, such a person will not have the chance of leading a one-person, one-vote, ‘democratic’ country, ever.
The commentator gives some examples from the United States of America: President Eisenhower, who is his valedictory speech warned about the ‘military industrial complex,’ but did little about it when he was in office; President George W. Bush, took America into war with Iraq, to massively benefit this same military industrial complex, contractors have made US$ 138 billion out of the Iraq war!
This casts serious doubt on Winston Churchill’s maxim: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except that all other known existing forms are worse!” We have to keep looking. Until then we have to control the clowns – through time-tested checks and balances on absolute power, an independent judiciary, a free press and media, a depoliticised and autonomous administrative mechanism, term limits for elected politicians, by upholding the rule of law (as against the rule of clowns), bold and outspoken civil society organisations and the protection of human and fundamental rights. Otherwise the clowns take over.
Never forget, Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, absolute power, corrupts, absolutely.” This truism applies even to clowns.