|15 February, 2008
||Italy's governmental purgatory
Interestingly enough, now that Italy has been without a government since
early February when parliament was dissolved and Romano Prodi stepped
down, things are actually getting done.
Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (15/02/08)
In most ways that count, Italy has not had a government since the first days of
February, when President Giorgio Napolitano singed a decree that dissolved
parliament. Since then, there has been no democratically elected figure or body
charting the government's course.
Italian officials have pulled all but symbolic representation at multi-lateral meetings. The
man ostensibly heading the country, beleaguered Romano Prodi, stepped down as
prime minister in late January and today has the backing of only one in eight Italians.
Heads of government ministries, agencies and state-owned companies are still on the
job, but the parliamentarians who normally have a voice in the decisions they make
have been sent home.
New elections have been called for 13-14 April. Until then Italy is set to continue
existing in this vague and uncharted middle ground between a working democracy and
a modern version of anarchy.
But something interesting is happening in this governmentless state: The government is
working. And in many ways, it is working better than it did in the weeks leading up to
Prodi's unceremonious resignation.
Freed from the need to worry about the political implications of every move, ministers,
bureaucrats and managers are simply doing their jobs - even when those jobs have
Kosovo is expected to declare its independence from Serbia on Sunday, for example,
and Italy - which on 6 February became the first EU state to offer to send police and
judges into the war-torn region - has indicated it will be among the first countries to
officially recognize Kosovo's independence, along side the US, France and Germany.
Since parliament was dissolved, Italy has reiterated plans to keep a 2,300-soldier
peacekeeping force on the ground in Afghanistan. The protracted trash crisis in Naples
appears to be headed for a conclusion after hesitant regional governments were
persuaded to process some of the garbage, landfills were hastily re-opened and the
military was called in to help clean up the mess. A joint US-Italian task force carried out
a two-continent anti-Mafia sweep that resulted in more than 80 mob arrests in Palermo
and New York. The sale of money-losing national flagship air carrier Alitalia to
Air-France-KLM is going forward. Italian magistrates are insisting US soldiers involved
in the friendly fire shooting death of an Italian agent in Baghdad be extradited to Italy to
All these are controversial issues and areas far too prickly to be addressed by a
government continually in danger of collapsing.
Obviously, a government with no accountability to the electorate is not a permanent
solution to any problem - the temptation of corruption or authoritarianism would
eventually become too great. But the current situation does illustrate how much can get
done when a government can count on remaining in power beyond the end of the
April's election will pit billionaire media tycoon and three-time prime minister Silvio
Berlusconi against Walter Veltroni, the popular but less-well-known mayor of Rome
who is nearly 20 years Berlusconi's junior. Most Italians will argue passionately about
one man or the other, though early polls favor Berlusconi.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano attempted to push through an electoral reform plan
before he called for elections. But the idea never gained traction without support from
Berlusconi, who correctly calculated that holding elections sooner rather than later
favored his chances for a fourth term as prime minister.
Not accomplishing the electoral form was a missed opportunity that Italians will pay for
over the coming months. Unless April's winner defeats the other side by an
unprecedented margin, the new prime minister's coalition is likely to be as divided,
fragile and ineffective as the one behind Prodi's tumultuous 20-month stint.
The Italian state is in dire need of a whole host of reforms. The matters being
addressed by the current lame duck government are a tiny fraction of the country's
withered to-do list, which includes confronting organized crime, pension reform, border
security, worker protection laws, tax reform, environmental protection, illegal
construction, government and private sector corruption, banking reform, government
conflict of interest rules, rules for the internet economy and a host of other weighty
and difficult issues that simply cannot be confronted by a government continually
putting out fires.
Italy's next government will be its 62nd since the end of World War II. Sadly, the
situation has eroded to the point that the best-case scenario may be the election of a
government in April that will stumble through a short-lived mandate and swell public
demand for a set of reforms that will at least assure that government No 63 actually
has a chance to actually govern.
Eric J Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Italy. He is based in
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).