Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Clown Prince of Politics

Greetings Friends,

The image above is of Beppe Grillo, known as the "Clown Prince" of Italian politics. The title is apropos, as he really is a comedian, and he wants to be Prime Minister of his country. 

We could learn a thing or two from the Italians, and any country with a parliamentary system of government for that matter. Here in the United States, a clown prince of politics is someone like House Speaker John Boehner, who favors spray tans, and bungles his sentiments almost as badly as George W. Bush. I could easily add to the list of American political clown princes (in both parties), but I don't want to put off my readers. I merely want to explain the difference. 

Italians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government. Voting in a country with a parliamentary government is even more important than voting in one that is a constitutional republic. Your vote actually counts, and is used to determine which party, if any, gains control of that country's parliament - the governing body. Unlike the United States, where our elected representatives merely promise to try to work together (a lot of good that promise is), parliamentarians must agree, officially, to form what is known as a coalition, in order to get down to the business of governing. The formation of coalitions is necessary when one party does not score a clear victory in a federal election. I've seen this happen repeatedly in Canada, and the result is what is known as a "minority government," where nothing of substance can be accomplished. The benefit of a minority government to the Prime Minister is one similar to a utility employee controlling a power grid in a large city: One flip of the switch and your neighborhood goes dark.

While I was living in Canada, I watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper control Parliament in a way similar to the metaphor I just used. He and his Conservative party presided over several minority governments before winning a majority in the 2011 federal election. Living under minority rule can be a bit unnerving for an American; the plug can literally be pulled at any time, which is something we are not used to. We are used to more order in our electoral process, with regular elections taking place every year, and set terms for our elected officials. Canadians, and citizens of countries like Great Britain and Italy are considerably less bothered by minority governments, but don't appreciate having to schlep to the polls every time the plug gets pulled. This is exactly what Italy is experiencing right now. 

The Italian election, although not yet officially decided, looks to be heading towards a minority government. In this case, however, the number of votes cast have added up to virtual gridlock, and a coalition between the parties with the most votes might not solve the problem. Not only will the Italian government be hamstrung, it will be powerless with the country on the brink of financial ruin so dire, it could send the rest of Europe into a serious tailspin. 

Into the middle of all this comes Beppe Grillo, who, in America, would be compared to someone like Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, or Ron Paul. Except, Beppe Grillo isn't a consumer advocate, a wealthy businessman, or a doctor. He is a comedian. Yes; imagine if George Carlin, were he still alive, wanting to be president. That's who Beppe Grillo is. His Five Star Movement party has captured the hearts of many Italians who are fed up with their mainstream politicians and want change. Unfortunately, Grillo's party did not get enough votes to govern; instead, the people who voted for him have deadlocked the two mainstream parties, the ones headed by former philandering, conservative-leaning Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and his opponent, the more liberal Pier Luigi Bersani. The one positive thing Grillo and his followers did accomplish, is they made their feelings known about how disappointed they are with Italy's history of corruption, which has lead the country down the same path as Greece and Spain. If austerity measures are not enacted, Italy's economy will fail, and will have to be rescued. In an effort to avoid this, Italians might have to go to the polls again, and start from scratch. A minority government that cannot form a viable coalition under these circumstances is unacceptable. 

As ruinous as American government is, and as intractable as both political parties are, I would not want to be an Italian citizen at this point in time. Don't get me wrong, I love everything about Italy, but right now, the country is in the midst of a political pickle I want no part of. Comparisons of Silvio Berlusconi to Benito Mussolini are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing what has actually gone wrong. And, don't for a second believe that the United States doesn't own a few kernels of responsibility for the sorry state of the European economy. Hello? Mortgage-backed securities? Toxic debt? 

As far as Beppe Grillo is concerned, I would love to see a comedian become Prime Minister of Italy. I've always been a firm believer in truth disguised as comedy. Remember, if you will, the Shakespearean fool: he might be the clown prince of court, but his humor disguised the truth. Beppe Grillo has shown us that humor rings truer in politics than the best stump speeches given by the most articulate politicians. Sometimes, it takes a fool to help us see things clearly. 


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