The 2013 Italian General Election – a British Perspective

”How’s it going?”, Facebook asked as I logged in Monday evening. My friends had been asked the same question, and they were making it very clear how they felt. Gone was the usual light-hearted content of my feed – it had been replaced with blocks of passionate text, pictures of greying men accompanied by capital letters and exclamation marks, and links to up-to-the-minute news articles . As you’ve probably guessed by now, it was Italians who were writing and posting these things, and they were posts of frustration and despair.

The 2013 Italian General Election results were just coming in, and despite trailing in the polls for most of the campaign behind centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, it seemed that Silvio Berlusconi and his centre-right coalition had defied the odds yet again, and won the election. Talking with the young professionals I have the pleasure to work and study with, it was clear their mood was far grimmer than their social media contributions had been suggesting. Exasperated groans of ”che palle” (”this sucks”) escaped their lips as their eyes sank, learning that the vote difference between the two major coalitions was less than 1% in both houses, and an astonishing 0.4% in the lower house, the Camera. Not only was Uncle Silvio not going anywhere fast, but there was no overall control in the upper house, the Senato – and control of both houses is needed to govern. Bersani’s only major bargaining chip is the bonus seats awarded in the Camera for obtaining the most votes, designed to give him a working majority. Otherwise, it wass total stalemate, and the thought of further elections only made these young Italians groan louder.

I left my dear city of Liverpool to join IMT Lucca (, a postgraduate school in Tuscany so that I could begin my PhD studies in political history. The students here range from Engineers to Art Historians and everything in between, with an equally diverse geography, with Italian students hailing from Milan in the North to Catania in Sicily. When I arrived in early February 2012, Mario Monti and his technocratic administration had been in power for 10 weeks, and the worst of the crippling economic crisis seemed to be over. When I asked what they thought about Monti’s efforts so far, one answer that caught my attention, from a Mirandolan computer scientist PhD candidate, was ”he says he will do something, and it actually happens…it’s really unusual”. Clearly, some were daring to hope that Monti and his Government of Professors would be different, and not get caught up in endless political bickering and scandal. Yet, within a year, all that optimism had melted away, to be replaced with yet more groans of ”che cavolo” (”what the hell”).

Of course, Britons such as myself are no stranger to political disappointment, apathy, and mistrust by the general populace. Any reader with a knowledge of modern British political history will remember the Major years as being dominated by ”sleaze”, and the long term impact it had upon the Conservative brand. Indeed, as Tony Blair succinctly put it in his memoirs, ”Every time Major tried to get [his government] on the front foot, someone in his ranks resigned, said something stupid, got caught in a scandal and frequently all three at once and occasionally the same person”. These regular and repeated incidents resulted in the worst Conservative defeat since 1906. Yet, Berlusconi can be convicted of tax evasion whilst also being investigated for sex with an underage prostitute, and come within 0.4% of controlling the lower chamber and being awarded the bonus seats. Che cavolo indeed.

Many Italians here are claiming that it is the electoral system that needs to be changed, something which has long been discussed in Italian politics. Indeed, anyone who follows Italian political history will know that coalition governments with weak majorities are an extremely common occurrence, with the average post-war government only lasting around nine months. It is normally at this point that a British politico would come forward, advocating the merits of the Westminster system and how it almost always produces clear and concise results and strong governments able to govern (although the 2010 election result has possibly quietened some of those voices). However, the politic culture and the national make-up of Italy is very different to that of the UK – regionalism plays a much stronger role in everyday life. The phrase ”Italians are loyal only to the bell tower” carries more weight than any high-ranking Italian politician would be willing to admit. Indeed, in the 2008 election, my adopted Italian hometown of Lucca was the only part of Tuscany not to vote centre-left, instead going with Berlusconi. You can only guess the reaction from the varied young professionals who study here.

Where does all this widespread political apathy go? British readers will no doubt remember Cleggmania sweeping the country during the 2010 UK General Election, in which those disillusioned British voters found themselves being attracted to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who seemed to offer something different from Labour and the Conservatives and, for the briefest of moments, seemed to have enough momentum to really make a change in British politics (of course, they didn’t, but that is for another article). In Italy, the role of Nick Clegg has been played by comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, which, after being treated initially with scepticism by the electorate and the geographically varied young professionals in Lucca, did better than anyone expected. Unfortunately for the Liberal Democrats in 2010, the voting system played its funny tricks again, and in return for a million more votes, they lost five seats. Grillo’s platform of voting reform and a referendum on the euro, combined with a general anti-establishment rhetoric and an extremely effective internet campaign, clearly struck a nerve with the exasperated electorate, particularly the frustrated youth of Italy, who rewarded him with 25% of the vote in the Camera, and 23% in the Senato.

Like Clegg in 2010, Grillo is undoubtedly in the position of Kingmaker, yet he appears to have backed himself into a corner, as forming a coalition with either the centre-right or left would, in the eyes of his e-supporters, strip him of legitimacy. Indeed, he has already declared his intention not to seek coalition with Bersani – instead he believes that the two major coalitions will attempt to form an ”awkward” coalition, one which will collapse within a year. Indeed, Grillo’s opinion would carry resonance if applied to modern British politics – a coalition between Cameron and Miliband would be very awkward indeed. Particularly as it would leave Nick Clegg as Leader of the Opposition. Perish the thought.

In short, much as travel broadens ones horizons, experiencing different elections broadens ones appreciation of the quirks of European political cultures and systems. As a Briton in the fortunate position of being surrounded by young professionals from all corners of Italy, I am able to gain an insight, broadly speaking, into the mindset of the Italian electoral system and its voters, which I have hoped to share with you, reader. Through the eyes of these young professionals, it is clear that the electorate is dangerously disillusioned with the current Italian electoral system. A special kind of loathing seems to be reserved for Berlusconi, with many of these young professionals asking just who votes for him – the most common answer being that many Italians prefer the devil they know. Compared to the British system and its inherent stability, the 2013 General Election provides a fascinating case for any student of politics. It shows just what can happen when you combine an explosive political personality and an unpredictable electorate, mix with a localised political culture, and magnify through a voting system which rarely, if ever, provides strong and stable governments. The end result, particularly if repeated for 60 years, is an electorate who have simply lost patience with their political elite. The young Italian professionals of IMT Lucca will undoubtedly be guiding their country through a difficult twenty-first century, and a constant mistrust and lack of faith in their governments will only harm Italy in the long run, more than it already has. Unfortunately, this is a problem that does not appear to be going away anytime soon – after all, if Italy cannot even form a stable government, then it is not promising to think that they will ever organise enough consensus to reform the voting system. Che palle.