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Skeptical Italian voters distrust politicians

The political parties in Italy don't have any brilliant concepts for dealing with the economic crisis, something voters in the election on Sunday and Monday are resigned to. The euro crisis is simply being blocked out.

Dark clouds are looming over Rome as the election gets underway. There are sporadic showers. The wind is cold. It is uncomfortable winter weather for the Romans, but it suits the mood of the Italian electorate.

Most people are sick of it because they feel let down by the politicians, says TV producer Laura Bernaschi, who lives together with dentist Marco Solazzo and their two small children, in the second floor of an old building with high ceilings and wooden floorboards close to the Vatican. They're sitting at a red glass table in the modern-style kitchen.

The economic crisis has gripped Italy. The EU Commission predicts that the country will only begin to emerge from the recession in 2014. Unemployment is even expected to rise above 12 percent.

"The crisis is like the last drop - we've had problems with our politicians since 1948," says the 45-year-old Solazzo. He added that there has always been talk of reform, but little has actually happened other than tax increases. "The crisis is starting to wake up a lot of people who always just think for today and tomorrow," he says, adding, "But now they understand that the problem is the day after tomorrow."

Italian TV producer Laura Bernaschi Photo: Bernd Riegert, DW

No party has convinced Rome resident Laura Bernaschi

Solazzo and his family have also been affected by the crisis. "From 2008 until now, I lost 50 percent of my earnings because of the crisis," he says, going on to claim that Italy was unprepared for the crisis and is unlikely to change its course during 2013.

Parties with no plan

Political scientist Lutz Klinkhammer agrees with Solazzo's diagnosis. Klinkhammer has been living in Italy for 13 years, working at the German Historical Institute, which lies at the edge of a large park in southwestern Rome. The campaign promises about loosening austerity policies are popular, he says: "A lot of Italians can identify with that, because they have the Greek example in front of them. They think that if things continue as they are, then Italy will end up like Greece."

Not only former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but also a rising star of the campaign, former comedian Beppo Grillo, has joined some leftwing politicians in calls to return money to taxpayers and loosen the budget caps.

Marco and Laura agree with Klinkhammer on another point too. Neither the center-left nor the center-right have a convincing plan for dealing with the crisis.

"It's certainly true that most parties competing in the election have not presented a conclusive concept for how economic policy should continue," says Klinkhammer, who adds that only the outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti has signaled that he would carry on as before.

"All the parties really want to encourage employment, but none of them have a coherent program of cutback measures. That is really the point where you could attack. Raising taxes is certainly no catch-all solution," the political scientist concludes.

Dentist Marco Solazzo, Zahnarzt Photo: Bernd Riegert

Marco Solazzo calls the crisis a wake-up call for many

Debt crisis blocked out

Solazzo, a self-employed dentist, feels let down by the established parties because Italy has been burdened by weak growth for over ten years - a decade governed mainly by Berlusconi. What does Solazzo expect from the new government to be elected on Sunday and Monday? "Honesty - it should be the first thing. We have a lot of politicians that get rich with politics. Serious people is what we need more right now. Left or right isn't very important right now."

And what about the excessive state debt? Italy is currently heading for a debt of 130 percent, measured against the country's gross domestic product. And what about the interest rates on long-term state bonds? A rate of over six percent caused a serious crisis in the eurozone only 14 months ago. At the moment, the so-called "spread" is at four percent. Klinkhammer thinks that il spread, a new Italian word, has lost its power to scare Italians.

The conservative Berlusconi, who had to resign in November 2011 partly because of the rising interest rates, calls the spread and the high interest burden a German invention. "The Italians have become disillusioned. They think rates are manipulated and that the banks pursue intrigues and things of that nature," says Klinkhammer. "It won't be possible to stop Berlusconi again with the argument about the spread."

'We don't care about Europe'

Marco and Laura wave away questions about interest rates causing ructions in the eurozone. Europe is a long way away for them. "The first thing is trying to find something that helps our own country," says Laura. "We know what people in Europe think about Italy because it's always the same stuff - we're not predictable, we're not serious," adds Marco. "But living in Italy is different. There are a lot of people here who work hard and are looking for answers. We really don't care what they in Europe think about us."

Dr. Lutz Klinkhammer Photo: Bernd Riegert

Klinkhammer believes Berlusconi will not be easy to defeat

Though her children are not yet of school age, Laura is particularly worried about high unemployment among young people - currently at 37 percent. "There are a lot of boys and girls who are young and have degrees, but they are not working," she says. "That's the future of the country. So I think this is the first thing that needs help."

Since many of their friends feel a similar disappointment about the politicians, Marco and Laura think that Beppe Grillo is likely to do well. The former actor has declared himself against virtually everything, wants social welfare for all and intends to cut the salaries of rich politicians.

Italy 'needs investors'

Norbert Pudzich also agrees with Marco and Laura. Pudzich is head of the German-Italian Chamber of Commerce in Milan. He believes that Italy has a strong industrial base, which creates successful export products: machines, cars, as well as plastic and chemical products. Things like fashion and mozzarella are a long way behind. But Pudzich thinks the economy's problems lie in a set of bad circumstances and stale structures.

"I think Italy has lost its attraction as a place for companies to invest," he says. "The government has to address that, improve location factors, and reform taxation, which is long overdue. By doing that, it can create incentives so that Italian companies will invest in themselves once again, and foreign firms will once again enjoy investing in Italy."

But Pudzich, like Marco, Laura, and Lutz Klinkhammer, has been unable to find solutions in the manifestos of the political parties. "We're all on tenterhooks," he says.

The ratings agency Standard and Poor's has already warned that an unstable government could drive up interest costs for Italy and re-ignite the euro debt crisis. It looks like the dark clouds will linger after the election too.

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