Italy wants change. But the time hasn't come yet

The last elections have shown that voters demand the beginning of a new political season. Unfortunately, what's happening in the aftermath is the exact opposite.

Michele Barbero
5 April 2013
A destroyed campaign poster in Bologna. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.

A destroyed campaign poster in Bologna. Demotix/Michele Lapini. All rights reserved.

In Italy, political renewal has never been so close, and at the same time so hard to achieve. The February election was seen by many as a big occasion to move on and start a new era. But as it often happens in Italy, the attempt to revolutionise everything is ending up with everything remaining the same. People have voted for change but, paradoxical as it may be, their choice resulted in a scenario where real evolution seems unattainable.

According to what pre-electoral polls suggested, the vote could have meant the establishment of a more 'European' political spectrum: the break down of Berlusconi’s right wing populism, the rise of a more 'traditionally' conservative wing led by current Prime Minister Mario Monti, and a strengthened social democracy able to rule the country for the coming five years. It was clear that the anti-politics Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by comedian Beppe Grillo would have had a certain success, constituting a disruptive element in the new context. But it was hard to predict that it would have prevented a solid centre-left majority to rule; and a few “grillini” in Parliament may have played a healthy watchdog role on the political system as a whole. 

Everybody knows how things have gone in the end. Once again, polls have proved a totally unreliable tool: at least in Italy, where people seem quite reluctant (ashamed?) to declare the choice they actually have in mind. The M5S is now Italy's strongest single party; the centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party has failed to gain enough votes to form a government; Berlusconi's People of Freedom remains one of the country's main political forces, in an unusual form of tripartite balance.

Of course, Grillo's massive success constitutes a clear message from voters: enough with the discredited, corrupt and overpaid political class which has been ruling the Second Republic so far; time to bring politics back in the hands of citizens.

And indeed, with 163 elected MPs and Senators, the M5S has already changed the cards on the table. The new Parliament is much younger than the previous ones – and than the Assemblies of France, Germany, UK and the US, too. It counts many more women than in the past, and an impressive 60 percent of representatives at their first legislative experience. Also in response to Grillo’s insistence on the theme during the electoral campaign, all parties have tried (even though, quite often, to an insufficient extent) to reduce the number of candidates with unresolved legal issues.

However, this renewing effect is quite limited,  and other consequences of Grillo's achievement go in the opposite direction. Far from producing a solid executive, the elections have plunged the country into political deadlock. The left wing coalition has been confirmed as the main political player at the moment; but since it lost so many votes to the M5S, it can by no means govern without the votes of either Grillo or Berlusconi.

As an alliance with the right would be the political death of the Democratic Party's leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the latter is trying to court the Five Star Movement, hoping to get its support on at least some programme points.

But Grillo’s general hostility against the political class as a whole makes the attempt of bringing him on board almost desperate. This matter of fact is literally in front of everybody's eyes, since last week's consultations between Bersani and the M5S's representatives were on live streaming. Bersani tried hard, pointed out the common ground between the programmes of the two political forces; he called for a sense of responsibility, in order not to miss this occasion to change the country. But the reply couldn't have been more rigid: he was told that the social democrats are part of the old system, which has been promising change for twenty years. Therefore, the M5S would give no support to a centre left executive.

Instead, what Grillo and his spokespersons demand is a “Five Star government”: but setting aside generic claims about going back to real “people's sovereignty”, the proposal remains quite vague and hardly feasible in terms of parliamentary support.

The M5S's tendency to consider all politicians equally mean and corrupt risks to become another expression of populism, and it's impeding the formation of a government and the implementation of the reforms needed by the country: not only to improve the economy, but also to make politics more transparent – the heart of Grillo's manifesto. Italy thus faces an impasse that prevents in-depth renewal and a strong economic intervention. 

The lack of viable solutions is well shown by the last idea the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano has come up with: the appointment of 10 “wisemen” (high profile figures from the world of the economy, politics and the academia), with the task of writing down a list of concrete measures on which the political forces should try to find an agreement. The commission is supposed to help the party system to get out of the deadlock; however, it is not clear what new elements and solutions it should be able to bring in, and its activity is already surrounded by general skepticism. Also, the appointed members hardly symbolize renewal: all of them are middle-aged or elderly men (no women have been included in the team), belonging to the establishment that in a way or another has ruled Italy in the past decades. Not exactly what people were hoping when they headed to polls in late February, hoping to change the country.

Moreover, by weakening the Democrats, Grillo's success has also indirectly kept Berlusconi much stronger than most analysts had predicted. The 76-year-old Cavaliere was supposed to be the big loser of this election. Since in the end he obtained just a few Senators less than the left, he is now seen as one of the big winners, and he is still shaping the country's political culture.

The contrast between “berlusconism” and “anti-berlusconism”, that many where hoping to leave behind forever, remains one of the constitutive elements of Italian politics. A couple of weeks ago Piazza del Popolo, in Rome, became the set for a massive demonstration in support of the Cavaliere. In his speech, he once again ignited the audience with his favourite and most successful argument: (left wing) political activism by the Italian judiciary. Reforming justice, to prevent “persecutions” such as those he claims to be a victim of, was presented as one of the top priorities for Italy.

Other similar events are likely to come, now that the heated election of the new President of the Republic is approaching. But Berlusconi’s supporters are not the only ones who refuse to get over the sentiments they have cultivated in the last twenty years; on the other side, hatred against the man has hardly faded away, and remains one of the left's identifying traits. While Berlusconi was speaking in Piazza del Popolo, a parallel demonstration against him was taking place in the capital, less than a kilometre away. The protesters affirmed the “illegality” of electing Berlusconi in Parliament, because of a conflict of interest (his TVs have business relations with the State, for the use of broadcasting frequencies). Hundreds of thousands of signatures were collected. Berlusconi as a love-hate magnet for Italians is proving more enduring than expected, and the centre-right leader is likely to keep playing a major role in the coming years.

In sum, post-vote Italy is characterised by a strange mix of old and new; but it will be very difficult for the latter to replace the former, and real change hardly seems more at hand than before. The country is experiencing a plea for renewal like it hasn't seen for years. But too many people, both in polling stations and in Parliament, still want to stick with old schemes. And others demand too much too quickly, without realising that by doing this they risk to obtain exactly the opposite.

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