News Analysis: Italy’s Murky Election: A Vote for Weak Government

By Paolo Pontoniere New America Media
Tuesday April 25, 2006

It’s over. The Italian superior court has declared that Silvio Berlusconi is out and that Romano Prodi has won. But more than voting out Berlusconi’s center-right alliance or approving Prodi’s center-left coalition, Italians have chosen to go back to the splintered governments preceding the early 1990s. 

Italian analysts are busy debating the significance of the April 12 elections. Some say the new government will be strong enough to steer the Italian ship through the waves of globalization; others claim the opposite. Both may miss the point. In dividing their votes to the dime—49.8 percent to 49.7—Italians have signaled that they think a weak government may be better than the solid majoritarian governments that have been managing Italy since the Tangentopoli (”Bribeville”) flare-up 14 years ago.  

A financial scandal of immense magnitude, Tangentopoli hastened the extinction of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists—two parties which had governed Italy with a relative majority of the seats in parliament—and eventually fostered the advent of the country’s Second Republic in 1992.  

Under this new republic, Italy did away with old political oligarchies—at least theoretically—and launched an extensive revision of the constitution and of the welfare, criminal and civil justice systems. It undertook radical labor reform and changed the electoral system, adopting a majoritarian mechanism similar to that of the United States.  

Superficially, it seemed to work. Since the inception of the Second Republic, Italy has seen some of its longest-serving governments since World War II. Massimo D’Alema, the first former communist to head an Italian government, was at the helm of one, and Berlusconi guided two, including his most recent, a five-year stint of uninterrupted stewardship that made him the longest-serving prime minister in modern Italy. Conversely, First Republic governments had an average lifespan of nine months. Sixty of them rose and fell from power between the end of the war and the beginning of the 1990s. 

But despite the relative stability of its governments during the Second Republic, during the same period Italy has suffered some of the most serious downturns of its post-war history. Italy has become the tail-light economy of the Eurozone—public debt is above 100 percent of GDP, growth is null, youth unemployment has reached 25 percent—and the country is marred by a loss of purpose and common direction.  

Today, Italy has one the lowest birth rates of the developed world. Social structures such as the Church, political organizations and unions have lost their allure, and the country seems to be able to find its passion and creativity only when it comes to soccer games or the discussion of the latest fashion fad or TV show.  

Not that the old First Republic was in any way more accountable or competent than the Second. It had a sketchy control of economic dynamics, produced anemic public institutions, fostered the growth of political clienteles and encouraged citizens’ indifference toward the state. But, strangely, in such a climate of lasseiz-faire, Italians thrived. 

During the First Republic, Italy’s economy rose to fifth place in the world, thanks to the contribution made by a widespread network of small and medium-sized family-owned businesses, and to the widespread use of undocumented labor. Thanks to wise investment in research and development, products of Italian style and design, as well as those of the food and agricultural sector, became the trademark of good living across the globe. Italian cinema competed head-to-head with Hollywood. And Italy itself, because of its historical and natural treasures, became a world-class tourist destination.  

Central to this success was consociationism, a political arrangement in which amicable agreements between majority and minority produced gains for everybody. In such a fashion, governments doled out, through prolonged bargaining among constituencies, a good amount of subsidies to every social group.  

While the government handsomely subsidized the private industry, at the same time it provided blue collar elites—those close to the Communist and the Socialist parties—with a pervasive welfare system ranging from housing assistance, free universal health coverage and higher education to good pension plans and extended unemployment benefits. This allowed the working class to defray many of the costs for those services that in other countries—such as the United States—are borne by the workers.  

Forward to the post-tangentopoli governments, and Italians have been pushed into a one-size-fits-all economic agreement with the rest of Europe. According to market guru Allen Sinai and Nobel laureate economists Gary Becker and Paul Samuelson, that agreement eliminates the ability of the national government to use monetary levers to keep Italian exports and labor competitive on world markets. Furthermore, Berlusconi’s erosion of the welfare system has further exasperated the public, which since the introduction of the euro has been enraged about the rising cost of living.  

Writing for Il Manifesto, popular commentator Grabiele Polo has defined this election as the last memoir of a country dissolving itself into thousands of threads of individual passion. Taking a different view, La Repubblica’s Franco Carlini, another renowned analyst, notes that when a country is confused or unconvinced by the proposals of either political coalition, 50-50 is the only possible result.  

Both fail to see that by giving a slight majority to Prodi’s Unione, Italy’s civil society may have meant to affirm that the primacy of the state stands with its people—and that political parties must find a way to work together for the good of all. 


Paolo Pontoniere is U.S. correspondent for Focus, Italy’s leading monthly..