Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The Theatre of Italian Elections
Corriere della Sera - April 14th 2008

An election campaign is a piece of pure political theatre, whether it is interminably long, as in America’s two-year races, rather short as in Britain’s 3-5 week contests, or of middling duration as in Italy’s current campaign of roughly nine weeks. Still, it is hard with a theatrical drama of that sort of length to prevent the audience from either falling asleep or walking out in disgust. That is especially true if, like me, you are watching the play from far away, in London. Not surprisingly, we outsiders tend to pay most attention to the most entertaining and outrageous performances. But we have a sneaking suspicion that that is true of Italians too.

            Watching the British media try to make sense of Italy’s election, it is clear that one man—Silvio Berlusconi of course—is responsible for bringing this election alive to foreign eyes and ears. After all, everyone’s electoral theatre is as hard to understand for foreigners as would be a classical Greek drama performed in Dutch (yes, once in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, near Mycenae, I tried to do exactly that. But I ended up walking out halfway through and watching the football World Cup in a local bar instead). So when someone’s entire campaigning style is based on jokes, provocations and accusations it is irresistible. We no longer need an interpreter.

            Thus, the only time I have seen the nightly BBC Television News provide a report on the Italian election (it was on April 11th), about two-thirds of the report was on Mr Berlusconi. Walter Veltroni hardly appeared. That is not surprising since few foreigners know anything about him, and whatever his talents might be he looks rather dull to us, especially on television. Such lack of balance between the parties would be illegal during Britain’s own elections: boringly, we have to hear from all of our “Caste” on every issue and in every report. But only the Italian citizens living in Britain are allowed to vote, so we can treat Italy’s election as show-business.

            That is certainly what the foreign media does, and not just the British (though we may well be the worst). We just love to find excuses to talk about our stereotypical images of Italy and Italians. We want to mention sex and beautiful women. We love to discuss the Italian obsession with football. We get a special thrill when we can use the word “fascist” in an article or TV report, because it isn’t possible to do so when we write about Germany. We rather enjoy the dreadful saga of Naples and its garbage, and did not particularly want to take note of the fact that most of it has been cleared up during the campaign. We love to bring in the Mafia and the Vatican (for different reasons, I hurry to explain). We like to think that behind the glitzy surface of Italian political life there might be some fascinating intrigue.

            This campaign has provided all of those opportunities. For me, probably the high point was hearing about Umberto Eco’s statement that before there can be true change in Italian politics, ten people need to die. What a wonderful mystery, from the master novelist! Which ten? How will they die? As always with a great novel, it is better to leave most of it to the imagination.

            But there have also been other excellent cues for our foreign stereotypes. Daniela Santanche and Alessandra Mussolini were especially generous since with their noisy arguments they provided three all in one go: the word “fascist” (there, I used it again); the idea that Italian women are beautiful and are obsessed with their appearances; and sex itself, with the question of who is the most horizontal of all. Marvellous. Discussions of sex in British politics always have a dirty, secretive character, being about illicit affairs, illegitimate children or sexual practices that should remain private. No British candidate would dare to accuse their opponents of being prostitutes, or venture an opinion about their femininity, or offer a view about whether left-wing or right-wing women were uglier.

            We had to wait a long time, but our patience was rewarded when football finally entered the story, blended curiously with another campaign theme, that of mental health. For Francesco Totti to be accused by Mr Berlusconi of being “bonkers” for considering voting for Francesco Rutelli in the Roman elections was a gift from heaven: the foreign media could speculate to their hearts’ content about whether Roman voters might now make their choice on the basis of sporting loyalty rather than politics. This played into another foreign prejudice, that of irrationality, the idea of the emotional Italian. Whether Mr Berlusconi was being irrational when he suggested mental health checks for prosecutors was, to be sure, a rather different issue.

            Stereotypes, jokes, provocations: they have all prevented the foreign audience for Italy’s election, among whom I count myself, from falling asleep. They leave us, however, with a more serious question. Might the same thing be true of Italians?

            There are, as has been widely observed, two striking things about this election. One is that it should not be happening at all, less than two years after the previous one. This election is the result of the failure of the 2006 election to produce a decisive outcome and the failure of Romano Prodi’s government to defy gravity. So, in a real sense, this election campaign has been running not for ten weeks but, in the American style, for more than two years.

            The other striking thing is that there is so little difference between the parties’ programmes, even now that there is a contest between just two main groups. At least from an outsider’s point of view, the issues of abortion and of Alitalia have provided virtually the only clear difference between the Democratic Party and the Freedom People. All the rest is either technical detail—how spending promises will be reconciled with plans to reduce the public debt—or else evasions of responsibility from both parties for the weakness of Italy’s economy and of its institutions (especially its garbage-clearing institutions).

            No wonder we need entertaining, to distract us from the underlying realities. But at least us foreign observers don’t have to get up from our seats at the end of this long theatrical performance and cast a vote. Good luck, Italians.


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