ROME—Italy has never been particularly known for political stability. It’s sworn in 65 governments in the last 70 years, including five since it last enjoyed a decisive election, in 2008—when Italy’s answer to Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, won the country’s leadership for the third time.
But the upcoming electoral campaign ahead of a March 4 vote is proving even more peculiar than usual, and if the frontrunners’ campaign promises all came true, Italy could easily become Europe’s perfect utopian society.
Berlusconi, now phantom leader of his center-right Forza Italia (because he was banned from office after a tax-evasion conviction), has promised to cut taxes on cars, first homes, businesses, and inheritances. But it is his offer of perks to pooch owners that is winning his party crucial swing votes. He vows that those with four-legged friends get free vet service and tax-free pet food.
At first glance, this may seem a gratuitous ploy to get votes, but after World War II, domestic pets were considered nonessential luxuries and those who had them had to pay through the nose for vaccinations, vets, and the usual pet paraphernalia—unless the animals were used for farm work. But no more pet penalties if Berlusconi’s party comes to power. And pet owners love it.
“How great to pay less to keep a pet,” a retired woman named Maria said as she walked her large collie down a narrow cobbled street here Wednesday. When asked if it would make her vote for Berlusconi’s party, she said it might be the tipping point. “If it comes down to paying less to keep my dog, sure, why not?” she said. “It would be even better if they would make not picking up dogshit illegal.”
The head of Berlusconi’s coalition partner party, the Northern League, is Matteo Salvini, a fiery Trump-supporting right-wing leader who wants to make vices easier, vowing to cut the tax on electronic cigarettes, which are taxed in line with regular tobacco products, and to open brothels across the country. Prostitution is legal but unregulated in Italy, and Salvini believes that by taxing the popular pastime of paid sex, the nation could make enough money to support a 15 percent flat tax for all. Even if sex won’t pay for the tax break, he believes that the 15 percent flat tax will put an end to tax evasion. Italy’s current structure means that many people pay upward of 43 percent tax, which has led to widespread cheating.
Salvini also hopes like-minded Italians will back his desire to bleach the country of any ethnic minority. If he wins power, he vows to immediately remove more than half a million undocumented migrants. Under existing policy, if a migrant is denied a request for political asylum, he or she is simply given a slip of paper and told to repatriate themselves without any real means to do so, which has created a massive underworld population that lives in the shadows, feeding the non-taxed so-called black labor market. In Salvini’s perfect world, undocumented people would be corralled into holding centers and “flown back to Africa on cargo jets,” he says. “There are half a million irregular migrants in Italy,” he told La Repubblica newspaper this week. “All of them need to be sent home.”
The greatest challenger to the Berlusconi-Salvini ticket is Beppe Grillo, who heads the anti-everything Five Star Movement, which, despite vowing not to team up with another party to form a coalition, is polling strong with just over a month to go until the vote. Grillo is another phantom party leader, ineligible under his own party’s mandate to keep criminals out of office—due to an involuntary-manslaughter charge from a fatal car accident when he was young. The Five Star’s official candidate for prime minister is Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old waiter-turned-politician who promises to “repeal 400 useless laws” that are on the books and has even launched a website for citizens to nominate which statutes to get rid of.
To be fair, Italy has thousands of ridiculous laws, many dating back to the Fascist era under Mussolini, that clog up the court systems. Some are rarely enforced: In Milan, it is illegal not to be smiling on the street unless you are attending a funeral; in Rome, it is illegal for a man to touch his own genitals in a public place, though that’s a common gesture that’s believed to ward off bad luck, especially after seeing a Catholic nun. There are also endless laws regarding defamation that often end up aimed at journalists, and statutes meant to keep tourists in line, like those prohibiting eating on the Spanish Steps or building sandcastles on the Venice Lido beaches.
The Five Star party has had hundreds of suggestions filed on its website regarding which laws to abolish first. The most popular so far relate to taxes and driving. The move has spawned its own hashtag #aboliamoqualcosa (or #letsabolishsomething), under which sarcastic Italians have suggested abolishing everything from socks with sandals to cookies that break in milk, certain emoticons, and cheese on fish pasta in tourist restaurants.
One thing the top-polling parties have in common is a promise to abolish a new regulation enacted last year that makes a dozen vaccines mandatory for school-age children. Italy’s strong anti-vaxxers have successfully convinced paranoid parents that their children will suffer immeasurable harm through vaccines despite a resurgence in measles breakouts last year.
The center-left Democratic Party, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and now in power under its fourth prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, seems to have the least to offer voters, and is instead chiding its rivals for making promises that appear to be from the realm of “blue fairies” and “magic wands.” It does want to get rid of the $100-a-year tax on public television (that is mandatory even for those who don’t watch TV), and would like to raise the minimum wage to €9 or €10 (around $11 or $12), depending on the sector; but it has largely shied away from grandiose vows, keeping in line with President Sergio Mattarella’s request that all those running in upcoming elections keep their promises “adequate, concrete, and realistic.”
With 40 days to go until the vote, there is still plenty of time for even more campaign pledges that, if nothing else, define what it is to be Italian—with promises of cheap dog food and easy sex.