Breathing new life into Italy

February 27, 2013

Italy needs new blood, but that is the one thing it is certain not to get in the country’s upcoming elections that have resembled a popularity poll for aging—many thought politically-dead—statesmen, with TV soundbites providing an endless background drone in millions of homes otherwise depressed by a stagnant economy and systemic lack of opportunity.

With one of the most fragmented political systems in Europe, Italians can choose between a dizzying array of 215 parties, including the ‘Black Rose’ movement which supports right-wing gay rights, and the ‘Ordinary Guy Front’. The names of many such groups, displayed along the hallway of the Interior Ministry in Rome, reveal what many Italians think of the state of their nation— and whom they hold responsible.

Yet it seems likely that the ‘Stop Taxes and Bank’ movement and ‘Half the Salaries of Politicians’ will be little more than a weak protest cry, soon forgotten as one of the ‘big beasts’ takes the stage—the earnest but charmless Pier Luigi Bersani, the populist comedian Beppe Grillo, or Silvio Berlusconi (who needs no further words of introduction).

A strong five-year government that can eradicate corruption, revive the economy, reduce the cost of politics and, above all, persuade young professionals that there are opportunities worth staying for seems as remote as ever due to Italy’s system of proportional representation that has led to an endless series of coalitions dominated by center-right and center-left alliances. There is a reason why Italy’s electoral law has been nicknamed the ‘porcellum’ , or the pigsty. But, despite some protests, Italians still seem curiously apathetic about their future—displaying a detachment from the institutions that govern them that experts, like the LSE’s Mary Kaldor, believe betrays a far deeper crisis in European democracy.

Dismissed in the past as a charming, eccentric, anachronism, Italy’s elections now matter very much to the rest of Europe. The country remains in deep recession, with unemployment at record levels. Any result that indicates a rejection of Mario Monti’s austerity reforms, or political deadlock, could spook the market, and provoke another drama in Europe’s debt crisis.

In the meantime, a proliferation of amusement arcades and slot machines (Italy now has more than the UK) demonstrates where Italians are increasingly pinning their hopes for the future: gambling, a last chance for lost causes.

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