Until a few weeks ago, Ivana Simeoni, 62, was a telephone operator for the emergency services in Latina, south of Rome. Within days she’ll enter the opulent Palazzo Madama as a Senator for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by the comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo.
Four hundred yards down the road her son Cristian, a 39-year-old electrician, will make his debut as an MP in the Camera dei Deputati in Palazzo Montecitorio – Italy’s lower house of parliament.
Ms Simeoni is 14 years younger than the ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, yet is still one of the oldest Grillo parliamentarians. A glance at her colleagues –108 newly elected Five Star MPs and 53 new senators – reveals a striking gallery of fresh young faces, many of them women, who are about to hit the crusty, male-dominated corridors of the Italian parliament.
While investors and foreign governments fret over the financial implications of the general election, Italians are struggling to get to grips with its social and political implications.
Establishment figures have been quick to mock the slightly dumbstruck new cohort of parliamentarians. Many have appeared in front of TV cameras since the election earlier this week, replying with “umms” and “dunnos” when asked what they’ll do or how they will organise themselves in parliament.
Ms Simeoni has some plans, however, even if they’re not fully fledged. “There are so many things to clarify and decide, but we’ll manage it somehow,” she said. “My interest is in health. It’s close to my heart because I’ve always worked with ambulances.”
She said that her movement will decide whether to support the centre-left in passing laws in the Senate on a “moment by moment” basis – and significantly, only after all Five Star supporters have had the chance to give their opinions via the internet. “We [the parliamentarians] are the spokespeople for the movement,” she said.
There is no such thing as a typical Grillino. All they’ll have in common will be their lack of political experience.
Laura Castelli, a 28-year-old tax consultant from Piedmont, will represent the Five Star Movement in the Senate. She told La Repubblica: “I can’t wait to join the parliamentary budget commission and use my experience to start rooting out all the waste.”
Alfonso Bonafede, 36, a civil rights lawyer with an interests in class action and Fabio Vistori, 42, an engineer with “a wife, three cats and a low environmental-impact house” are among the other Grillini newcomers due to start mixing with Italy’s loathed career politicians in parliament.
The astonishing responsibility has been thrust upon these political debutantes at a moment when Italy has never seemed so rudderless.
A government formed by the centre-left will be a lame-duck. The head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano – a reassuring figure to the nation – is due to pack his bags at the end of April. And of course the shock abdication of Pope Benedict will leave pious Italians without a spiritual leader until a successor has been elected.
How Mr Grillo will manage his team when he’s not able to enter parliament himself due to a manslaughter conviction following a fatal car crash, how these political debutantes will organise themselves and whether they’re able to resist the perks and power that have corrupted so many other parliamentarians, remains to be seen.
The party’s reluctance to enter into any formal pact with the political establishment was underlined when Mr Grillo slapped down tentative approaches by the centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who needs Five Star support to pass laws in the upper house. He called the shell-shocked Mr Bersani “a dead man talking”.
This typical Grillo putdown attracted some criticism on his famous blog from Five Star supporters who suggested a little pragmatism as well as aggression was needed now from the demagogue leader.
The Five Star Movement is at its heart a reaction against Italy’s self-serving and corrupt politics. A founding aim is to cut parliamentarians’ salaries (the highest in Europe) by 80 per cent and to ensure financial accounts of all state bodies are accessible to the public.
But Vincenzo Scarpetta, Italy analyst for the Open Europe think tank, said the fact that the Grillini are untarnished by Italy’s parliamentary gravy train – which can see some MPs earn in excess of €18,000 a month – formed a crucial part of their appeal. “People were voting for welfare and against austerity, but not only,” he said. “They want an end to corruption and to politicians helping themselves.”
Another of Italy’s gilded institutions, the press, isn’t immune to the shock waves. The Five Star Movement is also calling for the axe to fall on the arcane state subsidies for newspapers.
This indifferent or even hostile attitude to the press was reflected in Beppe Grillo’s brusque greetings for TV cameras this morning after his poll triumph in which his fledgling party won 25 per cent of the vote.
Social media and activism built his Five Star Movement, not careful collaboration with the media, and neither Grillo nor his Grillini feel the need to do its bidding now.
Politics professor James Walston of the American University in Rome noted in his blog that Grillo’s movement had “no spokesman or clear mechanism for deciding on policy – it might dissolve in a few weeks, it might develop an independent statute or it might stay under Grillo’s direct control”.
But he was not alone in noting that when Italians go back to the polls – probably sooner rather than later – the protest vote which has shaken the political establishment this time might well destroy it at the next ballot if ordinary people’s concerns aren’t dealt with in the interim.
German party leader upsets Italy's Premier
Rising tensions in the EU after Italy’s failure to elect a stable pro-euro government were underlined when the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, cancelled a meeting over comments made by Germany’s opposition leader, Peer Steinbrück.
The German centre-left figure attacked protest vote leader Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi, who both did better than expected at the polls. He told a Social Democratic Party event in Potsdam on Tuesday that he was “appalled that two clowns won”, causing the Italian President to cancel talks with him. Germany is widely seen as favouring the continuation of unpopular austerity measures in debt-laden Italy.Reuse content