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,