Time for change in a slowly agonizing Italy

Italy will elect on Sunday and Monday its new Parliament, at one of the most critical points in its recent history. In a country drained by one of its worst recessions, ridden by ongoing corruption scandals and shaken by a growing sentiment of antipolitica – the widespread distrust among its citizens towards their representatives and a costly, widely inefficient public sector –, the new government will have to face great responsibilities in order to reinvigorate the economy and reestablish trust. Parallel to this, for the first time, no party or coalition is likely to obtain a majority of the votes, as the political spectrum is fragmented in at least four major coalitions that are expected to receive each between 12 and 37 percent of the votes.

According to the latest Pierluigi Bersani, Democratic Party (PD)available public opinion polls (the Italian law allowed for polls to be released only until Februray 8), the Center-Left coalition led by the head of the Democratic Party (PD) Pierlugi Bersani could gather between 34 and 37% of the votes, whereas Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL) and its smaller right-wing allies could receive between 28 and 30% of the ballots. Incumbent Prime Minister Mario Monti’s centrist coalition is estimated at 12-15%, whereas the Five Star Movement (M5S), a new political group founded by former humorist and blogger Beppe Grillo, was rising in the most recent polls to an estimated 14-16%.

If the public opinion at large seems to reject the reforms proposed by Monti, whose European Union-inspired tight budgetary policies have failed to tame the recession but have led instead to a growing unemployment and to heavy tax rises that further suffocated the economy, Berlusconi’s populist claims (such as the promise to abolish the national housing tax, and to even pay it back to each household, or an amnesty plan intended to clean up the tax evaders’ and the illegal building owners’ records) have gathered him a growing consensus during the campaign, and seem to have madeSilvio Berlusconi, People of Freedom party (PDL, and incumbent Prime Minister Mario Monti many Italians forget that he was the man in charge right before Monti, that is between 2008 and 2011, when the national debt crisis that scared Italy’s European partners and seemed to threaten the very survival of the Euro exploded.

Bersani’s more redistributive proposed fiscal policies and his more temperate, pragmatic approach towards more Keynesian, growth and employment-oriented reforms have appealed over the past few months to a large portion of the Italians, but his coalition is torn between two opposite dynamics: on one side, the temptation – and probably material need – to build a broader, post-electoral alliance embracing Monti’s coalition in order to obtain a majority in Parliament and be able to form a stable cabinet, and on the other, a pledge to a large part of the historical PD voters calling for a revival of its more leftist identity, personified in some of its candidates as well as in the leader of its smaller ally, the Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party, Nichi Vendola. This pull to the left is also motivated by the presence outside Bersani’s coalition of a more leftist party, Civil Revolution, led by former judge Antonio Ingroia.

Not only every Italian, but anyone who has followed over the past five years the appalling developments in the Italian political, social and economic life knows how many affairs and scandals have risen, in virtually all sectors of the public realm. The governments of two of the largest regions, Lombardy and Lazio, both ruled by the PDL, had to resign over corruption scandals, whereas other parties, the Northern League and the centrist Margherita, were accused of heavy public funding embezzlement. If some of Berlusconi’s yes-men were involved in different types of illegal activities – from bribery to even complicity with the mafias -, himself being prosecuted over tax fraud in addition to his internationally famous scandals over prostitution, no major party, not even the PD, was exempt from at least some degree of corruption on the local level. More recently, other bribery affairs have shaken the two largest companies in the public sector, the energy giant Eni and the aeronautics, space and defence conglomerate Finmeccanica, as well as one of the country’s major banks, tightly connected with the political parties’ funding, Monte dei Paschi di Siena.

Amidst this desolate landscape, antipolitica has kept rising and rising, and one voice, that of Beppe Grillo, has risen with it, acting as a catalyst to this growing anger. Heading a movement that he only founded in 2009 thanks to his blog’s ever-increasing followers, this shrewd, witty humorist has spent most of his life pointing his finger at political corruption, financial scams, corporate lobbying and press faintheartedness. His blog, which in its first years was mainly focusing on environmental issues and consumers’ rights, has grown over the years as a megaphone for the widespread discontent. With a growing support from the most diverse portions of the population – from the unemployed to small business owners, and from environmentalists to overburdened taxpayers – his M5S has gained increasingly high scores in local elections, often rising to second in line. If some of Grillo’s ideas, like a proposed referendum on Italy leaving the Euro, may sound a bit too radical to some, and despite sparse accusations of a lack of internal democracy within his movement, more and more Italians have filled the peninsula’s largest squares to attend his dozens of rallies. And Beppe Grillo, Five Star Movement (M5S)though he has decided to never take part in any televised talk show but focus his campaign solely onto his blog and his “Tsunami Tour”, many feel that the massive participation in those squares might be the anticipation to a huge surprise when the votes will be counted on Monday evening.

As far as the more “traditional” parties, a complex electoral system, both in the Chamber of Deputies and in a Senate elected on a regional basis, might allow Bersani’s coalition to obtain a majority and form a cabinet with only about 35% of the ballots cast, but the latest polls indicate that he will likely need to share his cabinet with Monti’s coalition. On the other side, the Five Star Movement, which is diverting more and more support away not only from the left-wing parties but also – especially over the recent months – away from Berlusconi and the Northern League, will certainly gather enough votes to form a sound minority, of at least a hundred Deputies in the Chamber. This will hopefully guarantee an effective and more transparent system of checks and balances to Bersani’s government, or to whichever majority will be formed, and give Italy a much needed watchdog over corruption, aggressive lobbying, under-the-table compromise, and other unethical behaviours that Italy, sadly enough, has grown over the years accustomed with, but that Italians today are no more willing to tolerate.

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