The New Italian Miracle: Disaffection and Political Upheaval in Italy

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Giuliano Amato speaks at a conference in 2010. Photo courtesy of the British Embassy in Rome, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of the Harvard International Review.

For decades, Italy was one of the most stable democracies in the Western world. Despite the instability of its cabinets and challenges from the largest communist party in Europe, its fundamental pillars remained unchanged from the late 1940s through the early 1990s. The loyalty of voters to their respective parties was so great that, in any single election, shifts of one or two percentage points—shifts that did not fundamentally threaten each party’s relative strength—were enough to distinguish winners from losers. In the opinion of many observers, no democracy can survive without a real alternative for change. Some in Italy argued that the rise of young leaders within the traditionally dominant parties sufficiently provided such change.

This picture has completely transformed over the last two years, however. Today, Italy is the Western democracy showing the greatest degree of uncertainty. The established ruling elite has almost entirely disappeared as the result of a far-reaching judicial investigation into political corruption. Voting patterns are volatile: the Christian Democrats’ vote fell by more than half in the last election and their traditional allies were almost wiped out. In the degree of uncertainty, the established ruling elite has almost entirely disappeared as the result of a far-reaching judicial investigation into political corruption. Voting patterns are volatile; the Christian Democrats’ vote fell by more than half in the last election and their traditional allies were almost wiped out. In the national election of 1992, the Christian Democrats and their allies took over 50 percent of the popular vote; now they represent less than 20 percent. Can we attribute this dramatic turnaround merely to the unveiling of extensive political corruption, or do more fundamental causes drive this discontent?

Cracks in the Foundation?

One harbinger of the underlying weakness in the Italian political fabric was the sluggishness with which the establishment recognized changes in voter attitudes, a feature typical of the death throes of political regimes. The first signs of the slide came during the 1980s, as a newly emerging party, the Lombard League (subsequently called the Northern League), established itself in the northern regions. The most common interpretation of this phenomenon was that it represented “a lesson to the parties”: the voters were expressing their dissatisfaction by voting for a party that opposed taxation and immigration and wanted to divide Italy into three quasi-independent federal republics for the specific benefit of a future “Republic of the North.” The vote, however, was seen as no more than a form of political protest. If the parties could learn their lesson, conventional wisdom said everything would return to normal.

But the issue was not so simple. New trends were emerging that were weakening the basis of the First Republic: the link between the electorate and the traditional parties. More than any other democracy, Italy had a republican system that rested upon its political parties. These parties had established their role in Italian politics on the battlefield during the last years of the Second World War. When the King abandoned Rome after the Armistice of September 8, 1943, stateless northern and central Italy were rescued by the anti-fascist parties, who consequently gained strong support by providing political leadership and functional administration. Moreover, the anti-fascist parties became the protagonists of the Constitutional Assembly. The Assembly drafted a generally weak system of government that depended on the support of these highly-legitimized political parties for its strength.

This system was accepted for decades until the relationship between the parties and public began to change. The parties were perceived less and less as representing the public interest, and more and more as mimicking feudal lords. Party affiliation appeared less a hard-won right of political participation, and more a prerequisite to obtaining a job, a safer career, or a service from a public department. Political parties were increasingly motivated by the logic of power and, in the process, abandoned the community. This gap between the voters and the traditional parties, the first serious fracture in the foundation of the Republic, was one that other parties could readily fill.

While this tide of disaffection grew, successive cabinets of the 1980s imposed restrictive economic policies to cope with a rapidly rising public debt. These policies involved both a higher tax burden and a reduction in the benefits widely used in the past to ensure political support. It was mainly northern Italy, the richest part of the country and the part most heavily taxed, that resented these policies; most government benefits go to the southern part of the country. A considerable scandal at the end of the decade over the misuse of public earthquake relief funds in the south compounded northern resentment.

These issues engendered a second, even more serious, fracture in the link between the parties and (especially northern) public opinion. The league began its rapid growth under the slogan, “We won’t give our money any longer to the Roman parties for them to give it to the corrupt south.” For many electors, this break represented not “ciao for now,” but a final farewell to the traditional parties. Above all, it was a farewell to the Christian Democrats, Italy’s major party since the beginning of the Republic.

This was the state of Italian politics when the corruption scandal that goes by the name Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”), or Tangentopoli (“Kickback City”), came to the fore. The Tangentopoli judicial investigation has uncovered a dense network of corruption and bribery throughout Italy, primarily involving the parties in the government majority but also some of the communist opposition. The result has been a disruptive explosion that has created the conditions for a change that promises to be abrupt and profound.

“The peaceful Italian revolution” is a commonly used description of recent events. Is it an optimistic view, diplomatically announced to reassure worried foreign friends? For the most part, the answer is no. While this sort of dramatic change usually accompanies only violent revolution, it is coming about in Italy as a result of judicial trials and the electoral process. There are, however, some causes for concern. Corruption had been growing for far too long without checks and balances. As a result, an enormous number of cases have been exposed all at once, deeply shaking the public’s confidence in the government.

This is one of the risks facing the peaceful Italian revolution. In any democracy, populist anti-politics attitudes can easily emerge—the aphorism “the political is dirty” is universal. When such attitudes spread beyond a certain limit, however, the legitimacy of the democratic process itself may be endangered. The final outcome may even be an authoritarian regime. Certainly, a rejection of politics is spreading through the community, and any future government will find it difficult to impose economic austerity. As a result of the corruption scandals, many Italians are flirting with the notion that the public debt can be reduced by forcing politicians to return their bribes. Although absurd, this idea will constitute a significant obstacle to any serious policy of economic readjustment.

The outcome of local elections held recently throughout the country under a new electoral system evinces the radicalization of this collective feeling. Previously, mayors were elected by their respective municipal councils; now they are directly elected in a two-ballot system, where the final ballot is a run-off between the two candidates who obtain the highest number of votes in the first round.

In general, the “first-past-the-post” electoral system assigns a crucial role to the centrist electors, whose votes become the main target for the competing candidates. However, this did not occur in the recent elections. The MSI (Italian Social Movement), the far-right party, elected more than forty mayors, far surpassing previous expectations. In Rome, the secretary-general of the party, Gianfranco Fini, defeated the moderate centrist candidate to reach the second ballot and then received 47 percent of the vote in the run-off against the eventual winner, a candidate of the left. Certainly, this rise in support can be partially attributed to the disrepute into which the moderate parties, more involved in corruption than the others, have fallen.

This, then, is the political climate in Italy as the nation moves toward national elections on March 27, following the dissolution of parliament—the shortest legislature in the history of the First Republic (less than two years). The political system is undergoing substantive change, the final result of which has yet to be determined.

The New Political Terrain

The left has built up the strongest coalition of political forces. The main pillar of the coalition is the PDS (Democratic Party of the Left), the former Italian Communist Party, which has been affected by Tangentopoli less than the parties in the governing majority. Since it has always played the role of the opposition, the PDS is in a better position to represent the “new” against the “old.” However, its share of the total vote has decreased sharply; it now hovers around (or below) 20 percent, down from more than 30 percent only a few years ago. Still, it has successfully gathered the support of a number of minor parties and interests, and its performance in the local elections demonstrates a remarkable adaptation to the new electoral system.

Precisely for this reason, however, the left coalition is more of an electoral alliance than a political one. It may win elections, but it will find it difficult to form a cabinet and to maintain its unity, due to the many differences among its members. The alliance extends from the PRC (Communist Refoundation Party), the tough left side of the former Communist Party, to the AD (Democratic Alliance), a group of moderate leftists. Sizable differences within the PDS itself make it very cautious with regard to the pressures of economic and financial policy. On many scores, the PDS is no longer a communist party, and it would be unfair to look for its precursors in the principles and policies of the former regimes of Eastern Europe. As far as public spending and privatization are concerned, it seems analogous to the UK’s centre-left Labour Party of 30 years ago. At the same time, it is deeply imbued with the ideological environmental views of the German Social Democratic Party of the 1980s.

The real news is on the other side of the political landscape. The traditional antagonists of the left, the Christian Democrats and their allies, have disintegrated and left no single dominant coalition. Rather, as I write, three apparently distinct alliances have emerged. On the right stands Fini’s MSI. After its success at the local elections, it has created a “National Alliance,” effectively toning down its fascist features and broadening its appeal to the moderate electorate. In addition, there is the Northern League of Umberto Bossi. The League has recently softened its federalist radicalism and no longer speaks of the “Republic of the North.” It advertises itself as the party of the free market, of the taxpayer and of those opposed to state subsidies. This platform is very similar to the main policies of a new movement, Forza Italia, initiated by Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of Italy’s biggest private TV chain. Indeed, Berlusconi enjoys considerable personal popularity, but has also encountered strong opposition. He is clear and forceful in stating Forza Italia’s main goal—to stop the left.

The third alliance is Covenant for Italy, promoted by Mario Segni, a former Christian Democrat who achieved great popularity through the referenda that created a new electoral system opposing the interests of the traditional parties. Besides his personal following, Segni has gained the support of some former socialists, the Republican Party and others of the centerleft area, as well as the Italian People’s Party of Mino Martinazzoli, the successor to the Christian Democrats. The platform of this alliance is typically centrist with some accents of the moderate left: free market and opposition to state subsidies, but also great attention to issues such as unemployment, social rights and the promotion of equal opportunity for all.

The majority electoral system encourages the creation of one single bloc to counter the leftist coalition, but pre-existing political identities have prevented such a bloc. If invited to vote for common candidates with the Northern League or with the former fascists, how many members of the moderate electorate would remain at home or vote for the left? This was the dilemma that split the Christian Democrats in January, despite intervention by the Pope himself advocating continuing unity among Catholics. The Italian People’s Party comprises those former Christian Democrats loyal to Martinazzoli and opposed to coalitions with the League and the former fascists. The others gave birth to a “Christian Democratic Center,” ready to join with the League and Berlusconi.

Toward a New Parliament

In this new scenario, the surest prediction is for a major renewal of political personnel. The election will bring many new members to Parliament. Given the reduced loyalty of the electorate, winners need high popularity in the very small districts created by the new electoral system for the Chamber of Deputies. In some cases, leading figures of the various parties remain potential winners. In most cases, the support of the party is no longer a decisive card. Candidates who are well-known because of their profession or their role in the community have a greater chance of success than party apparatchiks. The opinion polls have clearly indicated the electorate’s preference for new leaders who are not politicians by profession and who can express non-partisan views.

Will the next Parliament be one of individuals or of political groups? It will probably be of both, but party discipline will be looser than in the past, allowing a greater degree of personal independence. As a result other allegiances will play a more important role. Party discipline will be less strict for most parliamentarians elected under new symbols; it will be stiffer for the parliamentarians of the PDS and the League. Even in these cases, however, local factors will play a role, since both parties depend upon strong local roots.

In view of the above circumstances, and considering the heterogeneity of the proposed electoral coalitions, we can expect differences between these coalitions and the initial majorities supporting the government. No one expects the various parliamentarians elected by these coalitions to form one parliamentary group. More than two parliamentary groups, therefore, will form and each will decide its own course. Mutually-recognized interdependence might be limited to matters regarding the Cabinet and votes on certain measures; but it could go much further, paving the way for the new electoral coalitions in the future.

The national elections in March are the first under the new electoral system, and coalitions have been promoted and formed without effective verification of agreement on platform and policy. In the prelude to these elections, the parties prepared their plat- forms and discussed their respective positions. But the outcome of both exercises must be viewed with some skepticism. The real decision to join one group or another may well have been made for pragmatic reasons, not ideological ones, leaving agreement on political platforms substantive only as far as public relations were concerned. Later on, when faced with tough choices on individual measures that concretely affect specific social interests, things will be different. Only when that situation arises will we see the real convergences and divergences, as the new alliances and new opposition groupings take shape.

Policy Questions

We may ask two final questions about the policies likely to be pursued in such an uncertain political climate. Will there be continuity or change vis-à-vis the policies of the past? Will the European Union, and the wider international community, have to face an unpredictable new Italy?

First, it is reasonable to expect that the new parliament will devote a great deal of its time to constitutional reform. The issue was already given much attention during the last legislature, and a commission from both houses of parliament was established to devise reform. This commission had approved some important innovations but had not yet reached its final stages before the premature dissolution of parliament. Italy will not move to the federalism preached by the Northern League, but policies to endow regional authorities with wider power have broad support. Many Italians think that the inefficiency of public offices is primarily due to the excessive concentration of authority in the hands of the central government. Decentralizing public powers, especially the power of taxation, would reduce the growing hostility that currently alienates the general public from political decision-makers. Through decentralization, the latter would interact more closely with the former and be more directly under its control. At the same time, regional diversities could find just recognition, reducing the motive for conflict.

In addition, many believe that more authority should be given to the cabinet and, specifically to the prime minister. Currently, the Italian prime minister is no more than primus inter pares, for he obtains a vote of confidence from parliament together with his ministers and is not empowered to dismiss them. Two proposals are currently being discussed in this area. The first is to restrict the vote of confidence from the cabinet to the prime minister alone; the second is to hold direct elections for the office of prime minister, as was recently decided in Israel. It is difficult to say whether the new parliament will be able to reach a decision on these issues. Again, it will depend upon the degree of political fragmentation and the nature of the majority that emerges. Nevertheless, these are issues that will certainly be high on the agenda.

It is equally difficult to predict future economic and financial policies, through these will remain the central domestic concern. It is reasonable to expect continuity along the main guidelines; no one will stand out against economic readjustment. However, it will not be a linear process: interruptions and uncertainties could result from the growing populism to which I referred earlier. Other unresolved issues include the continuing ambiguity of the left with regard to public expenditure and the promises of tax cuts made by the right. In the past two years, a policy of financial readjustment has been seriously pursued. A reversal of this trend would have unpredictable consequences: higher interest rates would follow and a new, vicious cycle would result. Even the position of Italy inside the European Union might be affected. Again, there will be no change in terms of principle (everyone in politics is in favor of European integration), but increasing financial and economic divergences would inevitably distance Italy from the heart of the future Europe.

It is an Italian miracle that the political earthquake shaking the country is leaving the most reliable features of past policies untouched: acceptance of the need for serious financial readjustment along the lines of the past two years; the commitment to Europe, which means opposition to economic and financial protectionism; and the Western partnership. The real significance of this miracle is the bridging of the sharp gap which divided the First Republic from the start and gave Italy its characteristic “blocked democracy.” Meanwhile, something new is emerging. It has the political genotype typical of established democracies and fundamental values common to (almost) all, upon which a framework of bipartisan policies can be built. International confidence in Italy, as it radically changes its ruling elite and emancipates itself from deep-rooted corruption, would be of great benefit. In the integrated system of international relations to which all our countries belong, the partners can have a substantive and influential role in reducing the risks of the Italian transition.

Note from the Editor

Amato served twice as the prime minister of Italy, from 1992-93 and 2000-01. He is one of the few politicians to have been a prominent figure in Italian politics during both the First Republic (1948-1994) and the Second Republic (1994-present). This article, written in the summer of 1994 after his first term as prime minister, is mainly about the thorny transition between the two Republics, triggered by the massive Tangentopoli corruption scandal and the subsequent Mani pulite investigations. It depicts the uncertainty of Italian politics as it was undergoing a deep change: several new political parties were forming in the beginning of the 1990s, and Italians put much faith in this transition. Amato was at the very forefront of this total political renaissance and has been a played a prominent role throughout the turbulent last few decades of Italian politics.

About Author

Giuliano Amato

Giuliano Amato served as the Prime Minister of Italy from 1992 to 1993 and again from 2000 to 2001. He also was the Vice President of the Convention on the Future of Europe. He now serves as a judge in the Constitutional Court of Italy.

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