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February 21, 2013

Concealing a raging election

Election season in Italy is marked by an eerie silence unfamiliar to participants of the vocal culture of American politics.

On February 25, Italians will vote for their new government. Unlike the American elections in November, when American politics dominated the media and most conversations, this election for me is marked by silence. No one seems to be talking about it here. I’ve seen people on the streets, handing out fliers advertising the platforms of various parties. I’ve had classes cancelled because many students need to return home to vote—the system here is similar to that of the U.S., in that one votes in the place where she “officially” resides, but different in that there are no absentee ballots. In fact, I’ve spoken to some who can’t return home to vote, and who are therefore unable to vote in this election.

The lack of uproar in Italy has really struck me. Granted, because I neither have a TV nor read Italian newspapers nor live with particularly political roommates, I am somewhat out of the loop. My understanding of local news comes more from what few things I hear people talk about and what I see on the streets.

However, I think the absence of politics from conversation is quite telling. When it was American election season, I could not escape political discussions. Anyone who noticed that I was an American would start talking politics with me. Italian friends would ask me point-blank, “Who did you vote for?” I was even interviewed on RAI, an Italian television channel, about my vote and my opinion regarding the election.

For us, election night started late at night and went into the wee hours of the morning. My evening started in a local student bar where I met a group of friends. There was a panel of Italians—political science professors and the like—discussing the American system and voting results as they came in. There were at least four TV screens, airing several different American and Italian news channels, which was striking since, unlike in American bars where TVs are ubiquitous, they are in my experience non-existent here. The bar was so full that I could hardly find a space on the wall to lean against. Everyone stood watching.

To a certain extent, this night was a reunion of Americans living in Bologna, as was seeing the new James Bond film. But there were just as many Italians as Americans—all milling about, drinking, listening, watching, and waiting with interest.

Even after the elections were over, people kept talking about them. And they seemed pleased: Every Italian I met in Bologna who expressed a political opinion wanted Obama to win.

However, the most remarkable part of experiencing the American elections abroad was realizing the role that the U.S. plays in the world. As U.S. citizens, when we cast our votes, we may focus on domestic issues, but our decisions have a large influence on world political affairs that extend far beyond our everyday lives. I don’t mean to sound as though I’m exaggerating the United States’ influence and importance, but it is a simple fact that when we vote, we choose not only our leader for the next four years but also a world leader.

However, returning to upcoming elections here in Italy, I hope this account has given you some perspective on how quiet things now feel. When I ask friends why there is such little talk of politics, they answer ambiguously, or respond that they are all just holding their breath, waiting.

To be fair, everyone is a little nervous. Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career has raised more than its fair share of eyebrows, is on the ballot again. No one I’ve spoken to seems to have any love for him. (Given that there is a whole Wikipedia entry dedicated solely to “Trials and allegations involving Silvio Berlusconi,” this is understandable.) Yet there is concern that his return is a real possibility. In today’s mail, an advertisement for Berlusconi arrived. It was a mock-ballot directing the recipient to vote for Berlusconi’s party, Il Popolo della Libertà. Upon sight of it, I realized that perhaps merely seeing that name on a ballot and wondering “what if” is the cause of this concern.

Although Italy may be as calm as can be in these days leading up to the election, the Italian government could use a good leader right now. But perhaps this calm reigns because Italians are used to it: As someone once told me, without a hint of condescension, you have to think of Italian politics as a circus. So here I sit, waiting in anticipation, hoping that Bologna puts on a good show.

Noelle Turtur is a third-year in the College majoring in history.

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