Italian Elections

It may be of use for our friends and family in America for me to chronicle the outcome of the most recent Italian national elections, as best as I understand it. My understanding is certainly imperfect.

Italy voted on March 4 in national elections. It’s a parliamentary system here, which is still opaque in certain ways to me (“What do you mean a ‘no confidence’ vote dissolves the government?”), but the most important aspect to remember for Americans is that Italians vote for parties with platforms, not for individuals. This is the inverse of the US, where we vote for individuals with ideas, and the RNC and DNC lurk in a shadow background of massive funding and string-pulling.

I sometimes bemoan our American, personality-driven election cycles. I remember as a wee university runt interning in the US Senate in 1994, hearing august senators bemoan in public the gridlock in the American political system, and others citing a parliamentary system as a way to require political collaboration. But these days it is hard to say which system breeds more gridlock: parliamentary or … the US system… whatever we call it now.

For much of the old guard progressives, the March 4 elections were nothing short of a disaster. The PD (Partita Democratica) posted its worst result in perhaps forever. These are the old school, post-war liberal democrats. The party of Matteo Renzi, and big neo-liberal ideas that just don’t even begin to address the even bigger problems that Italians perceive in their society.

The Lega and Cinque Stelle parties posted a huge portion of votes between the two of them, but neither of them earned enough to have a majority and thus appoint all their own ministers to cabinet positions. So, parliamentary fun! This is where I am always either amused or quickly lost: It’s Coalition Time!

The Lega party arose in the Po Valley some decades ago. It is widely known as an Italy First party that promotes Italian sovereignty, but the ugly flipside of that platform is a lot of xenophobia, outright racism, and hatred for anyone not meeting a narrowly defined idea of Who Is Italian (Thanks, Risorgimento! Those mid-nineteenth century nation-state ideals are really paying handsome dividends in the twenty-first century).

The Cinque Stelle party started about ten years ago, headed by a well-known comedian who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter before he started the party. This man, Beppe Grillo, is an agent provocateur. He has no real ideas other than to provoke and to say that “government is bad and should be different,” and he is ineligible for public office due to that unfortunate incident. When his five-star (luxury non government? what does Five Stars even mean) party began, it attracted many young people and untried politicians. The first elections were exciting. People under 80 getting elected in Italy! who woulda thunk it!

Cinque Stelle started behaving as a group though in faintly alarming ways, if one ever read and remembered one’s twentieth-century Italian history. These tendencies! They stayed in a sort of Roman dorm together when the legislature was in session. They got checked in and on to make sure they were up to snuff for the platform (does this happen in other parliamentary governments? Feel free to weigh in, Brits and Spaniards.)

Jason joked once to a friend of ours, who is an elected Cinque Stelle official on a smaller town’s city council, that all they needed were matching shirts, perhaps in a tasteful black and tan? The friend was not amused. We have not made a similar joke since. They are touchy about the political tack the party has taken, to the right, anti-EU and anti-immigrant. Because what has the EU ever done for Italy! Well, Italy, aside from the fact that you are a founding member, and also those two most unfortunate world wars that started and ended here and elsewhere, and also some breathtaking genocidal incidents. But, you know, screw the EU!

Then Turin and Rome voted in mayors from the Cinque Stelle party, and that has not gone so well. Both mayors are young, smart women (Chiara and Virginia, respectively) who have been fed to the metaphorical woodchipper, and will soon be fleeing their proverbial burning cities. Rome is now widely judged to be ungovernable, a chaotic melee covered in bags full of trash, and Turin, who knows? It used to run pretty well, a stronghold of the left, and still seems like a nice place to live to me, but I am not Italian. It’s really polluted too, in that valley, so much so that it looks like you’re schlepping through London, ca. 1880.

So, as far as I understand it, la Lega and Cinque Stelle are populist parties with some fairly typical platform overlap. And Cinque Stelle has a 31-year-old leader who looks like he’s in high school, keepin’ it youthful, y’all! He actually reminds me of some Trumpsters who have lately found themselves in hot water stateside. Better than the Lega leader, who has been known to take personal action against the presence of immigrants in his local area up north. And after almost three months of polemic, there emerged yesterday an agreement and a formal coalition between the two parties: they will govern together, for as long as they can all stand each other, and their leader is Giuseppe Conte of Cinque Stelle, an attorney from Puglia who lives in Florence where he teaches on the law faculty. He looks, it must be said, a lot like Renzi. They must get these guys out of central casting, but then again, they are Italian. Dimples, HWP, tailored suit, nice smile, not much grey.

Here’s a side by side. Uncanny, no? We got a replacement, Italy! It’s gonna be okay! He’s wearing a suit – a nice one – you won’t even notice the difference! 

Conte.

Renzi.

They say he is discreet, a man of measure, passionate about the law.

(I gleaned all this from reading the headline article in Le Monde this morning on my phone, and I was amused at the very French compliments, seemingly in diametric opposition, of a man at once both discreet and passionate. For heaven’s sake, he sounds like a Parisian Lothario, but we’ll leave that for later speculation or revelation. “Tell me what you know about Conte, because we know nothing!” my dentist chirruped at me this morning as I presented myself for yet another appointment.)

Conte is passionate, again, about Italian law. That must be a great d
eal of passion, because Italy has a LOT of laws that seem to have taken root in Roman times and grown and accrued until today (and also, thanks Napoleon, for that sweet sweet code), and now they have so many laws, you’d better be passionate about it if you think law is the right career choice for you!

This breaking news today is on every Italian mind. As I was walking into my office on Piazza della Repubblica, one of my rented colleagues cornered me. I have mentioned Iris before in these posts, and her political explanations. Today, of course, she wanted to cover this development.

“Who knows who this guy is!” she said. “But Italy is so broken, we have to try something.”

“Spain had no government for over four years, and no one really noticed, Spaniards included,” I said. “Maybe this is the natural conclusion of all G-7 countries, because Spain, the UK, Italy, and the US all have the same problem. The country cannot calmly be led, but meanwhile there is lo stato profondo underneath that is still working away and functioning.” I was pleased I got all this out in Italian.

“Well, we will try this,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Who knows how long it will last.”

“France gives it five, no more than six months,” I said, neglecting to mention the article had quoted Italian insiders.

Iris looked taken aback. “Well, who cares what France thinks. We have to try! Nothing works here. And anyway, if this doesn’t work, in four years we will change it to another way that also doesn’t work.”

I laughed out loud on the stairs.

“You have universal healthcare,” I said. “And a lot of vacation time.”

“Yeah, so what!” she replied. “Our real income has not increased in decades.”

I pointed out no one in America had recognized any real income increase either, and that GenX and GenY were making less than our parents even when both parents worked, in terms of purchasing power. She conceded my perspective.

I am always amazed at how Italians think Italy is broken, and then attempt to good-naturedly indict me on grounds of my purported rose-colored (surely American) glasses.

Note: work on projecting more grumpy in Italian public.

“Italy is like heaven for Americans,” I thought, mentally ticking off all the safety, and good food, and affordable healthcare here.

“You are so American,” she sighed, as we walked in the door.

“You need your own television show, or podcast, and call it Parla Iris, and you can explain political topics like this to, uh, foreigners like me.”

She rolled her eyes at me and sat down at her desk.

Thinking about it now, what concerns me most about the recent result is the lack of diversity in leadership. Italy is more diverse than they admit, or want to be. Everyone at the table in this conversation is an Italian man out of central casting.

Twelve Angry Italians.

Florence: Italian Post-election Commisseration

As you know, I have rented office space in the Sprachcaffe, on Via Brunelleschi, on the south side of Piazza della Repubblica, closest to the Arno.

The warm and friendly international staff have been a boon to me this fall as I move through the innumerable steps of cultural and personal transition. They have all been, to a person, respectful, international, and welcoming.(Okay, maybe slightly less so that one guy, Francesco, who seems to maintain a huge wardrobe of logoed college hoodies, and who shushed me that one day for being on a conference call in my rented salotto. But he and I worked it out that one night at aperitivo hour with everyone from the school.) There’s a Canadian-Italian, a German, some other Americans on
staff. A Romanian or two. A possible Russian, and some more Italians. It is a flourishing business.

 I think this man actually is on teaching staff.
But this picture is at least ten years old.
He’s really nice.

The student population is composed of a varied mix of Erasmus students, fine art people, wandering small groups of the same geoethnic origin, and Women of a Certain Age, the last group perhaps hoping to star in a real-life Barilla commercial.

The foreign student crowd is mostly present in the early afternoon, after their Italian language classes have concluded. By 5:30 p.m., the Italian professionals begin arriving to join their evening foreign language classes (French, Spanish, English, German). A number of these Italian professionals are weary, suited men over 55. There is also a group of schoolkids who do an English class, and who have some tiger moms of both Asian and Italian origin.

The director of the school, Iris, is Florentine through and through. She is a nonna, with one grandson, who just turned last week some number under 60 which she would not specify. Iris is very proud of her city’s storied history, and from time to time she comes to sit on my conference room table to loop me on on important topics, which in the past have included:

  1. How Cosimo di Medici receives an inordinate amount of praise, when he was only a banker.
  2. How the Medici cable series is a bust, and totally inaccurate.
  3. How Lorenzo really was magnificent.
  4. How Michaelangelo was NOT Florentine, but his parents were on the Medici staff.
  5. A reprise of the story of the David and how it came to be, as Michaelangelo located the unloved hulk of marble in a Carrara quarry, gave it a quick tink with his chisel, and suddenly saw the potential for greatness.
  6. How and why Michaelangelo broke the nose of the David, out of spite.

This is all critical information in Florence. The past doesn’t feel that far away. Seriously, Iris talks to me about the Medici family as though they were all still alive.

She gets going, and goes fast. I try to follow but am probably getting about 70%. She is also very Italian in that no sidebar conversation is too long, so I have to limit her somewhat guiltily in an American way as I watch my email and IM go nuts for my work between 2 and 6 pm.

Yesterday, she stopped by my table. I wished her a happy late birthday, which made her very happy indeed, as she kissed both my cheeks and said auguri were always welcome. “Monica, cara, what do you think of the Tramp results?”

I always pause when she says “Tramp” before I realize she is talking about our president-elect.

“I was molto turbata last week, ” I say. “This is terrible news.” I smiled weakly. “I am regaining my composure now.”

Iris perched on the edge of the table to settle in for a nice long contextual explanation. “Do you know, Monica? Your system is still better. Do you know why? At least you all voted for your turd (stronzo). We don’t even get to vote for a turd. We haven’t voted in four years. All we have are groups of turds who run things behind the scenes and who keep picking new turd leaders from within the party. It’s an embarrassment.” I nodded. Iris never loses steam. “And this constitutional referendum! It is ridiculous.”

“I don’t know anyone who is voting yes for it,” I said. As though I had just personally polled half of Tuscany.

“Ma che!” Iris exclaimed. “The Italian constitution, written in 1946, is the MOST beautiful thing about our country.” She declaimed the first sentence of it for me, which I know because Jason also – and often – declaims it. This must be some kind of calling card for Italian culture. I make a mental note to memorize the first sentence of the Italian constitution. “… And these unelected turds,” she continued, “just want to change it like idiots.”

“Renzi is going to have to step down,” I said, repeating what I read in the paper over a capucho. “This is never going to pass.” PM Renzi, like the erstwhile UK PM Cameron, has banked his political career on the passage of the constitutional  referendum.

“Magari! I hope so! Ma che!” she exclaimed.

I stayed quiet about the unreliability of polls and the filter bubble, and held my tongue when tempted to caution her against believing that all of Italy would vote as the Florentine electorate – comfortable, educated – believes. This has been a theme in 2016, people – pay attention. The electorates do not want to take the medicine. They are tired of being told what is good for them when they feel like nothing is good for them.

“Well, the good thing about you Americans,” she went on, “is that you will get to elect your own turd, and if you do not like him, then you get to go back to the polls in four years and elect another turd.”

I fail to completely see how this is progress, but next to what she has explained, with very clear frustration, about the Italian system which is dominated by party rule, I can kind of understand it.

“And, if your newly-elected turd is a huge turd, you can impeach him (buttarlo)!” she added. “Then you know that you elected him and you kicked him out, and everything was free and open.”

Well, not quite, I think. Can’t we freely and openly elect a non-turd? We just did that twice, in 2008 and 2012.

“I do not like how our presidential elections have disintegrated into cults of personality with no discussion of policy,” I say. (My Italian is a little stammering at this point. I am freely inventing words and grammar to convey my political opinions.)

“Well, we have that too, but we never even get to vote on the turds,” she said. She clapped an open hand down on the table, and said, “I have to go.”

At this point all I can think of is Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo from South Park.

I was very glad that Iris was able to shed some positive light on this whole outcome for me, in terms of “turds you vote for versus turds you don’t vote for.”

She’s got a point. I didn’t vote for the Tramp turd, but a bunch of people did. Like almost half. Even th
ough we know Clinton leads the popular vote by one million, which is a topic for a different post. Or not.

Tramp is, indeed, the turd we voted for.