Contingent direct exchange*

Vote, vote,“, they told us, “vote and she’ll get a job.”

The woman in front of me could at a glance mistakenly be taken as about 70 years old. The wrinkles in her face, the four missing upper front teeth, her style of dress. But her playful glittering eyes and a quick calculation of her daughters’ age reveals that she is no more than 55 years old. Maximum.

I know her. She’s hard working, doing her best to make ends meet. Maybe she, like so many of her generation, only has elementary schooling. 5 years. She definitely does not understand the fine grains of politics, only that jobs are promised by politicians and sometimes you get one if you vote for the winner.

Her daughters are of the new generation. Educated, both with a profession. It was one of the girls that would have got a job at a hotel in exchange for the family’s votes.

“But of course she did not get the job. Someone else got it”. You could almost touch the disappointment in her voice. They needed that extra income. Like so many other families struggling in southern Italy’s small towns. It is easy to fall prey to politicians empty words when hope is almost the last thing you have to cling to.

Some 500 km further north, not far from the Capital, a commune is holding early elections.

I am told by a friend that the candidate who is openly awash with money “has no political affiliation, all the money comes from private donations.” A senator is apparently involved. Another prominent person from the south who moved in just six months ago is working as head of the campaign. There are other rich, influential people involved.

I am told about the non-affiliation to political parties and private donations to be assured that this particular candidate is independent, not involved in the dirty politics of Italian parties. Instead I hear alarm bells.

The commune council, including the Mayor, have been removed from power by the Court. The Mayor himself has been found guilty of neglect and abuse of power (and accused of much more), and will have to pay hundreds of thousands of euro to his former employer.

The commune is beautifully set with breathtaking natural scenery, all now depressingly littered with rubbish as the commune is brought to the brink of collapse. But the rubbish itself is also an economic attractions. The commune hosts a hub for waste. Lots of money involved in waste management. There are voices about the Neapolitan mafia Camorra infiltrating the local businesses.

It is here the private donations enter.

Because contingent direct exchange does not only work in the sense that politicians promise personal goods and benefits to voters, but also that politicians promise goods to donors. It is such an ingrained aspect of the Italian political life that is is hardly even questioned.

Upcoming politicians-to-be may fall an easy prey to forces stronger than they expected. Or perhaps they knew exactly what they entered when accepting the money and didn’t care.

The point is that the free vote is perhaps not as free as one would hope. That is not acceptable in a democracy.


*The interested reader can find more about contingent direct exchange in for example Kitschelt and Wilkinson, eds (2007) Patrons, Clients, and Policies: Patterns of democratic Accountability and Political Competition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press