Scandalous Italian politics must become a thing of the past

January 31, 2013

We Italians studying in the U.S. are emigrants who have left our country with no fixed date of return. We left looking for a better education and a fresh outlook on life. Unavoidably though, the heart still pounds to the beat of the noise of scooters in the street, the smell of good coffee, and the warmth of our customs. We are not nationalists—we are cultural patriots. Yet, we will probably not be able to vote in the 2013 Italian general election, which will take place starting on Feb. 24, after a dramatic decade of poor administrations and economic stagnation.
This is our generation’s first chance to have a say after decades of parliamentary cabarets, media stunts, and systematic deception, but as it stands the thousands of students currently away from Italy on exchange or full-time university programs will be denied a voice. The concept of absentee ballot does not exist in Italy, and the last bill presented on the matter was in 1989.
This crucial malfunction is a prime example of the situation in a country that has incredible potential, human capital, and economic culture, but is stalled by structures and legislatures that have deeply corroded its political culture and finances. In the past 15 years, the Italian political class has seemingly forgotten basic conceptions of political economics, domestic law, fiscal discipline, and local administration.
For over a decade, absurd theatrics have drawn the public’s attention, from Silvio Berlusconi’s private endeavors to a constantly-changing cast of political figureheads. My generation has become used to thinking of the Italian political arena as a gossip forum, a basic form of comedy that we can all point at and laugh about from the outside. Too many times, people will fall for the “macho” effect—the idea that because a man has “made it” (that is, achieving wealth by outplaying the system) he deserves their vote.
Scandal was prioritized over budgetary and fiscal policy, tales of “bunga bunga” became more important than the conditions of the labor market, and wrestling-style parliamentary fights in Rome diverted from justice reform, electoral laws, and basic macroeconomics.
A great businessman surrounded by hawkish accomplices, sleeping moderates, and mediocre opposition led a to a generation of top-down cultural distortion. Our generation bought this political Truman Show and allowed it to carry through legislature after legislature as our finances and our welfare decayed. Our social contract was basically thrown out the window by the understanding that decisions were to be made behind closed doors.
Now this bubble has burst. As the crisis erupted and real numbers emerged, many politicians gave up responsibility, some disappeared, and still others were never allowed a chance to make a difference. The public either found a way to continue ignoring the situation, or remained stunned, betrayed by false promises conceived in a worldview in which everything had seemed in its place. This election represents much more than an executive change or the rise of a new coalition. It represents a potential turning point in the political mindset of the country.
Many look to Mario Monti, a technocratic moderate, to lead the way in putting Italy back on track by shaking up the Catholic community. The problem is not necessarily Monti himself, who may represent the best feasible choice economically speaking. The issue is that most people are attracted to the idea of change, not to its substance. Monti is not infallible.
Despite enhancing Italian bargaining power at the European level, he was responsible for the excessive economic belt-tightening that led Italy back into a deeper-than-expected recession. Italians should look at all candidates and try to apply their proposals and mentality to the challenges we are facing ahead, as reasonably and accurately as possible.
This election’s real potential is not the victory of a specific coalition, but the chance to shift the mentality of Italian citizens. The conversation has to change. As we approach the elections, we have to talk about how to ensure that budgetary discipline does not lead to excessive fiscal pressure, about how to ensure workers representation while trying to foster social mobility and generational transition in the workforce, and about how to encourage foreign investment in Italy by reforming our bureaucracy and modernizing our justice system. These kinds of themes should be put on the table, after over 10 years of nonsense to which we have become accustomed.
This election comes at a dramatic time. It lacks moving idealism, long-term visions, or passionate political discourse. We are at the brink of disaster, and there we remain. However dramatic, Italians have the power to use the crisis to shift the entire political arena. Regardless of how or whether we will vote, the greatest opportunity is that of refocusing on the concrete issues, for that is the only way we will ever be able to restore the sustainability of the state, and more importantly, its people’s collective future.


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