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Mario Monti and his technocrats were not even on the ballot papers, but the results of Italy’s local elections could have profound implications for the prime minister’s unelected government.
With all the main parties losing ground amid low turnout and a rise in support for anti-establishment groups, the two days of polling that began on Sunday demonstrated a startling resurgence in the protest vote. People of Liberty, the centre-right party of Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, was the biggest loser.
Mr Monti – dependent on the main parties in parliament to push through his economic reforms – can expect increasing obstructionism as they manoeuvre ahead of next year’s general election in their attempts to win back a disaffected public.
Senior figures in People of Liberty are blaming their
losses in city halls across Italy on their support for Mr Monti’s austerity programme rather than public disgust with a political elite perceived to be corrupt protectors of their personal interests.
But although the rise of the protest vote in Italy appeared to mirror the anti-Europe trend seen in the recent resurgence of France’s National Front and extremist parties in Greece, commentators argued that it was outrage at the political elite that propelled the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo rather than his rantings against the euro.
Mr Grillo’s candidate in Parma took an astonishing 19.5 per cent of the vote to force a second round run-off, and came close to repeating that in Genoa. The movement scored its first outright victory in the small town of Sarego.
Mr Berlusconi’s party lost councils across the country, mostly in the north where its divorce with the Northern League split the rightwing vote. Anti-Europe and anti-Monti, the Northern League held on to Verona with its popular mayor, but otherwise it was severely punished by voters following a party corruption scandal that forced its leader Umberto Bossi to resign.
Mr Berlusconi was due to hold crisis talks with party leaders on his return from Moscow, where he attended the swearing-in of Vladimir Putin as president.
Hardline elements in his party want to end support for Mr Monti and precipitate early elections, but such a radical outcome appears unlikely. There is also a drive to persuade Mr Berlusconi, who has said he would not seek high office again after his resignation last November, to re-enter the political fray. More moderate elements are talking of forming a “grand coalition” with the centre-left Democrats.
“He faces very tough decisions,” said Deborah Bergamini, a party MP. “Berlusconi has acted responsibly in supporting Monti. He is sustaining the government but paying the price and that price will go even higher.”
Of the other two pillars supporting the technocrat government, a loose alliance of centrist parties failed to make ground with their appeal to moderates, while the Democrats also lost voters. Pier Luigi Bersani, the party leader, declared victory nonetheless and said Mr Monti would have to listen to his party more, signalling tough battles ahead in parliament over issues such as labour reform.
Mr Grillo dismisses Italy’s current crop of politicians as “fossils” and says his citizens’ movement, united by the internet and with strong local roots, has demonstrated its capacity to change the electoral scene.
“The parties still have not understood that their language doesn’t exist any more. Parties have melted in a political diarrhoea of acronyms, which is shameful,” he told the Financial Times.
“People need to feel as though they are taking part in a project, and not excluded,” he added. “We wrote a letter to Monti telling him that he had started on the wrong foot. We understand that sacrifices must be made, but everyone must be involved.
“[Monti] should have started from cutting expenses, merging local authorities and cutting provinces . . . but he is a man of the financial system.”
The political system, Mr Grillo said, had plundered Italy and stolen the future of two generations, leaving
the country on the edge of a precipice.
“We now have one year to get ready for national elections,” he warned. “When Italy goes to [the] elections it will be completely different from how it is now.”