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POLITICS

Five Star Movement leader Grillo wants 16-year-olds to get the vote

"We need to let young people become the driving force for innovation in Italy," said the leader of Italy's anti-establishment party in a blog post promising to campaign to give 16-year-olds the vote.

Five Star Movement leader Grillo wants 16-year-olds to get the vote
Beppe Grillo gives a speech. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

The Five Star Movement “will fight to guarantee them full political rights from the age of 16”, Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog.

Italy's voting age is 18, but rises to 25 for Senate elections, something Grillo said was “an intolerable anachronism”.

Politicians are currently working on a new electoral law ahead of elections which must take place by next spring, meaning it's the perfect time to make such adjustments to the law. And Grillo's not the first to have had the idea: the ruling Democratic Party proposed a bill to lower the voting age in Senate elections to 18 in January this year.

Due to Italy's perfect bicameral system, all laws need to get the approval of the Senate as well as the Chamber of Deputies before they can pass, which is one of the reasons key bills – on everything from criminalizing torture to legalizing civil unions – often end up in parliamentary gridlock.

The party make-up of each house tends to vary significantly, a factor which is likely affected by the average age of voters. 

Italy is home to Europe's oldest population due to a falling birthrate, meaning that both the median age and the proportion of over-65-year-olds are above the European average. This means the older generation already has a stronger voice, simply because Italy is home to more old people than young – and with under-25's excluded from voting for the Senate, the issue is exacerbated.

More than four million Italians, or eight percent of the population, are aged between 18 and 24, “and so their votes count less”, according to Grillo.

He drew a link between this disenfranchisement and the disproportionately high levels of youth unemployment (currently around 35 percent) and youth poverty in Italy.

Last year, for the first time, the millennial generation became the poorest in the country, data from Caritas showed. Meanwhile, social spending for the elderly is significantly higher than for any other age group, with most of the country's welfare budget going on pensions.

While there is likely to be plenty of public support for extending votes for the Senate to under-24-year-olds, the question of giving Italy's approximately one million 16-17-year-olds the vote will be more controversial.

Across the rest of Europe, the voting age is 16 in Austria, the Isle of Man, some German states and one Swiss canton.

So where do Italy's other parties stand on the issue?

The far-right Northern League's Matteo Salvini has also suggested extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, saying the age group is “more informed and involved today than they used to be”.

Meanwhile, the ruling Democratic Party has allowed 16-year-olds to vote in party primaries since 2007, and during his successful campaign to be re-elected as party leader, ex-PM Matteo Renzi raised the possibility of lowering the national voting age to 16.

“And I don't say that in my own interest, since we lost the referendum to the youth vote,” he said, referring to the unsuccessful referendum on changes to Italy's constitution last December, on which Renzi had staked his own leadership.

Those reforms would have seen the Senate totally reformed, stripping it of most of its powers to block and amend legislation and appointing fewer senators, rather than having elections.

While the proposals didn't win the support of Italy's young adults, it's possible that giving them the right to vote in Senate elections would be a more popular policy.

 

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UKRAINE

Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

The chummy relationship between former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin goes back decades. The invasion of Ukraine has put it under pressure.

Berlusconi's bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

After a tycoon bromance, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to break up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine war — like many in his country, where ties with Moscow run deep.

The billionaire former premier’s unwillingness to speak ill of Putin is echoed by other leading Italian politicians, while in the media, there are concerns that pro-Russian sentiment has warped into propaganda.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi is committed to NATO and the EU, strongly backing sanctions against Moscow, and at his urging a majority of Italy’s MPs approved sending weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

But much of Draghi’s coalition government — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) — has long pursued a “special relationship” with Moscow.

Italy used to have the largest Communist party in the West, and many businesses invested in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while Russians in turn sought opportunities here.

Barely a month before the February 24 invasion, Putin spent two hours addressing top Italian executives at a virtual meeting.

Beds, hats, parties

Berlusconi, 85, has been out of office for more than a decade but remains influential both in politics and through his media interests, as founder of the Mediaset empire.

He was an ardent admirer of the Russian leader, and a close chum — they stayed in each other’s holiday homes, skied together and were snapped sporting giant fur hats.

“They were two autocrats who mutually reinforced their image: power, physical prowess, bravado, glitz,” historian and Berlusconi author Antonio Gibelli told AFP.

Putin gave Berlusconi a four-poster bed, in which the Italian had sex with an escort in 2008, according to her tell-all book. He in turn gave Putin, 69, a duvet cover featuring a life-sized image of the two men.

In the months before the Ukraine war, Berlusconi continued to promote his close ties, including a “long and friendly” New Year’s Eve phone call.

It was not until April, two months after Russia’s invasion, that he publicly criticised the conflict, saying he was “disappointed and saddened” by Putin.

He has struggled to stay on message since then.

Speaking off the cuff in Naples last week, he said he thought “Europe should… try to persuade Ukraine to accept Putin’s demands”, before backtracking and issuing a statement in Kyiv’s support.

“Breaking the twinning with Putin costs Berlusconi dearly: he has to give up a part of his image,” Gibelli said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the anti-immigration League, Salvini, who has proudly posed in Putin T-shirts in the past, has argued against sending weapons to aid Ukraine.

The League did condemn Russia’s military aggression, “no ifs and no buts”, on February 24 when Russia invaded.

But an investigation by the L’Espresso magazine earlier this week found that, in the over 600 messages posted by Salvini on social media since Russia invaded, he had not once mentioned Putin by name.

He did so for the first time on Thursday, saying “dialogue” with Putin was good, and encouraging a diplomatic end to the war.

‘Biased media’

Many pro-Russian figures are given significant airtime in the media, which itself is highly politicised.

“Italy is a G7 country with an incredibly biased media landscape,” Francesco Galietti, founder of risk consultancy Policy Sonar, told AFP.

TV talk shows are hugely popular in Italy, and “one of the main formats of information” for much of the public, notes Roberta Carlini, a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute.

But she warns they often “obscure facts”.

Italy’s state broadcaster RAI is being investigated by a parliamentary security committee for alleged “disinformation”, amid complaints over the frequent presence of Russian guests on talks shows.

Commercial giant Mediaset is also in hot water after airing an interview with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which highly polemical claims went unchallenged.

It defended the interview, saying good journalism meant listening to “even the most controversial and divisive” opinions.

“RAI is a reflection of the political landscape, with its many pro-Russian parties. And Mediaset… well, Berlusconi is an old pal of Putin’s, so what do you expect?” Galietti said.

He also points to a decades-long culture in Italy of allowing conspiracy theories — particularly on the interference of US spies in Italian politics — to circulate in the media unchallenged.

“You end up with a situation where Russia Today (RT) is considered as authoritative as the BBC,” he said.

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