Six characters in search of a country - the Italian vote elsewhere in Europe

As Italy is heading to the polls on Sunday for ‘the most important election in 30 years’, the vote of Italians living abroad will partly determine the formation of the next government. How do these expats feel about Italian politics, and how are they going to vote?

Ballot papers for Italians living abroad. Demotix/Paco Serinelli. All rights reserved.Ballot papers for Italians living abroad. Demotix/Paco Serinelli. All rights reserved.

The party ahead in the opinion polls (now suspended by law) has been the Democratic Party (PD), yet a majority government seems to be a distant possibility. There are a few factors conspiring against a majority government: the monumental rise of ‘civic lists’, made up by people from ‘civil society’; the electoral law; and the factionalism of Italian politics with the main parties being coalitions of left wing or right wing ‘sensibilities’.

The electoral laws give a majority at the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) to the coalition that has the most votes, even without an actual majority of seats. Coalitions need to exceed the threshold of 10% of the vote to enter Parliament, while the threshold for each single ‘list’ or party is of 4%. The Democrats are projected to win the lower house. To enter the Senate, coalitions need 20% of the vote while single lists need 8%. Most importantly, the Senatorial seats are allocated according to regional votes, including those of constituencies outside Italy where Italians reside.

Italians living outside Italy were able to vote by post nearly two weeks ahead of polling day. Unlike previous elections, I felt very excited about the vote. I knew this was the mother of all elections, with some calling it the most important in 30 years. I’d like to say that I was excited because this vote will have ramifications across Europe, or that the Italian political system has been shaken by liberal-reformist and illiberal-populist revolutions. The truth is that, this time, I’ve discovered Italian TV on the internet, and it’s brimming full of politics and excellent analysis. Do my fellow Italians ‘abroad’ feel the same? Are they keeping up with Italy online? I contacted some friends living across Europe, below are their different perspectives (the names have been changed).

Alice – the economist

Alice got her PhD in Sweden and is now an academic in Spain, where she lives with her family and doesn’t think of going back. She is an economist keeping up with the economic woes of Italy and Spain through the online press. She thinks Italy needs liberal structural reforms opening up closed shops and reducing rent-seeking to provide more opportunities for the labour force; more flexibility in contracts to increase investment and gain in competitiveness; and a reformed civil justice system that makes the arm of the law less expensive and burdensome. She sees the reforms as part of progressive European integration and coordination to stimulate growth and employment. For Alice, Monti acted as a fireman trying to put the fire out, but was obstructed by politicians. He could have done more but his reforms have been nullified by parliamentary committees. She fears the populism of Berlusconi and Grillo (the leader of the anti-politics Five Star Movement). She liked Renzi, the reformer of the Democratic Party, but he lost in the primaries against the machine of a party that doesn’t want to change.

Raffaele – the ‘politico’

Raffaele is married with a child and lives in London, but would gladly move the family to Italy if he could. He is profoundly attached to his native country, but doesn’t think he could find a job there. Raffaele is a real ‘politico’, keeping up with Italian local and national press and Italian political TV online.  He is ‘in pena totale’, in total suffering, in front of the depressing spectacle of the unfolding elections. He has always leaned towards the left and believes that austerity policies have shown themselves to be self-defeating, yet he thinks the Democratic Party made a grave mistake by squashing Renzi, who represents the political and cultural renewal the country needs. For Raffaele, the surge of Berlusconi in the polls speaks of the Italian mentality of self-interest, parochialism, and lack of concern for the common good. It is Italians who need to change first and foremost. Yet, they might need a total crash before they roll up their sleeves and also stand on their own two feet.

Stefano – a man of culture

Stefano is an academic in Athens specialising in classical civilisation. He has made Greece his home, which lessens his frustration at the lack of change. He sees the prospect of Berlusconi coming back as a sign of immaturity and superficiality. How can people really believe his promises? After 20 years, things are the same and nobody is taking responsibility. He would like to see a ‘cultural’ change that would usher in competent and honest politicians. A cultural change implies a deeper sense of responsibility from all, citizens and politicians. His words, like those of Raffaele, echo the Italian republican tradition of civic virtue, citizens’ involvement and solidarity that is betrayed by the everyday mediocrity of party politics and ‘corporatism’.

Elena – the swing-vote

Elena came to Britain to study English, fell in love with someone and moved over here. She doesn’t normally follow politics much, but she did some ‘homework’ for the interview. She mostly listens to British radio and gets her news from the internet. She voted for Grillo’s movement in the hope that someone new might do something good. Elena has always voted, but feels that nobody has ever tackled Italy’s problems. During the Berlusconi’s years she felt embarrassed about being Italian. She has a family, a house and feels at home in the UK, but would like to go back to Italy. That looks impossible now.

Luca – the scientist

Luca studied and worked across Europe and America. He now lives in Holland. He is turned off by politics, including Dutch politics, which feels too provincial. Sometimes he finds Italian politics too complicated and the press biased so he checks the facts against the international media. Luca feels detached and dispirited and remembers his PhD supervisor saying that if he left to study abroad, it would be a one-way ticket. So it was.

Sara – the ‘outcast’

Sara studied in the UK through the Erasmus exchange programme, came back to do a PhD, and got stuck here for nearly 15 years. She longs to return to Italy, but there is no hope of getting a job as an academic at ‘home’. She is not interested in politics and she has no hope of any change. She is not settled and feels an ‘outcast’. She is not even registered as a ‘resident abroad’. On Friday, she will be going ‘home’ to see her family and vote.

In pursuit of a ‘changed’ country

Most of my friends left Italy over ten years ago, well before the current economic crisis. They chose to leave their country, their language and their families. Some made their home elsewhere with no regrets, some long to go back, all of them want to see change. They want Italy to be a country where they could be valued for their work and abilities, a country that is less arrogant, provincial and materialistic, a country that promises a future for all its citizens. They are six characters in search of a country that would look a bit more like them. 

About the author

Francesca E.S. Montemaggi has been working in politics and public affairs in the UK and Europe. She holds a PhD in sociology of religion from Cardiff University. She tweets @FESMontemaggi.