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From Communism to abstentionism: How Italy changed

Renato Guttuso (1911-1987), "The funerals of Italian Communist Party leader, Palmiro Togliatti", 1972

Today the European elections have lost their appeal on Italians, who were capable to shock the entire continent just through this democratic exercise. There was a moment in history where Italians decided to be in the core of all geopolitical games, and that was in 1984. The voters of the Italian peninsula were called to renovate the European Parliament, as well as all the citizens living in all ten member states of what at that time still was the European Economic Community. The outcome was without precedent: for the first time in its post-war history the Italian Communist Party (PCI) surged as the first political force.

More than 11.6 million of people, representing 33.3% of the Italians who went to vote, chose PCI. Christian Democracy (DC), the centrist Catholic-inspired party in power since the beginning of the republican era, lost his supremacy. This wasn’t a weird phenomenon in democracy. To the contrary, alternation among different forces is one the basic principle of this political system. But in times of cold war, with Europe and the world split in two different areas of influence, and with Italy at the border of the blocs, PCI’s victory rang for certain powers an alarm bell, inside and outside the country.

The Italian Communist Party was one of the most powerful ‘red’ political organizations out of the Soviet influence zone. It was the second major political party in Italy, where it constantly challenged DC for power. Ties between Italians and Soviets communists were so strong that in 1964 the USSR authorities had turned the name of the town Stavropol-on-Volga to Tolyatti, as a tribute paid by the PCUS to Palmiro Togliatti, the longest-serving secretary of PCI. This close relation between PCI and PCUS was of course a reason of concern, although in the meanwhile the Prague spring led all communist force in Europe, including the Italian one, to work for a new kind of model, the one of Eurocommunism, based on the assumption of acting within a democratic framework.

In Italy this new course resulted in the so-called “Historic Compromise”, an unprecedented alliance between communists and Christian democrats established in the 70’s. When in 1984 the European elections took place, some DC supporters were still doubtful about the policy of their party despite that the “Historic Compromise” was already over. Some people didn’t go to vote, and abstentionism rewarded communists. The voter turnout was 82.47%, down by 2.91% compared to the 1979 elections. PCI got 33.33% of votes, DC 32.96%

“PCI won” (front page of the communist newspaper l’Unità, 1984)

What happened in 1984 didn’t remain unobserved. CIA declassified documents show how the Americans were worried about the political developments in Italy, and how the United States were constantly keeping both eyes open on the country. Of course, these documents must be read in the light of the Iron Curtain period.

The lesson to be learned by the 1984 is thus the importance of participation. Voting counts, not voting matters even more. Italians unfortunately didn’t the lesson. As from the 1984 the voter turnout has been decreasing constantly. It was 81.07% in 1989, 73.60% in 1994, 69.73% in 1999, 71.72% in 2004, 65.05% in 2009 and 57.20% in 2014.

The last figures illustrate how Italians have lost their interest in the European elections, making abstentionism their first choice. The primary challenge for the country is to recreate an interest for the EU project. A fair debate and an adequate electoral campaign by all sides is key to stimulate the over 51 million of people who have the possibility of express their opinion and say what kind of Europe they would like to have.

In a certain way, the basic problem for Italians remains. In 1984 like in 2019, for most of the people the real question is: whom to vote for? A tricky question in times of cold war.  Right so in times of fake news.

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