Italy is "ungovernable"; Italy is in a "mess." These headlines dominated the world's press following the results from the recent elections. With no president to dissolve parliament for two months, Italians face the spectacle of continued political gridlock with the old elites, many tainted by corruption scandals, still holding the balance of power. What this shows more than anything else is a profound crisis in the relationship between the governed and their rulers.
Italians clearly rejected austerity, but what did they gain? A new voice from a novice political movement perhaps but the 25 percent of the vote gained by Beppe Grillo, a comedian, only goes to underscores how the public no longer trust the traditional political parties.
Although it was said in a different context, one is reminded of Berthold Brecht's comment that 'the people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one.' Except, of course, that they can't!
The challenges for the new government, however constituted between center right and center left, are considerable and Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement does not have a clear programmatic agenda, despite its popularity. The party is composed of young people who proclaim that they are honest, clean and that they will never take bribes or steal public money. However well-intentioned they may be, it is essential to realize that corruption is not only about individual honesty or will, but has very deep roots in society and political culture.
Many political parties that have declared themselves to be clean, new and honest have become involved in scandals or have been accused of corruption. The fight against corruption is not merely about new faces and good intentions; systemic change is required, and should be the focus of the Italian political elite, as well as the novice politicians and citizens.
Looking more closely at the results across the country, however, we see old political elites are still very much in power, including a number of allegedly corrupt politicians.
The right wing Northern League candidate was elected as the new president of Lombardy, Italy's richest region, despite the fact that members of the Northern League and its former President, Umberto Bossi, were at the center of a huge scandal regarding the alleged misappropriation of political party money.
On the left side of the political spectrum the scandal at the Bank of Monte dei Paschi di Siena has already implicated politicians who are currently under investigation for alleged corruption.
And then there is Silvio Berlusconi. Just one day after the vote, the former prime minister, whose party did better than expected, was accused of allegedly providing illicit funding to political parties, the latest in a long line of corruption allegations he is facing.
No wonder Italians perceive corruption as a major problem. In Transparency International's latest Global Corruption Barometer 65 per cent of the population said corruption has increased in the last three years and political parties, together with the parliament, are the most corrupt institutions in Italy; 64 per cent think that the government is ineffective in the fight against corruption.
Although there are some positive changes on the anti-corruption front, reform is extremely slow. The government finally approved the Anti-Corruption Lawlast year, but its implementation is proceeding at a snail's pace and there are no mechanisms in place for monitoring its enforcement.
The Court of Auditors of Milan (Corte dei Conti), which has the role of defending the constitution, announced that the fight against public sector corruption will be a key priority in 2013; but it has limited powers.
The public sector is one of the weakest institutions in Italy when it comes to anti-corruption safeguards. There is little effective regulation (the Italian legal framework is fragmented and contradictory) and access to government information that citizens could use to hold elected officials to account is limited.
This must change. A recent study by Transparency International made many recommendations to bring greater transparency and accountability into government and the public sector. As far as political parties are concerned, their legal status should be changed so that they are liable for any wrongdoing and subject to sanction. There should also be full transparency in political party financing, including budgeting and donations, and a code of conduct with sanctions for those who break it.
The list could go on, but the message is clear: integrity has to be built into the very system. Corruption is a cross-cutting issue in Italy and it affects the entire society. Fighting corruption, therefore, needs to be tackled across the spectrum: the public needs to demand systemic reform and the political elite needs to implement it, and then enforce and monitor the reforms.
This is a big ask for a country where the people have not given any one political party a mandate to act, but it is essential. If concrete moves in this direction can be taken, this will go some way to restore the confidence of the people in the political class -- and moreover, in Italian democracy.