It’s almost exactly a year since Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Italian prime minister, and on Wednesday he confirmed that he has no intention of standing for office in 2013. Many in Italy suggested then that the curtain had finally come down on the country’s bizarre second republic. It was, they said, the end of an era in which a media mogul could turn elections into a personality cult. Now, the thinking went, we were entering the third republic.
The past 12 months seem to have confirmed the theory. Some of the major players and parties from the previous two decades have been obliterated. Berlusconi has, by his standards, kept a low profile and his party, in the regional elections of May 2012, plummeted from 30% to just 14% of the vote. Umberto Bossi of the Northern League has resigned, caught up in an embezzlement scandal. In those same elections last May, only two of 12 Northern League mayors were returned at the first ballot. Respected leaders on the left, too, are falling like cards: last week Walter Veltroni announced his retreat from frontline politics, and Massimo D’Alema has offered to do likewise.
But if certain parties from the second republic seem to have imploded, the nature of the third republic is still extremely elusive. For better or for worse, everyone knew what the first republic was about: from roughly 1948 to 1992, Italy was dominated by loquacious, patrician Christian Democrats. It was crystal-clear what they stood for (Catholicism) and what they opposed (communism), although there were plenty of grey areas when it came to corruption and crime. The second republic, from 1993 to 2011, was dominated by Berlusconi and by his conflation of liberty with libertinism: he warped the country’s democracy into a strange sort of videocracy, complete with showgirls in parliament and bunga-bunga at home.
Quite what comes next is still unclear. The presence of an apolitical tecnocrat, Mario Monti, as PM disguises the fact that there is a political vacuum in the country and, with a general election next year, various politicians are now fighting to fill it.
The most pugnacious is Beppe Grillo. A diminutive comedian in his mid-60s with hair like a shredded sheep, Grillo is a furious orator who represents the anger of the Italian electorate. At huge rallies, he screams into the microphone as he bemoans the epic salaries, perks, criminal records and acts of collusion of the traditional elites. Although he eschews the mainstream media, he’s got a large online following and isn’t averse to pulling off stunts, such as his swim, last week, across the strait of Messina to start his campaign in Sicily (where he’s moving around in a campervan).
Grillo’s movement – he prefers “movement” to “party” – is called the Five Stars Movement (M5S). To general astonishment, it took more than 20% of the vote in some parts of the country last May, even winning the prized mayoral position in Parma. M5S is currently polling ahead of Berlusconi’s party in regional elections in Lazio, meaning that the sans-culottes satirist is now taken very seriously. Another pretender is Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old Tuscan who has already been president of the province of Florence and mayor of the city. He is now running against the leader of the left-wing Democratic Party in upcoming primaries and is nicknamed the rottamatore(scrapper), because of his disdain for Italy’s gerontocracy and for the way in which the same old faces play parliamentary musical chairs. On the left, too, is Nichi Vendola, currently president of the Puglia region. Gay, communist, with an earring and slight lisp, Vendola has frequently been a refreshingly honest voice in a bland landscape. The only doubt is whether he could ever become sufficiently mainstream for national elections.
The real vacuum is on the right. Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi, who has resigned as leader of the Northern League, leave big boots to fill, and in their absence anyone else looks like a political pygmy. Berlusconi has, officially at least, handed over the reigns of his party to Angelino Alfano, a bald Sicilian who, born on Halloween, looks like something from the Addams family. Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, an aristocrat, former Confindustria (CBI) chief and now chairman of Ferrari, has an “association” called Italia Futura, but it has explicitly endorsed Mario Monti for a second term in office.
In many ways the situation is remarkably similar to the unstable period between the first and second republics. As happened then, a tidal wave of corruption scandals – this time involving the presidents of Lazio and Lombardy, among others – have disgusted, if not surprised, the electorate. There’s a controversial president of the republic (Giorgio Napolitano). There’s a longing for fresh faces and new ideas.
But that very similarity should act as a warning to those who hope that this new republic will be any different from those that came before. Everyone in Italy knows about gatopardismo, the notion made famous by Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, whereby superficial personnel changes allow everything to remain exactly as before. The other perennial habit of Italian politics, trasformismo, means something comparable: that left and right are forever blurred and that change merely masks continuity. One Italian historian, Guido Crainz, wrote recently about how all opposition in Italy eventually gets co-opted into the mainstream, sucked into compromise and the marmellata – the “massive jam” – of Italian political life. Never, it seems, is there a clean break with the past and its practices.
So it’s salutary to remember that those embroiled in recent Italian corruption scandals – Bettino Craxi, Silvio Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi – were once beacons of invigorating idealism, just as Beppe Grillo ,Matteo Renzi and Nichi Vendola are today. In Italy, new brooms always seem to learn old tricks as they realise that, sadly, you just can’t sweep jam.
Tobias Jones is a journalist and author of The Dark Heart of Italy and Blood on the Altar.