01 February 2018
Politics and Comedy
By Neil Tidmarsh
Jimmy Morales was a famous comedian and comic actor before he was elected president of Guatemala two years ago. His campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a crook’, and he promised to fight corruption if he was victorious. So sardonic laughter echoed around his country this week when it emerged that £29,000 of expenses which he claimed last year included such items as a bottle of whisky for £285 and a pair of sunglasses for £2150. It wasn’t the first time he’d treated his citizens to such dark humour: last January, two close relatives were arrested on corruption and money-laundering charges; last August, he tried to block a UN-backed international investigation into corruption allegations against him and attempted to expel its commissioner; and last September, questions were raised about monthly payments made to him by the defence ministry (the head of the ministry has just been arrested and charged with corruption, and the President has paid back substantial sums). There have been calls for his removal, but he refuses to stand down.
Italy’s Bepe Grillo, on the other hand, has finally decided that politics is no place for a comedian. The satirist who founded the Five Star Movement stepped down as leader of the party last September, and this week he announced that he’s turning his back on politics completely. He deleted all references to his party from his influential blog, which he says will now follow mankind’s attempts to build a bright hi-tech future.
The Five Star Movement is now Italy’s most popular party. It’s polling at 27%, and should win more votes than any other single party in next month’s general elections. It’s unlikely, however, to defeat Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition of right-wing parties. But Bepe Grillo’s absence from the scene doesn’t mean that the election is completely barren of dark humour and sardonic laughter, predictable though the jokes may be: this week, The Times reported that Berlusconi ‘plans to fill his own Forza Italia party with many (female) candidates who are former models to attract male voters’, and quoted a headline from the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano; ‘With B it’s always Forza Crumpet’. And one of Berlusconi’s coalition partners, the far-right Brothers of Italy party, has just chosen one of Benito Mussolini’s grandchildren as a parliamentary candidate.
But of course we’re not really laughing. The whole of Europe is holding its breath yet again, waiting to see if Italy follows France (National Front neck and neck with the two mainstream parties in recent elections), Germany (AfD now the third biggest party in parliament) and Austria (Freedom Party now part of the government) in voting to give power to the far-right. It’s not an encouraging prospect. The alliance includes the Forza Italia, the Brothers of Italy and the Northern League, and could well find itself forming a majority government. Moreover, as its leader, Silvio Berlusconi would be back in power even though he’s barred from actually standing in the elections because of a conviction for tax fraud and even though he’s still facing trial for allegations about bribing witnesses in the sex party trials.
For some weeks, however, there have been rumours that Mr Berlusconi doesn’t expect his alliance to win the election, that he doesn’t even hope it will win the election. What Mr Berlusconi really wants, apparently, is for him and his Forza Italia party to form a coalition government with ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi and his Democratic Party; the alliance is simply a ploy to harness pressure from the extreme to force his way back into the mainstream.
Revelations from Brussels this week have done much to confirm these rumours. La Republica reported that Berlusconi has promised the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the leader of the European Peoples’ Party group Manfred Weber that his extreme right wing partners will have no place in government after the election; that he will instead put together a ‘broad coalition’ of mainstream parties. This ex-prime minister is now indeed expected to seek a coalition between his right-leaning Forza Italia and ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi’s left-leaning Democratic Party. He assured Brussels that the populist anti-EU, anti-euro parties – the Brothers of Italy, the Northern League, and even the Five Star Movement – will be excluded.
A couple of powerful but unelected individuals getting together behind closed doors to decide who will govern Italy. Is that reassuring? It certainly begs two questions.
First, how will Italian voters view these dealings in Brussels? Will they protest that surely it’s up to them, the citizens of Italy, to decide such things? Will they see it as a stitch-up, an insulting attempt to undermine their democratic processes or at least ignore their democratic wishes? If so, will it push them towards those same populist extremes which the EU is trying to avoid?
Second, is there a worrying sense of deja-vous about a rich and powerful businessman setting a populist bandwagon rolling in an election he doesn’t expect or even want to win? What monstrosities could be created by such a deception? What if the far-right Frankenstein cobbled together by Dr Berlusconi does win an overwhelming majority? What if Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party doesn’t win enough votes to form a coalition government with Forza Italia?
When Beppe Grillo stepped down as his party’s candidate for prime minister last September, he told his replacement “All this crap is yours now”. He’s “fed up with opinions” and is turning his back on politics for a new “extraordinary liberating adventure… in search of madmen and artists.” Here at Shaw Sheet we understand the sentiment and wish him well. At times we’re even tempted to follow him.