Young and feminised: The Italian parliament after the tsunami

Italy witnesses a political tsunami as the latest elections reveal a rejuvenated and feminised parliament.

Beppe Grillo
Comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5 Star Movement was the top vote-getter among political parties and captured much of the votes from the younger age brackets [AP]

The recent political elections have given Italy a hung parliament and opened new and uncharted political scenarios, sending waves of alarm across Europe: no wonder the words “instability”, “political stalemate” and “risk of contagion” were abundant in the press coverage of the last few weeks.

Yet some positive surprises emerged when the newly elected Parliament convened in mid March. This was clearly visible when the Chamber of Representatives elected a woman as its Speaker. A first-time Member of Parliament, Laura Boldrini, 51, did not follow a typical political career and does not speak the language of the party bureaucracies. Her inaugural speech appealed to many in a country engulfed in a deep political and social crisis.

“Let’s make this Chamber the house of the good politics,” she said, addressing her fellows Member of Parliament, and then she detailed what “good politics” should be: to grant to each and every citizen the universal rights enshrined in the Italian Constitution and to fight “a war on poverty, not a war on the poor”. She spoke of a generation of young people living precariously, of those out of a job and of the older people who saw their meagre pensions cut by the crisis. She mentioned the many migrants and refugees trying their fortune crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and the too many nameless people who perished in those waters. She called for Europe to be “a crossroad of peoples and cultures”, as the founders of the European Union had imagined. She spoke of accountability and change. A passionate speech, unimaginable only few months ago.

Italy unemployment on the rise

Elected with the leftist “Left, Ecology and Freedom” party (Sel, a partner in the centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party), from 1998 to 2012 Boldrini was the spokesperson of the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Italy. During all those years, she interacted with the institution of a state (Italy) often disrespectful of the rights of the migrants: scores of civil society and human rights activists remember her dealing with the latest wave of boat people disembarking on the Southern Italy coasts, or raising her voice against their push back in the Mediterranean sea (in 2009, the then Berlusconi government started the practice of pushing back boats carrying supposedly illegal migrants without allowing them to disembark. The UNHCR denounced the practice as a violation of the fundamental human right to ask for asylum – as repeated in uncountable press releases). Everyone knows her as a skilled professional, yet passionate and committed.

No wonder her language sounded so unusual in the Chamber of Representatives. But it is not by chance that an outsider to the traditional politics would rise to one of the highest offices of the Italian Republic, for this Parliament was begot by a political tsunami. Let’s forget for a moment the political uncertainties. The fact is that for the first time in decades, the age of the Members of Parliament went considerably down while the rate of female representatives went up as never before.

A Parliament rejuvenated and more feminised [IT] is no small change in a country traditionally dominated by a sort of “gerontocracy”The average age in the Chamber of Deputies is now 45, nine years lower that the previous legislature, and the lowest in Western Europe. The Senate is older, with an average age of 53 (which isn’t surprising, since 40 is the minimum age to be a Senator), but that too is less than the previous average of 57.

This is largely due to the spectacular advance of a movement that emerged barely three years ago. The “Five Stars Movement” (M5S) was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, and is now the single largest party in the Lower House and second in the Senate (in Italy, both Chambers have equal legislative powers). Both the voters and the elected representatives of the M5S are in the younger age brackets. In fact, although Grillo himself is 64 – in line with the  traditional political leadership he lambasted – his movement found most of its voters among the under-30 group.

Here lies a message that should be read carefully in Italy and in all Europe in these times of crisis. Beppe Grillo is a mercurial character, with a penchant for authoritarian rhetoric, who skilfully manages social media. Now, his movement may have no coherent political platform, but it attracted the younger voters because to them, it represents a real change: new political personnel, new languages, and a new attention to issues that matter to a younger generation. This generation bears a disproportionate burden of the crisis: recent figures [IT] revealed that 38 percent of the under 25 age group are out of work, against a general unemployment rate of 12 percent. Most of these young people are educated – many of them well-educated – and yet they are wasting their lives in short term contract jobs, eager to make their voices heard. The significance of this vote should not be underestimated.

More good news is the higher presence of women in the Italian parliament: 31 percent of the elected members of the two Chambers are comprised of women, according to a provisional estimate [IT], which is a 10 percentage point advance compared to the last legislature, and twice that of 2006. Italy still lags behind Spain (38 percent women members of Parliaments) but advanced beyond France, the UK and the USA. Leading the change is again the M5S – in this case, together with the Democratic Party (both parliamentary groups have 38 percent women). Women too bear a disproportionate burden of the economic crisis. And in Italian politics, women are trying to reverse years dominated by the tales of brave bunga-bunga nights in Silvio Berlusconi’s villas.  

It is probably too early to say if such a rejuvenation and feminisation of the Italian parliament will translate into social changes. Certainly though, the traditional party leaderships got the message when they named Laura Boldrini as the Speaker of the Assembly – instead of any senior party leader. Now, as Boldrini said in her maiden speech, “we can change the course.”

Marina Forti, is a senior journalist based in Rome and a former Foreign Editor with the daily newspaper “il manifesto”. Her environmental column “Earth to Earth” (terraterra) received many awards. Her book La signora di Narmada (Feltrinelli 2004) was awarded the Elsa Morante Prize for Communication. Her latest book is “Il cuore di tenebra dell’India” (Bruno Mondadori 2012) on the social conflicts in rural India.