Italy’s Non-Democratic Future

Anti-government sticker. Torino, October 2018.

In assessing the prospects for Italian democracy, optimists are wont to stress the proven ability of the country’s post-war political system to weather recurrent political and economic crises; the increased capacity to respond to changing domestic imperatives that the system has derived from the dramatic economic boom of 1965-1971; and the gradual transformation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) into something approaching a party of the democratic left.

On the other hand, even the most sanguine observers would probably agree that parliamentary rule has not yet sunk firm roots in Italian soil. Moreover, the old formulas which brought Italy political continuity, if not stability, for the past quarter century show signs of breaking down. And, thanks in part to dislocations occasioned by modernising change and worldwide economic strains, the problems now facing Italian political leaders are more numerous and more complex than ever before.

Italy has had the shortest experience with a unified and fully representative government of the four major powers of Western Europe.  Hence it is scarcely surprising that the nation’s historical and cultural heritage still creates some formidable obstacles to stable and effective parliamentary rule.

This heritage includes a distrust of government, strong familial and patronal traditions, and a distinctly casual attitude toward legal and administrative regulations. It also includes deep-seated and cross-cutting cleavages over such issues as class and regional economic inequities and church-state relations.

These divisive factors and forces have found reflection in ( 1 ) the number (an average of eight) and diversity of nationally-based political parties that have vied for the support of the Italian electorate since 19-18 and (2) the pronounced factionalism within these parties which has prevented most of them from maintaining either strong leadership or a coherent policy line. No post-war Italian party has ever received a majority of the votes cast in a general election, and only once did one come close enough to that mark to win a majority of seats in even one chamber of the country’s bicameral legislature (the Christian Democrats in 1948). Coalition government (formal or tacit) has thus been a necessity.

But Italy’s disparate and divided parties have been unable to work together for very long — even when their goals are similar. Hence, despite the relative consistency of overall Italian voting patterns since the war (40-45 percent for parties of the left, about the same for parties of the center, and 10-15 percent for parties of the right), the country has established a record for rapid cabinet turnovers surpassed in all of post-war Western Europe only by that of the ill-fated Fourth French Republic.

The present Moro government is the 37th since the fall of Fascism in July 1943, and the 30th since the proclamation of the Republic in June 1946. ‘’Modern Italy was born as a constitutional monarchy (complete with a parliament and a cabinet ministry responsible to the parliament) in 1870. But, with the exception of a brief and chaotic period between the end of World War I and Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, relatively few Italians could vote until after World War II.

Moreover, while the Italian electorate was allowed to decide the fate of the monarchy and to choose a broadly representative constituent assembly in Italy’s present republican constitution (which combines some local innovations with elements drawn from both French and British political practice) was promulgated two years later without the benefit of a popular referendum. Partly because of this, and partly because of continuing disparities between some of its provisions and actual political practice, the Italian constitution is not as widely revered as might be inferred from public rhetoric.

In the absence of strong and united governments endowed with both a clear program of action and the security of tenure necessary to realize it, struggles between parties and factions and endless debates on coalition formulae have become substitutes for effective legislative action.

Not that Italy’s fundamental social and economic problems have been totally ignored, but most of the constructive reforms that have managed to get through parliament have been much weakened in the process. And their effectiveness has been further impaired by a grossly inefficient administrative bureaucracy in which sponsorship still outweighs merit as a criterion for recruitment and promotion.

The popular frustrations generated by government paralysis have led to more frequent recourse to direct political action. Over the past decade, there has been an upward trend in protest demonstrations, trade union agitation, and, more ominously, acts of political violence. At the same time, the corrupting influence of Italy’s vast subterranean political and administrative patronage network (popularly known as the soltogoverno) has grown more pervasive.

Predictably, these praetorian tendencies have together with an accompanying increase in general lawlessness— swelled the ranks of those favouring a basically authoritarian solution to their country’s ills. All told, the growing polarization of the Italian political scene at the expense of the nebulous centre threatens to upset the complex balance of conflicting interests and ideologies that has enabled the country to weather so many seemingly mortal crises over the past 30 years.

Adapted from the CIA research study Authoritarianism and Militarism in Southern Europe (1975.) Photograph courtesy of Souciant. Published under a Creative Commons license.