I don’t pretend to understand the complexities and absurdities that exist in other people’s political systems: goodness knows there are enough in our own UK and devolved systems to bemuse me. But the Italian system is especially complex with myriad parties – 13 or more had Deputies elected last time – and two big coalition blocs dominating the stage. One belonged to Berlusconi’s lot and despite a 1% fall in the People of Freedom’s share of the vote in 2008, his party ended up with 60 more seats. His main rival, the Democratic Party, increased its share of the vote by nearly 2% and ended up with nine fewer seats. There will be a reason, of course.
Greece, meanwhile, is a mystery, something I may or may not get around to remedying. For it seems that the age of austerity may have sounded the deathknell for democracy in Europe. We don’t need to know about others’ electoral franchises or political parties or democratic institutions, because they have lost relevance: democracy it would seem, is no longer required to determine which parties and leaders should take charge.
Others have noted wryly, that while welcoming the advent of democracy in the Arab Spring, Europe seems content to travel in the opposite direction, with the appointment of two technocrats in Greece and Italy as Prime Minister. It may produce a collective sigh of relief at the European Central Bank, in financial markets and at credit rating agencies, but it is worrying indeed, that they now hold sway over who constitutes a fit and proper person to run a country.
This is no lament for Berlusconi – ding, dong that he is dead (though his haunting the current arrangements is of concern). And Georges Papandreou was clearly out of his depth. So which party does the new Prime Minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, represent? None. He is not elected, belongs to no party but arrives with impeccable banking credentials. This is not a new phenomenon: Greece has sought comfort in national unity governments before, as recently as 1989. And this one does appear to have a time limit imposed on it, though one wonders if that will hold if the required economic turnaround does not transpire.
Mario Monti, meanwhile, has never bothered to dirty his hands with anything so base as seeking election. He has built a political career on the back of a successful academic and public one as an economist. Appointments by the bagful, including one as a Senator for Life, and now drafted in by the powers that be to sort out the Italian mess. Interestingly, he has also been a consummate European, and supported closer integration.
My scepticism is not to denigrate these men’s credentials: Greece and Italy are in dire straits, their indebtedness threatens financial armageddon on the rest of us and therefore needs to be sorted. The concern is twofold. First, both are clearly European establishment, and worse, financial establishment, figures. Consequently, littlewill change. The neo-liberal solutions proposed thus far will continue to hold sway. What got us into this mess will continue to be the favoured option for getting us out, yet such recovery might well be a mirage.
Equally worrying is the role that the shady world of credit rating agencies now appears to play in determining the governance of states. A flick of the wrist, downgrading a country’s credit-worthiness by a letter or a minus sign, and cue market mayhem. They can be mighty satisfied at the impact of their influence, without anyone really knowing how and why such decisions are reached and who makes them. Worse is the fact that no one is prepared – yet – to stand up to their assessments and challenge them.
You can see how dangerous such a state of affairs is. The murky world of international finance is not known for its left-leaning credentials. In recent years, the global economic consensus has been predominantly market led and driven, with fewer barriers touted to the need to generate profit. Cutting public spending and relying on the private sector to grow is the base remedy for all our current debt ills. Those that advocate Keynsian or New Deal style routes to growth are scoffed at, even in Scotland: the Scottish Government’s Plan MacB is regularly pilloried by commentators like Bill Jamieson at the Scotsman.
Without more evidence to the contrary, we have to take the credit rating decisions, and their attendant impact on a country’s borrowing power, at face value. They are the people paid to know this stuff. And if the political leadership of a state is failing to get to grips with the problem, then heads must roll. Some of us simply ask why it took so long for Berlusconi to be guillotined, particularly when you realise that under his stewardship, the Italian economy had one of the lowest rates of growth in the world, when everyone else in Europe was in boom territory.
But such power is heady. The temptation to keep on rolling, and start tackling in governments not to the financial world’s political tastes, must now exist. What happens to a government, especially a socialist one, which refuses to play ball with the accepted wisdom of how to sort out its debt mess? Or in a country like Belgium which has yet to form a government, despite party negotiations continuing now for some 519 days, and has some toxic banks threatening to undermine the Eurozone’s stability? Why not have the European power and financial brokers step in with an appointment?
There are many reasons to be thankful that the Eurozone crisis appears to have been diverted, for now, by the appointment of Prime Ministers in Greece and Italy who appear to know what they are doing and offer a steady hand at the tiller. But there are also plenty of reasons to be cautious about it becoming a trend. There is a reason why democracy matters and why the power to remove and replace governments and leaders must rest with the people.