Parma testing ground for people politics in Italy

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Parma, Italy

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Beppe Grillo says his party's victory in Parma is just the start of a journey to the top of Italian politics

For generations the mayors of Parma, in northern Italy, have wielded power from the city's medieval town hall.

But its ancient walls have never seen anyone quite like the recently elected Federico Pizzarotti.

He is a new kind of mayor, and he represents a form of people power that is starting to shake Italian politics.

In May, Parma's voters rejected their traditional party politicians, turning instead to candidates from a citizens' network born on the Internet.

And now this major city council is controlled by what is called the "Five Star" movement.

Its win was part of a much wider, strong showing in the local elections.

The traditional parties of the right, including that of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, did particularly badly.

At the same time, the citizens' network no doubt benefited from discontent with the austerity measures being imposed by the current, unelected government of technocrats, led by Mario Monti.

And so now in Parma, Mr Pizzarotti, who is 38, finds himself in charge, riding to his mayoral chambers every morning on a fold-up bicycle.

He has never been elected to any office before.

"We have no political experience of running a city, that's true," said the new mayor, who was an IT consultant until his election.

"But we have our life experience - good judgement that we can apply to political life. We act in defence of the citizens' interest."

Fighting corruption

At the core of the Five Star philosophy is contempt for what its supporters regard as Italy's corrupt political establishment.

And now the party has emerged from the virtual world of the web to confront the hard realities of governing.

Parma is the first substantial place where Five Star candidates have taken power.

This is where their ideas and performance will be tested on the ground, measured by the rest of Italy, before they try to march on to parliament.

Image caption,
Federico Pizzarotti worked as an IT consultant until his election as mayor

Mr Pizzarotti talked of what he felt the traditional politicians had done wrong in the way they ran Parma.

He said they had poured money into expensive and unnecessary building projects instead of investing in Parma's people.

"I think it's the social fabric that contains the potential of a city, of a state," he said.

"It's not constructing a building that will re-launch our economy. We have to change our way of thinking.

"I hope that by the end of our administration, Parma will have understood that there are different, sustainable models that can produce a good local economy."

There is an environmental theme to the changes he hopes to bring about: less use of cars, less emphasis on consumption, greater awareness of the need to save energy.

Central to the movement is the idea that people should no longer vote and then step back and hope that elected politicians will do the right thing in office.

Citizens should instead remain involved in the process of policy formation.

Recipe for paralysis?

The movement favours continual, collective decision-making.

"We must consult the citizens," said Mr Pizzarotti. "Before spending millions on a project, we all have to agree that that is the project that we - they - want to undertake."

Image caption,
Despite a thriving entrepreneurial tradition, Parma has run up debts worth more than £900m

Mr Pizzarotti's deputy mayor, Nicoletta Paci, said that from "a thousand ideas", a consensus would emerge through discussion and voting.

The decision finally taken would be stronger and more broadly accepted, she said, "because everybody has been involved in this process and has given his opinion".

She was asked if this might not be a recipe for something close to paralysis: much discussion but slow decision-making and perhaps a sense of a lack of action.

Mrs Paci replied that there would not need to be mass consultation on more minor, day-to-day matters. The process would only be applied to "big issues - the most important ones that should be shared with the population".

But the challenges before the new citizen councillors are huge, and many "big issues" may require painful decisions.

Parma has prospered over the years. It sits in a rich belt of farmland that produces the region's famous ham, cheese and other dairy products, and the area has strong entrepreneurial traditions.

But the city's public finances are in disarray. It has debts worth more than $900m (£573.4 million), run up by previous administrations.

The Five Star-appointed officer in charge of the city's finances, Gino Capelli, has said its books must be put in order, "with all that this means in terms of taxes, cost of services and contractions in spending".

But a detailed plan will not emerge until after the summer.

Need for change

And there are those in Parma who believe that the inexperienced, citizen councillors are just not up to the task before them.

"We've seen little so far," said Nicola dall'Olio, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party on the city council.

"We haven't seen any government action.

"There's a clear lack of experience, a lack of understanding of the bureaucratic machine and so they're finding it hard to start and take decisions."

"There's stuff that works when you're in opposition but now they have to govern."

However Mr dall'Olio fully accepts the significance of the rise of the Five Star movement, in Parma and across the country.

"They are already transforming Italian politics," he said.

He hopes that pressure from the rise of the citizens' network will force change for the better in older political organisations, like his.

"Parties as we know them don't work anymore, they have to be renewed," he said.

The Five Star party's central figure - its guiding star - is the popular comedian-turned-political activist, Beppe Grillo; an irreverent, satirical scourge of the establishment.

He has said that Parma is just the start. That the movement will challenge the traditional parties at national level, in parliament.

And with polls in recent months giving them between around 15 and 20%, the Five Star activists could be a major electoral force come the next general election.

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