By Lavinia Pisani
Italians will hold elections on Feb. 24-25 amidst a backdrop of deep economic and social divide.
Prime Minister Mario Monti resigned earlier than expected on Dec. 21. A renowned economist, Monti used his expertise to help guide the faltering country through the Italian debt crisis of 2011.
It is not easily predictable who will take his place. Over a dozen political parties are fighting for the chance to lead Italy.
Perhaps the most controversial political force, the Five Star Movement or Movimento 5 Stelle, is sweeping the nation with its grassroots efforts to mobilize Italians disgusted by government waste and corruption.
According to a recent poll, the movement, led by Beppe Grillo, a former comedian turned politician, leads by 18 points among voters. Grillo himself is a divisive figure, described as “a distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert: an activist and vulgarian with a deft ear for political satire” by The New Yorker.
Grillo is taking his message to the people. He recently began a nationwide road trip called the “Tsunami Tour,” hoping to inspire higher voter turnout.
The Five Star platform includes several important changes in the country, including a referendum on leaving the eurozone, the dissolution of monopolies on the media and the state railway system, and greater investment in health and agriculture.
The movement is made up of a diverse cross section of citizens including young people fed up with a persistently high unemployment rate.
Grillo’s claims that tax evasion in Italy is the highest in Europe, with an astonishing 27 percent of the country’s GDP avoiding taxes. Public debt has risen to 120 percent of its GDP, notwithstanding several new taxes.
If elected, the movement’s work will not be easy. It will enter a corrupted Parliament of 945 members with the highest salary in Europe, amounting to as much as $26,000 a month, according to a survey recently released by Monti.
Politicians are wary of Grillo’s movement which calls for sweeping reforms such as reduction in parliament member’s salaries, abolishing special privileges and a maximum limit of two terms in office. And, ironically, make convicted criminals ineligible for office.
Grillo, who has a manslaughter conviction stemming from a car accident in 1988, will be subject to these very rules. His hope, however, is to rid the government of corruption at all costs, even if he can’t be elected.
For the first time, Italy will vote during winter rather than spring. Grillo claims the decision to hold early elections was made to exclude the movement from entering Parliament.
“If we hadn’t prepared ourselves in good time, since last summer to be precise, we would already be effectively excluded from Parliament,” Grillo wrote.
As policy, new political parties have to collect a specific amount of signatures before campaigning. The Five Star Movement had to collect approximately 40,000 signatures during the Christmas holidays, a difficult time of year to engage voters.
“They are the ones who have dismantled the economy, the information system, the justice system, the education system, the network of production units, the State itself,” Grillo said. He further referred to Italian politicians as “parasites, fleas, bloodsuckers, [and] ticks.”
But the Five Star Movement is not without its own internal conflicts.
The group claims to be democratic and “uno vale uno”—literally, “one equals one” or “everyone counts”— is their motto. However, some members criticize Grillo as being too authoritative.
Federica Salsi, a prominent member of the party, was ousted after she publicly spoke out against Grillo on a popular Italian TV show.
“Those who complain are out,” Grillo’s said. He says he is concerned about spies possibly infiltrating the movement.
This wouldn’t have been the first time Grillo’s credibility has been called into question. Politicians routinely use his past as a comedian to insinuate that he isn’t a serious leader.
In spite of its conflicts, the Five Movement is hoping to broadcast its message to the people with the “Tsunami Tour” and effective use of social media and frequent blogging.
The Five Star Movement distrusts many mainstream media outlets. Most media falls under the monopoly of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of the right-wing People of Freedom party, whose much publicized resignation in November 2011 was preceded by a host of legal problems and controversies.
Italy is facing many complicated problems in the coming months that are deeply rooted in the political system.
The 5 Star Movement isn’t perfect. Still, it is the one that gives honest citizens hope for real change.