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!
(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 deal 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.|
"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.|