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The Italian political crisis: a new government or snap elections?

The Italian political crisis: a new government or snap elections?

Gianfranco Pasquino (University of Bologna)

Governmental instability in Italy has never meant democratic instability. Governments have come and gone, on average every 15-17 months within a democratic framework rarely challenged except in a minority of cases. The Italian Constitution has always been successful in guiding old and new actors to play by the rules. Even the most recent and most unusual government made by the anti-establishment Five Stars and the largely populist League remained within clear boundaries. With regard to the duration of the term of office, Conte’s government has performed satisfactorily by Italian standards and occupies the 20th position (out of 65 governments) since 1946.

What is most certainly wrong with the Italian political system depends on two elements: on the one hand, the party system and its components and, on the other hand, Italian society. Following the fully deserved collapse between 1992 and 1994 and the disappearance of all Italian parties, new parties at different points in time have not reconstituted a decent framework for party competition. Fragmented, not especially endowed with civic virtues, somewhat corrupted, always inclined to look for privileges, still imbued with amoral familism, Italian society has, of course, been unwilling and unable to engage in a major effort to (re)construct decent party “vehicles”. Personalist parties have made their appearance, transformed themselves, died, merged without being able to offer something acceptable to the voters. The volatility rate, that is the percentage of Italian voters changing their vote, between 1994 and 2018 has been as high as 40%. It was 27% in 2018. Throughout this period Berlusconi’s Forza Italia went from almost 40% to about 8%. In 2018 the Democratic Party (PD) led by Matteo Renzi plummeted to its worst result ever: 18.7%.

The winners of the 2018 elections, the Five Stars Movement (32,6%) and the League (17,3%) (quadrupling its 2013 votes), succeeded to form a minimum winning coalition in spite of some major political and platform differences. The exchange of agreed-upon policies seemed to work with limited conflicts and tensions until the European elections when Matteo Salvini’s League doubled the amount of votes received by the Five Stars Movement and his flamboyant leadership pushed into a marginal position Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the Five Stars Movement. At that point, Matteo Salvini decided that it was time to translate its European loot into Italian votes as well and put an end to Conte’s government.

The decision regarding if and when to dissolve the Parliament and to hold new elections constitutionally belongs to the President of the Republic who must first ascertain whether the incumbent Parliament is unable to give birth to and sustain another government. The ongoing negotiations between the Five Stars Movement and the Democratic Party are meant to find out if they are able to create not just a numerical coalition, but a viable and performing government. If not, snap elections will follow. The negotiations between the Five Star Movement and the PD, marked by reciprocal distrust, are difficult because none of the protagonists is in full control of the rank-and-file. The Five Stars Movement is a composite aggregation of anti-establishment feelings and quasi populist inclinations, divided between those who want to stick to their original principles remaining pure and those who want to translate those principles into policies. More mundanely, the PD is divided between those supporting the new secretary, Nicola Zingaretti, and those following the former secretary, Matteo Renzi, who is responsible for the election to Parliament of a large majority of them.

While the PD has no other way to go, the Five Stars Movement may revert to a coalition with the Lega. Left out in the cold and by now almost desperate, Matteo Salvini has repeatedly declared his willingness to accept all the programmatic priorities of the Five Stars, among them a sharp reduction in the number of the member of the Parliament, and has even offered the role of Prime Minister to Luigi Di Maio. New elections still loom large on the complex Italian political landscape while all the polls are predicting a victory of the center-right. In the meantime, nobody seems to care about the choice of the Italian nominee to become European Commissioner. Time and again Italy proves to be just a passive member of the European Union.

Gianfranco Pasquino is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Bologna

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