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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

The Italian vocabulary you’ll need to follow the elections

Italian political goings-on are famously unpredictable, but they don't have to be impossible to understand. Here's a guide to the words and phrases you need to know ahead of Italy's crucial elections this Sunday.

The Italian vocabulary you'll need to follow the elections
League party leader Matteo Salvini (R) signs a campaign poster reading "I believe in it and I'll put my signature on it". (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Italian politics is hard enough to follow even for those with a lifetime’s experience of the political system and fluency in the language. For foreigners trying to follow events, it can be extremely confusing.

But once you’re armed with a bit of background knowledge and some specifically Italian political language, Italian politics does get easier to understand (at least, most of the time).

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

With Italy preparing for crucial general elections on Sunday, September 25th, it’s especially important to be able to at least get the gist of what’s going on.

From vocabulary basics to the peculiarities of Italian ‘politichese’, here’s The Local’s guide to the language you’ll need when following the election and political news in the coming weeks.

The basics

You may already have a good grasp of some basic political vocabulary, such as partiti politici (political parties) and i sondaggi (opinion polls).

L’elezione is ‘the election’, but Italians use the plural form (le elezioni) for general elections since voters will be choosing representatives in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

The names for the two parts of parliament are la Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies – the Lower House) and il Senato della Repubblica (the Senate of the Republic – the Upper House).

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Italians vote on September 25th in elections expected to bring easy an victory for far-right and right-wing populist parties. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The system is anything but simple: it’s a mixed voting system with some seats allocated via proportional representation (‘un sistema proporzionale‘) and others by first-past-the-post (uninominale secco).

Don’t be alarmed if, on election day (il giorno di voto), you hear people talking about urns, or urne. Like its English equivalent, an ‘urna‘ is a kind of vase or container, but in Italian it’s used to refer to the ballot box, rather than anything to do with funerals. In Italian, andare alle urne means to ‘go to the polls’, or to cast your vote.

You do this using a scheda elettorale, or ballot paper – in fact, voters get two ballot papers – one for each house of parliament – at the polling booth (cabina elettorale). Or you might not: abstaining from voting (astensionismo) is increasingly common in Italy. 

As soon as voting ends, we’ll get an exit poll (this one’s easy – ‘gli exit poll’) and by the early hours of the morning, we should have the early results (risultati preliminari)

The parties – and campaign slogans

Italy has a large number of political parties and an ever-shifting political landscape, meaning some of the bigger names in this election may already be familiar while others were previously unknown.

Here’s a quick rundown of the main parties in the mix this time, their names in both Italian and English, and the slogans they’re using:

Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, or FdI).

Slogan: ‘Pronti’ – The hard-right party expected to take the largest share of the vote has the single word slogan pronti, meaning ‘are you ready?’

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

Is Italy ready for election season, and a new government? – A campaign poster shows hard-right Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni, who is likely to become the next prime minister. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

The League (Lega)

Slogan: ‘Credo’ – meaning ‘I believe’. Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populist party was told off by Catholic bishops for using a slogan with religious themes in attempt to appeal to the country’s conservative, religious voters. Posters have since featured various longer slogans, including ‘credo negli italiani‘ (I believe in the Italians).

Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S)

Slogan: ‘Dalla parte giusta’ – The populist party now headed by former PM Giuseppe Conte has chosen a simple slogan meaning ‘on the right side’.

Democratic Party (Partito democratico, PD)

Slogan: ‘Scegli’ – another one-word campaign slogan, this one means ‘choose’. Political analysts say it’s being used by Italy’s second-biggest party as a way to highlight its opposition to Brothers of Italy.

Italian Democratic Party (PD) leader Enrico Letta is asking voters to ‘choose’ his party over the ruight-wing coalition. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Azione + Italia Viva (Action and Italy Alive)

Slogan: ‘Italia, sul serio’ – These two small centrist parties are running together for election, presenting themselves as the sensible, moderate choice with the campaign slogan ‘Italy, seriously’. 

Forza Italia (Variously translated as ‘Go Italy’ or ‘Forward Italy’)

Slogan: none. Silvio Berlusconi’s party has chosen not to use one particular slogan this time, though some campaign posters feature the words ‘oggi più che mai‘, meaning ‘now more than ever’.

Find our complete guide to who’s who in the Italian elections here.

Italian ‘politichese’

Political-speak (or ‘politichese’) can be as dense and impenetrable in Italian as in any other language. 

But it can also be illuminating to learn a few of the words and phrases used in political discussions (and by journalists in particular) to describe the peculiarities of the Italian system.

Here are a few examples:

Toto-nomi

The prefix toto- is used in Italian news reports wherever speculation abounds: it comes from the football pools or totalizzatore calcistico (‘Football totalizer’, or football sweepstake), known as Totocalcio for short.

Totonomi then translates as something like ‘name sweepstake’. It’s an adaptation of toto-nomine (‘nomination sweep’) – which at election time is used for speculation about the most widely-tipped candidates for various offices.

You’ll also see toto- in totopoltrone (‘parliamentary seat sweep’), or totoministri (‘minister sweep’, referring to who will make the cabinet in a newly elected government).

A variation on this is fantapolitica, which similarly comes from fantacalcio, or Italian fantasy football. This word is used to talk about hypothetical election results, government coalitions, and future cabinet members, whether these are realistic or improbable: fantasy politics, if you will.

Former Prime Minister Matteo in parliament. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Ipotesi

An ipotesi is, as you might guess, a hypothesis or theory. When used in newspaper headlines, it fulfils a similar role to toto~, allowing journalists to speculate as to what may have happened or be about to happen.

In the context of election news, you’ll usually see ipotesi followed by the last name of a potential nominee, e.g. ‘l’ipotesi Melonii‘ or ‘l’ipotesi Conte‘, along with discussion of the likely success of that person’s policy or candidacy.

Trasformismo

A time-honoured Italian tradition, this is the act of switching your political allegiance depending on how the wind blows.

Gattopardismo

Un gattopardo is a leopard, so what is ‘gattopardismo‘? Not too distant from trasformismo, it’s a word used to describe the act of adapting your attitudes to the changing political climate in order to maintain a position of power and influence – something political figures in Italy are regularly accused of doing.

The concept was described in the book Il gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the most frequently-quoted line of which is: “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi” (If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change).

Poltrone

Why would a power-hungry politician be keen to deny that he is “hunting for armchairs”? In this case, such a statement has nothing to do with furniture shopping. Una poltrona does of course mean “armchair” or “seat” and it can be used to talk about a job or position within a company, or in this case, a government. 

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered on how Italy’s elections work

In a political context, a politician on the hunt for poltrone is attempting to gain important ‘seats’ or positions for his party members within the government. Expect to see this word in news reports following the election.

Political nicknames

Some politicians and political parties in Italy have well-known nicknames.

For example, the League is sometimes referred to as ‘Il Carroccio’, the name for a medieval ox-drawn altar used for pre-battle church services. This was used as a symbol by the party back when it was called the Northern League.

And League leader Matteo Salvini is often referred to by his supporters as ‘Il Capitano’, or ‘The Captain’, which seems to be a reference to his preferred policy of leaving migrant rescue ships stranded at sea.

Meanwhile, Italia Viva leader and former PM Matteo Renzi is known as “il rottomatore” (“the scrapper”, or “the wrecker”) due to his unpopular habit of destabilising coalition governments.

Silvio Berlusconi meanwhile is often referred to in media reports as “l’immortale” (the immortal) because of his long political career, which continues today despite numerous sex scandals, a tax fraud conviction, regular health scares, and his advancing age.

There are of course plenty of other, more insulting nicknames used in Italian politics, which we won’t list here.

Is there another word or phrase you think we should add to the list? Please get in touch by email and let us know.

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

What role will Berlusconi play in Italy’s new government?

Nine years after being convicted of tax fraud, 'immortal' Silvio Berlusconi is set to return to the Senate and seeks a ‘director’ role in the new Italian government.

What role will Berlusconi play in Italy's new government?

Silvio Berlusconi has done it again – the 85-year-old former prime minister returns to parliament after winning a seat in Italy’s Senate. He does so nine years after being forced out of Palazzo Madama for tax fraud.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was celebrating on Monday after a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni and her post-fascist Brothers of Italy party triumphed at the ballot boxes.

READ ALSO: Italian elections LIVE: Far right set for clear win as Italy awaits official results

The media mogul, who has been recently dubbed “the immortal” for his longevity in politics, scored a seat in Monza, Lombardy, where he owns a Serie A football club.

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi and leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally.

Berlusconi will be one of the key members of the new Italian government together with Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, currently poised to be the new PM. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The billionaire was forced out of the upper house of parliament in 2013 after being convicted of corporate tax fraud.

It was a heavy blow for the cavaliere’s political career, one which, in Berlusconi’s words, marked a “day of mourning for democracy”.

The three-time former premier was ordered to serve community service and was banned from holding elected office. That ban expired in 2018 but it would take Berlusconi a while to recover his shine. 

READ ALSO: Meloni, Salvini, Berlusconi: The key figures in Italy’s likely new government

His bid to become Italy’s head of state failed in January. But, at his ninth general election – likely his last – Berlusconi bounced back.

He campaigned largely on social media, snapping up over 600,000 followers on TikTok in just a month, and wooing the youth vote with (slightly awkward) grandad jokes.

In one video, which was watched over one million times, he interrupted himself to brag about killing an enormous fly. In another, he joked about stealing young men’s girlfriends.

Pro-European voice 

Berlusconi, who burst onto the political scene 28 years ago, said he would be a father figure to Meloni, 45, and fellow coalition partner Matteo Salvini, 49.

He also said he would be a pro-European voice in what is expected to be Italy’s most right-wing government since World War II.

“I’m going to try to act as director in the government,” Berlusconi said after casting his vote. 

Silvio Berlusconi (C) surrounded by bodyguards, arrives at his home in downtown Rome on March 11, 2015.

Berlusconi is currently part of a criminal trial, in which he is accused of paying starlets to keep quiet about his erotic dinner parties. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

This is despite a series of health issues, including a fall at the start of the campaign which made it difficult for him to walk.

Berlusconi is also currently part of a criminal trial, in which he is accused of paying starlets to keep quiet about his allegedly erotic dinner parties, known as ‘bunga bunga’.

READ ALSO: Italian prosecutors seek six-year jail term for Berlusconi in ‘Ruby ter’ trial

The conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest group in the European Parliament, tweeted their congratulations to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which secured about eight percent of Sunday’s vote.

“We are confident that Forza Italia will guide the next government into a path that serves the best interests of the Italian people as part of a strong and stable Europe,” it said.

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