Democracy and the haircut

We keep hearing about hair cuts and the EU. But if you really want to get to the heart of democracy, sometimes you need to consult a barber. At least, that's the way of things in Italy these days

Go get your democracy cut...
Tim Hedges
On 8 February 2015 11:35

It’s funny how some of the least significant political events can prey on one’s mind, but my thoughts have returned again and again to the news that on the election of the new President Mattarella, the first thing the Italian newspapers did was interview his barber.

This seemed such a sensible approach that in the end I decided to question mine. Vincenzo is a traditional barber in central Rome and I wanted his views on the Presidency and the general course of events in Italy.

I don’t know how much Mattarella’s barber enjoyed the experience but Vincenzo could not have been more pleased. I suppose barbers worldwide tire of the usual bland topics – ‘been anywhere nice recently?’ and his face lit up at the possibility of something controversial.

Occasionally as he spoke he would come round the chair to gesticulate with his scissors, particularly if he thought I wasn’t paying enough attention in the mirror.

And what he said made an extraordinary amount of sense. It’s all about democracy.

The last President, Napolitano, had been too political, interfering, he said, at the behest of Europe. The present Prime Minister and the previous two had been appointed rather than elected. The last time we saw the leader of the largest elected faction become Prime Minister was Silvio Berlusconi in 2008. It was an indignity for Italian democracy.

And the people’s lack of trust in their politicians went further.

They could see obviously undesirable people rising to the top: people who had twice been convicted of serious crimes, such as fraud and misuse of public funds, being saved by the statute of limitations and the extraordinary torpor of the Italian legal system. Old men who had changed political allegiance several times but cultivated their friends were treated as statesmen.

he reason for this is Italy’s electoral system, often referred to as partitocrazia: party-ocracy rather than democracy. It is technically known as the Closed List System, and it means that you simply vote for a party, not a person. The parties are allocated seats at the election and those seats are awarded to the party’s list of would-be MPs, which you, the elector, can’t argue with.

So if you fancy five years of indemnity from prosecution (subject to the support of your colleagues); a salary of  €11,700 a month plus €4,000 a month overnight expenses (more than four times the Spanish equivalents), decent pensions and subsidised food, do a favour for someone important. You’ll get on the list. Do a big favour and you’ll get to the top of the list.

There’s none of this grubby business of having to appeal to the voters. No Italian would ever write to his MP – there is no one specifically allocated, and he would in any case be too busy talking to his barber.

Since the early days of the First Republic, starting after the war, Italy has wrestled with its voting system.

It has had a purely proportional system, which encouraged so many parties that the coalitions changed every few months and the country was ungovernable; it has had a mixture of proportional and first past the post which might have been brilliant but no one understood it.

The present system even gives the winning party a few extra seats to make up a decent majority. It has been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court and it is said that Renzi and Berlusconi are negotiating something new.

The talk is that their discussions are centring on the number of votes a party needs to be elected. But that is not the problem, Vincenzo insists. They need to talk about getting politics closer to the people, for power to be placed in the hands of the people the electors want.

The closed list system is evil because it is undemocratic and perpetuates the Establishment, leading inexorably to corruption. Readers might remember that it was the system proposed by Nick Clegg for elections to the House of Lords.

We voters, by contrast, always feel better if we can choose our representatives and then if necessary throw them out. That is democracy.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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