Italy’s is a case of unintended consequences. So many faceless and yet successful candidates can only be explained by the electoral system itself: a proportional system based on party lists that makes electoral campaigns by individual candidates virtually useless. Italians can cast a vote only for a party and its leader. The major parties prefer this system because they believed it would cement their hold on power. Yet it was precisely this mechanism that allowed Mr. Grillo to get hold of a quarter of the votes.
Such a system seriously restrains voters’ freedom of choice. Italy’s head of State Giorgio Napolitano exhorted the parties, during Mario Monti’s tenure, to reform it. In 1994, 1996 and 2001, Italy voted with a mixed system that allocated 75% of seats using a first‐past‐the‐post mechanism. Such a rule anchored politics to its local roots, whereas the current system makes it a game for national leaders and nobody else.
Politicians have also so far spared themselves the effects of austerity. Common sense suggests that a reshuffle of the Italian government machine can both save money and help growth (thereby making people’s lives easier). The Monti government unsuccessfully tried to abolish Italian provinces, an administrative layer between the municipality and the regional governments. Though provinces’ duties could be split between city and regional governments, the parties spared them in the end, lest they see their patronage opportunities diminished. Conservative estimates suggest that €2 billion a year could be saved by abolishing Italian provinces all together, without firing a single public employee.
Privilege breeds privilege and so Italy—as many other democracies, to be fair—sees a proliferation of useless entities: public bodies, agencies and “institutes” that live on taxpayers’ money without producing anything that vaguely resembles a public good. Some of those bodies are routinely singled out for being closed down, but action does not typically follow intention. Bureaucracy is resilient.
But extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Italians have lived through painful tax hikes in the past couple of years. They needed to see their representatives set a good example. But they didn’t. Spending for representative institutions was not severely cut; the different layers of government were not rationalized; bodies in which politicians appoint their friends as board members were kept alive. Add to this the awareness that you cannot quite choose your representatives, but only a party symbol, and you have an easy recipe for populism.
Italians who defaced their ballots or voted for Mr. Grillo were, for the most part, outraged by what they consider political treason by their own elected leaders. The established parties could acknowledge this election as a warning and work together to allow Italians to choose their representatives more effectively and to reduce the cost to voters of supporting their politicians’ lifestyles. If they don’t, the day might soon dawn when Italians will consider the compulsory use of “mooncups” a price they’d happily pay to evict their own self‐serving elites.