For 60 million Italians and political junkies of every stripe, the triumphs of a movement encompassing disenfranchised voters from both the left and the right — think the tea party, if it included everyone from Michael Moore to Rush Limbaugh — are a thrilling example of the power of grass roots. In a country known for bespoke-suited lawmakers with CEO salaries and a penchant for Machiavellian backroom deals, the army of newcomers includes geologists, steel workers and homemakers seeking to end the days of La Dolce Vita for Europe’s most privileged political class.
The rise of the Five Star Movement, led by a former TV comedian, is the latest manifestation of a growing backlash in Europe to crippling austerity and entrenched cronyism in the halls of power. It is nothing less than a social experiment underscoring what happens when voters decide to radically alter the status quo. But while Italy’s political earthquake carries the promise of desperately needed change, it also runs the risk of destabilizing one of the world’s largest economies and reigniting the worst of Europe’s debt crisis.
On shoestring budgets and an anti-establishment platform starting with pledges to slash lawmakers’ salaries of more than $250,000 a year, the Five Star Movement’s candidates won so many votes in elections last month that they have become Italy’s political kingmakers.
Many had expected these political neophytes to drop their down-home shtick once elected, cutting a deal that would give them a seat at the table of government and trade their polenta for steak. But like James Stewart’s character in the 1939 political drama about an average guy who heads to Capitol Hill, the movement’s members have proved more difficult to manipulate than many had thought.
Instead, their resistance to a deal with traditional parties has left Italy without a government for almost a month and raises the prospect of new elections if the impasse cannot be resolved.
Even if a government is formed in the coming days — as officials from the center-left Democratic Party are trying to do — without the support of the newcomers, any new administration could be so weak that it may fall within months.
If that comes to pass, pollsters say, the Five Star Movement’s lawmakers have a real shot at coming out on top. What would happen then is anybody’s guess.
The movement is seeking to slash government waste and do away with public funding for political parties and the media. But it is also actively calling for a referendum on Italy’s membership in the euro zone and proposing a pro-environment agenda that includes new public parking lots for bicycles in neighborhoods across the country.