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Italy's Populist Revolt

February 27, 2013 in Economics

By Alberto Mingardi

Alberto Mingardi

International observers have looked at the Italian elections as the latest symptom of austerity malaise: Voters go to the ballot box to rebel against fiscal tightening imposed by the European Union élite on unwilling populations. While there is certainly a hint of truth here, the movie we are watching in Italy is not merely a sequel of the one we saw in Greece. There is a lesson no less applicable to Europe at large—but it is a different one.

Italy’s election witnessed the momentous rise of the Five Star Movement that, led by the histrionic comedian Beppe Grillo, became the nation’s leading party in Parliament without having ever run in a national race before. This happened amid almost total ignorance of virtually all the movement’s candidates and proposals. There will be 108 Five Star MPs in the lower house and 54 Five Star senators. Italy’s national media paid attention to none of them, until they got elected. A parliamentary force of more 150 (out of 945 members of Parliament all together) has coalesced—and Italian leading thinkers and opinion makers barely noticed it.

Mr. Grillo’s is a coalition of bashers of the status quo. It includes critics of heavy taxation, but also prophets of the so called “de-growth” movement—a prophecy that contemporary Italy has more or less already fulfilled—and critics of industrial capitalism altogether. These include members of the Five Star Movement who advocate for women to use “mooncups” as a “natural” alternative to sanitary pads. You may feel fascinated or repulsed by these ideas, but you would expect them to be discussed—with Mr. Grillo scoring so big. And yet they weren’t.

Beppe Grillo scored big on voters’ outrage with their elected leaders.”

Italy’s is a case of unintended consequences. So many faceless and yet successful candidates can only be explained by the electoral system itself: a proportional system based on party lists that makes electoral campaigns by individual candidates virtually useless. Italians can cast a vote only for a party and its leader. The major parties prefer this system because they believed it would cement their hold on power. Yet it was precisely this mechanism that allowed Mr. Grillo to get hold of a quarter of the votes.

Such a system seriously restrains voters’ freedom of choice. Italy’s head of State Giorgio Napolitano exhorted the parties, during Mario Monti’s tenure, to reform it. In 1994, 1996 and 2001, …read more
Source: OP-EDS

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