Italian vote raises doubt over whether Pope's backyard is listening

Italian vote raises doubt over whether Pope’s backyard is listening

Italian vote raises doubt over whether Pope’s backyard is listening

Prelates wait in a corridor to enter the Clementine Hall, at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool.)

In March 4 national elections, Italians handed big wins to two populist movements running on anti-immigrant and Euro-skeptic platforms, raising questions about whether the pope's backyard is listening to him.

ROME – Italy appears to be in a political deadlock after elections on Sunday seem to have produced no clear new government, while populist parties, running on anti-immigrant and anti-European platforms, swept the majority of the votes.

Though the Vatican largely sat the March 4 race out, with Pope Francis not even using his Sunday Angelus address to encourage Italians to vote, the results nevertheless raise questions about the extent to which the pope’s messages on welcome and unity are penetrating his own backyard.

According to polls – the exact results will not be made available until March 7 – one out of three Italians voted for the left-leaning and populist Five Star Movement, led by 31-year-old Luigi di Maio. The relatively new party is characterized by an anti-establishment stance, pro-environment policies and a skeptical approach concerning Europe.

The anti-immigrant and populist Northern league, led by Matteo Salvini, gathered nearly 18 percent of the vote, followed by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia at 15 percent. The coalition of these two parties and the alt-right party Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, brings the right-wing bloc to around 38 percent, with a marginal advantage in the number of seats in both the Senate and House.

While the elections present no clear winner, there are clear losers, mainly the Democratic Party led by Matteo Renzi who has announced plans to resign as party secretary. This is the second considerable fiasco on Renzi’s part, the first being his failed attempt to reform the Italian Constitution in 2017 that resulted in his resignation as Prime Minister.

Dante Alighieri said it best in his Divine Comedy, calling Italy “A ship without a pilot in great tempest,” and not much has changed. The Italian public debt is at a staggering 130 percent of the Gdp and unemployment continues to be a huge weight on the economy. The political landscape that emerges from these elections is fragmented to say the least, with no one party ready to take the lead.

The president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, will have to carefully examine the situation in order to establish how these equilibriums will play out and if necessary call for new elections. The Five Star Movement and the right-wing coalition did not reach the necessary quota of 40 percent that would allow them to form a government, setting off a series of negotiations and reshuffling where new partnerships might be born and old ones might crash and burn.

Meanwhile, the current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, in many ways a Vatican favorite, will steer the ship until things take a clear direction and parties reach agreement about how to divvy up the votes in order to get a shot at government.

Marco Tarquinio, editor of Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, criticized the campaign as the “worst part of the right and the most bitter antagonism of the left,” and charged the political parties with dismissing the real economic and social issues that are crippling the country.

Among other things, he pointed to the League’s anti-immigrant rhetoric in the last days before the elections when Salvini swore on the rosary and the Bible that he would deport “all clandestine immigrants” from the country.

This did not escape the notice of Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the president of Italy’s episcopal conference (CEI), who denounced the act as an example of “political profiteering,” aimed at grabbing a handful of votes. The bishop invited Salvini and like-minded politicians to “look into the eyes” of immigrants and reminded parties of the work that the Church has done to help refugees in the country.

The Northern League leader responded on a national radio show in his classic direct style, stating that while “some might prefer to swear on the Koran or other,” he remains “proud of a Christian tradition.”

A record number of Italians went to the polls on March 4, about 73 percent, showing that the inhabitants of the Bel Paese were itching to have their say in matters of state. Though what resulted is largely uncertainty, there a few tidbits of information that clearly emerge.

First, the populist movement and political parties took home the prize, especially the Five Star Movement, demonstrating growing discontent for the status quo and skepticism toward institutions and especially the austerity of the European Union. Not even Berlusconi, who has demonstrated considerable political acumen at 81 by adopting populist attitudes, could beat the appeal of the younger and more dynamic League and Five Star Movement. The Democratic Party was focused on Europe, with somewhat predictable results.

From a Church perspective another important point emerges, that is the lack of a specific party of reference for the Catholic vote. With older Catholic parties, such as the Christian Democrats, long dead, and new ones, such as People of the Family, generally uninfluential, faithful in the country are distributed among all political forces.

Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini, former head of the bishops’ conference, has said that “Catholics risk being ever less relevant” in the country, and renowned Italian Vatican correspondent Marco Politi has referred to a “molecular vote” for Catholics, who cast their ballot across the spectrum, from Salvini to Berlusconi to Di Maio.

This leads to the third and final take-away, which is an increasing lack of interference by the Vatican in Italian political affairs. In the months leading up to the elections, the bishops’ conference limited itself to calling all Italians to the polls and refrained from expressing preferences.

It’s not that the Vatican or the Church has avoided flagging policies it doesn’t like, such as anti-immigrant rhetoric and failures to uphold traditional family values, but these criticisms apply to most political parties in Italy.

“Pope Bergoglio has broken the umbilical cord that from the times of Pius XII has tied the Holy See to the Italian political world,” Politi writes in local newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. The seasoned journalist reports an end of the ‘Italian exception,’ where the Vatican swayed public opinions and ballots.

The Vatican might have decided to sit this one out, but the consequence of a deeply polarized and unstable government just beyond its walls might have significant consequences. Francis, the “Primate of Italy,” has been a strong advocate for the rights of immigrants and has repeatedly encouraged Europe to pursue unity, but it doesn’t seem entirely clear right now that his flock in il bel paese is even listening.

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