Italy’s women ponder the return of Silvio Berlusconi

Many voters undecided as Italian election enters final week of campaign


On the evening of Italy’s March 4th general election, Tiziana Stellato will be counting ballots in the hospital where she works. But like many disgruntled Italians, she may not even vote.

What is especially distressing to Stellato is the thought of Silvio Berlusconi returning to power on the back of strong female support, as has often been the case since the former prime minister – known for his retrograde, if not misogynistic, views – entered politics in 1994.

“We are a very good people, but we don’t like change,” says the 47-year-old nurse from the northern city of Parma. “We keep returning to the past.”

The outcome of the election – the next big political test for the EU as it tries to arrest the rise of populism – is wide open, with Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition vying for an outright majority in parliament in a three-way battle against the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the incumbent centre-left Democratic party.

The big question in the final week of campaigning is the way undecided voters will jump: not only are they a vast army, accounting for more than one-third of the electorate, but they are disproportionately female.

“There is definitely more uncertainty and indecision among women,” says Luca Comodo, a pollster at Ipsos in Milan.

Fabio Bordignon, a political-science professor at the University of Urbino, adds: “This segment could be very important in the final days before the vote. The distance between men and women is not huge at the moment, but women - especially older women - are more likely to prefer the centre-right.”

The ruling PD, led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, may have hoped that Berlusconi’s history of sex parties with underage girls, objectification of women and the global #metoo movement against sexual harassment might have chipped away at support for the centre-right among women.

‘Forgotten history’

At a campaign rally in Milan at the weekend, Berlusconi again displayed his tendency to objectify women when talking about the future of the Italian jobs market in the era of automation. “We need to decide whether we all go to the park and look at other people’s babysitters, or if we create something new, which would be preferable,” he said, according to Reuters.

But there is little evidence that Berlusconi’s attitude towards women is denting support for him in any way. “It is forgotten history ... it hasn’t left a big trace. Even when it was happening it didn’t change people’s voting intentions,” Comodo says.

Instead, he says female voters – particularly older ones – are much more focused on security and immigration, which is more comfortable terrain for the centre-right, and could even favour the Northern League, Berlusconi’s far-right Eurosceptic ally. They are even disregarding the vulgarity towards women displayed by Matteo Salvini, the Northern League leader, who last summer depicted Laura Boldrini, the leftwing speaker of the Italian parliament, and a champion of migrants’ rights, with an inflatable sex doll.

Stay-at-home mothers, a traditional bastion of support for Berlusconi, “are shifting to the Northern League because of fear – there’s a desire to close up against external attacks”, Comodo says.

In Parma, the PD has presented a formidable candidate for parliament: Lucia Annibali, a 40-year old lawyer from the Adriatic city of Pesaro who suffered a vicious acid attack ordered by her ex-boyfriend that left her permanently disfigured.

After being treated in the burns unit of Parma hospital, she remained in the town and became a totemic figure in a national campaign to prevent violence against women, including working in the equal opportunity office of the centre-left government led by prime minister Paolo Gentiloni.

“This election is a huge challenge,” Annibali said in the local PD headquarters. “It’s very important for us to win, for the kind of country we want to live in. We promote a project that speaks of inclusion, of attention to people’s rights, a country that can look forward, to the future,” she says.

On immigration, she adds: “You need a higher vision. You need some ethical and moral responsibility. If we say foreigners are all delinquents and foreigners need to be kept away, it’s wrong.”

More children

But Laura Cavandoli, a city councillor from the Northern League who is running against Annibali, believes her side is winning the argument. “The middle class feels betrayed on taxes, on security. Daily reality is so ugly, and so different compared to what it was, and what we want, that we need change, and women realise this immediately,” she says.

On an economic and social level, there is a race among all the candidates to try to encourage women to have more children by offering income support for children and free or discounted childcare. The goal is not only to help stem Italy’s demographic decline, but also to bolster the country’s female labour participation rate, which has risen in recent years, but remains among the lowest in the developed world.

Annibali says the PD is more credible in making these promises because it has a more sober fiscal policy compared to the sweeping tax cuts and spending hikes proposed by the opposition – and is therefore more likely to deliver without busting the budget. “Everyone proposes these incentives, but they have to be financially sustainable,” she says.

Back in the heart of Parma, Stellato says that if anyone gives her hope in the election, it is indeed Annibali’s candidacy. “She’s a fantastic woman, I like her courage. She is a woman with balls – excuse the term,” she adds. Annibali says the campaign, however, has been a real test of character.

“It’s not easy for easy for me as a woman who wants to be normal – there are a lot of stereotypes,” she says. “As you enter politics, if you even graze politics, you become someone who uses her pain as a tool.”

Indeed, admiration for Annibali’s personal story does not necessarily translate into votes for the PD.

Marina Sinopoli, a 47-year old teacher walking by, supports Five Star. Kadija Choukry, a 20-year old student, is abstaining, and Vanna Leonardi, a 70-year old pensioner, is choosing the Northern League. “They give me confidence,” she says.

As for why women of her age have been so enduringly enamoured with Berlusconi all these years, Leonardi has a short answer. “He’s charming.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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