Italy’s centre-left must challenge Five Star at its own game

March 11, 2013, 10:27 AM GMT+0

It is now clear that the Italian election signalled widespread frustration at a whole generation of politicians.

The parties which stood for parliament in 2008 collectively lost almost 13 million votes. The centre-right parties lost more than half of their votes (about nine million) and the centre-left Democratic Party lost three and a half million votes on its last election count, which also resulted in defeat. The final vote count produced a hung parliament and the bitterest defeat for the left in 20 years.

After months of successes in local elections and in the polls, the Democratic Party portrayed itself as the only responsible force in a country in disarray. Just like UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1992, its leader Pier Luigi Bersani took the victory for granted and ran a political campaign whose main objective seemed to be to reassure the party militants that a victory was finally at hand.

As has now been widely noted, the victory went instead to the Five Star Movement which received over eight and a half million votes (25%). Grillo’s movement was underestimated by all, and especially by the left. The electoral maps published by YouTrend show that the Five Stars Movement scored exceptional results all across Italy and it peaked exactly where the centre-left suffered the sharpest drops. Beppe Grillo run a populist campaign demanding cuts to property taxes and a universal living wage, but the overwhelming and unifying message was to show the political class the door.

The biggest mistake for the centre-left would be to pretend the movement is a seasonal measles. Many on the left thought the same of Berlusconi in 1994. It is not; and Grillo has already proved much shrewder than expected. The left has not convincingly won an election since 1996. Besides the question of the next government, there is a more urgent need to stop peddling policies and to recreate a minimal degree of trust between the political class and the citizens. The Democratic Party has its last chance: to win or to perish. Instead of trying to re-educate the Five Stars supporters, it must finally challenge them on their own ground.

First, Italy desperately needs new laws on corruption, on the media system, and it needs to slash the costs of the political apparatus. More important than the policies themselves, it is crucial that the citizens understand that the Democratic Party is championing this cause and it is not following under extortion. Perceptions matter immensely. Today, it’s far better to risk running too fast than to stand still and to be run over.

Second, politicians need to learn to engage with citizens who don’t have fixed political affiliation, and that don’t feel themselves represented by organised civil society (e.g. trade unions, professional associations, and even the Church). The priority should be to target swing voters rather than planning alliances with other parties. Also, individual citizens should have the opportunity to petition the government directly and have the guarantee of an answer. The White House petition website of the Obama administration is a good example.

Critics will reply that cutting MPs salaries and a petition website is mere symbolism and that they will not give Italy the economic growth it so desperately needs. They would certainly be right. Last year’s GDP fell by 2.4% and the country is in a depressive spiral. However, the political deadlock is so deep that the left needs to restart from scratch. Restoring trust is the precondition for everything else, including a new election in a few months. Perceptions matter as much as policies. This is our last chance.