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After the elections, the strange case of Italy

Alessandra Mecozzi says Italian politics is broken, but the movements aren’t filling the gap

March 8, 2013
7 min read

Beppe Grillo speaks to his supporters in San Giovanni square

Coalition government negotiations in chaos. A president’s mandate about to expire. Even the pope has quit! Disorder reigns in Italy. No one knows what will happen now.

Will there be new elections? The need for a new president doesn’t allow that immediately – in fact parliament is supposed to elect a new president by April. Could there be a grand coalition of the centre-left and the right? The centre-left says absolutely not. A minority centre-left government? The president says no.

So far it’s not even known whether the president will give Bersani, the leader of the centre-left coalition, a mandate to try to form a government – the natural first step – or whether he will succeed in winning a confidence vote in parliament.

But let’s put aside the chaos of the institutional architecture for the moment and look at what happened in the elections. Many, including within the almost-silent movements, consider them to have been historic, even revolutionary! In particular they are referring to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which is in reality run by internet ‘enterpreneur’ Gianroberto Casaleggio.

Five Star swept up the votes of more than eight million citizens, and filled the huge San Giovanni square with an estimated 800,000 people as the finale of their election campaign. Their ‘anti-politics’ has become the biggest single political actor.

This wasn’t what they expected. Up until around a month before the elections, everyone thought the right wing (and Berlusconi in particular) were more or less done for. But Berlusconi became the leader of the right once again, and easily beat the ‘clean’ borgeoisie of Mario Monti, who could only manage 10 per cent of the vote.

This shows that Monti’s technocratic austerity policies have no support at all among the vast majority of citizens, whether they are workers, young people or pensioners. Berlusconi on the other hand still speaks for a section of society – the section who think that inequality and privilege are principles worth defending! Corrupt populism is still a winner for the right wing.

Meanwhile, something strange happened in the far right Northern League’s results. Their vote was cut in half compared to 2008, from 8 per cent to 4 per cent, yet they won the presidency of Lombardia region and now control the three biggest regions in the north of Italy. They are loudly declaring their mantra of ‘separation’ from the rest of the country, trying to capture the north as a centre of power in opposition to the national government.

An unexpected result

For the centre-left the result was a shock. The centre-left coalition came first in terms of overall votes cast, yet it was the biggest loser, because it has no majority in the senate and therefore no way of forming a government. All this while its voting base – millions of working class people – is being hammered by austerity policies. How did this happen?

There is no shortage of factors. The centre-left made the huge mistake, for example, of talking about an alliance with Monti after the election even while it was criticising his austerity policies. More generally it underestimated the social situation and the feelings provoked by the crisis, it underestimated Berlusconi’s various social promises, and it underestimated Beppe Grillo’s call to resist the ‘political caste’.

On the other hand, the left (Civil Revolution) remains invisible and insignificant, both in parliament and in society, getting just 2 per cent of the vote. The Italian squares are instead filled with Grillo fans, the ‘new movement’, picking up the slogans and issues of the social movements while declaring the death of the distinction between right and left.

Before they voted for the Five Star Movement, 32 per cent of its voters backed the right and 22 per cent backed the centre-left. This is an eclectic political and social mix, ranging from workers to small businesspeople, from unemployed people to professionals. They claim to be ‘horizontal’ and creating a web-based direct democracy, but are obliged to follow the edicts of their leader Grillo.

One young Grillo supporter started a web petition and in a few hours collected 150,000 signatures to say the Five Star Movement should support the confidence vote in a possible centre-left led government. Grillo immediately denounced her as an ‘infiltrator’.

Where are the movements?

The strongest glue that keeps the ‘Grillini’ together is the attractive mantra against the ‘caste’ of the politicians, who are invited to ‘go home’, told to ‘surrender’, that ‘enough is enough’ – this is their basis, far from being any kind of social movement. But what of the existing social movements? They are fragmented and weak, yes, but very different from the Five Star Movement.

A debate has begun about how much responsibility the social movements in Italy bear for the current situation. That is part of a discussion that has already started at European level, more pushed by the rise of the extreme right. The case of Grillo is quite different, but provoked by the same social crisis.

Here we come to the question of the failure of the ‘Genoa movements’, both in terms of an inability to win results but also when it came to keeping their independence from political parties. In Italy we did not have the ‘second generation’ social movements – like the indignados in Spain or Occupy – and it is not entirely clear why. It might be because of the level of social control and representation by the trade unions (namely CGIL, FIOM, COBAS). It’s not that people aren’t completely exasperated by the impact of the crisis and the increasing corruption of politics, but that the Five Star Movement was able to collect this feeling of rage. CGIL has to think seriously about its policy – it was supportive of Monti at the beginning, and in the electoral campaign backed the centre-left. Hopefully a debate will also start there.

As the radical leftist Italian writers’ collective Wu Ming has said, the Five Star Movement has ‘set the political energies of a revolt against austerity in a discourse-cage that is a parody of political conflict’. Instead of grassroots movement we have a party managed by a ‘sectarian-business’ organisation – Casaleggio and co – with the symbolic leadership of a comedian. They argue that Five Star’s ‘radicalism’ is channelling dissent away from genuine radical movements in Italy.

Are they right or wrong? It is difficult to say. One good thing does have to be mentioned in this election result though – the will for change did prevail, and the evidence is in the composition of the new parliament. There are many more women and young people – the average age decreased from 50 to 45 and the proportion of women jumped from 20 percent to 30 percent. 60 per cent of the parliament are ‘new faces’.

The big question is whether this ‘human change’ will be able to bring any radical change in the politics and the policies. We will see.

Alessandra Mecozzi is an Italian trade unionist, feminist and activist

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