It is 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 next year. 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, tried to keep a low profile and in regional elections in May his party gained just 14 percent of votes, down from 30 percent.
Umberto Bossi of the Northern League has resigned, caught up in an embezzlement scandal. In those same elections in 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.
However, 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 gray areas when it came to corruption and crime.
The second republic, from 1993 to last year, 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 technocrat, Mario Monti, as prime minister 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 has got a large online following and is not averse to pulling off stunts, such as his swim, last week, across the strait of Messina to start his campaign in Sicily (where he is 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 percent 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 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.