Parma mayor becomes Italy's most-watched politician
PARMA, Italy |
PARMA, Italy (Reuters) - Federico Pizzarotti was an unknown, 38-year-old computer technician at a bank until a few weeks ago. Just four days after being elected the mayor of Parma, he has become the most-watched political figure in Italy.
Pizzarotti's leap to fame comes thanks to the grassroots Five-Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, which dealt a stunning blow to the parties that have governed Italy for the past two decades in this month's local elections.
Pizzarotti has astonished observers of the Italian political scene by emerging from obscurity to become the first Five-Star candidate to run one of the country's major cities.
The movement, which was created just three years ago and relies extensively on the Internet, has become the country's second most popular party with more than 18 percent support and more than half of Italians would consider voting for it, according to opinion polls.
"Two weeks ago, nobody knew who I was. I feel quite a bit of weight on my shoulders, everybody is watching us," Pizzarotti told Reuters in an interview in a frescoed chamber in Parma's 15th-century town hall.
The success of the protest movement reflects a Europe-wide trend seen from Greece to Germany as the economic crisis has eroded the standing of traditional political parties, blamed for the worst downturn since World War Two.
Like the Northern League 20 years ago, the Five-Star Movement is gaining momentum in Italy's economic heartland in the north. Parma, famous for Parmesan cheese and cured ham, is one of the region's most prosperous cities, and home to almost 190,000 people.
In blue jeans, tennis shoes and a purple sweater, Pizzarotti still seems uncomfortable with media attention, unlike the movement's founder, Grillo, who makes full use of the limelight to blast a scandal-prone elite that has overseen more than a decade of economic stagnation in Italy.
Grillo has also tapped into growing unease with austerity measures and recession by attacking Prime Minister Mario Monti's government of technocrats, which created 24 billion euros ($30 billion) in new taxes this year alone.
Something like an Italian Michael Moore, Grillo's language is irreverent and outlandish. He uses the most vulgar Italian swear words without hesitation, and awards his political rivals colourful nicknames.
Monti is "Rigor Montis," and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi is the "psycho-midget". Italy's established parties are dead, he says, and their leaders are "zombies, vampires, mummies".
The bear-like Grillo, who sports a beard and a mop of tangled white hair, says Italy should dump the euro, devalue the lira, and force foreign banks to accept debt payments - at a loss - in the new currency.
The baby-faced Pizzarotti does not look like Grillo and does not sound like Grillo.
As mayor, his biggest challenge will be managing Parma's 600-million-euro ($750 million) debt, and he will probably need to negotiate with banks Grillo usually derides as the root of the crisis.
"One should not demonise banks. They have a fundamental role in everybody's life," Pizzarotti said.
Pizzarotti chooses his words carefully and does not swear. Instead of attacking rivals, he talks about finding "common ground". He sidesteps the question of the euro, saying he is not an economist.
"We do different jobs," Pizzarotti said of the movement's leader. "He's our loudspeaker, he shakes up people's consciences. He is like a plough that shifts the earth. We are the ones planting the seeds."
"During the campaign, some people told me they didn't like Grillo. I told them that Grillo is not coming to govern here. I am," he said.
FROM MOVEMENT TO PARTY
The change has brought a minor revolution to the familiar cast of middle-aged and elderly men who dominate Italian politics but not everyone is convinced.
"I am puzzled. Parma has a lot of problems. It's good to see all these new, clean faces but you need experienced people to run a city," said bar owner Maria Enrica Galli.
Grillo refuses to call the movement a party, and bans his candidates from going on TV talk shows. The Internet, his blog and social networks are the movement's main means of communication.
It accepts no public campaign financing, unlike the millions of euros pocketed by the established parties every year, funding itself instead from the proceeds of Grillo's stand up shows, and sales of books, videos and T shirts. Pizzarotti spent just over 6,000 euros ($7,500) on his entire campaign.
But with national elections looming early next year and Italy still dangerously enmeshed in the euro zone crisis, the Five Star Movement will come under increasing scrutiny as it seeks to convert its local success to the national stage.
"Grillo and his people have a big job ahead, because a grassroots movement is one thing, but it's quite another thing to organise a real party," said James Walston, a political analyst at the American University in Rome.
"Where there is the smell of power, all sorts of people come out of the woodwork and they will have to work very carefully to maintain their purity," he said.
What is clear is that the thirty-somethings who make up the political bloc have a lot to learn.
In fact, Pizzarotti and his 19 council members are taking a crash course on administrative law from local professors, starting on Thursday, and he has put up an ad on Grillo's blog seeking an experienced administrator.
"We're looking for a person with experience managing the mechanics of city government to be director general as soon as possible. No criminal record, not tied to traditional parties, with proven competence," the ad read, inviting email resumes.
Even handling the time demands of his new job is a challenge for Pizzarotti. As he spoke in the interview, his wife Cinzia kept interrupting.
"We're running late. We've got loads to do. You need to learn to manage your time," she said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Steve Scherer in Rome; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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