Electoral abstention is now climbing fast towards Tunisian percentages. These reflect the judgment of the people on what has become nothing more than theater. According to the well-established script, these numbers are followed by the obligatory condolences for the death of participation and equally predictable proposals to resurrect its corpse. But the upper echelons of politics, faced with a long-lasting trend, are now aware that for some time now, it has been more than just an occasional response to the miserly political offer, more than the revolt of a widespread “whoeverist” mood – it has been a structural readjustment of the representative system within its objective and subjective limits. And, in the end, this suits the elites perfectly fine.
A narrow electorate simplifies many things and makes the game between powers and interests more predictable and free from interference, at least at the national level. Political forces are rapidly adapting to this narrow and humanly depopulated chessboard, proceeding to redefine their tactics and lines of action. For the right, this is the most propitious terrain imaginable for the mixture of corporatism and neoliberal doctrine (which only appears unnatural) on which it stakes all its cards. For the left, it offers a convenient explanation of its decline and indispensable ingredient to the rhetoric of redemption.
The current war, experienced as an affair between chancelleries and geopolitical balances, untouchable and located at cosmic distances, towering over the opinions and concerns of regular citizens (despite the heavy repercussions of the war on social life and material conditions), strongly fuels the sense of powerlessness, the great distance between rulers and ruled, between politics and society, and is dealing a decisive blow to representation.
The growth of abstention is certainly not unique to Italy. Sunday’s Berlin elections showed the same trend: a rise of the right, mass abstentionism. The Greens, who suffered only a very slight decline in percentage terms, probably paid a much heavier price in voter abstention for defending the expansion of the coal mine in Lützerath against the tenacious environmentalist movement opposing it.
In the major European countries, distrust of the political forces and the system of representation is spilling over into powerful struggle movements that are posing a real challenge to governments and their policy choices.
In France, millions of people are striking and demonstrating repeatedly against the pension reform sought by Macron.
In the U.K., a mighty wave of strikes over wage increases nullified by inflation is paralyzing entire sectors: from transport to schools, public administration, health care.
In Madrid, the masses are demonstrating in defense of public health care against the region’s conservative government and its privatization plans.
In Germany, in addition to the Post Office strike, a large movement is targeting the Greens’ government policy and the war-motivated derogations from the ecological reconversion roadmap.
Even if these struggles don’t achieve the desired results or manage to shake up the incumbent governments, they nevertheless demonstrate a social and political responsiveness that doesn’t go through the ballot box, but can exert far greater conditioning power than weak and wordy parliamentary opposition.
There is not even an inkling of any of that in Italy. Wage levels are among the most miserable in Europe, pensions are at a standstill, inflation is biting, social safety nets are taken apart, starting with the citizenship income; the revival of health care, emphatically promised during pandemic times, is no longer even on the horizon; the tax system continues to favor the highest incomes, and schools are being taken hostage by the most reactionary and classist ideology imaginable.
Yet, despite all this, there is no significant reaction to fight back. Those who vote right expect the providential intervention of a strong government. Those who vote left are trying to cover their backs against a disastrous retreat. But those who abandon the ballot box (a conspicuous majority), and also those who do so with a definite political motivation, are not taking to the streets, are not sparking struggle movements in schools or workplaces, as is the case in other European countries.
This widespread apathy is now a hallmark of Italy, where the defeat of the struggle movements was all the more stinging because the desires for change they had conveyed had been so great and so radical. Many different explanations can be sought for this, but in any case, it is from this stasis that we have to start. With the hope that the “party of abstention” will cease to be a party that expresses itself only negatively, and transform itself into a movement that shows itself in fighting back.
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