Why you should care
Because history isn’t always a good teacher.
Maria Bentivoglio is excited as she grabs her voter ID card, rushes down the stairs of her Rome apartment and heads to the ballot box around the corner. Dozens have already queued outside the polling station, eager to participate in postwar democracy. It’s June 2, 1946, and it’s a big day for Bentivoglio: It’s her 18th birthday, and, for the first time ever, Italian women have been granted the right to vote in a referendum that will decide whether Italy remains a monarchy or becomes a republic.
“It was an easy choice,” Bentivoglio says, noting how the royals had fled three years earlier, surrendering to the Germans — allies turned enemies — without even telling the nation. “Their escape was a deplorable, shameful act,” she says. Bentivoglio was a teenager and still can’t shake the memories of the tragic civil war that followed, as partisan resistance forces fought the remaining fascists while the allies moved north, liberating Italy. “Voting for the republic was the best way to guarantee a long-lasting peace” and mark the “start of our emancipation process,” the 88-year-old explains.
Now that we have made Italy, we must make Italians.
Official data from Italy’s interior ministry shows there was a 90 percent voter turnout, and that the republic won 55 percent of the vote, ushering out the Savoy crown. Newspaper headlines hailed “The Birth of Italy’s Republic,” but the numbers revealed just how divided the country still was. The south favored the king, while the north — which had taken part in partisan resistance — longed for democracy. There were even rumors that the monarchy’s narrow-margin loss had been assured through electoral misconduct. “Nobody really knows how it went, but at the end of the day, the pro-democracy votes were more, and that changed Italy’s future forever,” says Sergio Fabbrini, head of the LUISS School of Government in Rome.
The republic has enjoyed 70 years of peace, preserving unity even during the bitter Cold War when communist and anti-communist political forces clashed to control the country, says Fabbrini. “It has paved the way to economic development and to the 1950s boom, and given Italy a crucial role in building European integration and a common market,” he adds. But the republic has also produced a series of 60 wobbly governments since 1946 — nearly one a year — which has alienated a large proportion of Italians from the political process. Italy also suffers from a slow decision-making process: The two branches of Parliament, the Senate and the lower house, must approve the same law, and each time a change is made by one, the text has to go back to the other for approval. It’s like a tedious Ping-Pong game — one that some fed-up Italians say needs to change. Many voters today feel that their politicians are unfit to rule; in turn, they focus primarily on personal needs instead, like paying the rent amid a continued recession.
Bentivoglio compares the Italian unity she sees at the football stadium to its absence in everyday life. During soccer tournaments, they cheer for the Azzurri players, and tears run down cheeks as the national anthem plays amid a sea of green, white, and red flags. But “nobody seems to care when Italy celebrates National Unity Day on November 4,” she says. France, Spain and England arose as nation-states at the end of the Middle Ages. For Italy — the youngest of all modern European nations — that day came after World War II, and Bentivoglio distinctly recalls an expression from the time: “Now that we have made Italy, we must make Italians.”
But building such nationalism takes time. The country long anchored in rich, powerful families like the Medici is very old indeed, but the boot-shaped nation of 62 million is young. Building a republic from scratch was and remains hard, explains Fabbrini. “I was expecting more from these 70 years,” Bentivoglio laments. To her mind, Italians still have little sense of belonging to something bigger, and a poor respect for the state.
Seventy years after she first cast a ballot, Bentivoglio, alongside her countrymen, is being invited again to weigh in on a crucial referendum. This time, on December 4, Italians will vote on a constitutional reform to scrap the Senate of its legislative powers and speed up the country’s decision-making process. “Our republican model needs a restyle, and we must update our constitution to boost political efficiency,” says Fabbrini. Having just the lower house approve laws would mean that reforms are more speedily adopted — without the risk of two branches of Parliament bickering, blocking legislation and creating chaos.
And Bentivoglio? She plans to vote yes. While Italy may be a young nation with an old heart, “it’s always been forward-looking,” she says, “and modernization is inevitable.”