Italy’s incumbent lawmakers, who united last year to impose austerity on taxpayers, are bracing for a fight over their own privileges as the upstart movement led by Beppe Grillo enters parliament and vies for key roles.
Up for grabs as the legislature convenes today are the speakerships of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, followed by appointments to budget committees and commission chairmanships. The posts could give Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which took a quarter of the votes in elections last month, enough leverage over the bodies’ more than 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion) in annual operating expenses.
“The costs could be cut in half,” said Elio Lannutti, a consumer advocate, ex-senator and a friend of Grillo’s. “If they keep these people out, the revolution is just going to get bigger.”
Five Star was swept into the legislature with a mandate to cut taxes, curb public spending and shove career politicians from power. The party’s power is still up in the air, as no political force emerged from the Feb. 24-25 election with a majority. It’s now up to President Giorgio Napolitano to nominate a figure to form a government.
Still, Five Star has already used its electoral gains to push its version of an austerity agenda.
Lawmakers make about 20,000 euros a month in salary and benefits, including train and air travel. Yesterday, Grillo called on Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the largest parliamentary force, to persuade his members to give up more than half of their pay. Monthly salaries, at about 11,000 euros, should be reduced to 5,000 euros, Grillo said. There are 945 elected seats in the Senate and Chamber. That compares to 635 in the U.S. Congress.
Dubbed “The Caste” after a 2007 book by Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, career lawmakers suffered in polls last year as Prime Minister Mario Monti implemented tax increases with about 80 percent of parliament behind him. Corruption scandals at the party founded by Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire and three-time ex-premier, also contributed to an erosion of public esteem and fueled Grillo’s rise.
The 162 Five Star representatives range from lawyers and scientists to unemployed activists. They have said they will shun the Italian parliamentarian’s title of “Honorable” and refuse privileges typically reserved for lawmakers and unavailable to citizens at large.
They will run into at least one such perk today in the Chamber, where lawmakers relax with cigarettes in leather armchairs, even though smoking was banned 10 years ago in workplaces, public buildings, restaurants and bars.
Napolitano is set to begin consultations next week with the speakers and heads of the parties in both houses to pick a premier capable of mustering a majority of parliament. The process of forming a new government may be delayed as talks among the rival parties stall. Bersani told his allies he would seek to scuttle the speakership votes because progress toward a coalition hasn’t been made, Ansa newswire said yesterday.
Along with internal budget commissioners, the speakers also oversee the more than 70 million euros that get handed out annually to individual party delegations to cover the costs of their staffs and incidentals.
The particulars of those expenses are kept secret from the public and the rank-and-file lawmakers, according to Lannutti, who said he petitioned unsuccessfully for the information when he was a senator. If Five Star won a speakership or a spot as a budget commissioner they might be in a position to show the public how that money is spent, he said.
Grillo, an ex-comic, drew cheers during the election campaign by saying at rallies that his lawmakers would “open parliament like a can of tuna” by revealing backroom discussions and detailing expenses that haven’t been published.
Grillo, 64, wasn’t a candidate himself and won’t join his deputies in parliament because he says he isn’t fit to serve due to a manslaughter conviction in the 1980s. He was behind the wheel in a one-car accident that killed two friends and their son.
Lannutti’s estimate that parliament’s expenses could be cut in half was rejected by former colleague Lamberto Dini, the 82-year-old former prime minister whose last day in the Senate was yesterday. Expenses are reasonable, he said, advising Five Star to start by learning how parliament works.
“It won’t be easy to manage this parliament,” said Dini in an interview. “I have nothing against young lawmakers in principle, but these new members of parliament need to be humble and then they will be able to be protagonists.”