THE BLOG
01/30/2015 12:31 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Italy. Honestly?

That was my thought as I arrived in Piazza del Popolo in Rome last Saturday evening, where one hundred thousand people had gathered for "Honesty Night." The event was organized by the Five-Star Movement (M5S), the political movement founded by comic actor Beppe Grillo, in response to the most recent wave of political scandals to emerge in Italy.

The square was full of people clearly angered by the scale of corruption and criminal intrigue brought to light by the revelations, referred to as 'Mafia Capitale.' Yet they also appeared determined the political landcape can be changed. A common sentiment expressed by several speakers and clearly endorsed by the crowd held that precisely because of the high levels of mafia infiltration and corruption in public life, now more than ever, ethical behavior and honesty are values worth fighting for.

"We have to talk to other people who don't go to vote anymore," said an old lady close to me. "This has been really too much!. I'm a grandmother and I'm fighting for my grandchildren's future," she added in a clear voice. Speaking on stage were, among the others, Salvatore Borsellino, brother of Paolo Borsellino, investigating magistrate murdered by the Sicilian mafia in 1992, and Judge Ferdinand Imposimato, two of the most influential Italians working to counter the influence of the mafia.

Among the M5S parliamentarians I met at the event was Luigi Di Maio, one of five members of the newly constituted Directorate of M5S. He also holds the institutional position of Vice President of the Lower House of the Italian Parliament. Just 28 years old, from Naples, he's a rising star of M5S and is convinced positive ethics and honesty can be reestablished in Italian public discourse. As I approached him backstage, a large roar came from the crowd as it responded to Nobel Laureate for Literature, Dario Fo's video message on the large screen.

Di Maio invited me to an area protected from the noise and where he could be heard. It was clear he had a lot to say on the subjects of hope and honesty: "First of all, I'm convinced that the true hope of our country is the people. Look at this square today, these are Italians who are aiming for a better life. If you didn't know Italy, you might think Italians are just like their rulers, corrupted and engaged with the mafia. Instead, if you talk to the people, to the many associations pro environment or public health for example, you'd find those people have an ethical standards much higher than those of the majority of their politicians. In other words, corrupted politicians don't represent the majority of Italians. M5S is in the middle of it and plays the role of barrier against corruption. In the parliament, we use our votes to stem it. I could cite many example of how we have forced parliament to adopt our resolutions in the last two years.

"But votes and resolutions aside, is it realistic to hope the mafia can be beaten?" I asked. "It must be clear that the mafia is not what one saw in The Godfather," replied Di Maio. "What you see in Rome with 'Mafia Capitale' is the evidence that the mafia cannot spread to such a degree without the collusion of corrupt politicians. We must be courageous and act in an ethical way. Only in so doing can we free ourselves and regain some dignity."

"However, today there is another great challenge , that is to find someone capable and honest to become the next President of Italy. M5S's message is not so clear to those who don't use the internet and until a few months ago, you didn't participate in talk shows and rarely released a TV interview. So, how can you make your votes count in this election?"

"I believe we can do it, without surrendering to compromises, by using transparency and dialogue. I also think we'll experience a lot of pressure. But I also see that the traditional parties are divided and confused. In such a climate, I think our votes willbe useful in elevating the standing of the new President. For nine years we've had a president who signed all kinds of bills into law, including very illiberal ones which countries like Britain or the US would never accept. If M5S can facilitate the election of a new president who can declare "I could never sign such bills," we have reached our goal."

"In Italy, the economy has continued to suffer under Renzi's government. Every 2.3 hours an enterprise is shuted down and we count 10 million poor in a population of 60 million in 2014. The economy hasn't been in such trouble since the end of WW2. Why should we believe your message?"

"We entered parliament two years ago with a vision of politicians who cared for their mandate, who reduced their salaries and who listened to people's proposals to transform them into legislation. In these two years we have kept our promises. Today, I am in a parliamentary group that will give 10 million euros (funds allocated from a percentage of parliamentary salaries) to 1000 new small enterprises established by unemployed youth. In other words, we're contributing to the fight against unemployment through cutting parliamentary expenses - the only example of such a strategy anywhere in the world. Maybe, in such an economic emergency, it might be normal for politicians in other countries to contemplate such a strategy. But we're talking about Italy, a country where 'normal' is considered revolutionary. Does it seem normal to you that in an European country we have to organize an 'Honesty Night'?"

No, it's not 'normal,' I think later, returning to the square. Certainly, though, if there is to be change, it will require a profound adjustment of the national consciousness. Where better to start with the politicians who profess to possess the legitimacy to rule? For the people in Piazza del Popolo, they must lead by example. Or get out of the way.