It says something about Italian politics that the most potent political figure to enter the arena since scandal-ridden former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a frizzy-haired bombastic comedian named Beppe Grillo, best known for organizing nationwide protests against government corruption called "Go F Yourself" days. And what it says is this: that as a desire for change sweeps the European electorate, Italians are feeling starved for choice. Indeed, with the exception of Grillo, Italy doesn't have a single national leader who wasn't already in politics in 1994, the year Berlusconi first came to power.
Municipal elections on May 6 will provide the last concrete test of political strength before national balloting expected in a year. If the polls are accurate, Italy's politicians are about to be taught the same lesson as the tyrants of the Arab Spring: suppressed change results in cataclysmic upheaval. Public confidence in the political class is in the single digits. Corruption scandals are competing for column inches, breaking with a frequency shocking even to Italy's jaded electorate.
Mario Monti's government of unelected technocrats its very existence a demonstration of the failure of Italian democracy to produce a better alternative is widely seen as being charged with cleaning up a mess the politicians were incapable of solving. In a country where voter turnout has historically soared at well over 90%, nearly half of Italians tell pollsters they don't plan on voting for any of the established parties.
Italian politics has become bureaucratized. Incumbents fend off challengers not with ideas, oratory or policy platforms, but with the entrenched machinery of their parties. Unfold any two newspapers from the past 18 years and you're likely to find the same names in the headlines. Take Pier Ferdinando Casini. He started his political career with the Christian Democracy party, broke with them to help found a spin-off and has since headed two further groupings born of splits and mergers. "In the rest of the world, parties stay the same, but the leaders change," says Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and a politician who has struggled to break through to the national stage. "For us, it's the opposite."
Under the country's electoral law introduced in 2005 voters cast polls not for individual candidates, but for party lists drawn up by political leaders, who, predictably, select for loyalty. Berlusconi was ejected from the Prime Minister's palace in November, and his longtime ally Umberto Bossi, head of the xenophobic Northern League, resigned in April amid allegations that party funds were spent on members of his family. But both have been replaced by handpicked lieutenants. Meanwhile, their opponents on the left continue to plumb the depths of their party hierarchies for a series of uninspiring apparatchiks.
With the country's leaders concentrated on their game of thrones, the problems of Europe's third largest economy have remained largely unaddressed. The current generation of politicians have governed as if they were bent on draining the country dry before they die. Since 1994, Italy's parties have received $3.3 billion in public campaign financing, only $800 million of which has been officially accounted for as electoral spending; the rest disappearing into party coffers. Meanwhile, the economy is stalled. In April, the National Institute of Statistics found that 11.6% of the workforce had given up looking for work on top of the 9.8% official unemployment rate.
So far, the reaction in Parliament has been another game of musical chairs. On April 19, Casini unveiled yet another venture, the Party of the Nation, which he hopes will include members of Prime Minister Monti's technical government. Not to be outdone, Berlusconi's successor Angelino Alfano declared that he and the former Prime Minister will soon be making an announcement "that will change the course of Italian politics in the coming years." Politicians on the left are talking of reshuffling as well.
There is another way. Even as parliamentary politics has stagnated, the introduction of primaries for municipal elections has allowed the emergence of fresh faces at the local level. Maverick mayoral candidates in Milan and Florence have challenged their party hierarchies and won. Italy's national politicians would do well to learn from their example. For those who want their parties to survive, the message should not be "button down," but "open up." Otherwise, they shouldn't be surprised if voters borrow a page from Beppe Grillo and tell them what to do with themselves.