A spectacle, not an election: how Italians see the race

Italians do follow the presidential election, but they see it more as an entertaining race than as a scrutiny whose outcome might directly affect their daily lives.

On the foreign policy front, Italians should be very concerned about the results of the American elections. Syria is in the middle of a civil war and Lebanon is once again on the brink of one. The Mediterranean is a small place and what happens in one corner affect the others, especially when there are Italian peacekeepers in the region. Obama’s policies are cautious and interlocutory while Romney says he wants the US to be respected once again. A change in American policy will change the reality for Italy. A Romney victory would increase threats to Italian security.

In the same neck of the woods, Iran is an important trading partner for Italy. Obama is seeking some sort of negotiation while Romney seems in thrall to Bibi Netanyahu. A military confrontation between Israel and/or the US would have serious economic repercussions for Italy quite apart from the major regional consequences. Much closer to home is Libya where Italian interests are even more direct; before the Libyan crisis, Italy depended on Libya for 23% of its oil and 10% of its gas. An aggressive American Libyan policy would have greater effects on Italy. A Bush-style invasion would be disastrous while negotiations, reconciliation and an attempt to build a stable and democratic Libya (or at least one or the other) is the Italian aim (and that of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed in Benghazi). Again, a Romney victory would have direct and immediate consequences for Italy.

But apart from a few specialist broadcasts and columns, the Italian media, and as far as I can judge, the Italian public are not thinking about even the direct consequences of the American elections for Italy. The Washington Post put it very succinctly– most Europeans have still not realised that there is a serious competition in the US and that Obama might not win. The German Marshall Fund poll showed that Italians still massively approve of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, down from 91% in 2008 to 74% in 2012. In practice, in Italy, there is no question. Most of the country, right and left, think that “Obama is the best for us and Obama is going to win”. There has been precious little debate on what the two candidates have actually said and although Obama’s policies are certainly better for Italy than the probable Romney ones, this is a given rather than an argued point. Not even the Italian far right has any sympathy for the Tea Party (these Italian movements actually want more state intervention than the left, an anathema for the American right) and Obama is sufficiently centrist to satisfy most of the Italian centre and centre-right.

Even after the first terrible debate performance by Obama, the idea that he might lose hardly hit most Italians. “We know Obama, we don’t like him quite as much as we did four years ago, but he’ll do”. The immediate economic problems facing Italians trump any concern about the future US leader. To the east, Greece sinks into chaos and to the west, Spain is on the verge of seeking help from Brussels. Italy might be next. With these problems at the door, the American debates over job creation over there, seem very detached from the real, Italian, world. After the risk of losing one’s job or the loss of purchasing power, the next most important item on everybody's mind are the Italian elections and the crises engulfing the whole political system.

Italy will have a general election almost certainly in April. The Sicilians will vote for their regional government at the end of the month after near bankruptcy and two of the other biggest regions, Lombardy and Latium will vote very soon after major scandals forced early elections. Some of the other regions are wobbling. There is a whiff of the US in the centre-left Democratic Party’s “primaries” even if not many of the party activists really know how the Americans conduct their own primaries - but it sounds democratic.

It is curious that Le Monde's website has an “Elections américaines” link on their front page banner while no Italian paper does. For the Italian media, it is not that interesting – a competition which has lots of colour and noise, interesting and fun to watch but not really relevant. If Obama wins again, it will be business as usual. If Romney were to win, it would take some time for the real consequences to sink in.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

About the author

James Walston is associate professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. He blogs about Italian politics here and tweets @walstonjames.