A New Italy and the Myth of the Web

FILE - In this April 25, 2008 file photo Italian comedian-turned-moralizer Beppe Grillo, speaks to supporters at a rally in P
FILE - In this April 25, 2008 file photo Italian comedian-turned-moralizer Beppe Grillo, speaks to supporters at a rally in Piazza San Carlo square in Turin, northern Italy. An anti-euro candidate has triumphed in mayoral runoffs in Italy's affluent north. Results Monday of second-round balloting also saw winning big a candidate whose party is one of the few forces in Parliament opposing Premier Mario Monti's austerity measures. Federico Pizzarotti, the candidate of comic Beppe Grillo's anti-euro populist Five-Star Movement, captured the mayor's post in Parma. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca, FILE)

The past few days have been both complex and bright for Italian politics as old and new parties showed how, when forced by circumstances, they have the courage and the resources to promote the institutional and symbolic change the country desperately needs. On Saturday Italy's Senate elected Pietro Grasso, the country's former anti-mafia prosecutor, as its speaker. This was achieved with the decisive votes of members of the Five Star Movement (FSM), Italy's second party headed by comedian Beppe Grillo, who split with their leader and supported Mr. Grasso's candidacy. This is an encouraging sign as it shows Italy's ability to face its crisis not just by falling back on technocracies or populism, but by injecting new meaning in institutions citizens had progressively lost their trust in.

Mr. Grasso's election was contentious but it also demonstrated an important novelty that may transform Italian politics in the near future. As Web 2.0 has entered the Italian parliament not just with its tools, but also with its narrative, supported largely by the FSM which hails the Internet as its most important instrument for "consultation, deliberation, decision, and election", it can challenge some of the country's bad practices, including those of its own advocates, such as Mr Grillo.

Pietro Grasso is one of the most respected magistrates in Italy. He has spent a large part of his life combating the Mafia, putting some of Italy's most wanted criminals behind bars, and championing innovative ways to urge Italians to fight crime and corruption. His candidacy broke the unity among the FSM, whose official position was not to support a candidate proposed by another party. Some FSM members supported Grasso against contender's Renato Schifani of Berlusconi's coalition. Both men are from Sicily and choosing between them meant choosing among two opposed ideas of politics present in Italy's troubled South: Grasso represents those who fight abuse while Schifani is backed by those who thrive in the country's murky power networks.

The break-away members of the FSM were encouraged not only by their sense of responsibility towards their voters, they were also responding to the opinions expressed through the Internet. As the Italian newspaper La Stampa reports, one of the arguments used to justify Grasso's election was that the Web was calling for it.

The FSM has been an outspoken advocate of the potential role for new media to revolutionize Italian politics. Over the past twenty years Italy's institutions have become increasingly unable to respond to demands from the grassroots. In 2011 millions of Italians mobilized against Silvio Berlusconi, either by taking to the streets to protest or voting for a referendum that sent a clear message of no-confidence to his government. Berlusconi pretended not to listen, but was then forced to resign a few months later under pressure from international and European institutions, reflecting a greater influence on the part of international institutions rather than the voice of citizens.

Beppe Grillo has proposed to address this imbalance by using the Internet to listen to citizens' demands and reform institutions. This is a bold and welcome move, but what Grillo seems to have promoted so far looks more like a kind of fetishism of the Internet, rather than a real willingness to learn from the Internet's logic of freedom, openness and decentralization to promote new and innovative forms of participation. Grillo has used the symbolic power of the Internet to gain legitimacy that has been difficult for non-establishment politicians to obtain elsewhere and to balance a leadership style that would otherwise appear too personality-driven.

But can the online movement Grillo helped to create have escaped his control? The election of Pietro Grasso as the Speaker of the Senate shows that this is likely, and probably for the better. Many of Grillo's MPs seems to have taken their role representing their constituents seriously. They write blog posts about their daily affairs as MPs, upload videos directly addressing their constituents and regularly explain their decisions using YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. On Saturday many of them demonstrated their willingness to be closer to their base rather than loyal to their leader.

The potential transformative impact of these changes on how the Italian government conducts its affairs is yet to be determined. The FSM may have the power to force Italy's "traditional" parties to take decisions with the people rather than their fellow politicians in mind, and this would be real progress. Among the public, the FSM should not solely rely on the Internet as a tool for rejuvenation (33 percent of the population is still not online) but find innovative ways to involve citizens offline as well. There are plenty of examples for a new young and innovative party can build on, from the experiments of deliberative democracy championed by American sociologist James S. Fishkin, which have been used in the U.S., UK, Greece and China to influence policy decisions, to the reinterpretations of forms of participations based on drawing lots originally used in Renaissance's Florence and Venice proposed by French political scientist Yves Sintomer to give back the "power to the people."

Italy has often demonstrated its ability to be a political laboratory during times of upheaval, producing important changes. Post-war competition between the Christian Democrats and the Communists did not lead to a civil war, but to a sharing of power between national and local administrations. We are in the midst of another upheaval and this can emerge as an opportunity of renewal and experimentation, both because and despite of Mr. Grillo.