“Italy is Ungovernable”


This week, Italians went to the polls to vote for a leader.  The results were hugely disappointing for Italy as well as the entire European community.  There is no winner and not a lot of hope for clarity, stability or change in the coming days.  The headlines read, “Italia Ingovernablile.”

To me, the entire Italian political system is confusing and, at times, wildly ridiculous.  Fortunately, everyone is willing to voice a heated opinion.  Just yesterday I ordered a coffee and needed only to glance at the barista’s newspaper before he started talking.  Slowly, between newspapers, friends, teachers, strangers and a little internet, I’ve gained enough information to piece together the system.

Luca's short lesson on the election

Luca’s short lesson on the House of Deputies

How it works.  What is takes to “govern.”

While the US has a president, Italy has a parliament; Americans vote for a president, Italians vote for a parliament.  Then in Italy, the parliament, rather than the people, choose a prime minister.

The polls are open for three days during which there is a media blackout.  No politician may publicly discuss or campaign for the election.

Each voter receives a ballot that includes two categories:  the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. (Together, these two houses comprise the Italian Parliament.) Under each is a list of more than 15 political parties.  Voters mark their party of choice. The goal is for a political party to win a majority in both houses.  Only then, can that party name its prime minister.  (To vote for the House of Deputies, one needs to be 18 years old; to vote for the Senate, 25.)

When the polls close, the votes are tallied.  The party who earns the most votes in the Chamber of Deputies automatically get majority; that is, they are granted enough representatives to dominate the house.  The Senate is more complicated: Representatives are awarded based on how well the political party fared in each region of Italy.  Regions with a greater population are granted more representatives. Therefore, winning the vote in Lombardy or Sicily is more politically lucrative than winning the vote in Umbria.  A majority is reached in the Senate when one political party makes up over 50 percent of the representatives.

The Players.  Even though Italians vote for a political party, underneath it all, they are really voting for the face of that party.

While there are over 15 party leaders, here is a list of the most important, the top four.

Silvio Berlusconi is the leader of the People of Freedom party.  He is a self-made media billionaire and a three-time former prime minister who resigned in 2011 under a crumbling Italian economy and an avalanche of scandals.  He is famous for his mansions, mistresses, legal troubles and social gaffes.  He owns the biggest television stations in Italy.  He also owns one of the best soccer teams in the country, AC Milan.  Just before the elections, he signed world famous Mario Balotelli to his team which boosted his ratings.

Beppo Grillo is a comedian and blog writer.  His 5 Star Movement was created in opposition to the current political mess. He is outspoken, irreverent and foul mouthed.  His political symbol includes a predominant “V” which stands for vaffanculo (the Italian equivalent of the “F” bomb.)  If the 5 Star Movement managed to win the House and Senate, Beppo Grillo cannot legally assume the position of prime minister since 20 years ago, he was convicted of manslaughter on three counts.  (It was an accident.)

Pier Luigi Bersani is with the Democratic Party.  Early in his career, he affiliated with the Communist party, but now sides with the center-left.  Until Beppo Grillo’s 5 Star Movement gained such surprising momentum, Bersani was projected to become the next prime minister.

Mario Monti of the Civil Choice party is an economist who became prime minister when Berlusconi resigned in 2011.   While the rest of Europe seems to approve, Italy finds his economic plans to be too punitive.  Italians are in favor of lowering their astronomical taxes.  Monti is trying to lower the debt.

The Count

When the votes were tallied, the Democratic Party won the majority in the House of Deputies while no party took the majority in the Senate.  Instead, it was divided mostly between Berlusconi, Bersani and Beppo Grillo’s parties with other parties earning smaller percentages.  This is a disaster, and unless a couple parties form an alliance, the country has no succeeding government or prime minister.

Berlusconi, Bersani and Grillo

Berlusconi, Bersani and Grillo after the results

A Couple Causes 

Italians have good reason to be fed up with how their government and all the “rich, lazy, lifetime politicians” have been running the country.  Beppo Grillo has good reason as well.  But the problem is that his non-traditional political party gained so much popularity that it weakened the other parties without winning enough votes to dominate.  Some say that a vote for his 5 Star Movement is a protest vote against the other parties.   While he succeeded in damaging the system, he doesn’t have a way to rebuild it; that is, Italy is now in gridlock.

Another problem is that Italy has too many political parties.  I lost count of how many times people spoke enviously of America’s two party system.   They ask: How can any party in Italy gain a majority in the Senate with votes being spread between so many?

The Results

Depending on who you ask:

Everyone lost.

Everyone won.

Italy is screwed.

The Future

Some say that Italy will need to have another election.  Others hope that alliances can be made between parties to ensure a majority in both houses.

In the meantime, there’s the business of daily life.  There is school, work, meals to prepare, walks to take, children to care for and parents to visit.  And while the level of conversation has taken on a more emphatic tone as Italians shake their fists at this mess, the elections seem to color just the surface of one’s routine.

A window display at Sandri Cafe on Corso Vanucci: Their famous desserts covered with a sugar design of the major political party insignias.  All of them equally delicious.

A window display at Sandri Cafe on Corso Vanucci: Their famous desserts covered with a sugar design of the major political party insignias. All of them equally delicious.


The Crisis and other Conversations

There are four topics that come up with nearly every Perugian we meet.

First there is the saltless bread, which I’ve mentioned before. During the Middle Ages, the popes staged a long and repressive reign over Perugia.  One of the many injustices was the exorbitant tax on salt.  So the Perugians just stopped using it, and to this day they don’t salt their bread.  Friends talk about it, tour guides note it, language teachers discuss it, and every summer, Perugia stages a production of The Salt War, a play which reenacts the events of the mid 1500s.

The cheerless underground city which was buried after the Perugians refused to pay the salt tax.

Pope Paul III’s army destroyed the wealthy sector of Perugia as punishment for the town’s insubordination.  This broody corridor is part of what is now referred to as the underground city.

They also talk about how dramatically their city has changed in the last 10 years.  They speak nostalgically of the past:  “The streets use to be full every night.  And on Saturday, you could hardly walk because it was so crowded.  Back then, we all lived in the historic center, but now it’s practically empty; everyone has moved to the outskirts.”  Having little to compare it to, we are always enchanted with the beauty and vibrancy of Perugia.  It’s charming. There are lots of Italians.  To me, Perugia feels authentic and alive.  But every time I share my feelings, the Perugians shake their heads and insist that in its day, this was once a fabled city; one of Italy’s best.

Then of course, everyone talks about the infamous murder of 2009.

The courthouse is just around the corner from our apartment.

The courthouse where Amanda Knox’s trial was held is just around the corner from our apartment.

And finally, they talk about la crisi, (the crisis) . . . Italy’s financial situation.  Some say it started as early as the 1980s when Italian companies began outsourcing the production of their famously well-made, high quality goods to China, Bangladesh, and India.  The subsequent loss of Italian jobs and the obvious downward spiral of “having less money/needing cheaper goods” is just one factor.  Others say la crisi is a result of the mafia and the corrupt government.  They point to the lying, cheating, stealing, sneaky politicians who make headlines but should really just be in jail. Even though new elections are scheduled for the end of February, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for change. We heard someone say that what Italy needs is to be CONQUERED.  There’s also the problem of taxes.  These days, Italians pay half of their income to Uncle Spaghetti.

As visitors here in Perugia, we see (or hear about) the effects of la crisi.  Almost every family needs two incomes to support themselves.  Some teachers’ salaries have been frozen for seven years.  College graduates cannot find jobs. Family-run businesses are being replaced by sterile chain stores.  And two of our neighbors, both popular restaurants in the city, closed since we arrived.  It’s a challenge for guidebooks to keep current with what is recommended and what is still in business.

Gus:  This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

Gus: This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

But even amidst their troubling financial problems, Italians continue to dress spectacularly.  And compromises are never made when it comes to wine, food and coffee.

Two weeks ago we were taking a walk from our apartment down Via Alessi, and Matt pointed out a cafe that we had never noticed before.  We stopped in for an espresso and tried a little pastry.  We were impressed. This place was incredible. When we asked how long they’ve been here, they said the shop is brand new.  We commented on how rare it is to find a new cafe when so many are closing.  They agreed but are hoping to help revive this once busy part of town.  Since we first set foot inside, we’ve been here every day.  And each time, it fills up more and more.  It’s like a little celebration inside.

The owners, Benito and Pietro d'Andrea, are originally from Salerno.  They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

The owners, brothers Benito and Pietro d’Andrea, are originally from Salerno. They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

We’ve heard it said that despite the problems, Italy enjoys a high standards of living.  It’s evident.  Even with debt, unemployment and a bleak political future, Italians know how to create a beautiful, if brief, moment.  This is inspiring.  They take time for pleasure.  They respect daily traditions. Changing the system might be overwhelming, but they still exert control over the finer points of life.  And while they tolerate corruption, they don’t tolerate bad coffee.