Sunday, June 21, 2009

Election Day

Dear Readers,

I often forget that Italy is a democracy, but two weeks ago I was reminded of the fact because Florence's mayoral elections were held. I was eager to use my new Tessera Elettorale (voter's card), having been granted citizenship not too long ago. The tessera--like so many Italian documents--is oversized, covered in fine print and official seals, and beautiful to behold. There are 18 squares on it, meaning I can use it to vote in 18 elections (receiving a stamp for each one)--after which I get a free cappuccino, and presumably a new card.

My husband Paolo and I headed down the street to the elementary school, which had been transformed into the official voting station. I was somewhat disappointed not to find tables of coffee and donuts on offer--like you see in America on election days--and that festive atmosphere created by jovial, white-haired, volunteer ladies' auxillary-types. Alas, not a bombolone in sight, just a bored-looking policeman hanging around to make sure things were kosher. We found the classroom where we were supposed to vote, but hung around first in the hallway in order to read all the election posters pasted over the walls. These posters not only listed the candidates and their respective political parties, but listed all the coalitions that were aligned with that particular candidate. Each candidate, and each coalition, has a graphic symbol or logo all its own--kind of like brand recognition. The symbols on the posters were colorful and about the size of pancakes--presumably so the illiterate peasants can make them out--and were so numerous and bizarre as to boggle the mind. I was relieved to see that we were not the only confused souls studying them, trying to tease out their esoteric significance--many voters were squinting and furrowing their brows over them, as if they were gazing upon hieroglyphics on ancient papyrus scrolls.

In Italy, politics, like pretty much everything else, is governed by a herd mentality. The coalitions group around, then dissipate, then reform and regroup around the candidates and political parties--rather like fermenting bacteria in a petrie dish. It's all about who is sleeping with whom. This time around, for example, the Partita Animalistica (Animal Lovers) and the No Tramvia (No to the Tram Line Short-Sighted Fools) groups--along with about a dozen others--were aligned with the right-wing, Berlusconi-backed party, whose candidate, Gialli, was an ex-soccer player with a penchant for tight jeans. The candidate for the left, the 34 year-old Matteo "Baby Face" Renzi, had an equal amount of coalitions lined up on his team. (I'm pretty sure I saw a We Love Cuddles coalition, a Virile and Vegetarian group, and one called, cryptically, Goodbye to All That). There were also the neo-fascists, the communists, the former porn stars--apparently anybody can form a coalition and/or a political party. The thing is, these coalitions are with one party one day, and tomorrow they might just as likely be with someone else. Call it electoral whoring, or high school, or what you will--such is the nature of the political beast in the Bel Paese.

I waited my turn until motioned forward into the classroom. There were three tables: one marked Women and one marked Men, and the one in the middle had large cardboard boxes on it for depositing the ballots. I sauntered up to Women and presented my card and I.D. A genial young man droned in an official voice, after locating me in his enormous ledger, "La Signora può votare." (The Madame may vote). This was announced with a flourish after every person (Signore for gentlemen, of course), doubtless part of the Drama and Spectacle of Election Day. I was handed a sheaf of ballots (there were also EU Parliamentary and Regional elections) and a pencil, and told which cabina to squirrel myself into.

The four ballots, or schede, were indeed lovely to behold: jewel-toned marbled paper in shades of saffron, verdigris, rose, and violet, each one bearing an official seal. They unfolded origami-like into a size considerably larger than at first perceived--and on each was listed the candidates and their clusters of coalition logos. Oddly, there was no line for putting your "X". I saved the largest ballot for last, the one for the Mayor of Florence. Once unfolded, this ballot was nearly the size of a bedsheet--seriously, my outstretched arms banged into the sides of the cubicle as I tried to read it. It was the only way, I suppose, that they could fit all the coalitions onto the ballot. I made my choice, then spent 10 minutes trying to fold the damn things back the way they were supposed to go, cursing under my breath and stamping my feet in frustration, no doubt to the perplexity of the others manning the tables. I emerged, feigning an air of ease and savoir-faire (my hair probably standing on end), and returned to the young man, who steered me over to the man by the boxes. My ballots were taken and solemnly and most carefully placed in their respective slots. While this was going on, I noticed a dour-faced woman with an enormous, tanned, hypotenuse of a nose at one of the tables--furiously stamping a mountain of papers. What these had to do with the actual election I could not fathom, but she certainly leant an air of bureaucratic authenticity to the proceedings. I relinquished the pencil, and was given my card back--one stamp closer to my free coffee.

Well, after all that, we found out that the mayoral candidates from two of the main political parties did not have enough of a percentage of the vote to win out one over the other, and there was to be a ballotaggio, or run-off election. So we went back to the polls today. Everything was as before, including Furiously Stamping Nose.

So there you have it, dear Readers. We will have a new mayor in Florence, and we will have laid waste to countless trees in order to do it. Such is the nature of democracy, Italian-style.

My Best Regards,



  1. It says a lot about your understanding of what a democracy is, if the variety of opinions of a multi-party system has you flip confusedly. Blabbing defensively about everything other but your familiar US koolaid being absurd and wrong, because fighting over ideas and different positions is too far from the brainwashed masses choosing between two aristocracies from your motherplace. Think about it, your lauded 2 parties system is 1 away from a single party dictatorship.

  2. Dylan,

    Thank you for your erudite comments. I do not pretend to understand fully the intricacies of politics, be it a two- or multi-party system--I only know that when there are too many cooks stirring the pot, the soup often turns to sludge. I do, however, wonder what made you think I was defensive--or even overly-enamored--of American political life? I believe I merely lauded the free donuts on Election Day.


  3. No doughnuts and coffee/tea! No mature women doing their civic duty! What kind of a barbaric system is this that makes you wait for a cappuccino?

  4. Goodbye to All That. Here's something that might solve the mystery. Great yarn, by the way. Let me know if you ever get the free cappuccino.

  5. Little by little reading some of your older posts which I have missed, and cracking up. Great humor. Terrific reading and great perspectives- Barbara

  6. Martin2:19 AM

    Very nicely expressed. Oh how satisfying it would be to be in a position where you could vote against Berlusconi (and his many coalitions).

  7. Anonymous4:31 PM

    I am reading back old posts and I love your critical attitude but here maybe you did not get to the point. All that stuff (papers, signatures, and seals) is necessary because in this way to modify the ballots it would really need a conspirancy of the whole group of people composing the electoral staff at each section. Maybe you shoudl try working as electoral staff once (it is poorly paid- but paid, and the law grants you a day off from work for each day you worked in the staff. no old lady is not taking part in a charity initiative). "the lady may vote" it's because they check your right to vote on their register and certify from your id card it is really you expressing your right to do so and expressing it out loud. Everything needs to be transparent. e.g. when before giving the ballot to the voter you seal it and sign it you tesitfy that is blank and has not been already voted. maybe Italians are stupid and vote Berlusconi but it is a free and secret vote. it might take long, it might take a lot of paper and seals but it is the best way to grant a free election. You coudl still try to fake elections but there are as many obstacles as it is necessary. We had a dictatorship and the last free elections before Fascism showed that it is easy to fake them, either with frauds or with violence. Now you could easily fake them with technology, and we prefer to stuck on paper. I don't think it is necessary to point at US electoral systems weak points to explain my point further (very low voting rate, people need to register and not automatically registered so poor masses do not vote - George W. Bush election..)


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