Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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Thursday, March 1, 2007
Mr. Prodi and a Voter Named Marco
Mr. Prodi (bottom center)
Mr. Prodi (bottom center) in Italian Senate
The big news story coming out of Italy last week was the resignation of Prime Minister Romano Prodi who offered to step down after losing an important vote in Parliament. Only a week later, the hurly-burly has died down. Yesterday, Mr. Prodi won a vote of confidence from the Parliament and now has climbed happily back into place.
In several of the news stories about this latest loud burp in Italy's political affairs, one telling detail in particular kept popping up. It was that Italy is now in its 61st government since the late 1940s. Roughly speaking, this averages out to more than one new government a year. And a general opinion outside Italy seems to be that this number is a little on the high side.
Here in Italy, however, I couldn't help but notice that life seemed to be going on pretty much as usual. In Parliament, true, loud voices, accusations and dire warnings were exchanged. And the Prime Minister reportedly was more than a little upset. There also was quite a lot of talk about the “crisis” on various television talk shows. But the interesting thing emerging from some of these discussions was the elusiveness of the crisis itself.
The host of a popular political program here, Ballarò, commented at the end of one such discussion that he had begun the show talking about the crisis but that three hours later, considering all that was said, he wasn't at all sure there was one.
The disparity between the picture of alarm coming from the outside and the contrasting one I was seeing here seemed curiouser and curiouser to me, as Alice said. So much so I wanted to delve deeper into the matter. But what to do. I don't have a think tank at my disposal. I decided to settle for the next best thing. I would talk to my neighbor.
“Marco, may I ask your opinion about something?” I called to the man who lives next door the following morning. I was taking the dogs for their usual walk. Marco was just returning from taking his son to school. It was his day off from his job working as a clerk at Rome's Fiumicino Airport. He smiled and nodded in his usual friendly way.
How do you feel about what's happening with Prime Minister Prodi?” I asked.
Marco just shrugged, as if to say who cares.
But, is this really a crisis?” I persisted. “What did you feel when you heard Prime Minister Prodi had resigned?”
Nothing,” he replied, now animated. “Nothing. This isn't a crisis, it's normalissimo,” using the word form of exaggeration. We were speaking in Italian. For the next ten minutes I stood and listened as Marco offered me his perspective on the politics of his country.
Here in Italy, he said, politics is a game played by members of a certain group where nothing changes except the players. They do nothing for the people, nothing to improve the schools and the hospitals.
I was born in 1964,” he said, “and nothing has changed since I was born, nothing. The schools still have the same problems, the hospitals are the same. I have a family. I take care of my family. About politics, I couldn't care less.” He used the classic Italian gesture of sliding the back of the hand forward under the chin to emphasis his contempt.
But you vote?” I asked.
The cynicism vanished, replaced by an almost reverent respect. “Oh yes,” he said, “it's an obligation.”
And Berlusconi,” I said, referring to polls here that indicated that the former prime minister would win if new elections were held now. “Do you prefer him to Prodi?”
He shrugged again, hesitating as he considered my question. “Perhaps if Prodi went away and there was an election, I might vote for Berlusconi, but just because it would be a change, not because I think he is different.”
What Marco said reminded me of past conversations I have had at times with some Italians I've met as friends and neighbors. The cynicism and distrust he expressed was the same as I had heard before. And like Marco most Italians continue to vote. Italy's typical turnout for major elections reportedly tops eighty percent, much higher than the estimated fifty to sixty percent turnout (depending on who you believe) characteristic of U.S. presidential elections in recent decades.
Reviewing my informal findings, I wondered if this high voter turnout among Italians year after year is a stabilizing factor in itself, one that those looking on at the country from the outside don't value enough.
The day before the talk with Marco, I was in another conversation about Italy's current crisis. It was during dinner with some friends who are less despairing about Italy's government. One of them has a job in politics, and told of being witness to the opposite end of a phone call that Prime Minister Prodi had made to one of his advisers last Friday. It took place two days after Mr. Prodi had offered his resignation.
It's a paradox, Mr. Prodi said, according to the paraphrase of the conversation. I am not happy with what has happened. But I am happy that I have a resolution to the problem of the disorder caused by some of the political parties of our coalition. What has happened has allowed me to have this plan I now have in hand.
The Prime Minister was referring to a twelve-point agreement of complete support for his major domestic and foreign policies that he demanded all nine parties of his center-left coalition sign as a condition of his agreeing to remain in office.
Now the crisis that was or wasn't has passed, I remember these two, recent contrasting conversations. I think about the thorny juxtaposition of Marco with his cynicism and the Prime Minister with his plan. It seems they are separated by an almost unbridgeable chasm. Yet, there may be a bridge there where the usual gaze isn't turned. A bridge built by Marco and millions of other Italians who share his bleak outlook, but who continue to turn out on major election days -- all umpteen gazillion of them -- and vote.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
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