By Tobias Jones, author of of ‘The Dark Heart of Italy’ (THE GUARDIAN, 08/04/06):
Tomorrow the curtain comes down on what I consider the strangest show on earth: an Italian general election. If you’re thinking that a bunch of dull politicians with their fragile promises can’t be much of a pageant, think again. The great thing about an Italian election is that – unusually for such an occasion – politics hardly comes into it.When voters enter the ballot box tomorrow they can look back on one of the most entertaining spettacoli of recent times: Silvio Berlusconi set the tone by surprising voters with the promise to give up sex for the entirety of the campaign; his minister for health resigned after he was accused of hiring private investigators to spy on political rivals; a showgirl, Mara Carfagna, decided to run as a candidate in Campania; tens of thousands of people have paraded through piazzas with sandwich-boards saying “I’m a pillock” (don’t ask); the owners of Milan and Fiorentina football teams had a public slanging match; Berlusconi said communists used to boil babies; the Chinese embassy protested that no, they’ve never boiled bambini. It’s been a fun few weeks.
Such theatricality requires a complex stage design. There are 174 officially registered symbols in this election. As with the country’s Catholicism, the proselytising is pictorial: the whole appearance of the country has changed as flags, banners and posters remind voters of the parties’ symbols – a flame, a rainbow, a dove, a shield, an olive.
That astonishing number of symbols is part of the reason why political debate is so rare. Much of the electoral discussion in the last few months has been about coalitions. The central element of debate is partitica, not politica: it’s about party politics. Newspaper scoops make parliament sound like a school playground – it’s all about who are now best friends or suddenly sworn enemies.
There are many consequences. For one, the average ballot paper is what they call a scheda-lenzuolo, the size of a bed sheet. And if it’s complicated being a political journalist in Italy, imagine what it’s like for a leader trying to control his backbenchers – there are 33 parties represented in Romano Prodi’s coalition, 35 in that of Berlusconi.
When you look at all those political logos, something interesting emerges. Pride of place is given not to the party but the leader. Posters say “vote UDC” or “vote AN” but much more prominently they urge “vote Casini” or “vote Fini” . Unlike Britain, the politicians are all older and more established than their parties. Of all the major parties, only the Partito Radicale was founded before the 1990s. Parties change so often that the figurehead is more important than the party itself.
The fact that personalities are more recognisable than parties means that an election can, like this one, be between a man who has no party (Prodi) and a man whose charisma and extra-parliamentary power are so gargantuan that he created his own from scratch (Berlusconi). It means that crossing the floor to join a rival formation is commonplace. In the previous parliament, a staggering 158 politicians changed party or coalition. Above all, it means politics appears characterised by old-fashioned patronage, in which reciprocal favours are more important than ideals and policies.
It all leads to what is the enduring image of Italian political life – trasformismo, the tendency to have so many cabinet and coalition reshuffles that nothing gets done. One friend calls it musical chairs without chairs being removed: the politicians move but they’re never ousted, never banished. Exactly the same incumbent and challenger in this election were competing in the general election in 1996, 10 years ago. Were it not for persistent rumours about Berlusconi’s ill health I would half expect to see them still at it in another 10 years’ time.
The “stayability” of politicians with blemished reputations, from Giulio Andreotti to Berlusconi, is similar to another trait of the political theatre – the baddies are never booed off stage. It may be because of the Catholic custom of confessionalism, it may be because the powerful really are above the law, it may be that there are so few “goodies” that there is no contrast. “It’s not that mud doesn’t stick,” another friend said, “it’s that there’s so much of it that it doesn’t matter if it does.”
It means that whatever wrongs are committed, dynasties and notorious names always survive. She may be a marginal figure, but Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of il Duce, is still in parliament. In the scramble for votes, her Alternativa Sociale party has been welcomed into Berlusconi’s coalition. More than anywhere else, power is an heirloom. Bobo Craxi, the son of the disgraced former prime minister Bettino, is part of Prodi’s coalition. Had she not lost the primaries, Milly Moratti, wife of Massimo Moratti, the owner of Inter Milan, would have been running against her sister-in-law Letizia Moratti to be mayor of Milan.
To keep the same people in power, the electoral system has to be frequently reinvented. The First Republic (1945 to 1993) was the archetypal PR system. It meant the Italian equivalent of the 1997 “Twigging” of Portillo was simply inconceivable. Proportional representation “lists” guaranteed that the mighty never need fall – your party might be sixth past the post but if you were near the top of that losing party’s list, you would still be returned to parliament. Voter backlash was felt by the foot soldiers, never by the leaders.
Since that strange system didn’t allow any Goliaths to be slain, a more sinister backlash emerged in the form of extra-parliamentary agitation. Italy was renowned for political terrorism during the 70s and 80s. There are still occasional political assassinations, riots, and many fascists and communists who remain unconvinced by the democratic system. All of which only perpetuates the stagnant centre, which presents itself as the bulwark against “opposing extremes”. Inertia leads to agitation which reinforces inertia.
At the birth of the Second Republic, 90% of Italians voted to adopt a first-past-the-post method. But what emerged was 75% first past the post and 25% still PR. It was a system so complicated that at every election, large newspaper graphics were dedicated to explaining something called the scorporo. The next time you’re idling in Italy, try asking someone to explain it. You’ll need a calculator, a lot of coffee and at least a couple of hours. Complication often appears to be the way the country works and, if you’re cynical, it rarely seems to be in favour of the common man.
A new electoral law was unilaterally introduced by Berlusconi only months ago. It returns Italy, after 12 years of flirtation with first past the post, to a proportional system. It has led some to suggest Italy is entering a Third Republic, more like the first than the second. We’re back to cautious centrist policies and electoral lists.
To top it all, the process is hostage to outside influences. No one knows how influential they are, but various mafias certainly make their presence felt during elections. Read what you like into the fact that Berlusconi, in 2001, won 100% of the parliamentary seats in Sicily. Organised crime also means politics is affected by the bullet as well as the ballot box: Francesco Fortugno, vice-president of the Calabria region, was murdered in October, almost certainly by the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia (dominant in the toe of Italy).
Other influences are more benevolent or bizarre. The Vatican can still be a king-maker. Before every election there’s a queue of eager politicians leaving national territory for a photo-opportunity with the Pope. More strangely, this election sees 12 seats in the Camera and six in the Senate decided by the worldwide diaspora of Italian descendants in four electoral colleges (North and Central America, South America, Europe and the Rest of the World). The diplomatic and democratic consequences are only just beginning to sink in. It means, for instance, that the Italo-Scottish restaurant critic of the Glasgow Herald, Ron MacKenna, may find himself elected to the Italian parliament. If the election result is closer than expected, he and 17 other foreigners may find themselves holding the balance of power in Rome.
The final reason that proportional representation feels disproportionally unrepresentative is that there’s an acute gender and generational imbalance. Of 315 elected senators, only 25 are women. You have to be over 25 to vote for the senate and over 40 to run for it. You quickly begin to feel that the country is the opposite of Britain: where we’re obsessed by the youth of our leaders, Italy is determined to remain a gerontocracy.
So it’s understandable that most Italians have a jaundiced view of Italian politics. Yet such are the contradictions of the country that its democracy is envied throughout the west. Voter turnout at the last general election, in 2001, was 82.7%. Compare that with 61.3% in Britain in 2005.
Paradoxically, the political situation is so desperate, so apparently hopeless, that everyone understands the responsibility of casting their vote. And that despite the fact that proxy and postal votes are unheard of. As you read this, Italian trains will be overloaded with electors returning to their home town to vote. Casting your vote is still seen as of such importance that, for instance, Parma town council offers to pay the train fare for foreign-based Parmigiani to return on election day. It may be that turnout is so high because Italians, living in a youngish democracy, take it less for granted. It certainly helps that such a high percentage of the population are enrolled in a party – the Democratici di Sinistra, for instance, have a powerful membership of 604,655.
It’s true that such a high turnout is in some ways the consequence of tribalism. If high politics often seems strangely apolitical, everyday life is extraordinarily politicised. You can tell someone’s politics by the strangest things: which football team they support; which coffee they drink (the Illy brand has leftwing connotations as its owner, the president of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, Riccardo Illy, is part of the centre-left alliance); which books they read (Tolkien was, during the 1970s, an unlikely icon of the fascist movement); even which shoes they wear (Tods shoes are made by Diego Della Valle, the owner of Fiorentina football team and vociferous critic of Berlusconi). In a country in which politics is so often conducted through symbolism and gesture, there’s a kind of livery that allows you to recognise, almost on first acquaintance, someone’s political sympathies.
But the democratic engagement goes deeper than symbolism. There’s a quality of debate that is rarely seen in Britain. There are frequently referendums on topics that are politically soft but morally hard, like stem cell research; the debates regarding such subjects are impressively profound. When I first moved to Italy I used to be amused by the fact that schoolchildren would go on strike. Surely that’s just sophisticated truancy, I used to think. But when you talk to them you realise that they’re informed and opinionated to a degree very rare among young Britons. The stagnancy of national politics only seems to make them more eager to get involved.
And if Roman politics can be depressing, local politics is rather impressive. Italy is famously decentralised and no self-respecting village is without its caput mundi graffiti: where you were born is the centre of the country. That attachment to your own patch often throws up charismatic and effective mayors. It might not sound like much, but I rather admire their intelligent approaches to transport and education.
In any democracy there’s a simple equation that suggests that voters get the politicians they deserve. For more than a century it’s been one of the greatest enigmas about Italy. How did a country with such intelligent, inventive and generous constituents end up with such uninspiring politicians? The generous reply is that the democratic equation is invalidated because Italian democracy is skew-wiff. The harsher reply is that the iconic politicians of postwar Italy – Giulio Andreotti, Bettino Craxi and Silvio Berlusconi – really are representative of the Italian majority. The greatest hope for tomorrow’s election is that, for once, the result may reflect the idealism, and not the cynicism, of the voting public.