Italy: The Convulsions of Normalcy

Romano Prodi
Romano Prodi; drawing by David Levine


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…

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