This article originally appeared in
     
23 February, 2007
   
  Italian leaders, too unstable to govern

The collapse of Romano Prodi's government is the 61st such collapse in as
many years in Italy. The next leader should focus on creating a political
system with enough stability to actually govern.

Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (02/23/07)

Whoever ends up leading Italy's 62nd government since World War II should make one
measure his first priority -forcing significant changes to the imperfect system that put
him in power.

That the Italian system of selecting its leaders is severely flawed is not a secret. When
the government led by former European commissioner Romano Prodi dramatically
collapsed late Wednesday, it was the 61st time an Italian prime minister fell in Italy in as
many years. During that span, Germany has had just nine chancellors, the UK has had
12 prime ministers and the US president has taken office or been re-elected 18 times.

The Italian system also creates an incestuous revolving door of the same faces and
ideas. Late Thursday, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano asked Prodi to attempt to
cobble together enough support to form a new government, and if Prodi succeeds it
will be his third stint at that post.

Meanwhile, the two other leaders of Prodi's coalition most mentioned as possible
replacements for him - Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema and Interior Minister Giuliano
Amato - have each been prime minister twice. Prodi's chief rival, media tycoon Silvio
Berlusconi, has headed three governments and is itching to head a fourth.

In fact, the last time Italy selected someone for the job who had never held it before, it
was nearly a decade ago, when D'Alema first took power - succeeding Prodi - in 1998.

The result is a game of musical chairs that convinces foreign allies that Italy should not
be counted on for security issues (the already-crippled Prodi government ostensibly
fell over the debate on Italy's peacekeeping commitment in Afghanistan, and in order to
reform his coalition, Prodi will likely have to reduce Italy's presence there).

Italian companies do not know what kind of tax, environmental or transparency rules
they will face from one year to the next. (In 2006, more Italy-based multinationals chose
to sell their shares on a foreign stock exchange than ever before).

The UN has all but scoffed at Italy's bid to have a permanent seat on the Security
Council. Two major credit rating agencies have downgraded Italian debt. And economic
growth on the Italian peninsula has lagged behind the EU as a whole for most of the
last decade.

"There's no doubt that the system has to be reformed, but the question is who will
spend the political capital to create these changes?" asked Achille Chiappetti, a political
scientist specializing in constitutional law at Rome's Sapienza University, in an
interview with ISN Security Watch.

Chiappetti rightly noted that Italy had pushed through electoral reforms before - the
1993 Mattarella Law was the last major reform, and it has been significantly amended
at least twice - but those reforms have historically been carried out to stack the odds in
favor of the coalition that pushes them through. More importantly, they have all retained
the disproportionate power of the small members in any ruling coalition.

Prodi took power in May 2006 after a razor-thin victory over Berlusconi - he won by
just 24,000 votes from more than 38 million cast - in an election that saw no fewer than
39 parties on the ballot in Rome (different regions could have more or fewer parties
represented).

Prodi's ruling coalition had 11 disparate members ranging from the center-left Olive
alliance to the far-left Refounded Communists, from the pro-environment Greens to a
new party partially inspired by the old Italian Radicals called Rose in the Fist. And with
such a narrow majority even the smallest member of the coalition could hold the
government hostage by threatening to walk and turn a modest majority into a minority -
leverage the small parties will not give up easily.

In the end, that is how things ended for Prodi: Three pacifist senators from his coalition
voted "nay" on Afghanistan, leaving what had been a one-member majority two votes
short.

In his nine months in office, Prodi has not shied away from unpopular stances he
believed were for the good of the country. He took on powerful trade unions in labor
reform negotiations; attacked Italy's burgeoning deficit at the expense of his own
approval levels by increasing taxes and reducing government spending; and reaffirmed
Italy's role as a central member of NATO by leaving 1,900 Italian troops in Afghanistan
even as his constituents grew tired of foreign commitments as a result of the country's
bloody tenure in Iraq.

Whether it is Prodi or someone else who heads the next Italian government, he should
do something that might prove better for Italy than any of the above reforms: create a
political system that ensures that when the 63rd government and the ones to follow it
take power, they have something that few Italian governments have enjoyed - the
stability to actually govern.


Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).