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Beppe Grillo, leader of the Italian Five-Star Movement
Beppe Grillo, leader of the Italian Five-Star Movement
Giuseppe Salvaggiulo

TURIN — Italian politicians from very different backgrounds have been trying to capitalize on last week's victory of Spain's anti-austerity party Podemos in regional elections: from centrist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the populist Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, to the banker-turned-cabinet minister Corrado Passera and leftist LGBT activist and governor of the Puglia region Nichi Vendola.

That's quite a list. Stll, even as some international observers ask if Italy is the next country to be swept up by the anti-austerity wave, there is clearly no "Italian Podemos" on the horizon. And what's left is just more bickering.

"The two Matteos (Renzi and Salvini) are pathetic," an outraged Vendola tweeted last week.

An identical dynamic occurred four months ago following the Greek elections: Suddenly, every other Italian politician was buddies with Alexis Tsipras. But the one Italian party truly inspired by Syriza, called The Other Europe, collected only 1.1 million votes at the European elections, barely surpassing the minimum quorum of 4%. By now, it's all but shattered.

Massimo Cacciari, a professor of philosophy and former mayor of Venice, says while whole new ideological alliances are forming elsewhere in Europe, Italy is "still using old categories" in its political formations.

"Inside Podemos, there is everything: Some components of the extreme left like in Syriza, movements similar to our 5-Star Movement (populist and anti-EU), even some elements of a more traditional left party. They group together as different ways to beat a similar crisis."

Grillo factor

So why is such a political renewal possible in Greece and Spain, but not in Italy? Italian journalist Carlo Freccero compares Italy to countries in Eastern Europe. "We have more things in common with Poland than with Spain. How can social disaffection be articulated by Salvini?," he asks referring to the leader of the Northern League, which has historically shown no pity for the underprivileged, particularly in the poorer South of Italy.

Yet, in 2011, while in Madrid the Indignados movement was starting to put down roots that would later blossom into Podemos, Italy was undergoing a different phenomenon. Though deep disappointment with traditional parties was spreading, it was not funneled into a new rebellious but well-organized party. They were absorbed and elaborated, in different ways, by Matteo Renzi and Beppe Grillo, the comic-turned-populist blogger who founded the 5 Stelle movement.

Ugo Mattei, an Italian law professor, says the Podemos model is based on a popular leadership focused on issues that affect people's lives. Ana Colau, Podeomos-backed winner of Barcelona mayoral vote, built her political campaign on the battle against housing evictions. "She is now supported by a vast and modern intelligentsia," explains Mattei. "In Italy, after 2011, the question remained in the hands of a self-referential nomenclature. "

The 5-Star movement reached 25% consensus in earlier elections, but votes were frozen at that ceiling. "On the one hand, Renzi has stolen key issues from his enemies, such as the fight against corruption," explains Paolo Becchi, philosopher and 5-Star sympathizer. "On the other hand, Grillo isolated himself, avoiding any blending with other social movements."

Finally, Syriza benefits from the vital political leadership of 40-year-old Tsipras and Podemos from Pablo Iglesias, 36. In Italy, the mantle of charismatic young leader who challenged the establishment falls squarely on the shoulders of the sitting Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, six months younger than Tsipras.

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