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Italian Elections: How US-style Campaigning Differs from the Italian Tradition

April 17, 2008

Cristian Vaccari is a researcher at the University of Bologna where he works on political communication, campaign strategies and information technology in Italy and abroad. He is an expert on the Italian and the American campaigning traditions. In 2004 he was a scholar-in-residence at American University where he observed that year’s Presidential Campaign with the purpose of analyzing the work of campaign strategists. He has been studying similar issues for almost a decade. Valentina Pasquali interviewed Cristian last week, with regard to the Italian elections and the campaigns that preceded the vote of April 13th and 14th, which saw the victory of media mogul and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Valentina Pasquali: What do you think are the major differences between campaigns in Italy and the United States?

Cristian Vaccari: Campaigns in the US are mostly centered on the candidates, while those in Italy, from an organizational standpoint, are still directly linked to the parties, like it is in the rest of Europe. In the end, the activities that are carried out for campaigning purposes are similar, but in Italy field operations are still managed directly by the parties, and it’s party members who design communication strategies, media relations, and the creation of websites.

In Italy there has always been a strong tradition of bottom-up mobilization, but starting in 1994, TV has come to play an increasingly central role and as a result parties have partially let go of their field operations. Nevertheless, research show that interpersonal communication still has a significant impact on voting decisions. Anyone who underestimates the power of face-to-face interaction does so at his/her own risk.

Another difference, between US and Italian campaigns is that in Italy TV ads cannot be used, whereas the represent one of the most important tools of American campaigns (a law named “par condicio” theoretically requires similar exposure for all parties on the ballot and is meant to prevent any single one from “buying” the vote by airing more ads than the opponents. However, there are many ways in which the “par condicio” is circumvented). Nevertheless, because political journalism in Italy is far less challenging of power than that American journalism, despite straight-out ads being forbidden, many candidates end up talking endlessly to the cameras when they are interviewed by journalists.

Finally, in Italy, we still haven’t witnessed the emergence of serious innovations in the field of information technology: candidates’ websites exist, but they haven’t yet become an important piece political information and of political participation by the masses.

VP: How does campaign financing in Italy work? Who pays for what?

CV: Despite a referendum in 1993 abolished public financing, money still comes to parties from the State, (especially in the form of reimbursements for running campaigns). Parties such as the Democratici di Sinistra (the Left-wing Democrats that have now integrated into the Democratic Party) and Rifondazione Comunista (one of the political formations that were created from the ashes of the Communist Party and that has now become part ofSinistra Arcobaleno or Left-wing Rainbow) still raise funds via membership. The same goes for Alleanza Nazionale (Berlusconi’s ally National Alliance). As far as Forza Italia is concerned, they mostly use the leader’s private wealth.

In Italy there are no particularly strict limits to private financing of parties, and as a result companies and interest groups can donate even large sums of money.

Finally the transparency of the financing system is far inferior to that in the United States.

VP: What is your opinion on the political activism and inclination to volunteering of the Italian people? Who mobilizes and for what causes?

CV: The number of people that actively does campaign work is relatively limited and normally these are the same people that are already a member of a party or of non-profit organizations and civic associations. Italians are not a particularly active people, especially since the time when mass parties and their field operations began weakening. The culture of civic participation in Italy has never been strong. However, there exit groups of militants or sympathizers that might mobilize on a part-time basis, and only following special events or causes, not only the general elections, but also for example the primaries, an experiment that has just been launched and that since its inception has had a notable success. Nevertheless, this current campaign doesn’t seem to have been particularly active, like it happened in 2006. This is probably the result of the fact that most of campaign communication now excessively relies on TV.

VP: Do you think campaign strategies have changed in Italy in the last 10-20 years? If so, how?

CV: It’s changed in the sense that TV has come to play an increasingly central role, it has become unavoidable and it has substituted more traditional networks of communication, which used to be directly managed by parties and unions.

Things haven’t changed much as far as the attention that campaigns pay to the citizens. Politics seems to remain unaware of the need to keep communication with voters going even in non-electoral times and of the importance of listening and understanding the needs of the public and not of simply “selling” voters a pre-packaged product.

Moreover, the overwhelming role of Television in politics has come to create a need for a renewed effort towards direct and active participation of the citizenry in politics and of a dialogue between politicians and voters. Unfortunately there are no signs of developments in this direction, certainly a cause of the legitimacy crisis of parties and institutions.

VP: What do you think have been the main engines of change and whom do you believe Italian political strategists have looked to for inspiration?

CV: Berlusconi’s first victory in 1994 taught everyone that it is fundamental to turn to tools such as news management, polls, focus groups, and image-building strategies, ideas taken, somewhat uncritically from the United States. However, political communication abroad does not solely rely on Television, there have been newer innovations; first among them the Internet. In Italy we have remained attached to patterns that in the US and in the UK were popular in the 1980s, at the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: this was a model based on a communication heavily centered on TV, on general broadcasting, on advertisements. Instead, both politics and enterprises, starting in the 1990’s have begun re-thinking this idea, but not Italian politics.

VP: Do you think Berlusconi has impacted campaign strategies in Italy? How?

CV: Apart from what I already said above, it is important to note that, the Italian left wing has an obsessive belief that Berlusconi’s success is solely due to the use of communication strategies and the media. They refuse to understand how his popularity is also a result of the appeal, for large sectors of the electorate, of his political agenda and personality. Some continue hoping that all copying Berlusconi’s techniques will suffice to win the next round of elections, or alternatively they are convinced that, if he keeps on winning, it’s only because he knows how to manage his presence on the media.

VP: What kind of an influence does American politics have on Italian campaigns?

CV: It is certainly viewed as a model to follow, partly because of a fascination for anything that’s foreign typical of the Italians. It’s a love-hate relation, where instances of admiration for the US alternate with warnings and cries that “this is not America!”. In general, people here ignore almost everything that would be important to know about the US political and media systems, as well as we have enormous difficulties in trying understanding the complexities of American society.

VP: In the end, Berlusconi won again the vote of April 13 and 14; what is, in your opinion, the secret of his success, as far as campaign strategy but also political project and personality?

CV: Honestly, I think this campaign has not shown, on the part of Berlusconi, any innovation worth noticing. I believe that the more reasonable interpretation of the results is not so much that “Italians want Berlusconi,” but that – in a system with two major parties and two prominent leaders, one of which representing the incumbent government and an approval rating of 20-30% – Italians more simply chose change, even though change meant Berlusconi and not something newer. It seems to me like your typical vote of protest: people decide to punish the last government and to go for the opposition.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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