On 4th March Italy will hold a general election to choose 630 members of the Parliament and the 315 members of the Senate.
There are 10 major parties contesting the seats in the election, which uniquely for Italy include international constituencies for which overseas electors may vote.
In Europe there are 5 seats reserved for the Chamber of Deputies, and 2 seats for the Senate. Europe is included in a broader geographical constituency that includes Russia and Turkey, which gives a special international foreign affairs perspective to the role that elected representatives will be expected to undertake.
There are huge numbers of Italian citizens living overseas, with the majority in Germany and Switzerland. In Belgium there are around 280 000 Italians, although not all are registered to vote; many of these are the descendants of the families of labourers who came to work in the Belgian mines in Wallonia and Flanders mainly after the second world war.
The Italian voters living in Belgium will vote by post. They should receive their ballot papers by 14th February, and are required to complete these and return them by mail by 28th February.
There are four candidates contesting the two seats in the Senate reserved for the European international constituency, and they include Maria Laura Franciosi, well known in Belgium as an international journalist, author, academic and civil rights activist. Maria Laura has lived and worked in Belgium since 1993, and understands from her own experience what is needed to champion the rights of Italian citizens working away from their home country.
She has also campaigned hard to communicate to the Italian authorities the importance of the contributions made by Italian émigrés to countries like Belgium, and the need to reflect their interests at home. She has written about the plight of young Italians in British prisons in the 1980s and several other books about Italian expats including “Per un sacco di carbone” about the experience of Italians who came to work in the mines in Belgium. At the peak of the movement of labour from Italy to Belgium, 1 000 people were arriving here from Italy every week to work in the mines: they had already signed a contract with the owners of the mines which tied them to the collieries for at least 5 years. If they did not want to work there, they were forbidden to work in any other sector, apart from maybe the steel works in Wallonia.
The mine in Marcinelle at Le Bois du Cazier was closed and left abandoned a few years after a massive mining disaster in 1956. Against all of the odds Maria Laura campaigned tirelessly for a museum to be built there to commemorate the contribution made to Belgian industrial heritage by Italian miners, and to remember the disaster of 1956. A Museum at Le Bois du Cazier was opened in 2002 and is today recognised by UNESCO as an international heritage site.
The three major parties leading the polls in next month’s general election include the Democratic Party led by Matteo Renzi, the Five Star Movement led by Luigi di Maio (a Beppe Grillo protégé) , and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (which has joined forces with the other two main far right political parties, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia ).
Maria Laura Franciosi describes herself as a People’s candidate. She is campaigning under the political banner of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party.
“I will stand up for the rights of Italians abroad,” she says. This will be a particularly important responsibility in the United Kingdom following Brexit in 2019, where there are more than 200, 000 Italian residents in London alone. Social justice, a fair minimum wage in Italy, employment rights, immigration, education and women rights are all key election issues for her.
“Education is a particularly important issue, and I will be campaigning for greater recognition of diplomas but above all for an increased acknowledgement of the importance of Italian culture and cultural heritage” she says.
Womens’ rights have been hitting the headlines this week, as it is one hundred years since the first women were given the vote in the UK in 1918.
In Italy women won the right to vote in 1946, but today they only make up about 30% of the political classes in the Italian Government. “We still have a lot of work to do in order to encourage our young women to play a more active role in politics,” says Maria Laura.
Immigration is also a huge election issue in Italy which has been in the front line of dealing with migrants arriving by boat from North Africa. “Italy deserves greater recognition and support from the rest of Europe for the humanitarian work that it has been doing under immense pressure, for example to protect the many unaccompanied minors that have arrived here as refugees,” she went on to say, “they would otherwise risk becoming cannon fodder for the mafia.”
Other countries, like the United Kingdom, would do well to take a feather from Italy’s cap, and consider establishing a similar system of international constituencies for the House of Commons and the House of Lords so that the millions of British émigrés living in Europe had the chance to choose elected representatives to stand up for their interests.