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February 22, 2013 5:56 pm

Italy’s poll promises to spring surprise

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Five-Star Movement activist and comedian Beppe Grillo speaks during a rally in Siena©Reuters

Dario Catania, a 27-year-old university dropout and swimming instructor, sketches out his life story: the tale of a young Italian of a “lost generation”, disillusioned with a country he sees in decay, saddled with moribund and corrupt political parties, and with little future in prospect.

Leaving his home town of Naples where nearly half of young people are out of work, he travelled the world, learning languages, working in Mexico, visiting Cuba, Morocco and Tanzania.

Full of ideas and back in Italy, he is running for parliament in the general election on Sunday and Monday. He is a candidate for the Five Star Movement, a grassroots, anti-establishment protest group that has surged in the polls, tapping into a groundswell of anger at Italy’s elite – and possibly on its way to becoming the country’s second biggest party.

“Ours is a movement of simple ideas, from neither left nor right,” says Mr Catania, campaigning in a bobble-hat and tracksuit.

“We are getting support especially from people who have never voted before. This is Italy’s last chance for a peaceful revolution.”

The outcome of the four-way race in this election is highly unpredictable. Polls point to a centre-left led by the Democrats taking the lower house, but not the senate, setting the scene for fraught coalition talks.

Should the Five Star Movement win more than 20 per cent of the national vote – as some unofficial polls are reported to claim – then this could be the last campaign for Silvio Berlusconi if his centre-right party suffers the humiliation of being beaten into third place.

But it would also send an alarming message to Europe. Polls are pointing to less than 10 per cent of the vote for Mario Monti, the technocrat prime minister appointed in late 2011 with the backing of Berlin and Brussels to save Italy from financial disaster, but unpopular at home for his sweeping austerity measures.

More so even than the prospect of a weak government, sending shockwaves through the establishment is the prospect of a parliament with around 100 delegates from the Five Star Movement – none of them with any previous political experience and determined to upset the status quo, even though their calls for a referendum on euro membership is not on their official agenda. Yet.

“This would be a tragedy,” former foreign minister Franco Frattini told France’s Le Figaro. “It would express the failure of the European idea in Italy.”

Loretta Napoleoni, an economist close to the Five Star Movement and an unpaid adviser to its mayor in the northern town of Parma, says such views misunderstand the social roots of what she also calls a revolution, but one that is empowering people and can save Italy from plunging back to the violence of the 1970s and 1980s.

“They feel a tremendous responsibility,” she says of the movement’s future parliamentarians. “If they fail then Italy will end up like Greece.

“Italy, with its history of political violence, is a pressure cooker ready to explode. They are scared of this big responsibility.”

Beppe Grillo, the burly, loud-mouthed comedian-activist who has filled piazzas with his “tsunami” campaign tour out of a camper van, is what his supporters call the “megaphone” of the movement he established in 2009.

As Mr Catania explains, the movement had existed before then for some years as a loose network of local groups known as Meet Up, where mostly young people disillusioned with the political mainstream met and debated, and “proposed ideas to parties that did not accept them”, focusing on the environment and energy.

“Grillo is an amazing phenomenon,” says Ms Napoleoni, explaining how he used social media – he is Italy’s most popular blogger – and his pulling power as a nationally known comic to give a voice and impetus to a fragmented movement that has since attracted a wide range of supporters on left and right, young and old.


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“What Grillo and his movement are doing is starting a revolution similar to what Thatcher and Reagan did, to slim down the state,” explains Ms Napoleoni, noting that both the former UK prime minister and US president came to power in the midst of economic crises.

Mr Grillo is not running for parliament, ruling himself out because of his conviction for manslaughter for the deaths of three passengers in his car in an accident. His movement’s candidates are all unknown figures.

Tommaso Nannicini, professor of political economy at Bocconi university, has analysed the profiles of the movement’s candidates most likely to enter parliament.

More than 40 per cent are women – the highest proportion among the parties competing. At 32 the average age is the youngest of all parties, while nearly 80 per cent have university degrees – more than the centre-left and centre-right coalitions. More than a third are white-collar workers, nearly a quarter are self-employed and 15 per cent are out of work, including pensioners, students and housewives.

The movement has never held a national congress and some candidates have never even met Mr Grillo after being selected locally through online polling.

Pollsters, frantically courted by anxious fund managers and political leaders, caution that the results could spring big surprises. As much as 30 per cent of the electorate is still undecided or may not vote. Turnout in the last election in 2008 was 80.5 per cent, suggesting some 5m voters may decide at the last moment. The centre-left’s winning margin in 2006 was just 25,000 votes nationwide.

Eugenia Barale, 26, from Florence, expresses a popular view of politics among the undecided, describing Mr Monti as a “great let-down”. For her, Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democrats, does not inspire, while Mr Berlusconi and his scandals made Italy a mockery.

As for Mr Grillo, she says: “He represents the discontent of Italians. He yells what the people want and feel. But what is his political programme?”

Additional reporting by Giulia Segreti

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