She Won Italians’ Hearts. But Can She Win Their Votes?
Posted February 9, 2018 5:44 p.m. EST
ROME — Emma Bonino had wrapped up the keynote speech at a rally in a Rome convention center to begin her campaign for parliament in Italy’s national elections on March 4, and the cheery, generic background music had just come on.
At that, Bonino whirled around, grabbed the microphone and protested: “Play the Ninth. Find me Beethoven’s Ninth.”
Moments of DJ angst followed, but, finally, the last movement of the symphony — better known as “Ode to Joy” — boomed through the speakers.
Her demand wasn’t simply a whim.
“Ode to Joy” is also the anthem of the European Union, and Bonino has placed Italy’s commitment to the bloc at the center of her new political movement, which she has named “Più Europa,” or More Europe.
After more than 40 years on the political scene, Bonino is one of Italy’s best-known female politicians. She made her name during decades of civil rights battles, protracted hunger strikes, headline-grabbing arrests and loud parliamentary debates in Rome and Brussels.
In recent public opinion polls, her approval ratings have reached as high as 43 percent, second only to the prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, and she is often mentioned as a candidate for Italy’s presidency. The country’s mostly male parliament — which chooses the president — has repeatedly bypassed her for men.
Yet that general aura of popularity around Bonino has not always translated into votes. Her Radical Party has traditionally hovered around what she calls “our beloved 2 percent” in election results, short of the 3 percent of the total vote now needed to merit a seat in parliament.
That has prompted her to adopt a new slogan: “Love Me Less, Vote Me More.”
When asked why her vote totals have always lagged behind her popularity, Bonino sighed.
“You need to ask an expert,” she said somewhat dispiritedly, during an interview in her cheery, book-filled attic apartment in central Rome.
Some suggest it has something to do with the unpopular causes she has taken up.
“That is my destiny, and the destiny of the Radicals,” Bonino said. “It’s to be unpopular at the beginning, become popular during the struggle and then be shoved aside at the end.”
Alongside Marco Pannella, the charismatic Radical Party founder and leader who died in 2016, Bonino helped to change Italian society.
Through referendums, acts of civil disobedience, hunger strikes and campaigns, the party has swayed public opinion in this overwhelmingly Catholic country on several sensitive issues, among them divorce, abortion, conscientious objection and family law. In December, parliament passed a measure that allows living wills and the right to refuse medical treatment, another Radical Party battle that had lasted decades.
“Our ambition is not to promise things that people like most to the most people,” she told supporters at the Rome rally, a reference to what she believes are the unrealistic electoral promises of her competitors. “Our ambition is to carry out what we promise, even saying things that don’t appear to be too popular.”
It is hard at this point to say whether Bonino’s pro-Europe policy is popular or not. Support for the European Union has been wobbling throughout the Continent and especially in Italy, where polls suggest 34 percent of the population is disgruntled enough to want to leave, the second-highest level after Greece.
Still, President Emmanuel Macron of France has done well with his strongly pro-European stance.
Bonino, who turns 70 next month, characteristically sees the issue in black and white terms, and does not particularly care whether it is popular or not. She sees an embrace of Europe as the only hope for this aging and economically struggling country, and her electoral target is Italy’s disenchanted youth. “Vote, and vote for us. You are the Erasmus generation,” she said, referring to an EU program that, broadly speaking, funds student exchanges.
“When I was a young girl, a weekend in Turin was the height of exoticism,” she said, referring to the Piedmont capital, about 40 miles from where she was born.
“What is interesting is that she is a great supporter of European integration without being Eurocentric,” said Marta Dassù, senior director of European affairs at the Aspen Institute, who has worked alongside Bonino on women’s issues. “She believes in a strong affirmation of Europe, along with an outreach in particular to Mediterranean and African countries.” Bonino was born in 1948 into a “modest farming family” in a small town in the Piedmont countryside.
While she loves her family very much, she said, marriage to a local boy and everything that usually followed in small town life 50 years ago was never going to satisfy her.
Much to her father’s consternation, she went off to Bocconi University in Milan, where she studied foreign languages. Like many Italian men of that era, her father “didn’t understand” why she needed to pursue an education. Instead, she said, her mother secretly helped her out.
She traveled, “but I always learned languages in the wrong place,” picking up Spanish from a boyfriend at a school in Ireland, and English from a boyfriend she met during a course in France. Still, she said, it was a “pleasant” way to learn languages.
Bonino did not embark on a political career by design. “Politics found me,” she said.
The political upheaval that swept Western societies in the late 1960s breezed past her, she said. She cannot even remember voting in the referendum to legalize divorce, which the Radical Party spearheaded. But in 1974 she had an abortion, which was illegal at the time, and she discovered something to fight for.
“That’s the way it goes with civil rights — people act when they discover them, or when they are denied,” she said.
She met Adele Faccio, a women’s rights advocate and abortion rights campaigner, “who spoke to me about civil disobedience, which I’d never heard of, about the Radical Party,” and she began accompanying women to a Florentine abortion clinic.
This was illegal, too, and in 1975 she turned herself in and was arrested. But a law legalizing abortion took effect in 1978, and the Radical Party successfully fended off efforts to repeal it three years later.
In 1976 the Radical Party ran in national elections for the first time, and Bonino was one of four members to be elected to parliament. Three years later she was elected to the European Parliament, and she has remained in the political arena — in one form or another — ever since. She spent nearly 30 years in the Italian parliament and 14 years in the European Parliament, holding both seats when that was still possible. She was also a member of the European Commission, where she was in charge of fisheries, consumer policy and the European Community humanitarian office. In that capacity, she oversaw management of several crises, including the 1 million refugees from the war in Kosovo in 1998.
She has constructed a web of international connections through her advocacy for women’s rights, refugees, humanitarian aid and other causes.
“She’s a sponge. She reads all day, she’s always learning, so she can talk about things knowledgeably,” said Cristina Tagliabue, one of her biographers.
Bonino’s current platform includes another unpopular position: the integration of the thousands of unauthorized migrants who have arrived in Italy in recent years.
Her campaign last year to change immigration laws in Italy — “I Was a Foreigner” — was supported by humanitarian organizations and 150 mayors, and attracted 90,000 petition signatures, enough to present a bill to parliament. That was another battle, Dassù said, that ran “counter current to the mood of the country, but she sees migration as a long-term and structural problem that must be addressed.”
She is winning one fight in which she has enjoyed widespread support. In January 2015, Bonino announced that she had lung cancer. Treatment took many months, but in October 2016 she said she was free of cancer. The turbans she now wears are the only vestiges of that episode. True to form, she continues to smoke, unrepentant.
“She’s a real fighter on her ideas and her life,” Dassù said.