An earthquake for nothing? As I was crossing Italy, trying to sense the mood on the eve of the crucial parliamentary elections of March 27-28, a line from Lampedusa’s The Leopard kept coming to mind: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
I had come to witness the collapse of a discredited regime, an expression of the people’s revulsion against the corruption of politics by money. Though the now-despised system had been dominated for nearly half a century by the Christian Democrats, in the past decade its most symbolic figure was probably the party’s “Socialist” ally, Bettino Craxi, yesterday prime minister, today one of the many politicians awaiting trial in the corruption scandal that’s rocked Italian politics for two years. Now, Craxi is a man of the past. Judging by the ‘campaign thus far, the man of the future is none other than Craxi’s favorite television tycoon, Sua Emittenza (his broadcasting highness) Silvio Berlusconi, the Citizen Kane the electronic age, who, like Kane, has turned to politics. What we have seen in this campaign has been the marketing of a would-be prime minister-Berlusconi–and a new political movement, Forza Italia.
And yet it would be wrong to conclude that the election was much ado about little. A victory by Berlusconi and his allies–Umberto Bossi and his Northern League, Gianfranco Fini and his neo-Fascists in the South–would mean a big change in Italy, and for the worse. The corrupt but rather tame moderate right that had been running ItaIy would be replaced by the hard right.
The most striking phenomenon I encountered on my Italian journey was general bewilderment. The experts were at a loss and the people puzzled. They were asked to elect anew Senate and a new lower chamber but they did not know whom to elect or how.
For one thing, they are voting under a new set of rules. In choosing members of the crucial Chamber of Deputies, with its 630 seats, the voter must cast two separate ballots. With the first, for one-quarter of the seats, she has no major problems, since the procedure is like that under the old system of proportional representation. She votes for her party and hopes it will get the 4 percent of the national vote necessary to qualify for the allocation of seats. The 155 deputies are then chosen from party lists in proportion to the votes obtained in twenty-five regional constituencies.
The trouble starts with the ballot for the remaining three-quarters of the members, who are to be elected from 475 single-member constituencies by a simple majority, as in Britain or the United States. This principle of “first past the post” has polarized politics, forcing the parties of the left into a reluctant alliance and those of the right into a shotgun wedding. Will the Italians, who are given daily voting lessons on television, learn and accept the rules? Will they be able to make their choice among the “recycled” parties and politicians (the word is used for the postscandal practice of candidates changing parties and parties changing their names)? Will they accept the idea of voting for the lesser evil or, feeling deprived of true choice, will they stay away from the polls?