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.
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.
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.
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?
Depending on who you ask:
Italy is screwed.
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.