MILAN, Italy — Three years after a young mayor of Florence became prime minister on a ticket of generational change, Italians go to the polls on March 4 with little hope of electing a new government with any real sense of direction. The country is facing an existential vacuum that is screaming to be filled.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, at the head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), is no longer the popular force he was. He came to office promising radical institutional reforms to make Italy much easier to govern, and he tried to deliver. Among other things, his proposals would have abolished the Italian Senate — the upper house of parliament— as a serious force.
But if there is one thing Italians will not countenance, it’s a single man with a strong local power base leading national affairs from the front. Renzi lost a referendum on his reforms in December 2016 and was forced to resign as prime minister. And while he won a new mandate to run the PD, the party quickly began to split around his autocratic figure, and he is now considered a spent force.
Renzi’s successor, former Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, presents himself as intelligent, neutral, accommodating, bland — the kind of caretaker leader Italians are happy with. One reason for Italy’s weakness in international forums is that very often the leaders they send to them (Mario Monti, Enrico Letta, and now Gentiloni) have no real power in the country. They are where they are because they do not threaten the apple cart of vested interests.
The outcome of the election is made doubly uncertain by the introduction in October 2017 of a new electoral law.
At election time, however, the more dynamic, disruptive, outspoken party leaders come to the fore. Battling it out with Renzi’s PD, there are essentially three other major players Italians can choose from.
The 5Star Movement — founded in 2009 by the volcanic, ex-comedian Beppe Grillo — is polling highest ahead, with 27 percent to the PD’s 24 percent. Essentially an anti-establishment, utopian, puritan grouping — it is not even officially a party — the 5Stars draw on the huge and growing dissatisfaction consequent on the long decline of the economy, very high levels of youth unemployment (close to 35 percent) and high levels of immigration. Stronger on negatives than positives, it attacks coziness and corruption, European bureaucracy and German supremacy, and is characterized by its use of the internet for all party decisions.
Grillo himself will never become prime minister, however, or even be elected to parliament. With a loudly-proclaimed policy of excluding all those convicted of criminal offences from parliament, he automatically excluded himself (he was tried and convicted of manslaughter, following a road accident in 1981). The party will thus head into the election proposing 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio as its candidate prime minister, a man who, like Gentiloni, can be put aside at a moment’s notice, since he is not a real focus of group loyalty.
It is not clear what a government headed by the M5S would actually do. They have talked of a referendum to withdraw from the euro, which is perceived to be a key factor in the country’s economic decline (an assessment recently supported and carefully argued by none other than the head of the Bank of Italy).
But despite growing dissatisfaction with European monetary policy, and Germany in particular, there is no great enthusiasm for abandoning European institutions and no widespread belief that Italy could ever “go it alone.” Grillo is posturing. What people want is a more effective and benevolent Europe, which is as much as to say, better weather.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, at 16 percent of the vote, constitutes the only large party on the center right. Because of a 2013 condemnation for corruption, the 81-year-old businessman cannot stand for election or hold any public office until 2019. (He is contesting the ban at the European Court, but the verdict will not arrive in time for the election.) Whom the party proposes as an eventual prime minister will depend on its alliance with the fourth-largest party and only other major player, the Northern League, with its dynamic, man-of-the-people leader, Matteo Salvini.
In the past, the Northern League concentrated almost entirely on the north of the country. Now, Salvini is seeking support from the whole of Italy, shifting from a vaguely separatist appeal to an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-European stance. As with the 5Stars, what he stands against is abundantly clear, but his positive policies are absent, mysterious or evidently unviable. A potential alliance between the League, with its 14 percent, plus Forza Italia tops the polls; any government they form would very likely mean business as usual, with added unpleasantness.
None of this is encouraging. More idealistic voters will be attracted to the numerous breakaway parties, fragments and special causes typical of Italian political life. As in all election campaigns, here there is more talk about who is leaving whom or joining whom, or allying with whom, than actual policies, and more imagination dedicated to thinking up new names and symbols for parties, movements and eventual coalitions, than to devising clearly articulated policies that might actually get the country moving again.
At least, if such policies are being devised, they are not much talked about. The only policies to make the headlines are the big gifts or threats: the guarantee from the 5Stars and Berlusconi that all citizens will receive a basic income regardless of unemployment; or Salvini’s promise to police the coasts efficiently against immigration. No one expects any of this will happen.
The outcome of the election is made doubly uncertain by the introduction in October 2017 of a new electoral law following the collapse of Renzi’s ambitious reforms. It is a madly complex, committee-concocted fudge. But the main consequence is that 37 percent of seats will be handed out on a first-past-the-post majority basis and 61 percent on a proportional basis, with the remaining 2 percent selected by Italians living abroad. The threshold at the national level for a party’s achieving proportional representation will be a very low 3 percent, guaranteeing a highly fragmented parliament.
It is surprising how little nationalism there is in Italy, and how superficial and merely rhetorical it is when expressed.
Candidates and their position at the top or bottom of proportional lists — the first is almost guaranteed election; the last, exclusion — will all be decided by the party at national level. Each candidate can stand in one majority constituency and as many as five proportional constituencies. (So celebrity names can attract votes in various areas, even if they can only be elected in one.) Parties have to declare eventual alliances before the election and then present themselves as one grouping. For the seats allocated proportionately, voters cannot choose which candidates on the list they prefer, but must simply vote the party.
The consequence of all this is that deputies will owe their election almost entirely to the party at national level and hardly at all to the people who vote for them locally, whom they can thus largely afford to ignore. It is hard to imagine a system less likely to encourage political involvement at grassroots level.
There has been much condemnation of populist and nationalist views and parties in the U.K., France, Austria and the Netherlands. Considering how long Italy has been in economic decline, it is surprising how little nationalism there is here, and how superficial and merely rhetorical it is when expressed.
Former Italian Prime Mionister Silvio Berlusconi, left, and the Northern League’ leader Matteo Salvini, right, in 2015 | Giorgio Benvenuti/EPA
The left, whose original inspiration was to promote the interests of the working classes, now devotes its attention to “being good” across the board, with much admirable concentration on the plight of immigrants and gender issues, at the price, however, of alienating much of its historical base.
The center right offers so-called sensible government within the somewhat weary idealism of a European project that is leaving huge numbers of young and not-so-young people behind.
But neither being good nor (supposedly) wise offers much excitement. No one and no party is getting across a coherent positive vision that people might wish to unite around. No one appears to have any idea of a future that does not amount to muddling through or settling scores. If this is democracy in the twilight of the nation state, it is gloomy, dull and potentially dangerous.
Tim Parks is a novelist, writer and translator who lives in Milan, Italy.