German-speaking Italians reassess Rome ties

Upcoming parliamentary vote to determine whether South Tyrol will integrate further or drift away from mainstream.

Bolzano, Italy gears up for elections
Most people in the South Tyrol province, annexed by Italy nearly a century ago, speak German as a first language [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

Italy’s upcoming parliamentary elections will reverberate around the troubled eurozone. But the polls will also have profound implications for Italy’s mountainous South Tyrol region – an autonomous, predominantly German-speaking province bordering Austria.

Closer to Munich than Milan, Bolzano is consistently voted the city with the best quality of life in Italy. The capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano (or Bozen, in German) is worlds apart from troubled southern cities such as Naples, retaining a distinctly Austrian character since being annexed by Italy nearly a century ago.

Almost 70 percent of residents in the region declare German as their first language, translating into votes for the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP), which has won every parliamentary election in the province since 1948.  But the SVP has lost support in recent months. Residents of one of the country’s wealthiest regions are now questioning their place in Italy, and whether the national elections on February 24-25 will prompt a closer relationship or greater withdrawal from Rome.

“The problem is that now the state is struggling, it looks for money where it can find it. It finds it from us because we have a good administration,” said Luigi Spagnolli, mayor of Bolzano. “It’s easier to take money from us than other places, but the people of Bolzano aren’t happy giving money to the state,” he added, as South Tyrol’s autonomy agreement stipulates that around 90 percent of taxes stay within the region.

The SVP has won every parliamentary poll in South Tyrol since 1948 – but that could change this election [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

While voters across Italy look for a national leader, the mayor said that in South Tyrol, people focus on local leaders and how they will represent the region in Rome. Electoral posters lining the streets of Bolzano include the faces of national leaders such as Prime Minister Mario Monti and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but local faces are also prominent.

‘Absolutely no clue’

They include Francesco Palermo, the director of the Institute for Studies on Federalism and Regionalism in Bolzano and a candidate for an alliance between the SVP and the Democratic Party (PD), the front-runner in the upcoming elections.

Palermo criticised the country’s leaders for having “absolutely no clue” about South Tyrol, yet said the people themselves were partly to blame. “The strategy in Rome was, ‘Let’s protect ourselves, let’s not get involved in national issues’. All of this created enormous problems, with the other regions being envious and not understanding reasons for this autonomy.”

He said the region should contribute to Italy’s economic recovery, while also campaigning for greater autonomy in areas such as the judiciary.

South Tyrol’s main German-speaking opposition, the Libertarians, go a step further by seeking a free state with full control over funds. The party argues that the economic crisis that has left Italy with a government debt-to-GDP ratio of 127 percent, second only to Greece in the EU, has also shown the limits of autonomy.

But the SVP’s general secretary, Philipp Achammer, argued that although Monti failed to respect South Tyrol’s financial autonomy, the idea that a free state would be better for the region was an “illusion”. Having representatives in Rome and a strong alliance with the PD is vital, he said.

For Ivo De Gennaro, philosophy professor at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, “This weakening of the SVP has allowed for these more extreme forces to become louder. Before, they [SVP] were in control and there was constant progress of this autonomy.”

Not all South Tyrol residents view Monti’s 15 months in office negatively. “I would like Monti to stay; he increased taxes because we are in a very bad situation but he is taking strong choices. We are sure that the other parties, left and right, are too corrupt and make too many compromises. Scelta Civica [Civic Choice] is better,” said Emanuela Macchniz, a student at ZeLIG School for Documentary, Television and New Media in Bolzano, of the party formed to support Monti’s election bid.

Monti trailing

Just a week ahead of the elections Monti supporters were out campaigning on the streets of Bolzano, handing out leaflets in the shadow of the fascist-era Victory Monument. Nationally, the current prime minister is polling at 16 percent, trailing far behind Berlusconi’s alliance, between his People of Freedom Party (PdL) and the Northern League, with 28 percent.

This will be the future, to create a new linguistic group for people who speak German and Italian equally.”

– Alessandro Bertoldi, PdL political secretary

“Berlusconi is the best option at the moment,” said Angelika Faller, a resident of South Tyrol visiting Bolzano. “In my opinion he’s on the ball; we need a strong person and we can’t move forward like this.”

While Berlusconi has gained support nationally for promising to refund a widely hated property tax, in South Tyrol the PdL is focusing on regional issues. “For the people of Bolzano, we want to create a region where there is a union of the three linguistic groups [including Ladin, the first language of four percent of South Tyroleans],” said Alessandro Bertoldi, the provincial political secretary of the PdL. “This will be the future, to create a new linguistic group for people who speak German and Italian equally,” he said.

Under current rules, each person in South Tyrol must declare which language group they belong to; this information is then used to fill job quotas which reflect the proportion of people in each of the three groups. Bertoldi said that the PdL’s policy better reflects the reality, as children in South Tyrol are increasingly born to parents of different linguistic groups. Yet Achammer said that Berlusconi “never was and he never will be a partner of South Tyrol”.

“The centre-right, right and popular parties – Forza Italia [which later became the PdL] – have no approach to autonomy,” he said. The PdL’s manifesto criticises Monti for following austerity measures imposed by “German-centric Europe”, but Achammer says the German-speaking population of Italy has a better understanding.

“Berlusconi owns the most important media of Italy, and Italians watch his television channels, read his newspapers, and the Germans and Ladins also read newspapers from Germany and Austria and know the real situation of Italy,” he said.

At the start of the year a PD victory seemed certain, but the alliance between the PdL and the Northern League, coupled with a media blitz by Berlusconi, has narrowed Bersani’s lead to just five percentage points. For Laura Piovesan Schütz, owner of a PR company in Bolzano, if the PD is defeated the PdL’s partner may pose problems for South Tyrol.

“If the PdL comes again, the Lega Nord will have a big request – for federalism. Today South Tyrol has autonomy over 90 percent of taxes, but if more regions in Italy have this state of autonomy I don’t think it would be guaranteed. This could be a negative change for South Tyrol; the Lega could apply new rules for federalism,” she said.

For Piovesan Schuetz, the best outcome of the elections would be a government that continues to guarantee the region’s autonomy, recognising the distinct character of South Tyrol.

“I am very proud to be a citizen of South Tyrol. I don’t lose my culture – I’m Italian. But I’m so happy to have a husband from Germany, to live here, and to be all over Europe and feel at home because of this.”

Source: Al Jazeera