“This is a non-election,” a professor of philosophy tells me in a bar in Milan. “I will not vote.” “Meaning?” “Whoever wins, they will not govern. All will go on just the same. Most key policies will be decided outside Italy.” The Italians go to the polls on March 4, and from outside, it might look as though there are major, exciting, and, above all, dangerous developments in the offing: the return of the octogenarian Silvio Berlusconi, the rapid rise of anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the ever more aggressive rhetoric of the xenophobic Northern League. Yet the perception among most Italians is that the political system is simply too dysfunctional and blocked for much to happen at all.
“We are the country of the ‘unfinished’ and the ‘unforeseen,’” declared Ernesto Galli della Loggia last July in a Corriere della Sera column titled “Politics without Power.” “The country of the decree that never becomes law and the investment that is always inadequate; in the rare event that everything goes smoothly and parliament gets something done we are the country that can rely on the courts to undo it. Italian power is impotence.”
The five-year legislature that is now coming to a close offered a spectacular example of this tendency to begin a process of major change and then retreat from it. Elections in April 2013 gave the coalition led by the Partito Democratico (PD), the main center-left party, a majority in the House of Deputies but nothing like a majority in the Senate. Both houses have equal power, but are elected in different ways. The greatest difference is that citizens need be only eighteen to vote for the House of Deputies, but twenty-five to vote for the Senate.