Local elections normally just give politicians a hint of what they might expect in the general election; they allow the parties to adjust their sights to whatever is next. But not this year.

More than a wake-up call for the traditional parties, last month’s elections sounded more like a death knell; for which parties it tolls we shall know some time early next year when they reorganise in time for the spring general election. While the traditional parties are working to recover credibility, Mario Monti’s non-party government navigates between a seriously damaged Greece – which risks defaulting on its debt and/or leaving the euro – and continued pressure from the markets as it tries to keep domestic discontent under control and encourage economic growth. Instead of political tension winding down before the summer break, it risks rising dangerously.

Greece goes to the polls on 17 June and there is a European leaders’ summit at the end of the month when they will have to deal with the results. Monti has been pushing for growth since January and has used his own standing in Europe to back up this policy, but he had to face the Franco-German call for austerity first. Now, after François Hollande’s victory in France and the Christian Democrat set-back in German local elections, Chancellor Merkel is in a much weaker position to block growth.

Last month’s G8 also saw President Obama encouraging European growth because his own re-election in the United States depends at least partially on a European recovery. The most immediate and acute problem, though, is still Greece. In May’s elections, the electorate rejected the traditional parties and Europe’s stringent austerity measures.

The European institutions and leaders and the G8 still hope that Greece’s position in the eurozone can be maintained, but there are contingency plans for a default and there is even a new word “Grexit” for Greece leaving the euro. At the same time as negotiating with the European partners and trying to calm international markets, Monti has to mediate between the ever fractious elements of the coalition which support the government.

His January growth package still languishes in parliament with each party loath to pass measures to liberalise restrictive practices that would hurt their constituencies, be they taxi drivers, pharmacists, petrol station owners or wholesalers. He and the minister of labour, Elsa Fornero, promised wide-ranging reforms to the labour market in March, but progress stopped when unions and employers refused to compromise on changes to article 18 of the Workers’ Statute.

This gives an unfairly fired worker the option of getting the job back instead of being given monetary compensation. It only affects tens of cases every year but has become the symbol that employers want to bring down and unions want to defend. The other big issue, the reform of the administration of justice, has not even been broached. An efficient and rapid court system would help economic development if civil cases could be decided quickly. Justice as a whole would be served by reducing the interminable trial times. A recent book compares the US and Italian systems and has provoked much discussion*.

In a seminar at the British embassy in Rome, English and Italian judges and lawyers identified the sticking points in the Italian system and suggested remedies. But none of the suggestions are likely to be on the statute books before the next elections. Reform of parliament and the parties is not within the government’s mandate but the parties themselves have dragged their heels on every issue. First and foremost in the public mind is a reduction in public financing for political parties, accentuated by the scandals in the Lega Nord and the now defunct Margherita. In both cases, the treasurer is alleged to have shifted millions of euro for personal profit. There is much talk of a reduction of party financing but so far there has been little action, and in any case the proposed reductions are minor.

There is also the perception that the parliamentarians are the highest paid in Europe and there is much talk and some proposals to reduce the number but little chance of a constitutional amendment passing before next year’s elections. Another issue on which party leaders apparently agree but do very little is the electoral law. The present law, nicknamed porcellum, roughly “pig’s dinner”, gives a premium to the winning coalition and has a fixed party list. This means that parliamentarians are beholden to their leader (who put them high enough up the list to be elected) rather than to the voters.

There is much talk of introducing a French-style double ballot, but again, we should not be holding our breath. Finally the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, has urged parties to leave space for younger leaders to replace Italy’s gerontocracy, but in this case, too, there is little sign of anyone stepping down. The effects were felt in the local elections. In the run-offs at the end of May, turnout was down to almost 50 per cent of the electorate, a record low.

All the established parties did badly. The Lega Nord, hit by scandals, lost everywhere except Verona where outgoing mayor Flavio Tosi has a strong personal following. The centre-right Popolo della Libertà lost support across the board, so much so that Silvio Berlusconi has hinted that he might make a come-back. The centre-left did well but the biggest party, the Partito Democratico, did well only when led by a non-PD candidate, which is not a good omen for next year.

The only undoubted winner was the Movimento Cinque Stelle led by Genoese comic Beppe Grillo, whose candidate came from behind to win in Parma. Polls give the movement over 10 per cent nationally, the third biggest block of votes. But to be successful next year, it will have to move from its very effective grass-roots campaign to a national organisation and platform and show that it can actually run a city like Parma. And that campaign is only just beginning. *Antonello Mura e Antonio Patrono, “La giustizia penale in Italia: un processo da sbloccare. La lezione americana”.

James Walston