Still no change in the Italian election result, and Silvio Berlusconi’s
supporters are finally waking up to the reality of their loss.
Berlusconi has been left out on a limb by his refusal to concede
defeat; as the French centre-right daily Le Figaro
editorialised on Monday, “Italy deserves much better than this comedy
… Berlusconi has to realise that his contrariness can only be a
disservice to his country, already reputed to be ungovernable.” Le Monde chipped in on Tuesday, saying “The prime minister has been beaten and still has not really admitted it”.

But one has to have some sympathy for Berlusconi: to lose by 25,000
votes out of 40 million must be exceptionally galling. What’s
interesting is the fact that this isn’t peculiar to Italy. Close
elections have been the rule rather than the exception in recent years.
Hungary had one the same weekend, as did Canada earlier this year. Last
September’s elections in Germany and New Zealand were both very close,
as were those in Spain and the United States the previous year. The most recent
elections in Australia and the UK were a bit more decisive, but
certainly not overwhelming. It’s a long time since any of the major
western democracies has had a real landslide.

Perhaps this is just coincidence. Or perhaps it’s something about the
nature of modern politics: professionalised political parties stay
close to one another’s positions, making it difficult for any of them
to steal a march on their opponents. (Curious, though, that it doesn’t
seem to apply in Australia’s state elections.) Whatever the reason, it
makes mandates weaker, so government is difficult and serious reform in
government especially so.

One solution is the German option: a grand coalition between the
major parties. That was Berlusconi’s proposal in Italy (although it has
to be said there is no evidence he would have been at all receptive to
the idea if the positions had been reversed).

A grand coalition may help the prospects of economic reform, although
the jury is out on the German experiment (commentators are still
bracketing it with France and Italy as countries unable to come to
grips with the need for change). Certainly in the short term it gives
more of the electorate something like what they want. But it does so at
the cost of longer-term damage to democracy. Voters cannot give a
verdict on the coalition as a whole, only on individual parties, and
discontent with the coalition’s policies can only be expressed by
embracing one of the small parties that have been left out of it.
Because opposition is confined to the extremes, they gain increased
exposure and credibility.

For democracy to (sort of) continue working, voters have to have real
choices, and if the outcome is going to be coalition either way then no
real choice gets made. As anything other than an emergency measure,
grand coalitions make democracy unworkable, and the apparent unfairness
of a close result is a lesser evil than that.