Italy does parties very well, as we all know. The festive kind have been around at least since the pre-Roman Etruscan triumphs, political parties are a bit more recent but they ran all aspects of the country in such a way as to have led to the creation of a new word: partitocrazia. They have never been loved but today their credibility has sunk to new lows.
In one recent poll, just over 48.2% of the Italian electorate said they would not vote for any party (compared to a turnout of just under 80% in 2008 – 22.8% did not vote). Overall confidence in the parties is as low as 4% in some polls and none gives them more than a 10% approval rating. This is lower than the trades unions and much lower than the unelected prime minister Monti who still scores over 50% despite the austerity budgets and some confusion and indecision of his government over the last few weeks.
In contrast, the quintessential anti-system group (from the left), the Movimento 5 Stelle (the 5 star movement) led by the Genoese comic Beppe Grillo (pictured above) is scoring more than 7% in the polls, the third biggest party if the polls are accurate. There are local elections on 6 May for about a fifth of the country and a general election by spring next year or possibly earlier, so the hypothetical numbers will become real soon enough. Grillo is “surfing the wave”, a wave that he reckons will wipe away the parties.
The professional politicians have been quick to complain about the dangers of “populism” and “antipolitica” evoking the spectre of the 1940s crypto-fascist, Poujadist movement, the Uomo Qualunque. Former prime minister and leader of the Democratic Party, Massimo D’Alema called the Grillo trend “a poison in society”.
Grillo certainly steals votes from the conventional left but he is also taking advantage of the Northern League’s (LN) scandals. The League has always been a protest movement but the scandals have show how much they have become part of the establishment so it is not surprising that dissatisfied LN people might support Grillo.
Enough has come out about the LN to make one wonder how it still exists. This week, the former treasurer delivered 10 gold ingots, 11 diamonds and an Audi A6 used by Renzo Bossi to party headquarters. Renzo (“the Trout”) is the son of party leader Umberto. These were supposedly party “investments”. Former minister and Bossi faithful, Calderoli has admitted that the party is paying €2,200 a month for his flat in Rome. Prosecutors in Calabria are accusing the Lega of managing €80m of party and Calabrian mafia (ndrangheta) funds together and trying to take over a Swiss bank together. To top it all, there are allegations that the former treasurer was also spying on Bossi’s rival, Roberto Maroni looking for dirt.
The League makes a better tabloid story but it is the the government parties, left right and centre, that really matter.
Berlusconi was in court yesterday explaining that his girls dressed up as nuns and police because “women are exhibitionists” and that there was nothing improper, but bunga-bunga aside his People of Freedom (PdL) party is disintegrating anyway.
Senator Beppe Pisanu and 30 other PdL parliamentarians launched an appeal to “moderates” yesterday presaging another split in the PdL. At the same time, the centrist leader Pierferdinando Casini of the Christian Democrat Centre Union, (UDC) launched the new Partito della Nazione (Party of the Nation) which would like to include some of the more popular supposedly “technical” ministers in Monti government; people like Corrado Passera, Andrea Riccardi and Anna Maria Cancellieri, perhaps even Monti himself.
Casini has also been trying to bring former Fiat and Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo into his circle. Montezemolo set up a foundation a couple of years ago which seemed to be the statement of intent to go into politics but he has dithered ever since. Montezemolo met with Berlusconi yesterday but still has not put his hat in the ring either with Casini or Berlusconi.
All this means that there is a crowd in the centre, elbowing each other in time for next year’s elections and presuming that the Berlusconi era is over. Berlusconi himself (through his mouthpiece, Angelino Alfano) has promised a “new campaign and new political actor” after the local elections. For decades now, political parties have been sold like washing powder but now we even have the “mystery product”, the new model which is advertised even under wraps – actually, being under wraps is supposed to make it all the more seductive. This is the hope, but the competition between Casini and Alfano is too obvious to attract anyone. If Berlusconi comes back, not unlikely, then the balance changes.
On the left, the Democrtic Party (PD) has been showing its divisions for months now especially on economic and labour issues. Apart from Grillo, there is an attempt to set up a party or movement to appeal to the disappointed left wing voters, yet another try to make a coherent, votable party for people of the left without a real political home. Next week there will be a meeting to try and set up a new party.
In the meantime, the big issues of employment, growth and taxes are being sidelined by personal or party interests. Berlusconi and the PdL are fighting a government move to auction off television frequencies instead of giving them free to Mediaset and the RAI. The PdL is delaying the progress of an anti-corruption bill before Parliament and all the big parties are defending their own generous public funding. While they all complain about the antipolitica, none of them is prepared to look to the causes.
Last summer I wrote a blog entitled “They don’t get it” about politicians who were out of touch with reality (and many others have been writing similar laments for ages before that). You would think that after all that has happened since then something would have changed in politicians’ perceptions of themselves… but they still don’t get it! As one correspondent put it “Pitchforks!” but that would be populist, wouldn’t it?