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Italian Elections: A Fellinesque World

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Italians love Federico Fellini's movies. And with good reason - his films, spiced with surreal images, startling faces and circus metaphors, are bizarre but extremely accurate portraits of the human condition. "I make pictures to tell a story, to tell lies and to amuse," the Italian director pointedly said and if "pictures" is changed with "politics" you will get a pretty good summary of the current political landscape in the country. Even though Fellini was not around to direct them, the recent general elections certainly look like they are following his scripts.

The elections, which offered Italians the opportunity to manifest their protest against the establishment through the formality of a vote, ended in stalemate and the possibility of a hung parliament. The news of the results rattled financial markets around the world reviving fears about the eurozone's fourth biggest economy. Given the fragile state of the world economy, this came as no surprise. What was surreal, however, was for whom Italians voted.

The second and third places went to two buffoonish characters. Beppe Grillo, a comedian, actor, blogger-turned-politician, landed the bronze medal with his populist Five Star Movement. Mr. Grillo, however, cannot run for MP himself: in yet another Fellinesque twist, he was found guilty of manslaughter for a car accident in the 1980s in which he was the driver.

What was even more striking was the second place (or possibly even first, when all votes are counted) of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. "The Man who screwed an entire country", as the Economist once called him, Mr. Berlusconi may yet get another shot at deciding policy at his bunga bunga parties.

Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left bloc won the lower house vote, though by a razor-thin margin by, and failed to secure a majority in the Senate. Mario Monti, the technocrat PM who led a caretaker government in the wake of the Italian debt crisis, landed fourth. For all his faults (of which the lack of democratic legitimacy was a major one), Mr. Monti undertook some important reforms, stabilized the economy and by that reduced the borrowing costs which, at one point during Berlusconi's tenure, had reached the scary seven per cent. A coalition between Mr. Bersani and Mr. Monti seemed like the responsible way forward. Now, a coalition between Silvio Berlusconi and Mr. Bersani is possible, though it is unclear how long such an awkward union would last. New elections this year - and with that new uncertainty - seem likely.

One thing is certain - the circus is back on the stage of Italian politics. But while in his movies Fellini uses it as a masterful device to deliver incisive social critique, the next few months, as one taxi driver told me on election day in Bologna, look more like "a bad circus performance that you are not allowed to leave".