Religious issues colour Italian election build-up

Tony Barber in Rome
The Financial Times

Rome. From abortion and same-sex unions to tax breaks for the Roman Catholic Church, Italy's general election next April is being influenced by religious issues in a fashion without parallel since the 1970s.
On Tuesday the centre-left opposition incurred the wrath of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, for deciding that its platform in the election would include a commitment to extending civil rights for unmarried couples, including gays.
Compared with recently enacted laws in Canada, the Netherlands and Spain, it was a modest proposal. Still, some centre-left Italian strategists fret that the Vatican's opposition may harm the opposition's chances by causing the defection of Catholic voters in what could be a close election.
Ironically, Romano Prodi, the centre-left's candidate for the premiership, is a practising Catholic. Election analysts say his victory in 1996 owed something to Catholic support in that campaign. But when Italians went to the polls in 2001, Catholics shifted towards eventual winner Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-right coalition with which he is now seeking re-election.
In a gesture noteworthy for its timing as well as its generosity, the Berlusconi government has proposed that its 2006 budget exempt from taxation all church premises leased for commercial purposes. Although the measure would help other religions, too, few doubt it is directed principally at the Catholic Church, which owns hundreds of buildings in Rome alone. The capital's centre-left government calculates the measure will cost it about €25m ($29m, £17m) in lost revenue.
Abortion is proving the hottest potato of all. Before parliament legalised it in 1978, abortion in Italy was punishable by five years in prison. Thousands of women went to clinics abroad for abortions and thousands of others risked their health by using back street practitioners in Italy.
Abortion has barely figured in Italian elections since the late 1970s. Now it is back with a vengeance, as centre-right and centre-left politicians hunt those extra Catholic votes that could sway the April 9 election.
Last week Pier Ferdinando Casini, a centre-right leader who is speaker of parliament's lower house, agreed to set up a legislative inquiry into how the 1978 law is applied at Italy's 2,000 abortion clinics.
Francesco Storace, health minister and, like Italy's churchmen, an opponent of abortion, said women going to the clinics should know "the law isn't just about the right to abort, it's also about the right not to abort".
The opposition sees the matter differently. "Only months before a general election, the centre-right suddenly feels a need to investigate the application of the abortion law. This is aimed not at the hearts and consciences of Catholics but simply at their votes," said Giovanna Melandri, a centre-left former minister.
The opposition is not free from the temptation to woo Catholic voters. To boost Italy's low birth rate, the Catholic-inclined Margherita party, the second biggest on the centre-left, is proposingto pay €250 a month - from the sixth month of pregnancy until birth - to housewives, unemployed women and others whose total household income is below €40,000. As it happens, abortions in Italy appear to be on the decline. In a nation of 58m people, there were about 235,000 in 1982 but only 136,000 last year.
But the Church has picked up on the issue, possibly encouraged by its success in June in urging voters to boycott a referendum aimed at easing Italy's restrictions on assisted fertility treatment.
That intervention had the explicit support of Benedict XVI, elected Pope in April, and under his leadership the Vatican has also denounced an abortion pill.
"Lately, the Vatican hierarchy isn't just making its opinion known, it's intervening continuously and deliberately," said Emma Bonino, a radical secularist and former European commissioner.
Still, whether the Church can influence an Italian election decisively is doubtful. Although the number of church-going Italians has risen to almost 40 per cent from 31 per cent in 1981, it is hard for the Church to offer even a coded endorsement of the centre-right or centre-left when its own faithful are divided in their political loyalties.