Sunday, April 16, 2006

How the Italian election was decided in Canada

Italian politics during the past decade, for all of its striking pathologies, has had at least one silver lining--occasionally, it has helped to reassure those of us who are citizens of the United States that the political systems of some other western democracies are in an even more dysfunctional condition than our own. This situation was underlined by the recent Italian election, which pitted two mismatched, logically incoherent, and potentially unworkable coalitions against each other and ended with a cliffhanger result which both revealed and will probably further promote political deadlock.

However, it seems that this political mess has even more layers and dimensions than most of us realized. Mark Kleiman has noticed one more bizarre twist to the recent Italian election (from an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail). The decisive margin of victory for the Prodi coalition, which (pending a recount) just barely defeated the coalition supporting Prime Minister Berlusconi, came from Italians living abroad. Like Kleiman, I had assumed this simply meant Italian citizens living abroad (perhaps including a certain number with dual citizenship). Actually, no. Due to a recent innovation, this category mostly comprised people of Italian ancestry who are legally citizens of other countries. (The Globe and Mail article indicates that they have to be descended from a man born in Italy, but I gather from other sources that either a male or a female line of descent will do.)

As the Globe & Mail article concludes ...
Italians yesterday were just beginning to realize that their fate had been determined by people who have mostly entered their country only as tourists.

"It seems impossible," the Italian newspaper L'Unita writes in an editorial to appear today, "but the fate of this 2006 election has been decided by Italian émigrés of the second and third generation rather than by any people in Italy -- by men and women who were not born in their native land and, in the great majority of cases, have never lived there."

The "Italians abroad" voting scheme was designed by Mirko Tremaglia, the 80-year-old Minister of Italians in the World. An unapologetic defender of the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, Mr. Tremaglia is said to have modelled the scheme after a Fascist scheme that defined Italians as a race.

Under Mr. Tremaglia's new electoral law, eligible voters are defined as anyone with a continuous line of male descendants [they mean ancestors] going back to a man born in Italy. The voter needs only to register with an Italian consulate, and does not have to speak Italian, have visited Italy or even have parents who were born in Italy. [....]

Most Italian observers, including Mr. Berlusconi's officials, had apparently expected the "Italians abroad" to support Mr. Berlusconi's coalition. But Mr. Prodi was apparently aware that the foreign voters could provide his electoral salvation. His campaign spent considerable money sending campaign messages to Canada this year. A letter sent to Italian-Canadian households across Canada promised "to restore the deep cuts" made by Mr. Berlusconi's coalition to Italian consular services in Canada, and to make funds available for visits.
A particularly high proportion of Italian-Canadians appear to have voted in this election--and, presumably, a very small proportion of Italian-Americans, who could otherwise have swamped them. (Those seem to be the obvious inferences ... though, frankly, the Globe & Mail article presents the relevant statistics in a peculiarly uninformative and confusing way.)

As Mark Kleiman notes, one of the ironies of this situation is that Berlusconi wound up getting "hoist on his own neo-Fascist petard". Of course this also means that if the electorate had been restricted to Italian citizens living in Italy, they would have restored Berlusconi and his coalition to power--which is something between a mind-boggling thought and a bad dream. (Since Berlusconi has a stranglehold on the mass media--he owns the major TV stations, as well as controlling the state-owned media--maybe the reason that ethnic Italians abroad were less likely to vote for him was simply that they had other sources of news and information?)

Assuming that the Prodi coalition's victory is sustained by the recount now under way (which appears to be the likely outcome), it is hard to believe that its already shaky position may not be further undermined by charges that it was brought to power by voters who aren't Italian citizens. Then again, who knows? And perhaps the next Italian election will be decided by voters in Philadelphia, Boston, & New York City? Stay tuned ...

--Jeff Weintraub