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Psychology

Italian politics in search of the father figure

'To understand the Italian elections, you need to study Freud,' says a well-known Italian pollster, who believes that most Italians are just looking for a father figure. Alessandro Amadori talks to DW:

What is your feeling about these elections? How different are they from the last few rounds do you think?

These are strange elections, and in many ways very different from elections we've seen in the past. There is a lot of novelty here, first of all in the fact that we have a much more fragmented political offering. We don't have just two big blocks anymore, but about 5 big groups, and some minor groups too.

The second thing is that as well as having a fragmented offer, we have a fragmented demand, in the sense that the electorate is confused, disillusioned, and uncertain; they don't have a sense of loyalty or belonging to any one block any more. 

Thirdly, the semiotics [symbolic communication] are very different in this campaign. TV is not being used nearly as much, apart from by Berlusconi who has used it extensively. The other candidates seem to have returned to the "Piazza" [the town square]. Not in the sense that they are organizing on the street, but in the sense that they seem to be trying to form a kind of dialogue with their own electorates in different ways. Beppe Grillo is a good example of this, and his success and popularity has been growing accordingly.

Five-Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo (front R) gestures during a rally in Turin February 16, 2013. (Photo:REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino)

Beppe Grillo is one of the best examples of taking the campaign into the Piazza

What do you think about the new names for some of the coalitions?

Well linguistically, these names are quite novel. Let's take "Civil Revolution" for instance, that has a taste of the past and a taste of the future in it. Or what about the "Stop the Decline" party - here for the first time, a party has used a verb in its title. Grillo's "Five Star movement" is also quite different compared to the normal names you get in Italy. I think it shows that they have all tired of the normal semantics, and the traditional party structure, and so they are experimenting linguistically. That is the sign that there are some new shoots trying to grow, but I don't think any of them have really captured the public imagination yet. Although the Five Star Movement has had some success at capturing a certain something in the ether.

Let's talk about the "Five Star movement." It is the only one not to have explicitly linked itself to Italy or Italianess, why do you think that is?  And interestingly, Berlusconi hasn't changed his coalition's name at all. Why?

Yes, that's right, the other names [of coalitions] all have to do with the problems that Italy has. Let's take Berlusconi first. He has remained totally coherent with his personality, his party, and with his communication strategy. He is a classic from the eighties; he's all about marketing, totally marketing driven, a sort of promotional kind of marketing. So I think that's why he's stuck with what he knows best.

As for the "Five Star Movement," it seems to be aiming a bit higher than all the others. I feel that its ideas and strategies would work well almost anywhere. I wouldn't exclude the possibility that the Movement could become international eventually. Its semiotics and its program could be applied to lots of different countries. I think that's why it differs from the other party names at this time, because it is looking for a more universal, international feeling. In fact its name gives off something new-age about it almost.

Do you think that explains some of his success?Perhaps because he doesn't acknowledge directly with the name the problems Italy is facing, but presents perhaps a different kind of future?

I think Grillo too is working on the dominant sentiments around [that of anger and depression]. His symbolism and name might sound a bit new age, but his language is all centered on the anger that people are feeling, the rage that is around at everything which has gone wrong for this country so far. It's almost a state of war that he declares.

Rage is one of the dominant feelings in Italy at the moment, and depression is the other, Grillo works on the rage part of things. So here he is not bringing anything new to the party, but this movement, more than the others, gives off the idea of change. It harnesses anger at the status quo and then offers change - you could live a different life.

A large part of the Italian electorate really desires change, and I think his strategy of harnessing that could be very, very effective. He won't win outright, but I think his gains could be very, very significant. I think he could get nearly as much as the PDL which would be an immense result.  It would be the most surprising thing to happen after Berlusconi's win in 1994.

These different groupings are all carried pretty much with the personality of one leader. Do you think this is effective?

Source News Feed: EMEA Picture Service ,Germany Picture Service
Democratic Party (PD) leader Pierluigi Bersani arrives to cast his vote at a polling station in Piacenza, northern Italy December 2, 2012. The two finalists in a primary to choose the centre-left candidate for prime minister in next year's Italian elections face judgement day on Sunday in a run-off primary after a bitter campaign. The contest will decide whether Bersani, 61, or Matteo Renzi, 37, stand in national elections early next year against a still-to-be-chosen centre-right candidate to take over from Prime Minister Mario Monti. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo (ITALY - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Pier Luigi Bersani has been photographed a lot with his wedding ring in plain sight, but will his version of the father figure convince Italians?

No, I don't think that is effective at all, I think that is a limit of the phase in which we find ourselves. I think things are very different now after the Second Republic, when everything was dominated by big leaders and big coalitions.  Or rather, was dominated by Berlusconi.

Now we have a logic of coalitions and little groups - this is an intermediate phase. I think we are starting to resemble the German model, and that is a step forward in my opinion. But we are still in a transition phase. We still have personalities, but no big coalitions, so we are half way along in this process. If ever Italy gets more mature, I think it will resemble Germany, with leaders who can change, but lots of strong blocks and parties.

Today in Germany you have Merkel, but the party will carry on without her. In Italy at the moment, even though the groups are smaller, Monti's coalition wouldn't get by without him [and] Grillo's movement wouldn't exist without him. I think Italy will become a normal country when we have important leaders, but everything is organized around the ideas and the content and the programs, which at the moment it is not. I think centering things around big leaders is a sign of the immaturity of our country politically speaking at the moment.

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti speaks during a news conference (Photo:REUTERS/Eric Vidal)

Despite his reassuring demeanor, Monti does not sit comfortably in the role of the Italian father

So let's speak about the ideas. People I've spoken to, seem to be confused. The names of the coalitions promise a lot, but has any group or leader actually outlined their plans for Italy and its future?

Not really, no. This is a campaign where the content is absent. We've heard a lot about the fight to abolish IMU, a tax on houses, for instance but that is just one small measure, and what is lacking is an overall vision. I feel this is a crucial moment for our historical evolution. The leaders should present some macro projects for Italy in the next 10 years. What they should be thinking about is - does Italy want to be an industrialized nation, or a tourist trap? Does Italy want to invest in high or low technology? In the next 10 years, do we want to advance the position of women, or leave things as they are? These kinds of visions are absent, no one is asking or presenting the electorate with these kinds of choices. In what kind of Italy do they want to live in the next five or ten years?

So it is essentially a country in crisis. Do these names promise something that is not actually being offered?Have the coalition names been chosen to cover the lack of content do you think?

A bust of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar

'It all goes back to Caesar.' At heart we are an empire looking for our emperor, thinks Amadori

Yes, a little bit yes. These names do manage to cover up the lack of ideas underneath. Italian politics has lost the capacity to produce ideas and produce visions. It has become a laboratory, perhaps unique in the world, of political communication, a laboratory of leadership, but we don't really produce political thoughts. Ever since Machiavelli, 500 years ago, we are completely deprived of autonomous political thoughts, and the importance of personality in Italian politics compensates in a way for a lack of ideas and projects.

I think the situation we find ourselves in is all part of our tribal nature. We like to have a leader - that is what we are searching for, that is part of our culture in a way, the charismatic leader. Look, you just have to think, we were an empire, and we still need our Caesar. Mussolini follows in that tradition too. We need a leader, because it is more reassuring to have someone who decides for us.

Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator, speaks at the dedication ceremonies of Sabandia, central Italy, on Sept. 24, 1934. (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo).

Perhaps not the kind of father most people would want, the Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, who harked back to Caesar

Is that why people vote for Berlusconi do you think?Does he represent a strong leader, a father figure?

What I think is really important to understand is that we are still in a transition phase, and it's not finished - in fact it seems to be just starting today. After the First Republic broke down [effectively with the Clean Hands court cases and the fall of the old political guard], it seems that we just stopped at 1994. At that point, we didn't have a system, or at least one in which we recognized ourselves. We needed a new system then, we were looking around, and suddenly Berlusconi arrived. Effectively he just froze the situation. He did stabilize things and give them a certain balance, but it was a blockage, so we didn't ever manage the transition from the big parties of the First Republic, to a more diverse political landscape.

In fact, I think that is what is happening now, but we haven't made it yet. What we need is a new political system for the decades to come. We are searching desperately for a way to find a new balance, and it has been held up for 20 years on the shoulders of Berlusconi, today he doesn't have the same credibility and so now we are wobbling around looking for something new.

But Berlusconi is back, he is still there and is fighting hard.

Well, yes that's true, the Berlusconi phenomenon is still there. That's probably because the appeal of Berlusconi and his system is much more deeply rooted than it might at first appear. I think foreigners sometimes have a hard time understanding that about us, but essentially we are a very populist and leader-led country. It's a bit like Argentina really, and what happened with Peron, that might help you understand a little better what is going on here. To understand Berlusconi, you have to look at someone like Peron, and Argentina. We, like them, are a very emotional country, and we have an emotive relationship with our politicians.

Berlusconi was successful because he really won over a large part of the electorate, he had people who loved him, have loved him for 20 years. He is a populist phenomenon, in the scientific meaning, because he is the incarnation of the populist identification between a big totemic leader and his people, the direct identification. This populism exists in the collective Italian imagination. Mussolini was the same, he was very populist in his time for many people. And really I take everything back to Caesar, we are always searching for a new Caesar, that's what I think.

So it's almost Freudian then you think?

Sigmund Freud, Abraham Brill, C.G. Jung, Stanley Hall, Ernest Jones und Sándor Ferenczi an der Clark University. taken in 1909
(Photo: ullstein bild-Imagno)

'To understand elections, you need to understand psychoanalysis,' thinks Alessandro Amadori

It is Freudian. If you want to understand politics, and especially Italian politics, you need to study psychoanalysis. That is the only possible explanation. It is not rational, there is no rationality here. It is all about emotions, there are just things that you can't understand. I believe that Italian politics is all about the eternal search for the lost father.  We are deep down politically immature, instead of growing, which is hard and tiring, we look for a father who will tell us what to do. 

There are lots of other countries who live quite happily like that, Russia, for instance, or China, and these countries will probably never become modern democracies. Look at Confucius, here it is the grandfather figure, the wise old man who looks after people and provides spiritual guides, or the emperor figure in Russian history. These kinds of  psychodynamic mechanisms live in the collective imagination, which in their turn effectively condition political choice and that is why often the same kinds of leaders wind up in the same countries, because often the population is conditioned to search for them, and find something reassuring in them.

Alessandro Amadori is an Italian psychologist and author. He won an Italian quiz show with his specialist subject, the complete works of Sigmund Freud. He has written a number of books on politics, sociology and psychology. He  runs a market research company, COESIS in Milan, which examines the psychology of markets, including the political landscape and often conducts public opinion polls on certain topics. He is a seasoned political commentator and thinker.

DW.DE