New coalitions, old faces dominate Italy vote | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.02.2013
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New coalitions, old faces dominate Italy vote

DW takes a look at the Italian elections. Many of the coalitions have new names, but will February 2013 mark a turning point for the country, or is it the same content repackaged with new campaign strategies?

"The novelty really in these elections is that things are a lot more fragmented" says Duncan McDonnell at the European University Institute in Florence, referring to the sheer number of coalitions and new groupings that are running for office.

But he concedes that "for the most part, it's same old same old," at least in terms of faces. Although the faces are the same, the names used to describe their groupings are new, and almost all point to a common idea: Italy is in trouble and must somehow return to the essence of Italian-ness to save herself.

New names, old content

Struggling for victory are parties like "Stop the Decline," "Italy: for the Common Good," "Italian Brothers," "Civil Revolution" and "With Monti for Italy".

Only two parties depart from this theme: Beppe Grillo's "Movimento a Cinque Stelle" (Five Star Movement) and Berlusconi's PDL (People of Freedom) alliance with the Lega Nord (Northern League). Berlusconi's coalition has kept the same names from the last two elections.

Alessandro Amadori is an expert in political psychology, an author and sociologist. He also runs Coesis research, a marketing and communication institute. He thinks that the new names are almost irrelevant in these elections. They are trying to capture the anger and disillusionment within the country, but essentially they are re-hashing old content: "This is an election where the content is absent," he said.

Grillo, the star of the moment

Riccardo Staglianó, the digital world correspondent for the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper, slightly disagrees.

"You can think what you like about the parties, the personalities and the politics," Staglianó told DW. "But this time there are some innovations."

He cited a few new personalities, new parties and new ways of doing things. The first person he singled out was Beppe Grillo - a comedian, blogger and activist - and his "Five Star Movement" (M5S).

"Beppe Grillo has managed, in a relatively short time, to consolidate a huge digital presence and make a real difference," Staglianó said. "Polls vary about his popularity, but it is between 14-19%, which is slightly higher than Monti's popularity ratings at this time."

What is unclear is what Grillo's party will do if he actually won power. Most of his followers are not traditional politicians, and their leader would not become prime minister, so many voting for him see it as a protest vote rather than a serious undertaking.

Awkward Monti

Staglianó explains that Monti himself is "another 'novelty' in his own way," because he is an unelected leader who is just now running for office. Monti is now leading a centrist coalition of seasoned and big personality politicians, like Gianfranco Fini of Future and Freedom and Pierferdinando Casini of the Centrist UdC.

But Monti is not a natural politician, according to McDonnell. And calling the coalition "With Monti for Italy" was almost political suicide, because his personality does not invite followers.

Italian Premier Mario Monti (Photo:Roberto Monaldo, Lapresse/AP/dapd)

Mario Monti has asked 'Italy' to come with him, but he is not a 'natural politician'

"It has been an absolutely terrible campaign, from the choice of name, to how he's tried to sell himself," McDonnell said. "And if you look at the polls, Monti has performed really badly. He was a competent technocrat, but he's a terrible politician. He's awkward on television, and he's just not good at communicating."

The last big problem for Monti is of course that Italians don't like feeling that Europe is partly behind Monti and pushing him upon them.

"For Monti, a perfect election would be if the voters were the newsrooms of The Financial Times and The Economist," jokes McDonnell. "But unfortunately that is just not the case. All this talk that various groups are supporting Monti, that just doesn't play well in Italy, and rightly so."

Confusion reigns

The electorate is still confused about who to vote for. Despite the new names, new alliances and some new faces, they see no way to "stop the decline," even when there is a party which is claiming to do just that.

A recent ISPO (Institute for the Study of Public Opinion in Italy) poll suggested that 40% of the electorate is confused about who to vote for, or is thinking of abstaining completely. In the last local elections in May 2012, the country saw the lowest turnout ever with just 66.9%. An unscientific survey of a few Italian contacts told the same story.

"It is a disaster," said Donatella, an artist in Milan. "The country is in a big mess, they are telling us that every day up here in the North - 100 businesses are closing. Can you imagine what it must be like in the South?"

A woman walks past electoral posters in Rome (Photo: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)

40% of voters are confused about who to vote for

Donatella is "glad" that her daughter is currently studying in Brussels and hopes that she can find a job abroad. "What future is left for young people here in Italy?" she asked.

Bene, an architect in Florence told a similar story of confusion and lack of hope. She had thought of voting Grillo's M5S as a "protest," but didn't believe that his candidates had the experience to actually run the country, or be good at politics.

Dissatisfaction with politics was coupled with a belief that only politicians know how to work the system. When asked if they would think of voting for Antonio Ingroia's Civil Revolution party, they expressed skepticism. Ingroia's party is run by ex-magistrates, some of whom were involved in the "Clean Hands" trials of the early 1990s, which led to the demise of the corrupt ways of the old political guard.

Both Bene and Donatella said that these guys might be "good magistrates and good upright people," but they should stick to what they do best, and not become mired in the "dirty" system of politics, which is how it is seen in Italy.

Five-star appeal

"People are just tired" confirmed Staglianó, tired of it all and they are looking for something new. He thinks the reason that Grillo is doing so well in the polls is that he has understood this dissatisfaction and is riding it well.

In fact the same ISPO survey found that in May, 30% of Grillo's new voters had previously abstained, because they were disillusioned with traditional politics. His voters tend to be predominantly male and more educated than the average Italian, although not always employed. They are anti-politics, anti-Monti, anti-austerity, but still want a program.

Italian comedian Beppe Grillo poses during an interview at his home in Genoa (Photo GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/GettyImages)

Beppe Grillo has got the most extra support

Staglianó explains that the five stars stand for "water, transport, the environment, energy and connectivity" and that these points are central to Grillo's appeal.

Problems on the left

A recent scandal involving the world's oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, has shaken the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). According to Staglianó, the bank was seen as politically close to the PD, damaging the left's lead and making them fight much harder for a victory.

Staglianó says that many people think this government will be another temporary one, before the PD renews itself yet again, and the old guard finally makes room for the new.

In the PD, this would mean that Pier Luigi Bersani would hand the reigns to Matteo Renzi, the popular PD mayor of Florence, who gave in gracefully during the primaries to Bersani. Many Italians - including Bene - would like to vote for Renzi, who would perhaps have won more young voters over to the PD.

Bene thinks that people saw Renzi as "too slick" and "too good a communicator," a bit like Berlusconi, and somehow associated that with a lack of content. But she thinks they were wrong to do so.

Italian PD (Democratic Party) leader Pierluigi Bersani (Photo:REUTERS/Max Rossi)

Bersani has tried to bring vigor to his campaign, but it has not ignited voters

"He does have a lot of content," said Bene, adding that Renzi gets things done. "I've seen that here in Florence," she said.

Berlusconi's comeback?

Interestingly, Berlusconi is the only person not to have repackaged his party and coalition in name or campaign techniques. TV is his medium, and he knows how to work it.

"Berlusconi is a great campaigner, he's a great fighter, he's been on television practically every single day," said McDonnell.

His pledges might be seen as outlandish by some. The former premier is offering to pay back taxes collected under Monti and "promising to create 4 million new jobs in a country where presently there are only three million unemployed," McDonnell said.

But all three analysts agree that despite Berlusconi's amazingly successful campaign, even he can't pull it off a third time. Although some do worry that the votes he wins will cause trouble for whoever holds the majority.

The search for the father figure

"We [Italians] are in a phase of political transition," Amadori said. He believes the country should move more toward the German model of politics, with lots of small groups making up important wholes, rather than the bipolar model, which Italy has seen in the last few elections.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaks during a political rally in Turin February 2013. (Photo: EUTERS/Giorgio Perottino)

Silvio Berlusconi has stuck with his tried and tested ways, and it seems to have improved his poll ratings

But Amadori believes that Italy is nowhere near that point yet. The sociologist said that politicians lack "a vision of what the country should be in ten years," opting instead to use campaign slogans that appear to address the urgent needs of the moment, rather than painting a direction for the future.

"What people need to understand about Italy, is that we are a populist and 'leader-led' population," he said. "That is part of our history. Perhaps to understand Italy, you should remember that we have a very emotive relationship with our politicians. Berlusconi's success is because he conquered the populist part of our nation, just like Mussolini did, and of course Caesar."

According to Amadori, Italians are still searching for "their new Caesar and we spend all our time looking for him."

"It's very Freudian," he said. "We are essentially looking for the absent Father figure, and that is, to some extent why we are still politically immature."

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