Little fresh on Italian election menu

Silvio Berlusconi (left) flanked by his younger lieutenant, Angelino Alfano (file image)
Image caption Silvio Berlusconi (left) is seen here with his younger lieutenant, Angelino Alfano

When Italians vote on 24-25 February, one of the oldest populations in the world will be choosing between some equally elderly political candidates. Are they up to the immense challenges facing their country?

The election should give Italy the chance of a fresh start, after the global financial storm that broke in 2008 exposed the sclerosis in the country's economic and political system.

But a study from Milan's Bocconi University found that the average age of Italy's lawmakers was almost 53 - up from 49 in the mid-1970s. Of the major European democracies, only France has older elected representatives.

As the blogger Beppe Grillo - the self-proclaimed antichrist of Italian politics - put it, in typically iconoclastic terms: "They've been caught on the hop; they're planning a future that they're never going to see."

The flip side of that analysis is that younger Italians (and women) are grossly under-represented.

At 61, the election frontrunner - the ex-Communist leader of Italy's biggest party, the Democratic Party (PD), Pier Luigi Bersani - is the baby of this gerontocratic pack.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the centre-right People of Freedom party, is 76 and, for all the plastic surgery, is beginning to show his age.

Centrist leader Mario Monti - his head still ringing from the plaudits he won for saving Italy from a fate worse than Greece's - is 70 in March.

Apparatchik triumph

Just a few months ago it looked as if the old men were serious about handing over to a new generation and for a while it looked as if one whipper-snapper in particular was ready to make the leap.

Matteo Renzi - the mayor of Florence - was once described as a potential Italian Tony Blair. He is brazenly ambitious but smooth, sharp, telegenic and - at 37 - undeniably youthful.

But Mr Bersani, the old apparatchik, beat him by a country mile in the fight to lead the PD, in the process leaving the young pretender looking like an unwanted Christmas puppy that has been left out with the rubbish.

Image caption Pier Luigi Bersani (left) defeated the much younger Matteo Renzi

It was no coincidence, perhaps, that Mr Berlusconi then seemed to find fresh enthusiasm for the rough and tumble of political life - having previously hinted that he, too, was ready to hand over to a younger man.

Mr Renzi's biggest mistake was to think he could simply stroll into power by playing the age card, says Massimo Franco of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

But Italy's gerontocracy, he adds, is a symptom, not the cause, of the country's malaise.

"There are young people who seem old beyond their years - and older men and women whose minds are still fresh and open to new ways of thinking", says Mr Franco.

He cites the case of Mr Berlusconi's most recent heir apparent, Angelino Alfano.

Mr Alfano is just 42 but looks and sounds older.

Mario Monti, by contrast, may be a budding septuagenarian but has shown he is his own man and happy to embrace fresh thinking.

(The hair issue also plays its part, of course, in this vainest of countries: Mr Alfano is balding fast while Mr Monti still sports a distinguished mop of silver-grey hair.)

Conservative impulse

Maurizio Ferrera is professor of social policy at the State University of Milan. Today's politicians are, he says, the product of the post-war years, when parties of all persuasions looked to autocratic leadership models: the Left to the Soviet Union, the centre-right to the Vatican.

"You don't get young popes," he says. "This is a culture - on both sides - that rewards age, time-serving, loyalty."

Add to that the persistence of a traditional patriarchal family culture, Prof Ferrera argues, and a pension system that swallows vast sums of money that could otherwise be used to boost social mobility, and you end up with a society in which the young are dependent on their elders from the cradle almost to the grave.

"Everything depends on who you know, not what you know," he says.

"Conservatism is hot-wired into policymaking and gerontocracy is the end result."

Mr Franco brands this Italy's "original sin" - the source of a conformism and a lack of dynamism which stifle the best that the country has to offer and leave power in the hands of the old.

Italy's lost generation - the 24-40 year-olds with little hope of a home of their own or a proper job - may yet get their own back.

Beppe Grillo - himself no spring chicken at 64, but brimming with ideas for citizen-led democracy - is lurking in the wings, ready to make the most of a potential protest vote on an unprecedented scale.

Alternatively, the disaffected may simply not bother to vote.