Disaffected young Italians turn to 'protest votes'

ROME Thu Feb 28, 2008 8:32am EST

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ROME Feb 28 (Reuters) - A growing number of young Italians plan to show their dismay with national politics by turning in invalid ballots in April's election, egged on by email campaigns and calls to boycott the familiar cast of ageing politicians.

Voting for Italy's 62nd post-war government comes amid a deepening sense of gloom, and few are as disillusioned with the squabbling political class as Italians in their 20s and 30s.

They expect little to change no matter who comes to power.

"It's always the same faces, the same politicians who give no hope things will get any better," said Niccolo Parri, 31, a doctor who plans to turn in an empty ballot.

He is one of many attracted by the words of comedians like Beppe Grillo, who has urged Italians to say "F..k off" to politicians, and Rosario Fiorello, who last week told Italians to "tear up their ballots and throw them in the streets".

About 6 to 8 percent of voters -- mainly young people in the north -- have been swept up in the "anti-politics" movement, estimates the pollster Luigi Crespi.

"We'll see a major increase in the number of protest votes and the number of people writing 'Vaffanculo' (F..k off) on the ballot form or handing in blank ballots," Crespi said.

He estimates the number of blank ballots will nearly triple to about 1 million during the April 13-14 election from about 400,000 in the last parliamentary election two years ago.

Grillo, who has said he will not vote, used his popular blog to urge Germany to cart off Italy's "toxic waste" politicians.

Fiorello toned down his comments on not voting but pop star Zucchero has stepped in, saying Italy needs a revolution and that politicians will get the message if nobody shows up to vote.

POLITICAL FARCE

Italy has been plunged into gloom over the past year, with a new book on politicians' fat pay and perks outraging people already weighed down by high prices and stagnant salaries.

Exasperation is particularly high among those in their 20s and 30s, many stuck in poorly paid temporary jobs with little security or prospects, forcing them to live with their parents.

The best jobs are held by the over 50s and in geriatric business and political circles even 40-somethings are upstarts.

The Bank of Italy says the wage gap between old and young shot up from 20 percent in the late 1980s to 35 percent in the early 2000s, partly due to the growth of short-term contracts.

"Small cohorts of young workers seem to bear the burden of high social security contributions and tax rates, slow growth of real wages and meagre pension benefits," its economists said.

Outgoing Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, centre-left candidate for prime minister, wants to tap into the disenchantment.

At 52, he is two decades younger than the centre right's Silvio Berlusconi and made headlines by putting up a 27-year-old economist for parliament. But many are not buying that either.

"I voted for the left in 2006 and I've discovered they've not done even a single thing they promised during their campaign," said Roman Malych, 37, who helped organize a Grillo-inspired 'Vaffa-day' rally in Rome last year.

"As for the right, it's the same people over and over again. There are plenty of people like me in their 30s who feel unrepresented by all these old politicians."

The information technology consultant says he believes in voting so plans to show up at the polling booth, but will have an electoral worker certify that he refused to vote.

Malych says he caught on to the idea from an email being passed around, which he publicised on a Website he set up with his friends that he says has over 50,000 members.

Sergio Romano, a well-known political commentator, says he too receives angry letters saying nobody should vote, but that the jury is still out on how many will really boycott the polls.

"I don't think Italians will turn their back on politics," he said. "They are terribly disappointed by the political farce. What they seem to want is a different kind of politics." (Editing by Tim Pearce)

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