Pier Luigi Bersani’s political future looked bright just a few months ago. For the first time in a long time, the Italian left appeared to be ascendant, just as it was in France when Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party ousted conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in May 2012. Bersani, the center-left coalition leader, was ahead in the polls, and his campaign, like that of Hollande, was meeting an electorate defined more than anything else by its harshly negative reaction to the austerity measures emanating from Berlin.
But Bersani’s failure to convert on this political gold was locked in Thursday when he ran out of time to form a new government. Now President Giorgio Napolitano will attempt to make something out of nothing, or else call a second round of elections for the fall.
Despite his Democratic Party and its allies winning a majority in the lower house of Italy’s parliament when voters went to the polls in February, political observers across the ideological spectrum agree that Bersani wasted an incredible opportunity. His majority in the lower house is narrower than it should be, and most importantly, his coalition actually failed to win one in the Senate, thanks in part to Italy’s unique seat apportionment system, but mostly due to a late surge by parallel campaigns defined by their raw economic populism and resentment of global financial elites. Which just so happen to be themes once owned lock, stock and barrel by the Italian left, and around which strong sentiment existed among the labor union members that form a central prop of his support base and have resisted cutbacks in public spending. But rather than simply rallying the troops and running as a generic center-left candidate — a bit dull, perhaps, but a nice contrast with the flailing Berlusconi — Bersani allowed himself to become a voice for austerity in a campaign where there was already a clear candidate for it (and the E.U. that advocates it): Monti. No matter that the economist-turned-politician’s centrist party couldn’t expand beyond a narrow base of support, it made little political sense for Bersani to become a symbol for the status quo at a time of high unemployment, tax hikes, and harsh cuts in public services.
Into that void came Beppe Grillo, a comedian whose stubborn refusal to enter into a coalition with Bersani has sealed his fate. Grillo’s conviction for vehicular manslaughter decades ago, coupled with his feisty public persona, might have made him an unconventional pol, but he tapped into the zeitgeist and nailed the anger felt by many Italians toward their political class — and racked up a quarter of the popular vote. Worse still is that Bersani also got outmaneuvered by Silvio Berlusconi, who was so weakened by sex scandals and criminal charges that one has to believe his opponent’s shortcomings were as responsible for the center-right party’s surprisingly strong showing as anything Berlusconi said or did on the campaign trail.
Then again, at least the media magnate nodded to the resentment of property taxes (the economic viability of his refund scheme notwithstanding) imposed by Monti. Bersani neglected to connect on the pain of the austerity regime, and as a result, though he will surely take a leading role in any new government, his chance to change the trajectory of Italian politics has been squandered.