In a crazy twist of Italian politics – in a nation known for its zany political life – the Roman lawyer, scholar and commoner Stefano Rodotà unexpectedly became the presidential candidate of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the rising political force there. The amazing thing is, he nearly won!
Rodotà is a kindly, clever, fiercely intelligent and straight-shooting left-wing legal scholar and politician. Now nearly 80 years old, Rodotà is a something of a grey eminence in Italian politics. He has served four times in the Italian Parliament and once in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He helped write the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. He has taught at universities in Europe, Latin America, the US and India.
The recent success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in the February 2013 elections abruptly opened up this opportunity for Rodotà and the commons. M5S was launched in 2009 by a comedian and activist, Beppe Grillo, to focus on five key issues – public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity and environmentalism. The movement is less of a real party than a cultural vehicle for voters to express resentment, frustration and hostility toward the political class in Italy. M5S is generally populist and libertarian in orientation, sometimes with a right-wing flavor (anti-immigrant policies). But Grillo is a showy amateur as a politician and not exactly a small-d democrat (he gives no press interviews and doesn’t welcome debate within M5S).
Still, the movement's issues and profile are compelling enough that M5S won more than 25 percent of the vote in the February 2013 elections – second only to the Democratic Party, which won only a fraction more votes. Forming a government in a country with dozens of political parties can be a difficult proposition, however, especially when personalities, political history, ideology and various odd circumstances are thrown in.
I confess to being confused by the intricacies of Italian politics, but I was surprised to hear that in one of the many ballots for president voted on by Parliament, Rodotà won 506 votes – just two votes more than necessary. But his support did not hold for the requisite number of ballots, and in the end, the man who won the presidency of Italy was 89-year-old Giorgio Napolitiano.
For a country with a dysfunctional politics and an electorate that has been clamoring for major change, the re-election of Napolitiano was not a very encouraging sign. It was the first time in Italian history that a president had ever won a second term. It only seemed to confirm the general impression that Italy is in the death grip of a geriatric political elite eternally hostile to new ideas. (Anyone wanting to wallow in the labyrinthine complexities of Italian politics may wish to consult the Italian Politics with Walston blog or the Economist’s “Charlemagne” blogger.)
In any case, Napolitiano last week won 738 out of a possible 1,007 votes from the Parliament – a two-thirds majority – and so the formation of a new government was now possible. A friend tells me that Rodotà’s defeat may not be the end of the story, however, because the Italian political situation remains highly unstable. Perhaps there will be another election sooner than we anticipate.
Rodotà’s surprise ascendance as a presidential candidate suggests that the commons, too, may have grander electoral possibilities than we had imagined (at least in nations with parliamentary systems). To be sure, his candidacy was borne aloft by Beppe Grillo and MS5, but as my colleague Silke Helfrich has noted, Rodotà himself "did not understand his candidacy as an obligation to a party or as a political move (‘I was not chosen by Beppe Grillo’), but as an obligation to the constitution, his conscience, human rights... and the commons.” Rodotà had won a lot of credibility for his role in the 2011 Italian voter referendum, “Acqua bene commune,” which asked voters whether to keep water systems as commons or privatize them. The commons won by more than 90 percent of the vote. Amazing.
Rodotà has also been involved as an advisor to the occupation of the venerable Teatro Valle, a public theater in Rome that had been threatened by government budget cutbacks. A few years ago the staff took the theater over and declared it a commons, making it a site for political debate and public events. Just two weeks ago it hosted a “constituent assembly of the commons.”
As a law scholar, Rodotà is skeptical that liberal constitutionalism is capable of protecting something as a commons. Basic human rights are so focused on the state for enforcement that it is difficult for either the state or rights-holders to imagine an autonomous non-market, non-state space – the commons – where governance may take place and rights actualized. And structurally, the market/state duopoly has eliminated the very idea of the commons, which conveniently makes it easier to raid common resources and shovel them into the market machine.
Rodotà is enough of a pragmatic politician to understand that the reconstruction of civil society needs to start somewhere, and that while constitutions and laws may be tattered, archaic in design and of waning authority, they do provide a practical way to get some things done. But the real challenge is re-imagining governance that is more suited for the 21st century.
I saw Rodotà up close and personal when he attended our European workshop on the commons near Paris last November. I was mightily impressed by his deep knowledge and political wisdom as well as by his open heart and supple mind. He is playing at an entirely different, deeper level. It is hard to imagine such a person attaining the presidency of a nation like Italy – though actually governing such a fractured political culture would horrendously difficult.
But Italy is in desperate need of some new ideas and a new kind of politics. It is hard to imagine a more sophisticated and savvy gardener of the seeds of the commons than Rodotà. He is scheduled to be the opening speaker at the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin on May 22-24. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say.