Notes From the Margins…

Italy Turns Left

  • May 23, 2012
  • by

Interesting developments in Italy, in the second round of muncipal elections on Monday. Before the elections, the centre-right controlled 98 cities and the centre-left 56.  Now the ratio has been reversed and the centre-left has 95 and the centre-right’s share has been reduced to 34.

Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party has taken a hammering, and so too has the corruption-tainted Northern League, which lost in all seven of the mayoral races in which it had candidates.  All this represents another stake in the dark heart of Berlusconism and a shift leftwards, of which the traditional centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has been the primary beneficiary.

But the most striking aspect of the second round has been its confirmation of the seemingly irresistible rise of  the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Stars Movement)  , which won four of the mayoral races, including    traditionally leftist Palma,  where its candidate Federico Pizzarotti won 60 percent of the vote and defeated his centre-left Democratic Party (PD) opponent, running a campaign that cost 6,000 euros.

Though the elections saw a record low turnout, an Ipsos opinion poll now indicates that 5 Stars would capture 18.5 percent of the vote and 75 MPs if parliamentary elections were held right now, compared with 17.2 percent for the PDL and 26. percent for the PD.

Not bad for a movement that developed from Beppe Grillo’s blog in 2009 and which has since expanded through social media to become a  grassroots ‘non party’ made up of students, teachers and unemployed with an average age of 32-38 years.

The rise of 5 Stars is partly due to the personal charisma of Grillo himself, a populist in the George Galloway mold with an ability to reach the parts of the electorate that other politicians cannot – or will not – reach.

Grillo is not a man to mince words and has a neat line in witty and acerbic phrasemaking which is not only aimed at the right.  He has variously described the PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani as a ‘chicken who believes himself to be an eagle’ and ‘ the undead (but almost dead) of a party that was never born’ – a judgement that few observers of the PD’s dismal performance during the Berlusconi years are likely to find much to quarrel with.

5 Stars campaigned on the same kind of anti-austerity, anti-corruption platform which brought about a similar breakthrough for the Syriza coalition in Greece.  Grillo has  described Italy’s crisis as ‘worse than the Mafia, which at least doesn’t strangle its victims to death’, and rejected the technocratic shoe-in Mario Monti’s market-dictated remedies for it.

For the time being 5 Stars’ own solutions have yet to be clearly defined, and its popularity owes much to the generalised disgust with Italy’s established political parties, which Grillo expressed on his blog last year, in characteristically outspoken fashion:

The truth is that we are actually busting everyone”s chops, including the right wing, the left wing and these parties that no longer make any sense, with their disgusting faces that constantly appear on our television screens.

These sentiments are clearly shared by many Italians – and Europeans.   And the rise of 5 Stars is another indication of a leftward drift that includes not only the traditional social-democratic left such as the Socialist Party in France, but new political forces connected to the social movements that have arisen since the 2007/2008 crisis began.

It is by no means clear where all this will lead, and whether these new formations will be able to formulate viable policies and alternatives to austerity or whether they will prove to be an ephemeral expression of anger and disgust.

But already the rise of the left in Greece and France has begun to act as a brake on the headlong rush towards the Merkelisation of Europe, with  both  Barack Obama and Francois Hollande emphasising  jobs and growth rather than the kind of marketised social savagery that once seemed unstoppable.

After three years of sado-austerity, the tide is beginning to turn.  Ordinary Europeans are beginning to recognize that they are not condemned to swallow the sado-economic prescriptions imposed by the financial markets, and even established left-of-centre parties can no longer take their constituencies for granted.

All this is to be welcomed.  Because if Europe is ever to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which it is now trapped and find humane solutions to the current crisis, it needs a revitalized and activist-based left, and politicians with the courage to stand up for ordinary people rather than the markets.

For all these reasons, I raise my glass to the grillini and the fiery comedian who has inspired them, and I look forward to seeing more political parties who share their  sense of humour.

After all, in a country where Berlusconi, the clown-prince of European politics reduced Italian democracy to a bad joke, it ´s only logical that a comedian should have the last laugh.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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