The slow death of traditional party politics in Italy

December 12, 2012, 10:38 AM GMT+0

The last year has witnessed the meteoric rise of populist movements in Italy that cannot be placed within traditional left-right categories.

As it stands, with a national election imminent, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party is bordering balkanization, coming only third in the polls, after the centre-left Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement.

The Five Star Movement warrants more attention, for its rise speaks to the weaknesses of traditional party structures and out-dated ways of doing politics. The Movement’s greatest strength lies in its network of genuinely motivated and concerned citizens, who, under the tutelage of maverick front man Beppe Grillo, have gained widespread support for their championing of direct democracy, internet-based deliberative processes, environmentalism and an end to the class of “professional politicians.”

Interestingly, Grillo’s Movement does not seem to draw the bulk of its support from apathetic voters who previously abstained from engaging in electoral politics, or from Berlusconi’s fleeing electorate. Rather, according to a study published by the Istituto Catteneo, the majority of its votes come from individuals who supported Italy’s centre-left parties in the past, if with little enthusiasm. The parties to the left of the Democratic Party, which were wiped out of parliament in the 2008 general election, have not yet recovered their credibility and collectively poll around 6%. The bulk of the centre-right electorate simply fell out of love with Berlusconi and by and large pulled away from voting and polling in recent times. This is reflected in the recent Sicilian election turnout: a record low of 47%.

At its heart, Five Star is an anti-politics movement but, importantly, it is not anti-democratic per se (although it is alarmingly dominated by its leader Grillo). Rather it thrives on the contention that ordinary people can do things better than the corrupt political class and that only internet-based decision making processes are truly democratic. Its supporters view any form of organised politics as corrupt and have picked their candidates for parliament by an online vote among members (about 35,000 people) that forbade any form of canvassing or individual campaigning. It therefore might be said that the movement’s ideological background generally combines sensible notions of transparency with unrealistic, and indeed catastrophic, economic proposals.

What is clear is that there is a real demand for new forms of politics and political participation across the country to which mainstream political parties have been unable to respond for years. Berlusconi’s last attempt to survive by transforming his party into an anti-tax movement is a desperate one. The Democratic Party on the other hand brought over three million people to vote in the primary election for leader of the centre-left coalition. This was a remarkable achievement, obfuscated, however, by the feeling that this was a “concession” on behalf of the party leadership rather than a convinced commitment to a new and more open political process. The Democratic Party should rather challenge the Five Stars movement on this ground, championing open decision-making processes and engaging directly with the citizens.

First, a truly open political process requires that all candidates for Parliament be selected through primary elections, not just the leadership.

Second, there is a need for new forms of engagement with civil society at large. The winner of the primary election, Pierluigi Bersani, has strong connections with organised civil society, the cooperatives, and the trade unions. He is also respected by centrist political parties and the economic establishment. But for a large part of the population this is no longer enough. The Five Stars’ contention that internet will replace representative democracy is naïve at best, but they have learned a powerful lesson: traditional forms of organised civil society are fading and political parties must be able to make their case directly to individual citizens. Berlusconi built his success using television to appeal directly to the voters twenty years ago. The new medium is now the internet, but the centre-left has not learned this lesson yet. The Five Stars have gathered an impressive consensus without spending so much as a word on immigration, pensions or taxation: the perception – if not the substance – of an open decision-making process has been more important for their success than the policy itself.

Thirdly, there is a perception that public spending at any level, from local government to large infrastructural projects like high-speed trains, is not transparent and thus mired in corruption. This continues to be true on many occasions, but it is also the case that the government has never published a graphic breakdown of public spending that could be easily understood by non-experts. In a situation of economic crisis and rising discontent, the left must be ready to make the case for each and every item of public spending to the public at large, rather than just address the elite of its constituencies.

Many on the left smirk at the inexperience of the Five Star militants but attempts to draw a cordon sanitaire have only played in favour of the populists and will reinforce the “politicians” versus “people” language until it really becomes self-fulfilling.