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Italy at political impasse as Grillo team 'lives a dream'

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2013-02-26

Supporters of comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment movement have hailed a new era for Italian politics as the country's general election ends in stalemate.

While Italy's political analysts were busy on Tuesday pondering the implications of a hung parliament, after no single coalition secured enough Senate seats to form a majority, there was no real doubt that the movement led by firebrand comedian Beppe Grillo had won the day.

“We're the country's biggest party!” cheered supporters of Italy's 5-Star Movement (M5S) late Monday at the St John hotel in Rome, where they had gathered to watch the results of Italian general elections.

Italy's Chamber of Deputies, or lower house, has 630 seats while the Senate has 315 seats (plus four senators appointed for life). Seats in both chambers are allocated on a proportional basis, with a variety of thresholds designed to encourage parties to form coalitions.

Whichever coalition comes first in the national vote is awarded a "majority prize" in the Chamber of Deputies that guarantees it has at least 340 of the 630 seats.

"Majority prizes" also apply in the Senate but on a regional basis, which makes it more difficult for any one coalition to secure a majority of seats in both chambers.

Accounting for a quarter of all votes cast, the 5-Star Movement will have 54 representatives in the new Senate and twice as many in the lower house of parliament, an extraordinary feat for a party that is barely four years old and whose members have no background in politics – nor, indeed, regard themselves as politicians.

“We're living a dream,” said one activist. She and other “Grillini” watched the results on a large screen and jeered when the anchor suggested the only option for forming a government would be an alliance between the centre-left alliance of Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc.

The bushy-haired Beppe Grillo had planned to force left and right toward such an impossible alliance so as to prove – as he has argued all along – that they are one and the same.

“Bersani and Berlusconi are both utter failures,” was his comment after the vote.

Going it alone

“It is amazing that the old parties didn't see us coming; it just goes to show how out of touch with reality they are,” said Paola Taverna, 44, one of the movement's brand-new senators.

According to her, the 5-Star Movement's stunning success is the natural consequence of a deep crisis in Italian politics: “For years, politicians have been deaf to the plight of the people and only served their own interests; now the people have had enough”.

Beppe Grillo's movement has been riding a wave of popular anger at a political class regarded as corrupt and out of touch.

Campaigning throughout the country in a camper van, the comedian drew huge crowds at rallies from Palermo to Trieste, railing against austerity, the euro and a corrupt political class.

But the outspoken comedian will not be joining his fellow activists in parliament, leaving many to wonder how the movement will behave and whether it will form a cohesive block.

“Grillo is not our leader, he is our loudspeaker and the guardian of our principles,” said Taverna.

These principles include forgoing state subsidies and refusing any alliance with the establishment parties.

While the latter point makes it virtually impossible for a majority to emerge in the Senate, the M5S representatives may in time prove less intransigent than their leader.

Unlike Grillo, they actually talk to the Italian media. As La Repubblica's editorialist Massimo Giannini put it, “It is not acceptable in a modern democracy that a party which gets a quarter of all votes should refuse all debate.”

Steep learning curve

The prospect of more political instability in the eurozone's third-largest economy has caused alarm abroad, where many fear Italy's anti-austerity verdict could spook the markets and revive Europe's debt crisis.

The centre-left leader Bersani has said he will try and form a government after narrowly defeating Berlusconi's bloc in the lower house of chambers, but the overriding feeling in Italy is that a new election will be inevitable in the coming months.

“In the meantime, what are we going to tell our European partners? What will Grillo tell them?” said a UN official who had flown back to Rome for the vote, but declined to be named.

At the St John hotel in Rome, the mood was one of defiance.

“Europe should listen to the people's verdict before passing on judgement,” said Stefano Ambrosi, a 47-year-old activist who said he “fe[lt] like 20”.

Ambrosi did, however, concede that the “Grillini” would face a steep learning curve in parliament.

“They have plenty of experience of real life but no experience of politics, which I think is a good thing,” he said, confirming that the movement included members from both sides of the political spectrum.

Asked on which side of the aisle they were likely to sit in parliament, he quipped, “Knowing them, I should think they will sit on the ground to keep away from the others!”



Date created : 2013-02-26


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