Italy’s newly elected Parliament convenes on Friday with no clear governing majority. Only a government with a strong popular mandate can push through the kind of radical changes Italy really needs: sweeping labor market and tax reforms, tough anticorruption laws, electoral reform and a new fiscal bargain with euro-zone partners that replaces austerity with growth. All or most of that will now have to wait until new elections, probably later this year, can produce more definitive results.
The vote produced a four-way split among two parties that endorse the European-backed austerity policies that have plunged Italy into deep recession, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and a bloc led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
That four-way split means that no politically feasible coalition is mathematically possible, especially since the Five Star Movement’s founder, Beppe Grillo, has repeatedly declared that the movement will not support a government led by any of the other groupings. Even if Mr. Grillo does not reconsider that position, there is no need for Italians, their European partners or the bond markets to panic. Mario Monti will continue as the caretaker prime minister until Parliament can agree on a successor. Taxes will be collected, government bills paid and administrative decisions taken. One ratings agency, Fitch, last week downgraded Italian bonds one notch but still considers them investment grade. Bond auctions this week went tolerably well, and Rome has now successfully raised a significant chunk of the money it will need to see it through this year. Democracy’s ways can be frustratingly slow, especially when radical changes are on the agenda and long established parties fail to rise to the occasion. Yet democracy is the European Union’s founding and defining principle. Italy’s partners, though understandably frustrated, need to be patient and supportive. And the European Central Bank must be prepared to deter speculators by stepping in if necessary as a lender of last resort.
Those, like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who pressured Mr. Monti’s government to tighten the screws of austerity on Italy’s growth-starved economy share some responsibility for his disappointing electoral performance. And they now share some responsibility to stand by Italy as it seeks a democratic way out of the resulting parliamentary deadlock.