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Italian Political Crises: Why Are They So Common?

By Chiara Azzarelli

In January, most people in Milan were carrying on with their lives seemingly careless of the fact that our government has fallen, again. Italians seem to be almost anesthetized to such political shocks. After all, we have faced changes of government so often that many of us can’t even count them anymore. 

In 75 years of Republican history, our country had 66 governments that have lasted, on average, 404 days (a little over 13 months). No government in the Italian history has ever lasted the entire duration of the legislature, which is 5 years. Many might wonder how the institutions of a European democracy can be so weak. To answer such a question, it is necessary to assess the foundations of our system. 

The Italian government, officially called the Council of Ministers, is a collegiate body. In order to be appointed, it must earn the Parliament’s “trust”,  a sort of political approval. In Italy, every proposition made by the government must be approved in both chambers of the Parliament before it takes effect. However, when Italians vote, they only elect the Members of Parliament (MPs), who proportionally represent the political preferences of the people. The Ministers – who compose the cabinet – are  appointed solely by the Prime Minister, who is himself appointed by the President of the Republic. In sum, none of these figures – Ministers, Prime Minister and President of the Republic – are directly voted into office by the people. Therefore, it is imperative that they are all approved by the Parliament, the only body whose members are directly elected. 

The real weak link is in the relationship between Parliament and the Council of Ministers. When seats in Parliament are proportionally distributed among the multiplicity of parties that are usually elected (in the last elections 11 parties won seats in the Parliament), the government must have the support of a majority of them. In order for this to happen, parties usually make alliances. But sometimes alliances fail and, by Constitution, if new ones are not formed, the President can call for anticipated elections. 

For instance, during the last elections in March 2018, the most voted party by the Italian people was the Five Stars Movement with approximately 32% of total votes. But since their seats were not sufficient to reach an absolute majority in the Chambers – as it has very often been the case in the last decades in the Italian Parliament – coalitions with other forces became imperative to support a government. The coalized centre-right forces won in total approximately 37% of seats. These included Salvini’s League (accountant for 17% of total votes), Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s party, with 14% of votes), Fratelli d’Italia (led by the far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, with 4% of votes) and a few other minor forces. On the other side, the centre-left and pro-European coalition won approximately 23% of seats, composed mostly by the Democratic Party, and other minor forces. It took the parties more than 100 days to find an agreement on the coalition. Finally, in June, Giuseppe Conte was appointed as the President of the so-called yellow-green government, supported by a coalition of the Five Stars Movement (the most voted party) and Salvini’s League (the most voted party within the most voted coalition). 

The yellow-green alliance lasted a little over one year. When Salvini realized he was gaining popularity amongst Italians, he hoped to call for elections and earn a larger share of parliamentary seats by popular vote. So, he broke the alliance with the Five Stars Movement and hoped for the Parliament to be unable to find a new coalition, which would have triggered new elections. But he miscalculated the political moves of his allies. Five Stars built a yellow-red coalition with the leftist Democratic Party (PD) and Free and Equal (LEU), shifting from a centre-right government to a centre-left one. 

This phenomenon, known as ribaltone (turnaround) is a concerning weakness of italian institutions. Without consulting the people, MPs can break the majority alliance and build another one where the previous opponents became allies and previous allies became opponents. According to the Italian Constitution, with the same parliamentary composition, the government can drastically shift political orientation – in this case from centre-right to centre-left – by forming new alliances, without resorting to popular consultation. No wonder that many of us tend to be unfaithful to our own MPs. 

The yellow-red alliance lasted again a little more than one year and ended with the latest crisis this past January. During the governance, a small group of MPs and Ministers broke off from PD (who was part of the majority alliance) and created their own centrist party: Italia Viva (IV), which originally continued to support the government. But in January, things became more tense. The Italian government had begun working on the allocation plan for a € 209 billion Covid-19 recovery fund granted by the European Union, which is no doubt the greatest bargaining achievement our government has reached in years. In this delicate moment of our political history, the leader of the newly born IV, Matteo Renzi, broke the coalition with the majority forces and made the government’s support miserable. 

The Prime Minister then resigned his position, stating that the little edge of the majority he was then holding was hindering good governance. This is even more critical if we think that the IV ministers who left the coalition were only 2 out of 21. A mere minority – whose party nobody had voted for – have the power to start a governmental crisis in the midst of a pandemic and during the delicate process of defining a recovery plan. 

Many might wonder how the Italian Constitution can permit such instability. The reality is that the constitution was designed this way by the constituent fathers in 1946. Every 2nd of June the nation celebrates the referendum which declares the end of the monarchy and the start of our Republic. Emerging from over 20 years of fascism and the loss of a World War, choosing a system that empowered the people sounded like a great win. The fathers of our constitution kept all of these elements in mind during the year and half that they took to write our fundamental principles. 

The Italian Constitution established the republican institutions in a way that prevented a totalitarian relapse. This is the reason why Italy has a perfect bicameral system (the Senate and the Chamber share equal  legislative power). It is also the reason why the Council of Ministers must be entrusted by the Parliament. But, most importantly, it is the reason why the Parliament can easily decide to mistrust the government and end its mandate. It is a protective mechanism – proposed when fascism was still a concrete danger – that intended to prevent any dictator from taking over the executive power. Although such structure was intended to save the country from dictatorships, it has prevented Italy from having a stable governance. 

Now the country is struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic and the politics of vaccines, and it must demonstrate credibility to the European institutions that have granted us generous funding. Unfortunately, it was the ideal moment for political opponents to start a crisis and prevent the government from gaining popularity with any possible politically popular moves. What is really critical is that the institutional structure in place allows for crises like this to be non-preventable and frequent. Deepening effects of the current economic crisis can be envisaged with such unstable institutions. The decision of the President of the Republic to appoint a technocratic (hence, non-political) government seems to be, once again, the only solution for Italy to address the decisions it urges. 

About the author: Chiara Azzarelli is a 2nd year MDEV student at the Graduate Institute of Geneva

Featured Photo: Nick Bondarev from Pexels

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