Analysis: Parma mayor sheds light on mystery of Italy's 5-Star

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 17, 2013 7:13 AM
Analysis: Parma mayor sheds light on mystery of Italy's 5-Star

By Steve Scherer and Valentina Accardo

PARMA, Italy (Reuters) - The neophyte 5-Star Movement's lawmakers were, among other things, housewives, students or jobless before they took their seats in Italy's parliament on Friday, and it remains a mystery how they will handle their newly won power.

A look at the movement's most experienced politician, elected mayor of Parma 10 months ago, suggests the deputies will be surprisingly different from its leader, Beppe Grillo, whose fiery anti-establishment rhetoric has made 5-Star the country's biggest party.

The silver-maned Grillo is both the voice and face of the 5-Star Movement, while its 163 representatives are unknown and unproven, with an average age of 33 in the lower house and 46 in the Senate.

Until last May, the 39-year-old Federico Pizzarotti managed computer systems for a bank, and now he runs the northern city of Parma, with almost 190,000 inhabitants and 1,400 employees.

Pizzarotti and his 20 5-Star councilors have a solid majority in city hall, but in the national parliament no one emerged from last month's vote with enough seats to govern, and Grillo has rebuffed offers from the Democratic Party (PD) to form an alliance.

But on Saturday a handful of 5-Star senators appeared to have backed the center-left to elect Pietro Grasso, a former anti-mafia magistrate, to the influential position of Senate speaker, showing that Grillo's control over the movement he created four years ago is not absolute.

Last year Grillo was criticized for running the movement with a heavy hand when he expelled two members who defied his diktat to shun television talk shows. On Saturday, center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi likened him to being a cult leader.

"It's a sect that reminds me of Scientology," Berlusconi said.

Grillo's party attracted almost 9 million votes in a passionate bid to get rid of the old guard, to fight corruption and waste, and to reverse the austerity measures that have worsened recession in the euro zone's third-biggest economy.

In Parma, the baby-faced mayor has made policy that clashes with Grillo's anti-austerity message, and he said he did it without talking to the movement's founder or to Gianroberto Casaleggio, the Internet guru who is seen as its strategist.

"We have each other's telephone numbers," Pizzarotti told Reuters in his office. "But there are no consultations before we make decisions."

Judging by the national election, the citizens of Parma have liked what they have seen, with 5-Star winning 28 percent of the vote in the city, higher than its showing nationally.


By the time Pizzarotti took office, previous city governments had racked up 840 million euros in debt, or about 4,500 euros for every resident, the mayor said.

By comparison, Italy has a debt worth 127 percent of gross domestic product, the second-largest in Europe after Greece, and it was saved from a Greek-style debt crisis in 2011 by caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti's austerity program.

Pizzarotti, facing his city's enormous debt, has cut spending but not taxes after promising to lower them during his campaign. He kept local levies at the maximum levels permitted by law, and he has raised the costs of city-run daycare and pre-school for some, prompting vocal protests from parents.

About 150 city employees protested outside town hall on Thursday, shouting "buffoon" and "shame on you" because they face pay cuts of up to 10 percent.

"We have inherited a huge debt," Pizzarotti said. "The issue is not lowering taxes so I can say I did it. It is what is possible to do, economically, without cutting services."

As a symbolic gesture, Pizzarotti cut his own salary by 10 percent, and 5-Star lawmakers have promised they will reduce theirs by even more as part of their bid to cut the privileges of what they call the political "caste".

"The city council has found itself blocked by debt, just like the national government," Ernesto Grisenti, 66, one of the owners of central Parma's most popular delis in a city famous for its Parmesan cheese and cured ham, told Reuters.

"Pizzarotti will make himself unpopular by putting the city's accounts in order," said Carlo Pavesi, a shop owner. "The politicians who came before him were very popular, and now we have 800 million euros in debt to pay off."

Pizzarotti said he had already cut debt by 10-15 percent since he took office, and that he would lower the tax rates before the end of his five-year mandate. He has not convinced everyone.

"We expected more concrete results after 10 months," said Marina Lazzini, owner of several perfume stores around the city.


Post-election polls show that support for the 5-Star Movement has grown since the election, and Grillo appears to be pushing for another vote soon to capitalize on it.

It remains to be seen if President Giorgio Napolitano will be able to fill the power vacuum during consultations for the formation of a government that start on Wednesday, but a new round of elections could be just months away.

Nicola Dall'Olio, a PD council member in Parma, said it would be "very risky" if 5-Star's representatives were thrust into government because of their inexperience.

"One of Grillo and the 5-Star Movement's key points is that anyone can be in public service, but it is complex and it requires administrative experience which cannot be improvised," he said.

But for Pizzarotti, it is the discredited experience of the political classes that makes 5-Star fit to replace them.

"We are ready, definitely; especially if you consider who came before us."

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Will Waterman)