14 October, 2007

Democracy in Italy and Russia

Some time ago, Clemens asked about voting in Italy and Russia. Either I missed his comment, or I forgot about it. I'll answer to the best of my (and my wife's) knowledge.

Italy has a fair range of elected officials, who appear to be universally hated. I say this without exaggeration. When I was in Italy in 2002, I was told that people paid attention to the Italian President Ciampi's New Year speech because they thought he was the only respectable politician in government. For that, they had elected him to the one position in Italian government that is powerless. (Actually, he had been in Parliament before, and the reasons for his appearance of respectability are too many to go into here.)

Aside from the national elections, which I understand to be primarily proportional rather than representative, Italians hold regional and local elections. The regional elections are watched fairly closely, if the newspapers I read are a fair indication (and they may not be). At about the same time that Berlusconi lost last year's elections, the center-left party swept most of the regional elections.

I am aware only vaguely of what goes on in local elections, and which offices are up for votes. I know that a pen pal of mine told me how seven years ago, Alleanza Nazionale (AN) won the local elections in Lecce, which made her and her friends unhappy at first, until the mayor actually delivered on her promises and got the city working. AN is the modern incarnation of the former Fascist party, which for most of the past 60 years was called the MSI, Movimento Sociale Italiano, or something like that. Italy has many, many parties, and I haven't bothered to keep up. Anyway, when the Communists retook Lecce a few years later, I sent my sympathies, which she rejected. Apparently AN had become too successful at cleaning up the city and closed down a few hospitals other social services that people were attached to. If I understood correctly, they had opened a new, modern hospital or two, but they were inconveniently placed or something like that. These are very vague memories, but I do recall that it had something to do with hospitals and the like.

In 2003 or thereabouts, a taxi driver who was a longtime business friend of my family told me that he and a bunch of friends were trying to organize a boycott of the upcoming local elections in Gaeta. They were angry that, once elected, the mayor had hired bodyguards. If he needs bodyguards, the driver explained, he must be involved in some sort of criminal enterprise.

Why boycott the elections? I asked.

If not enough people show up, the elections will be invalid.

Won't the mayor stay in office then?

No; in that case there will be no mayor at all!

I'd never heard it interpreted that way before. I don't think they succeeded.

The driver was a veritable fountain of conspiracy theories. The only reason they passed a seat belt law in Italy, he asserted with a straight face, was that some politicians had invested in a seat belt company, and wanted to earn a profit on their investment. That was also his explanation for the Berlusconi government's law regarding a point system for drivers. If a driver acquires too many points for speeding and the like, he loses his license and has to attend a driver improvement class. The taxi driver was certain that some minister must have connections to a network of driver improvement schools.

My impression from talking with a few Italians is that this point of view is rather widespread. I would like to note that this man was not afraid of driving at about 100mph uphill on the wrong side of the road. He had a daughter who was a much better driver, and loved the McDonald's which had just opened in nearby Formia. I never got to know her much. Personally, I preferred riding the train, and avoided the taxi altogether.

Russia (mostly from my wife)
In Kazan, one can vote for the President of the Russian Federation, representatives in the Duma (national Parliament) and for a party in the Duma, the President of the Republic of Tatarstan, the Mayor of Kazan, the city council, and the head of a district. If a certain percentage of voters don't attend the polls, then (as in Italy) the election is considered invalid. On the other hand, the government pressures civil servants to visit their neighbors and ask them to go vote. My wife, as a teacher, was pressured to visit people in her house, and the principal at her school made a big fuss about it one year. She gathered certain respected teachers and recommended that they vote for a certain slate of candidates, going so far as to hand them ballots that were already filled in. Just take the ballot they give you, she said, and exchange it for the one in your purse. My wife describes a number of other techniques used. It isn't hard when a number of pensioners tell the people helping, "I don't know whom to vote for. Whom can you recommend?"

There are a number of political parties, but most are unified under a coalition called Единая Россия. This means "One Russia" or, just as accurately, "A United Russia". (Remember that during the 1990s Russia was more or less falling apart.) This coalition includes nationalists, Communists, and everything in between; if a party opposed Putin, he found a way to create a new party that looked an awful lot like it, draft some of its less loyal members, and welcome the new party into his coalition. I have read that this happened to the Communists, for example. It is best known as the coalition that Putin built, and effectively rubber-stamps his decisions. They have controlled the government for most of this decade, and have used this control to exclude other parties from public discourse.

One such party, best-known to and best loved by Westerners, is Яблоко, which means "The Apple". It is comprised of people who admire western democracies. They had the run of things during the 90s, when (again) Russia was more or less falling apart. As a result, they are nearly universally distrusted in Russia today, considered to be corrupt windbags. (My wife read the word Яблоко and muttered, демагоги, "demagogues".)

Former world chess champion Gary Kasparov has united another group of parties into a coalition named Другая Россия, which means "Another Russia", in clear contrast to the ruling coalition. He has been on NPR's All Things Considered lately, explaining why he thinks this is important. It was an interesting interview; you should check it out if you can. As noted, the ruling coalition controls the media, so Kasparov doesn't have much of an audience for his vision. He is largely invisible.*

My wife often didn't go vote, because she had to travel to a completely different district. (I'll spare you the details.) Last time an election was held she did vote, but she chose the option "against everyone".

I wonder how things would work out if we had this option in the United States. If 65% of the electorate had to show up for an election to be valid, most of our politicians would be out of office. I have heard that local elections regularly run at 20%. Things might be different if, as in Italy and Russia, elections were holidays. Or not; maybe it would just be another occasion to toss some ribs in the barbecue. I really wonder. In the last presidential election I wrote in a candidate who was not on any ballot, but it's a long-established fact that I'm weirder than a jackalope.

*Imagine if the Republicans or the Democrats controlled the media in the United States so strictly that you could not hear the opposing point of view at all. Here in Mississippi John Eaves' accusations of Haley Barbour's corruption are all over the radio, along with Eaves' promises not to take money from casinos or insurance companies, and to bring prayer and religious education back into the schools. I've read in the newspaper that television commercials for Eaves show him holding a Bible and promising to drive the moneychangers out of the temple.

Eaves, take note, is a Democrat, and on the national level these positions very atypical of his party.


Clemens said...

Very interesting. Thanks for the info. Electoral politics can be a bit disturbing when examined.

Italian politics sounds a bit more fun than Russian politics though. Do the Russians actually have an "against everyone" option? I am always tempted, but in a two party race not voting for someone usually IS voting for someone.

Jack - you voted for Ross Perot?

jack perry said...

Do the Russians actually have an "against everyone" option?

Yes, according both to my wife and to news reports I read during the previous election, whenever that was. (2004?) In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have written that she voted that way; I can be pretty dumb sometimes.

Italian politics sounds a bit more fun than Russian politics though.

Berlusconi does his best to entertain people, such as disappearing for a few weeks one year, then re-emerging with a bandana sitting atop a strangely younger-looking face; or suggesting to a German politician who disagreed with him a role in an upcoming documentary of the Second World War as a Nazi "kapo". His absurd and immature behavior seems to endear him to a large sector of the Italian population. His coalition features some real characters. (Umberto Bossi, Gianfranco Fini, ...) You have a point.

Jack - you voted for Ross Perot?

Nope. Unless the fellow actually makes it to the presidency (highly unlikely), I'm mum.