Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

22 February 2013

After the experiment of letting an unelected government manned by academics manage the country’s affairs, Italians go to the ballot box this weekend to give politicians another shot at running things. On paper, the choice between electing one’s leaders and having someone from above appoint them should be a no-brainer. That’s even when the latter leaves you with the likeable Mario Monti in power.

But if polls in Italy are to be believed, many here aren’t exactly in a rush to exercise their right to vote. On the eve of the election almost a third of Italians are still undecided, with some even unwilling to cast a ballot.

Trust in political parties hovers at around 5 per cent. It’s a level not seen since the early 1990s when the Tangentopoli bribery scandal swept away the political establishment and paved the way for Silvio Berlusconi to enter politics.

Fast-forward two decades and the scene looks much the same. This past year has seen corruption stories splashed across front pages. Misuse of public funds by political parties which has paid for politicians’ lavish dinners, holidays and even shiny new iPads, is still widespread – some of the worst offenders have come from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party and the Northern League, his on-again, off-again ally.

In recent weeks the rival centre-left Democratic Party (PD) led by Pier Luigi Bersani, the frontrunner to become Italy’s next prime minister, has seen its support take a hit from a financial scandal surrounding the country’s third-largest bank, which just goes to show that money and politics will always find a way to mix.

The face of change this time isn’t a billionaire media mogul but a comedian-turned-blogger. Beppe Grillo and followers of his Five Star Movement have railed against the privileges and perks of the country’s career politicians, vowing to cut elected officials’ salaries and wasteful spending to lower the nation’s €2trn public debt. His anti-austerity, anti-euro message resonates with many who have been made poorer by the country’s longest post-war recession.

Standing third in the polls, Grillo is the wild card in the race and could thwart efforts to form a workable majority in parliament by the centre-left. Its lead has shrunk in recent days under a barrage of campaign promises from Berlusconi to roll back taxes put in place by Mario Monti last year.

And what of Mr Monti? The former EU commissioner has traded technocratic government for democratic government, throwing his hat in the political ring and now sitting fourth in the polls. But should the vote produce a hung parliament or an unworkable coalition, will the professor be tempted back to his job of tinkering technocrat? Or will he choose to roll up his sleeves and dirty himself with democratic politics, which, as Churchill reminds us, “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”?

Ivan Carvalho is Milan correspondent for Monocle.

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