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Italy: The Convulsions of Normalcy


Like a snake trying to shed its skin, Italy has been making convulsive efforts for the last few years to shake off its old political system and become a “normal” democracy, one in which the alternation of government and opposition is an ordinary, unremarkable occurrence. With the victory of a broad center-left coalition in the elections of April 21, the country took a large step in that direction.

For the entire postwar period, Italy remained locked in a cold war stand-off. The presence of the largest Communist Party in Western Europe virtually guaranteed the dominance of the Christian Democratic Party and its allies in every government since 1946. The continuous control of power by roughly the same group of parties—Christian Democrats, Socialists, Republicans, and Social Democrats among them—led to a system of patronage that degenerated into increasingly widespread corruption. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Communist Party changed its name and split apart, corruption investigations revealed billions of dollars in kickbacks from businessmen to politicians, and Italy got rid of its proportional electoral system in favor of one in which left-of-center and right-of-center alliances would contend for power.

During the last few years, these attempts to change Italian politics have seemed a failure. The old parties dissolved, split up, or recombined, but the new system appeared to contain the vices of the old and few of its virtues. Under pressure from the small parties, a quarter of parliamentary seats were still allotted on a proportional basis, with the result that there were more parties than ever. In many cases the old professional politicians were replaced by adventurers and dilettantes, who engaged in name-calling and fistfights on the floor of Parliament. The result was an all-too-familiar instability: there have been three national elections and four governments since 1992.

Still, underneath this surface confusion, some basic changes have been made. Quietly, and with little fanfare, the four most recent governments—supported sometimes by the right, sometimes by the left—have begun to reform some of the more extravagant aspects of Italy’s welfare state and put the country’s economy on a sounder footing. The political parties have slowly begun to respond to the logic of the new electoral system. The one lasting contribution of the television tycoon Silvio Berlusconi may have been to grasp the importance of forming broad new coalitions: he won in 1994 because he was able to patch together an improbable center-right alliance composed of his own Forza Italia party (Go, Italy!) and the former neo-fascists of the National Alliance along with the separatist Northern League.

In winning the 1996 elections the parties of the center and left appear to have learned from their failure in 1994. Under the shrewd leadership of Massimo D’Alema, the former Communists, the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS, Democratic Party of the Left), moved toward the center, by openly and unapologetically forming alliances not only with many smaller left-wing parties but also with respected moderate leaders. D’Alema organized a new coalition called the L’Ulivo (The Olive Tree), which named Romano Prodi, a prominent academic economist and former Christian Democratic minister, as its candidate for prime minister. D’Alema then succeeded in gaining the support of Lamberto Dini, the prime minister of the most recent caretaker government, who had been the minister of the Treasury in the Berlusconi government.

These changes were more than merely tactical. Dini chose the left rather than the right, he said, because the PDS had shown a sense of responsibility in backing a series of difficult austerity measures that have significantly improved Italy’s balance sheet. The far-left party, Rifondazione Comunista (Communist “Refoundation”), opposes many of the PDS’s programs, such as privatizing publicly owned industries. But it decided to help D’Alema win the election, running by itself but agreeing to support a center-left government without actually being part of it. Prodi’s alliance won 51 percent of the Senate but only 46 percent of the lower house of Parliament. So he will need support on some issues either from the Rifondazione (which won 8.6 percent of the vote) or from some of the right-wing parties.

The center-left ran a serious, dignified election campaign which avoided mudslinging and stuck to the discussion of unexciting but important issues, particularly how to gradually reform Italy’s welfare state without throwing out the considerable benefits Italians have gained in the last forty-five years. If the left won by moving toward the center, the right lost by moving away from it. Forza Italia and the National Alliance fell out with the Northern League, giving their coalition a more narrow, right-wing look, and they ended up with 39 percent of the vote. Berlusconi ran a belligerent and divisive campaign that continued to rely on a red-baiting rhetoric that seemed anachronistic. “Who knows if there will be free elections in Italy if the left wins?” Berlusconi said in a rather desperate-sounding appeal just a few days before the vote.

Berlusconi tried to revive the old division between Catholics and Communists by addressing the nation on Easter Sunday on his own television networks, and urging all good Christians to vote for his party because it supported the family. (Actually he supports two families, the second of which he started while he was still married to and living with his first wife.) Gianfranco Fini, the leader of the National Alliance, said that Catholics would not vote for the left because D’Alema was an atheist. However, the Catholic Church, which had always supported the Christian Democratic Party, this time remained neutral. In post-cold war Italy, politicians who identify themselves as Catholic are now spread among the two electoral blocs. Prodi himself is a practicing Catholic.

While the center-left coalition had added new leaders such as Prodi and Dini, the center-right appeared increasingly to be dominated by Berlusconi and Fini. Two years after its creation, Forza Italia still seems like the private fantasy of a megalomaniacal billionaire rather than a broad-based political movement. Fini has shown much greater political skill and has done much to moderate the image of the National Alliance by insisting on the party’s commitment to pluralism. But he done little to improve its leadership, which is still largely composed of men who advertised their sympathies for fascism until two years ago.

The Democratic Party of the Left clearly seems to have transformed itself from the old Communist party into a modern reformist force. Just what it will do after being excluded from national power for over forty years is now a central question for Italians. But the PDS promised no ambitious social programs, settling for the more modest aim of making Italy “A Normal Country”—the title of the main campaign tract by D’Alema.


Italy has been anything but a normal country in the last two years. The scene has been dominated by the anomalous presence of Silvio Berlusconi, who managed simultaneously to preside over the largest political party, run Italy’s largest television and publishing conglomerate, and defend himself against numerous investigations for corruption. Berlusconi had decided to enter politics when the powerful Christian Democrat and Socialist politicians who had helped him create a virtual monopoly of private television were implicated in the Milan corruption scandal that broke in February 1992. The Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, who backed legislation allowing Berlusconi to own three television stations, was accused and convicted of collecting millions of dollars in bribes and was getting ready to flee the country for Tunisia. Berlusconi’s own company, Fininvest, was under the scrutiny of prosecutors who had discovered a $300,000 payment to the government official who drafted the law regulating Italian television—money that Berlusconi insists was a consulting fee but which prosecutors consider a bribe. Moreover, the PDS and its allies on the left were pushing new antitrust legislation that would have stripped his company of one or two of its networks.

A shrewd judge of public moods, Berlusconi saw that the great mass of Italy’s moderate voters, who had for many years supported the government’s discredited Christian Democrat and Socialist leaders, were now in search of a new political home. Berlusconi offered a reassuring mixture of continuity and change. As the founder of private television and the owner of A.C. Milan, Italy’s most successful soccer team, Berlusconi’s name was more widely known in Italy than that of almost any politician. He was the living symbol of the 1980s boom. A self-made man in a fairly stratified, static society, Berlusconi seemed to offer both the possibility of upward mobility and a new faith in the free market. Describing himself as a professional businessman rather than a politician (not unlike Ross Perot), he promised a pragmatic, can-do approach to solving problems.

The Democratic Party of the Left, still led entirely by longstanding former Communists, presented itself at the head of a motley collection of other left-of-center parties, the largest of which was Rifondazione Comunista, a group of hard-liners who had resolved to carry forward the Communist tradition. Rifondazione spent its energies in distinguishing itself from its moderate allies by calling for Italy to withdraw from NATO and to raise taxes on the treasury bonds largely owned by members of the middle class. The PDS was essentially asking Italians to vote for the remnants of the old Communist Party, which no longer even had the advantage of a coherent party line. By contrast, the telegenic Berlusconi, with his Italian version of Reaganomics, looked both newer and less threatening to an electorate that was anxious for moderate change.

That Berlusconi’s vast economic holdings might involve him in conflicts of interest did not seem to bother most voters. Nor did the criminal charges against some of his close associates. Nor did the prospect of Berlusconi—whose three national networks account for 45 percent of the television audience—also controlling the state broadcasting system, RAI, which accounts for another 45 percent.

But after taking office in May of 1994, Berlusconi’s liabilities became apparent almost immediately. His government’s first major initiative was to dismiss the board of directors of RAI and put the public networks under the control of his own allies. Next, he tried to rewrite the laws on political corruption just as various investigations were beginning to zero in on his own company. Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo, and his chief financial officer admitted to having authorized bribes to tax inspectors in order to avoid audits. The government began to unravel in November 1994, when the prosecutors in Milan announced that they had found evidence that Berlusconi himself was involved in the case. The following month, the Northern League, one of his two principal political allies, announced that it was joining the opposition. Berlusconi was forced to resign, giving way to the caretaker government of Lamberto Dini, the banker who had been treasury minister in Berlusconi’s cabinet.

One might have thought that after his rather inglorious stay in office and his mounting legal problems, Berlusconi would withdraw from political life. But in a country where illegality small and large is commonplace, many Italians were prepared to overlook the charges against him.

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