Now Italy needs a new deal – and new politics

There is a renewed sense of civic participation in Italy and perhaps it can lead to a restart of its stale politics.

It was the young, the poor and the unemployed who voted massively against the reforms, writes Marsili [Reuters]
It was the young, the poor and the unemployed who voted massively against the reforms, writes Marsili [Reuters]

A few years ago, the Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, was told to fire 300 teachers to comply with strict austerity regulations imposed by the central government of Matteo Renzi. De Magistris, a former prosecutor, refused to comply and appealed to the constitutionally protected right to a quality education for all.

He was sued and brought to court, where he argued and won his case. The Italian constitution, the judges concluded, has precedence over regular legislation. The teachers – and the mayor – were reinstated in their place.

Naples came out en masse to defend that same constitution during the Italian referendum of December 4, with nearly 70 percent voting against the proposed reforms. This has happened in a city where the two parties that are often perceived to be the main driving forces behind the referendum victory are not even popular: Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement performed abysmally in the municipal elections, while Matteo Salvini’s far-right Northern League is entirely absent.

In fact, all political parties appear marginal in Naples. De Magistris – recently re-elected with an overwhelming majority – is supported primarily by the civil society and social movements, very much like the experience of Ada Colau in Barcelona. The city of mafia movie Gomorrah has been transformed into an open-air laboratory for civic participation, with open-air assemblies debating city legislation and former squatters sitting in the city council voting on them.

It was neither Grillo’s fans nor Salvini’s far-right thugs who won the vote in Naples. It was active citizenship. During the months of electoral campaign, self-organised citizens fitted vans with loud speakers and crossed the tortuous streets of the city centre, while marches and flash mobs filled its squares at night.

Grassroots organisation

This is true well beyond the Vesuvius. While all opposition parties are rushing to claim election victory, the truth is that the Italian referendum was driven predominantly by a renewed sense of participation and a new wave of political engagement well beyond existing party lines.

The turnout was extraordinary for a referendum at nearly 70 percent, showing signs that Italians have recovered a penchant for politics. Only a few days before the referendum, 200,000 joined a feminist march in Rome against gender violence and the deliverymen of multinational food delivery company, Foodora, organised the first Italian strike in the gig economy, in which independent workers take on short-term engagements

Is politics answering back? Following Renzi’s resignation, the newly appointed Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni faces the task of reforming the electoral law and taking the country to elections, most likely within 2017. More navel-gazing is in sight.

Italy's politicians are certainly a drag on the country with their exorbitant privileges and ridiculous pay cheques, but the country's economic ills will not be cured with a pay-cut for MPs, one of the movement's flagship policies

But Italy, as much of Europe, is in dire straits. Its economy is forecast to return to pre-crisis levels only in the mid-2020s, while its industrial production has dropped 35 percent since 2008. New data from the National Statistics Office just showed nearly one third of Italians to be at risk of poverty.

Three years of Renzi government has done little to lift the country out of stagnation. His economic policy mix – bar a few attacks against austerity just before key elections – has scrupulously followed the mainstream neoliberal mantra of privatisations, cuts to the welfare state, and attacks on labour.

Suffice it to say that Italy’s centre-left government was the strongest backer of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and did not move a finger while Greece was being water-boarded by creditors for trying to resist suicidal austerity.

What lies ahead?

How much did these matter for the referendum? Apparently quite a lot. As recent analyses show, local results for the No vote directly correlate to regional unemployment numbers. It was the young, the poor and the unemployed who voted massively against the reforms. Beyond maintaining the existing constitution, the significance for the no vote is a demand for real democracy, for a fair economy, and for an end to austerity and the politics of business as usual.

That demand can be the base from which to build a new deal for Italy and for Europe. But is someone going to heed the call for change?

The Five Star Movement appears the most likely candidate to capture the demand for a new deal. It has young, mostly honest politicians. But its catch-all electoral tactics have, so far, hindered it from providing a clear set of alternatives.

From the economy to migration – and most notably its hazy calls for a referendum on the euro – Grillo’s movement still lacks a clear vision on change. Italy’s politicians are certainly a drag on the country with their exorbitant privileges and ridiculous pay cheques, but the country’s economic ills will not be cured with a pay-cut for MPs, one of the movement’s flagship policies. Will they manage to launch a groundbreaking government plan that can challenge inequalities and present a realistic European strategy of change?

OPINION: Why Matteo Renzi should vote no in the Italy referendum

The Democratic Party may very well decide it is not quite the right time to follow the rest of European social democracy into collective suicide, and attempt instead a profound transformation from within.

From former Territorial Cohesion Minister Fabrizio Barca, to Governor of Apulia region Michele Emiliano, several candidates might undo the party’s pale imitation of Britain’s New Labour – 20 years too late.

But Renzi’s grip remains powerful and divisions abound. The appointment of his ally Gentiloni as prime minister confirms that Renzi will not let go of the party and fully intends to run in the upcoming elections.

Will the referendum allow for the emergence of a new political space? New initiatives have already begun: On December 18 a large gathering “to build the alternative” will host representatives of leftist groups. Naples mayor, De Magistrisis, is also weighing his options.

It is unclear, though, whether this would lead anywhere. The country has a tradition of riotous, inconclusive left parties. It has no upstart political force such as Podemos in Spain or Razem in Poland. But in the words of one of Naples’ most internationally celebrated writers, Elena Ferrante, “nowhere is it written that you can’t do it.” Especially when a country is on the move again.

Lorenzo Marsili is a writer, politic activist, and the founder of international NGO European Alternatives.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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