The Sicilian blow to Italian politics

Nearly 20 percent of Sicily’s electorate voted for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) – an alternative “clean hands” party that has recently gained momentum in Italian politics. Their candidate, the comedian and blogger Giancarlo Cancelleri, seduced Sicilian voters with a fresh - and anti-establishment - approach to politics.

Sunday, 28 October, spelt political bloodshed for mainstream parties in Italy as Rosario Crocetta was elected the new governor of Sicily region. Mr Crocetta, the anti-mafia candidate supported by the centre-left Pd (Democratic Party) and UdC (Centre Union), defeated Sebastiano Musumeci, the candidate of Silvio Berlusconi’ PdL (People of Freedom) - but the big surprise was Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) which earned most points in terms of votes awarded (the traditional parties ran in a coalition), with the candidate for Presidency, Giancarlo Cancelleri, coming in third with 18.2 percent of the votes.

Thousands of supporters listen to Beppe Grillo’s final campaign speech. Demotix/Antonio Melita. All rights reserved.

18 percent of Sicilian voters decided to support the M5S promoted by Beppe Grillo, the comedian and activist blogger. They praised the fact that this is the only group refusing to accept public funds assigned to political parties in Italy; M5S chose to spend only 25,000 euros on its web-driven campaign. Although in 1993 - following the widely-known “Clean Hands” scandal - the majority of Italians voted in favour of abolishing public funding of parties, the establishment decided to mock voters by merely adjusting the name of this practice to “reimbursement” of electoral expenses. Consequently, very little has changed and no watchdog exists to monitor this situation.

Also, the candidate for Grillo's Five Star Movement, Giancarlo Cancelleri, led one of only two groups (the other being the left-wing coalition led by Giovanna Marano) with no convicts or people under investigation among its representatives, thereby boasting a uniquely “clean” list. In a region whose former governor, Salvatore Cuffaro, was jailed after evidence of mafia association, this was a clear signal of progress following the “Clean Parliament” popular bill signed by more than 350,000 Italians in 2007... to exclude convicts from Parliament. Beppe Grillo had to buy a page in the International Herald Tribune to publicise his concerns, claiming that no newspaper, Italian or international, wanted to publish them.

The candidate for President of the Sicilian Region, Giancarlo Cancelleri during his speech. Demotix/Antonio Melita. All rights reserved.

Sicilians appreciated the opportunity to analyse the profiles of M5S candidates through the openness of CVs that reflected truthful biographies and experience. M5S did indeed embrace this need to promote transparency in one of the least free and most corrupted countries in Europe (particularly in respect of freedoms of speech and of the press), despite Italy commonly being identified as a modern Western democracy. Among other things, the anti-establishment M5S movement had not been given much space in the mass media, particularly television, unlike the major mainstream parties (Pd and PdL) and consequently most of its support has come from the web and social networks.

It may be too ambitious to compare the thousands of people rallying in squares in support of Beppe Grillo’s M5S with the massive wave of Egyptians showing up at Tahrir square to oppose their political leadership, but In Italy, as in Egypt, online support turned into offline grassroots movements saying no to a deeply corrupted and flawed leadership. Despite low levels of access to the internet in Sicily, there can be no doubt that the electoral campaigns fought and the election results themselves, were heavily influenced by the Internet, regardless of the effects of Mr Crocetta’s charisma and anti-mafia stance or his opposition’s performance.

The outcome of these Sicilian elections has spread concern about Italian political instability. The possibility of seeing similar results in next year’s April elections, particularly if dominated by small-medium parties, is an eventuality that would undoubtedly engender bigger coalitions and riskier compromises. A few weeks before the elections in Sicily, the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, stated that Italians should not believe in anti-politics and populism, referring in particular to organizations such as Grillo's M5S. In contrast, Beppe Grillo urges popular sovereignty to be allowed to rein in on big decisions concerning issues such as new EU Treaties and the future of the euro. The benchmark of his thought is citizenship and transparency, as well as tight controls on financial speculations that affect the state's affairs. How close are Italians to achieving a truly representative democracy? How close are they to an environment allowing the wishes of the people in this so-called post-Monti era, to be fully and accurately expressed through their choice of leadership?

Unsurprisingly, Emma Bonino, the vice president of the Italian Senate, has recently stated that “the real cancer of [her] country is the party system”. She considers that Italy “is not a democracy as people cannot elect their representatives in the institutions” which demonstrate a distinct lack of transparency and accountability. The popularity of Mr Monti and his government of technocrats is not as high as a few months ago. Today most Italians realize that economic parameters such as levels of public debt have in fact worsened despite tough austerity measures that include tax increases and deep spending cuts in welfare and healthcare.

The Italian leadership should carefully reflect over the very low turnout in Sicily for Sunday’s elections. More than half of the Sicilian population (around 52 percent) refused to vote – a fact that reflects strong feelings of disillusionment, anger and disaffection for politics. Most people have neither passion nor interest in public administration and prefer to focus on their job (if they have one) and their family (given their sons or daughters have not emigrated in search of jobs). According to Marco Travaglio, deputy editor of Il Fatto Quotidiano, the Five Star Movement saved Italian politics by encouraging more people to go to the ballot box. It is very likely that if they were not presented with such a refreshing and alternative vision of politics, they would have refrained from voting.

Il Fatto Quotidiano is an example of an independent newspaper managing to resist public funding, unlike most Italian papers which continue to receive state support. This is a probable reason for the mainstream press not being enthusiastic about Grillo’s revolutionary attitude towards public funding of newspapers given many simply could not survive off advertising and readership revenues.

A final consideration concerns what parties will do on the eve of next year's national elections. According to speculations, the two main parties supporting the Monti government, PdL and Pd, are planning with the Head of State, Giorgio Napolitano, a new electoral law to award coalitions better conditions in Parliament following the vote. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine a clear victory of the M5S as the first national party if the rules remain the same. However, a strong argument can be made against such changes to electoral law given the elections are less than a year away. This argument is supported by Guideline II “Conditions for implementing these principles”, of the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters published by the Council of Europe. Paragraph 2 ("Regulatory levels and stability of electoral law"), sub-paragraph b of this guideline states: “The fundamental elements of electoral law, in particular the electoral system proper, membership of electoral commissions and the drawing of constituency boundaries, should not be open to amendment less than one year before an election, or should be written in the constitution or at a level higher than ordinary law.”

However, the Italian mass media pays very little attention to such matters so it looks likely that the electoral situation will indeed be manipulated just a few months before the vote. It appears as though the unpopular parties are in discussions about asking Monti to stay in office after 2013 or even to suspend the election to give the prime minister time to spread confidence around Europe and the financial markets about Italy’s political stability. Apparently, it does not matter that public debt is higher now than in Berlusconi's era and that there are no measures in place to ensure steady growth. The only offering is spending cuts and tax increases. The public enemy of politics is the Five Star Movement, a party that can lay claim to probity in comparison with mainstream political parties - and one which garners considerable support for its efforts to tackle the high cost of corruption and inefficiency within Italian politics and public institutions.

After the "Sicilian blow" to national politics, it remains to be seen how the Parliament of Sicily and the President, Mr Crocetta, will act. Whether and if the anti-establishment “Five Star Movement” will be in a position to take action and how ultimately it will influence the political landscape in next year’s national elections, could prove to be watershed moments for Italian politics. Meanwhile, there is no doubt, institutions and traditional parties will continue to work hard to preserve the status quo.

About the author

Giuseppe Lenzo has an MA in International Relations from the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University (UK). He has joined and arranged EU-funded international projects and he has also been educated in Italy and Spain. He has published commentaries about Italian politics and European affairs on university papers, online magazines and blogs in the UK and Italy.