This article originally appeared in
28 January, 2008
  Italy: Democratic standstill

As Italy plans for new elections or a caretaker government following a
no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Prodi, reforms are needed to
overcome a system that makes accomplishing anything significant a major

Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (28/01/08)

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano will emerge from talks on Tuesday with the
country's two largest political parties and announce plans for either a new round of
elections or a temporary caretaker government. The decision will be felt in Italy over the
next decade or more.

Italy was thrown into crisis on 24 January when Prime Minister Romano Prodi stepped
down after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament's upper house. A few days
earlier, his minister of justice, Clemente Mastella, under investigation for corruption,
withdrew his tiny political party from Prodi's coalition and deprived it of its slim majority
in the Senate.

Napolitano immediately called crisis meetings with the leaders of the more than two
dozen political parties of various stripes that litter the Italian political landscape. But it is
Tuesday's final meetings with the country's largest two parties - Forza Italia, from the
center right, and Democrats of the Left - that will decide Italy's political fate.

Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's controversial billionaire media tycoon and a
three-time prime minister, is clamoring for new elections that would give him a fair
chance to lead his fourth government. Berlusconi's approval levels are not high, but
they look lofty compared to those for Prodi and the center-left. But the center-left
would have its chances with popular Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, a savvy political

New elections would represent the path of least resistance, leaving the decision up to
a weary and increasingly cynical Italian public that has endured some 61 governments
in the 62 years since the first post-World War II parliament was elected. But it would
also make it likely that the 62nd government would last far less than Prodi's tumultuous
20-month tenure, which was brought down by a politician accused of widespread
corruption from a party that won just 1.2 percent of the vote in the most recent

That Italy's political system is broken is not news to anyone who follows European
politics closely.

The revolving door at the prime minister's office in Rome's Palazzo Chigi means that
almost every Italian head of government operates in a constant crisis mode. Witness
the 32 high-risk no-confidence votes Prodi had to resort to in order to push through
legislation before he finally lost the one that felled his government.

Italy has the third largest GDP in the 15-country eurozone, and its population is equal to
European heavyweights France and Britain. The country was one of the six founding
members of the EU, which now includes 27 states. It maintains diplomatic relations with
more countries than the US does. According to some estimates, the country spends
nearly as much on its military as China, and it has more men in uniform than Germany or
Japan. But the constant political turmoil in Rome makes it difficult for Italy to assert its
influence on the world stage.

The chronically unstable government impacts other areas. Thanks in part to the
country's chameleon-like economic and tax policies, Italy's financial growth has trailed
the EU average for 12 of the past 14 years. A 2007 poll showed that Italians were less
optimistic about the future than citizens in 21 of the bloc's 27 member states.

The main culprit behind these problems is Italy's fractured system of proportional
representation. In some ways, systems like Italy's are more democratic than
winner-takes-all systems like the one in the US, because a proportional system gives a
voice even to small niche interests that would otherwise see their agendas buried in a
larger party's platform. But with so many interests pulled together to form what usually
amounts to a coalition with a paper-thin majority, it becomes far too easy for a fringe
party like Mastella's to hold the government hostage.

Napolitano is said to be mulling the creation of a caretaker government headed by a
significant non-partisan figure - such as Bank of Italy governor Mario Draghi or Mario
Monti, a former European competition commissioner - that would take power to
specifically push through an electoral reform package that could finally lend some
stability to the Italian political process.

Caretaker governments in Italy have not been hugely successful. The last one, led by
economist and technocrat Lamberto Dini 1995 and 1996, did little more than let tempers
cool for 14 months between Berlusconi's first government and the first headed by
Prodi. But there is no other way to reform the entrenched and flawed electoral system,
as no elected government would dare to abandon the system that elected it.

Such a reform could take several shapes: denying parliamentary representation to
parties that fail to reach a certain vote threshold, for example, or awarding bonus
seats in parliament to the ruling coalition in order to provide it with a more comfortable

Convincing the current parliament to back a reform that would fundamentally change its
makeup and could push dozens of its members out of power will be difficult. But failing
to do so will leave a system in place that makes accomplishing anything significant in
Italy even harder.

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).