A solution to the ongoing gas crisis is the top concern for Italians heading to the polls on September 25 – but disenchantment and apathy prevail as 40 percent of voters are still undecided.
ROME – Near Piazza Vittorio, one of Rome’s most beloved thoroughfares east of the city centre, Gelateria Fassi, a famous ice-cream parlour, has been a meeting point for locals for over a hundred years. A random collection of people, from the elderly to the hipster, chat around the round tables and on the benches scattered under the arches of its high-ceilinged, large hall.
Its owner, 38-year-old Andrea Fassi, was at the centre of a social media storm earlier this month when he wrote a post about keeping together the family business after receiving his energy bill for July, amounting to nearly 18,000 euros – close to four times as much as last year.
“We got through Covid, and there was a semblance of hope because we knew that lockdowns couldn’t have possibly lasted for ten years,” Fassi tells TRT World. “We waited for the economy to restart, we got help.”
“I understand it’s a difficult situation, but the problem is, there was no planning. And the issue ends up being used for electoral purposes,” he adds, referring to a local councillor from the far-right, anti-migrant League party who made a campaign trail pit stop at the renowned gelateria – to show how his party, traditionally close to business, is sensitive to the difficulties of small producers who have been among the most affected.
In order to save energy, Fassi says, his gelateria has stopped using air conditioning, switched off some lights and reorganised production.
“We switched off some large fridges and machinery. We will see whether we will have to close down this winter after Christmas, normally the worst period for us.”
Italy, along with the rest of Europe, has seen energy prices skyrocket since Russia dramatically cut gas supplies to European countries, which depended on Russia for 40 percent of their gas before the war in Ukraine began in February.
The supply squeeze has sent energy prices – which in Europe are linked to market prices of the most expensive fuel – to an all-time high. The International Monetary Fund said in July that alongside Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Italy is at risk of a severe recession, and is particularly affected due to its high use of gas in electricity production.
During the pandemic, Italy’s chronic debt spiralled to 155 percent of GDP, only for the economy to find itself in war footing as the conflict in Ukraine drags on into the eight month.
A right-wing coalition led by Fratelli d’Italia, a party includes Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy and Matteo Salvini’s League, is widely expected to win. The latter has been vocal in criticising sanctions on Moscow, arguing they are damaging Italy more than they are damaging Russia.
But according to the last available polls published on September 10, as many as 41 percent of Italians are undecided or not planning to cast their vote. Trailing Fratelli d’Italia led by Giorgia Meloni – who could become Italy’s first female prime minister – is the centre-left Democratic Party, whose attempt to form a broad coalition failed, leaving the left camp splintered.
“I really don’t know who I will vote for, I think I will decide on the day,” Fassi says.
“During this electoral campaign, [the energy crisis] has become a reason for division, but I think it should be a reason to be united. What we need are concrete solutions.”
Polls ahead of the vote suggest that economic issues are the main concern in this election, shared by voters across the political spectrum. As many as 92 percent of Italians think that guaranteeing sustainable energy prices should be the top priority for the incoming government, closely followed by combating unemployment.
Some heavy industries across Europe have already shuttered or scaled down production over high energy costs, and households too worry about the winter ahead. According to an SWG poll, nearly 50 percent of Italians think they will have trouble paying their bills this winter.
According to the policy think tank Bruegel institute, Italy has already spent nearly 60 billion euros to support households and businesses through the energy crisis since September 2021, as gas prices started rising with demand when economies reopened following lifting of Covid restrictions.
Candidates have been facing off on whether Italy can finance more relief with more debt, as well as over investment in nuclear energy, with the right-wing coalition and smaller centrist parties advocating for a return to nuclear – which Italians have previously rejected in two separate referendums. The two leading parties, Brothers of Italy and the Democratic Party, both support proposed EU measures, including a price cap on Russian gas.
“Whatever the Italian government, they will push harder on the European counter-measures to the energy crisis. There is cross-cutting support for a gas price cap,” says Antonio Villafranca, who co-chairs the Europe and global governance studies centre at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
“It is completely different from elections of the past, in which there were some parties raising question marks on the common currency, for instance,” he adds.
A little further east in the multicultural, low-income neighbourhood of Tor Pignattara, Raffaele Sorrentino is even more at a loss when it comes to deciding on who to vote for.
Originally from Naples, the 40-year-old runs a small bakery on a large leafy boulevard lined with peeling apartment blocks, making sweet pastries and cakes.
“I am not going to vote this year, and it’s out of protest,” Sorrentino says, rubbing his hands on his striped apron as he emerges from the kitchen. He had previously supported the Five Star Movement, the populist party which received cross-cutting support from left and right-wing voters and came up as the single largest party at the last election in 2018. It has since witnessed a spectacular fall from grace and has last polled at just under 14 percent.
“I voted for them to send a message to the other parties, but they turned out to be exactly the same,” Sorrentino tells TRT World.
“We just emerged from an economic disaster that was very difficult for us to get through. After Covid, there was a fake re-start, and now these exorbitant costs,” he says, explaining that his electricity bills have doubled to 1,800 euros a month compared to 900 euros last year.
“For a small business like ours, it’s the equivalent of all our winter profits gone. If things continue this way, I don’t know how we will survive until December.”
He says he has had to raise his prices in order to adjust to the increased costs of production, including raw materials.
“I think that most customers understand [the hike], also because from the media, the message has been clear,” he says.
During the tenure of former prime minister Mario Draghi, Brothers of Italy was the only major political party to remain in opposition of his national unity government, propelling its rise from 4 percent of the vote share in 2018 to 25 percent today.
“What we have now is a situation where you see desperate families and desperate business owners, but they don’t quite know who to blame, the crisis is too fresh to really blame one or the other political actor,” Carlo Ruzza, a professor of political sociology at the University of Trento, tells TRT World, “And in these cases, voters tend to blame the government.”
While Meloni has been successful in carving a more nuanced image of her party, her opponents have pointed out that many of her party members are extremists and that where Brothers of Italy already governs at the local level, her socially conservative policies are having an impact.
Just down the road from Sorrentino’s bakery, a bar has turned its lights and air conditioning off to save electricity. Its owner, a woman in her early fifties, shrugs when asked if she thinks the new government can solve the crisis.
A few doors down, a baker in his fifties, Giovanni Faraglioni, no longer makes fresh bread and pizza throughout the day, which requires keeping the energy-intensive oven switched on during the day, while most lights in his store are also switched off. He says he has managed to keep costs down this way.
A former left camp voter, he says he will head to the polling station on Sunday to cast his vote for Giorgia Meloni.
“She’s the strongest candidate, I think, who can get us out of this,” he says.