Suffolk Student Abroad: Thanksgiving Lessons in Italian Politics

Sitting at the dinner table of an American ex-patriot living in Florence on Sunday night, for a belated Thanksgiving celebration, I was surrounded by turkey, stuffing, and political chatter. A familiar scene from a late November day back home, only I wasn’t listening to my various family members bemoaning or celebrating a second term for the President and the election of a new senator, nor could I hear the excited announcements of a football game.

Instead, a television in this kitchen was switched to a news channel covering the special primary election of the Centrosinistra, or center-left political coalition, as incoming ballot results revealed who the Italian people want the political party to put forth as a candidate for prime minister during the upcoming general election this April.

The final result, announced just before midnight on Sunday, left no one candidate with a majority. The two most popular on the ballot, Pier Luigi Bersani, a leader in the Democratic Party, and Matteo Renzi, the young, outspoken Mayor of Florence, took 45 and 35 percent of the vote, respectively, according to the national Italian newspaper La Repubblica. A run-off primary election is scheduled for this Sunday, December 2, to decide who should lead the party in this important election season.

According to opinion polls cited by Reuters, Bersani is expected to cross the 50 percent threshold in the run-off as pundits believe supporters of Nichi Vendola, the gay, communist president of the Puglia region who placed third in the primary with 16 percent, will likely choose Bersani over Renzi.

It is important to note that in Italy, the prime minister is not directly voted for by the people in the general election—the President (who is elected by the two houses of parliament in a joint session) appoints a PM from the majority party or coalition in the legislature—so ballots cast this spring only allow voters to choose members of parliament.

Holding a primary election to determine a party leader is a very new idea for Italian politics, with the first such election occurring in 2008. The newness of this event was evident in the comments of the Italian dinner guests, as one wondered how such a primary open to all registered voters, not just supporters of the left, could accurately reflect who the party felt best represented them. It would be as if the Republican Party primary in the U.S. were also open for registered Democrats to participate, which is not the case under the rules of most U.S. states.

“Why wouldn’t opposition members just vote for the worst candidate to ruin the left’s chances?” he asked the table. “Because it will still cost them to vote,” joked another guest. In Italy, there is a two Euro fee, similar to the poll tax explicitly banned by the U.S. Constitution, which must be paid in order for one to vote.

But the new political procedures and discussions are largely welcomed by Italians, as they attempt once again to overcome an era of government corruption and inefficiency. According to several Italian correspondents and political pundits at the English newspaper The Guardian, there is hope that the 2013 election will bring about a ‘third republic,’ a kind of rebirth, in Italian governing. But only a feeble, cautionary optimism exists for now, as political apathy is a strong force in recent history here.

The first republic, officially established in 1948 when Italians voted to end the monarchy and replacedtheir king with a president, was plagued with problems. While two main parties did exist, the Communist Party (PC) on the left and the Christian Democrats (DC) on the right, only the DC ever garnered enough votes to rule in Cold War-era Italy.

Professor Federico Vitelli, an expert on Italian culture and history at Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, explains that this imbalance produced a “false bipolarism” in politics and allowed the DC to do as they pleased, unchecked by any other authority. As the Cold War came to a close, the Italian PC was all but obliterated as a political group in parliament and the numerous corruption scandals of the DC, known collectively as Tangentopoli, led to the party’s collapse. This lack of reliable leadership marks the death of the first republic and builds the foundation for the establishment on an unofficial second republic.

“[Silvio] Berlusconi exploits this change in a sense to have his new party fill the void left by the DC,” Prof. Vitelli explains. Berlusconi—a three-time Prime Minister of Italy, media tycoon who owns businesses like the first ever privately owned Italian television empire, Canale 5, to the Milan AC football club, and now notorious symbol of corruption for his financial and sexual scandals—founded his party Forza Italia! and the center right coalition Popoli della Liberita, or Freedom People (PdL), which brought about the second republic. The PdL has dominated the political scene in Italy in the last two decades, but has been experiencing a steady decline in power since Berlusconi’s latest scandal and as the economic crisis of the European Union worsens.

Berlusconi, with his cult of personality and bombastic rhetoric, originally decided back in October that he would not be a contender for PM, but just a few days later backed off this statement during a heated press conference speech in Milan attacking the Italian judiciary (which had just charged him with tax evasion and sentenced him to a four years in prison.) Berlusconi, as reported by La Repubblica, mentioned the potential to withdraw confidence from current PM Mario Monti and his technocrat government. This would allow for a ‘snap election’ to take place months earlier than the general election and allow the PdL to take back power with Berlusconi, presumably, as head yet again.

PM Mario Monti has been credited with keeping Italy economically afloat without bailout assistance from the EU, but also criticized by his people for instating the domestic austerity measures and tax increases that made this possible. Although not as dramatic as the problems and resistance in Spain and Greece, Italians have protested numerous times against Monti’s decisions in city squares from Milan to Rome.

In an interview with Al Jazeera this past weekend as part of his trip to the Middle East to find investors for Italian businesses, Monti defended Italy’s contracting economy as  “only nature” in the wake of a worldwide recession and says that his government is now “done with austerity” measures. Monti reiterates that he will not be running for Prime Minister again in 2013, but declines to endorse any leader or party. Monti’s government has restored a fragile stability to Italy’s political system, but Italians now seem to be turning to fresh new leaders, like Bersani and Renzi to led them to a new era, a third republic of Italy. Many leaders have promised change in the past only to be found caught up in the same scandals and political deadlock as the leaders before them, leaving a scar on Italians’ confidence in leaders. As candidates begin to emerge and election season reaches its peak speculation time, Italians are skeptically searching for a change.