Italian Politics

Ten years of confusion.

I got interested in all things Italian about ten years ago when we were planning our first trip to il Belpaese. I spent much of my leisure time learning Italian, and I read extensively about Italian history, politics, and mores. The more that I read the more confused that I became. Consider these facts:

  • From 1946 through 1992 Italy had fifty-one different governments.
  • Italy has more than one mafia. The Cosa Nostra in Sicily, la ‘ndrangheta in Calabria, and the Camorra in the suburbs of Naples all ran wild during the postwar period. They even murdered government officials and judges.
  • A violent extremist group, the Red Brigades, committed outrageous acts of terrorism in the seventies and eighties. It was so bad that the period was called “the years of lead.”
  • Through all of this Italy’s economy was booming — the fastest growing in all of Europe!

I still do not understand all of this, but I have come across a few things that make things a little clearer. Italy’s democracy, for one thing, is much different from what Americans are accustomed to. In the first place there are dozens of parties, and they are in a constant state of flux. Secondly, there is nothing like the American House of Representatives, whose members are regularly subjected to electoral review. The Italian Chamber of Deputies, which has 630 members, is elected by region, of which there are twenty. Each party nominate a list in each region. Depending on the number of votes that the party gets, it receives a proportional number of seats. This approach insures that the top names on the lists of the big parties are virtually certain of being elected each time, and the lower names, regardless of party, have almost no chance. The laws have been recently changed so that the coalitions that win are awarded a large number of additional seats. There is also a Senate that contains 315 members. The rules for the Senate are similar to those of the Chamber, but some people have been designated senators for life.

The President of the Republic is the head of state, and he invites the leader of the coalition with the most votes to form a government. If he (no major party has ever been headed by a woman) can work deals with smaller parties so that he has a majority in both houses, he becomes the Prime Minister (although his official title is President of the Council).

There are too many parties to attempt to keep straight, and, to make it worse, they are usually referred to by their initials. However, some of the major parties or categories of party are worth knowing:

  • The Christian Democrats have usually been the favorite of the Church. They were the dominant party for several decades. They won a plurality of the votes in every Italian election during the forty-five years of the “first republic,” but they never achieved a majority. So, they invited all the other parties — with two consistent exceptions — to join them in the government. The ministers in these governments would come from different parties. Usually, but not always, the President of the Council was a Christian Democrat.
  • The Communists have always been a force in Italy, and, although they are now fragmented, they still wield considerable clout. They were one of the two parties not allowed into the government. Because the Communists had played such an important role in the resistance movement (called “the Partisans”) in World War II, they were a major threat to win some of the elections. The pope excommunicated anyone who voted for them, and for the first few elections the U.S. stationed gunships in the harbors in case the elections went the wrong way. In an effort to influence the 1948 election, the U.S. posted ten million letters, broadcast short-wave radio propaganda, and distributed literature warning Italians of the Communist menace. The CIA also funded the center-right political parties and was accused of publishing forged letters discrediting leaders of the Italian Communist Party. On March 28 General Marshall warned that economic aid would be terminated if the Communists won. Nevertheless, 31 percent of the voters favored the Communists.
  • The Neo-fascists, including Mussolini’s daughter, were the other party that was excluded from all of those governments. They still have some influence, but for tactical reasons most of the people have joined other parties.
  • Silvio Berlusconi’s party, which is currently called “People of Freedom,” took advantage of the massive scandal of the early nineties known as Tangentopli (corruption city) that crippled nearly every major politician in the country. Berlusconi, who owned (and still owns) all of the private TV networks, the A.C. Milan soccer team, and several magazines, used his unbelievable clout in the media to become the dominant figure in the country for two decades.
  • The Northern League’s main objective is for the northern part of Italy to secede. It is stridently anti-immigrant. Americans might be surprised that an openly racist party controls the local governments in many of the towns in the north of Italy. The League has consistently allied with Berlusconi. Incidentally, this idea of an independent group of northern Italians is about nine hundred years old. At first they rebelled against Frederick Barbarossa.
  • A tenuous coalition of left-leaning parties has recently attempted with a modicum of success to form a Democratic Party.
  • A new party, Five Stars, is headed by comedian Beppe Grillo. He thinks that all the parties in Italy are a joke. His primary idea is to remove all of the career politicians, regardless of party, from power and start over. He did surprisingly well in the last election.

When the collapse of the Italian credit rating caused Berlusconi’s most recent government to resign, it was replaced by a government headed by an economist, Mario Monti, who was not really from any party. He stood for election in 2013, and his ad hoc party did not do very well. Now the government itself is in limbo because even with the bonuses no coalition seems to be able to gain a majority in both houses. Nobody really knows what will happen.

Sound familiar?