Zan bill: Italy’s senate blocks anti-homophobia law

The Italian Senate on Wednesday voted down a proposed law against homophobia which faced vehement opposition from right-wing parties and the Vatican.

People hold a banner reading
People hold a banner reading "Zan law now!" at the annual Pride March in Rome, on June 26th, 2021. Photo: Tiziana FABI/AFP

The law, known as the ‘ddl Zan’, sought to punish acts of discrimination and incitement to violence against gay, lesbian, transgender and disabled people.

It was proposed in May 2018 by Alessandro Zan, a member of parliament from the centre-left Democratic Party, in response to what he called an “exponential rise in the number and seriousness of acts of violence towards gay and transgender people”.

READ ALSO: What is Italy’s proposed anti-homophobia law and why is it controversial?

Critics of the law said it risked endangering freedom of expression and would have paved the way for “homosexual propaganda” in schools.

In a 154-131 vote called by the far-right League and Brothers of Italy parties, the upper house agreed to block its passage through parliament after it was approved last November by the lower house.

The vote was secret, meaning that lawmakers did not have to publicly declare their position, allowing several of them to defy their party’s line.

The outcome is a “betrayal of a political pact that wanted the country to take a step towards civilisation”, Zan wrote on Twitter.

In June, the Vatican took the unprecedented step of lodging a formal diplomatic complaint against the law, saying it breached the Concordat, the bilateral treaty between Italy and the Holy See.

Notably, the Vatican was concerned that under the homophobia law, Catholics risked prosecution for expressing opinions in favour of traditional heterosexual family structures. 

In response, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said parliament was “free” to legislate on the issue, as Italy “is a secular state, not a confessional state”.

READ ALSO: Italy ranked ‘one of the worst countries in Western Europe for gay rights’

In July, Zan’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) rejected calls from centrists and those on the right to water down the contents of the bill in a bid to seek bipartisan support.

According to League party leader Matteo Salvini, the PD and the Five Star Movement – which  also supported the bill – were defeated for their “arrogance”.

“They said no to all compromise proposals, including those proposed by the Holy Father (Pope Francis), by associations and by many families,” Salvini said.

In Italy, a predominantly Catholic country that is also home to the Vatican, legislation on LGBT issues is particularly sensitive.

However, a poll in July suggested the law had popular backing, with 62 percent of Italians in favour of the reform.

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.