Tremors and rumbles
Earthquakes, political and geological, have disoriented Italy
May 26th 2012 | ROME | from the print edition
TWICE this week, Italians in the north-eastern Emilia-Romagna region felt the ground shift beneath their feet. The first time was on May 20th, when an earthquake struck the region, killing at least seven people and leaving thousands homeless. Not as tragic or lethal, but perhaps more significant for Italy’s future, was the jolt delivered by an election held as aftershocks continued the next day in the city of Parma, renowned for its hams, cheese and agro-industries.
The city’s well-to-do voters elected as their mayor the candidate of a party led by a shaggy-haired comic. In a two-way run-off, the Five Star Movement, founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger, took 60% of the vote. Mr Grillo, a vitriolic critic of political corruption and one of the first Italians to grasp the opportunities for mobilisation created by the internet, launched his movement less than three years ago. Recent polls have suggested it could take between 14% and 17% of the vote at the general election that has to be held before next spring. That would make it Italy’s third-biggest political grouping, behind the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), led by Pier Luigi Bersani, and the conservative People of Freedom (PdL) movement, founded by Silvio Berlusconi.
This is not the only parallel with the rise of Syriza, the hard-left party in Greece that opposes that country’s bail-out programme. Parma is among Italy’s most indebted cities. It is reckoned to owe up to €600m ($755m), a figure that could soar if Federico Pizzarotti, the new mayor and a 39-year-old IT manager, were to honour his pledge to scrap the building of a new incinerator, incurring penalties of €180m. In rejecting the centre-left candidate, voters implicitly rejected a form of bail-out negotiated by the PD with local industrialists.
The result was a slap in the face for the PD, whose candidate was beaten by Mr Pizzarotti. Yet overall the centre-left fared relatively well, taking 14 of the 25 remaining provincial capitals where run-offs were held. For the PdL, on the other hand, the results were disastrous. It won in only six of the cities. In Parma the arithmetic implied Mr Pizzarotti was floated into office with support not just from disaffected left-wingers, but from voters who in the first round had backed the PdL.
Some were no doubt disgusted former supporters of the Northern League, the PdL’s coalition ally in the previous government. Last month the League’s leadership was pitched into a scandal involving alleged misappropriation by senior officials, including the former leader, Umberto Bossi, and took a predictable drubbing in the mayoral ballots.
Yet the result in Parma also showed that some of the middle-class conservatives who kept Mr Berlusconi in power for eight years have become susceptible to Mr Grillo’s populist rhetoric. One of the media tycoon’s former ministers remarked that the comedian reminded her of Mr Berlusconi at the start of his own political career, when he too presented himself to the electorate as an alternative to the established order. Mr Grillo promises a seductively easy way out of the economic crisis that has engulfed Italy: exit from the euro and default on its huge public debt of more than 120% of GDP. It is a tempting notion for small businesses struggling with the tax increases and spending cuts imposed by Mario Monti’s technocratic administration in an effort to reduce the budget deficit. Recent weeks have seen a spate of suicides by victims of economic hardship.
The PdL’s dismal performance tipped the party into crisis. There was talk of dissolution, and reports that Mr Berlusconi, who gave up the party leadership after he resigned as prime minister last November, might launch an altogether new movement. He could, however, find that others want to play the role of national saviour. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of Ferrari, hinted in a letter to Corriere della Sera, a daily, that he might stand at the next election as head of a new party. Many in the centre of Italy’s political spectrum would like Mr Monti to lead them to the polls, even though a recent opinion poll indicated that his approval rating has dived to just 35% from over 50%.
All too often in Italy’s recent past, uncertainty and instability have been accompanied by terrorist violence. Several home-made bombs have already exploded at tax-collection offices. Earlier this month a man held a tax-collection employee hostage for several hours in Bergamo, north of Milan. On May 7th the chief executive of the nuclear-power subsidiary of the Finmeccanica group was shot in the leg. The attack was claimed by a mysterious group, the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), which had previously confined itself to dispatching parcel bombs. The next week Alfredo Davanzo, the jailed ideologist of the refounded Red Brigades, which carried out a number of murderous attacks from the late 1990s, told a reporter this was the “right moment” for revolution.
It was against this troubled background that on May 19th a bomb was detonated outside a school in the southern city of Brindisi, killing a 16-year-old girl and seriously injuring others. It may prove to have been the work of a lone maniac, or the local mafia. But it was ominously reminiscent of the apparently random—and still mostly unexplained—bombings that brought terror to Italy from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Mr Bersani, the PD leader, claimed to discern a strategy in the most recent attacks. That has yet to be established. But what is certain is that, in a matter of weeks, Italy has become not just a more unsettled place, but a darker and scarier one.
from the print edition | Europe