Understanding Italy’s political system and institutions

Throughout their long history, Italians have been more the “house divided” than the “house united” both for good and for bad. In Roman times, the Republic successfully administered large parts of Italy thanks to a political system largely based on self-governing “colonies” and “allies”. The Empire was careful not to do away with the Republic’s proven administrative system, which it co-opted into an imperial system for the most part based on self-governing Provinces. In the middle ages, the lombard-led North Italian city-states of the Holy Roman Empire divided between pro-papal “Guelfs” and anti-papal (or “lay”) Ghibellines, reflecting the factions of their germanic cousins to the north. From time to time Italian States would band together into  “Leagues” whenever threatened by more powerful domestic or foreign neighbors. By and large, however, Italian states preferred independence to unification until Piedmont finally succeeded in incorporating the other States of the Peninsula into one big Kingdom in 1861 under the Savoy Monarchy. In modern times, Italians divided politically between Fascists and Communists as their fledgling Republic preferred to centralize power in the hands of a Rome government purposely designed by the country’s Founding Fathers to be weak and subservient to the legislative branch.

Reforms along federal lines would probably be more in tune with who and what Italians really are. A simple solution would be to grant every Italian province the same autonomy enjoyed by the provinces of Bolzano and Trento. Whatever Italy may be, however, there is hardly anything “unitary” about Italians. Indeed, they are as diverse as the country is long. Even their cooking, language and customs change significantly every 50 miles or so. Since unification their leaders have gone mad trying to make Italians “squeeze” into the single jurisdiction of their “stato unitario”. A cross-section of Italy’s establishment, including the ex-communists, ex-neofascists and orphans of Christian Democracy are against any federal reform that would limit the privileges that centralized power guarantees. These politicians have played on Italian fears of balkanization, suggesting that federalism would only rekindle Italian sectionalism, ultimately leading to separatism and division of a country unified but one hundred and fifty years ago. Ironically, heightened autonomy (from Rome) could explain the sharp drop in separatist-linked violence in Italy’s five self-governing Regions. Unfortunately, the prevailing political culture has blackballed the very concept of federalism as nothing more than a euphemism for secession. That federalism might make Italians stronger and more united than ever before is neither contemplated nor considered worthy of “dialogue”. Yet, if anything risks pulling Italy apart, it is excessive centralization and continuing to pump billions of northern tax euros into the seemingly bottomless pit of southern development schemes. 

To understand modern Italy is to know the political evolution of the country following its defeat in World War II. Postwar Europe witnessed the physical division of Germany into a pro-western (West) German State and a pro-soviet (East) German State. Similarly, the Kingdom of Italy, turned Republic, soon found itself politically divided between a pro-western Christian Democracy Party and a pro-soviet Communist Party. Such divisions reflected the new, world order that emerged after the War. Far from being unrelated, they underscored the wider political rift that ultimately led to the division of Europe and the World into ideological blocs during the long period of armed confrontation known as the “cold war”.

An iron curtain was said to have descended on the Continent of Europe from Stettin in the Baltic down through Germany to Trieste on the Adriatic, separating the industrial multiparty democracies of the West from the one-party communist dictatorships of the East. Unnoticed by many, a similar iron curtain also descended on Italy. However, unlike the geographical, physical iron curtain that could sometimes actually be seen (like the wall dividing Berlin or the fortifications running along the borders separating what would come to be known as the Warsaw Pact Countries from their western neighbors, East Germany from West Germany), in Italy the iron curtain took on the more subtle form of political division. Invisible to the naked eye, Italy’s political iron curtain soon polarized Italians between the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union and the pro-western Christian Democrats. These once diametrically opposed political forces produced the compromise that is the Italian Constitution of 1947, a verbose document comprised of 139 articles that mixes communist-inspired and western principles of government into a confusing cocktail left to the interpretation of Italy’s politicized justices of the Constitutional Court.

Since the 1950’s Italian domestic politics have mirrored the bloc politics of the cold war. The Berlin Wall came and went but in Italy it was, and is, business as usual as Italy’s invisible wall continues to divide Italians politically. Probes headed by the Milan DA’s Office into political corruption during the early 1990’s wiped out the political parties that during the cold war represented pro-western values and voters but, surprisingly, spared those that represented pro-soviet communist values and voters.

Professional politicians, other than millenials, are products of the cold war years. Weaned on parliamentarianism and the political wheeling and dealing behind-closed-doors typical of the years preceding the so-called “Second Republic”, these cold war leaders have always suffered “amateur politicians” like Berlusconi and more recently Grillo. Cold war leaders favor big government and a centralized bureaucracy; they are opposed to any amendment of the Italian Constitution, especially along federal lines. They are against a biparty or “bipolar” system and are vehemently against the quest for a presidential democracy. They favor a return to the parliamentariansm of the so-called “First Republic”.

Cold war leaders are hostile to political parvenues like Berlusconi and Grillo or millenials (like Matteo Renzi) that represent a more “western” approach to socialdemocracy. What is being waged is a power struggle, which has little or nothing to do with anything as idillic or noble as more rights for labor as opposed to business. It is also not so much a struggle between right and left as it is an institutional one, having little to do with any one political leader per sé. Unless subjected to a complete makeover, the system can be expected to continue rejecting anyone that is neither a professional politician nor a disciple of the prevailing political culture.

Regardless of who takes the helm of the executive branch, Italy will probably continue to be paralyzed by conflict politics, its economy stifled by high taxes and red tape. Sooner or later, the Bel Paese could even fall back into the hands of the same cast of professional politicians responsible for the country’s colossal national debt of about € 2.5 trillion, most of which was incurred before the advent of the Second Republic and without significant modernization of Italian infrastructure or any meaningful development of the South. Efforts to create a biparty political system along western models have been and are opposed by an aged but undaunted cold war leadership. Much of that leadership has been in politics since the Republic was founded in 1947 and views any change that might impact individual careers as a threat to democracy itself. Some leaders have openly questioned the wisdom of consolidating a modified or quasi-biparty system when a return to parliamentarianism, founded upon a galaxy of political parties orbiting around one central hegemonic political force, would be more natural and, so much more Italian.

Even before the U.S.-triggered financial crisis of 2007 began to negatively impact the EU, seriously depressing the economies of the Member States, the system devised by the Founding Fathers of the Italian Republic had substantially failed because of it’s inability to adapt to the changing sociopolitical circumstances within and without the country following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reasons for such failure are complex. Some are peculiar to Italy and its vertically organized unitary system of government. Others stem from the country’s (civil law) legal system. Proportional representation and nominal thresholds for winning seats, virtually guaranteed – until recently – a place in parliament to even the smallest political party. Italy’s rigid constitution makes amendments very difficult, if not virtually impossible. Judicial review and court precedent, while known, are limited in scope and application. This and the fact that judicial decisions are not a source of law, essentially leaves law making and amending the Constitution almost exclusively in the hands of Italy’s “perfect” bicameral legislature. Understandably, getting each house of the country’s one thousand-member parliament (where some twenty different parties were once represented) to agree and approve new legislation, took weeks, if not months, to negotiate. Of course, the “system” was devised for that very purpose, i.e. to “freeze” the status quo that had emerged at the end of World War II. In that, the Italian system of government has proved most successful. In many ways, Italy is a political Jurassic park where ideological dinosaurs from the cold war era still roam the political landscape in a seemingly endless struggle for political survival; a country stuck in a sort of political time warp, where “Die Mauer” never fell and where an iron curtain continues to divide the country politically. Here, the cold war continues to be played out by politicians on an almost daily basis in one, long, seemingly endless, domestic feud. Despite the left’s “sour-grapes”, in the surreal world of Italian politics, McCarthy was a “democrat” and the witch hunts that he unleashed were directed against everyone but the communists and their allies. Over time, this “McCarthyism in reverse” triumphed and became systemic.

Cold war leaders of the Italian “Dems” often cut short their political adversaries by suggesting they “cool it” and talk it out. The Italian word is “dialogare”. And since the war, Italians have “dialogued” themselves to the left. Most parties here claim to be “progressive”. Few are brazen enough to advertise as being right of center. And all are in favor of Big Government and the Single Jurisdiction, Deficit Spending  and continuing to feed the country’s Huge National Debt. To say Italian society is imbued with communism, may be somewhat of an exageration. But the country is far from being a business friendly venue, as Fiat’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne has learned. By contrast, public enterprise and state jobs are central to the “Italian Dream”. Why work for the private sector when you can work for the State, seems to be the adage. Indeed, Italy is a land where state workers, including doctors, judges, policemen and firemen are allowed to unionize and go on strike. Democratically, even lock-outs are tolerated. It is not unusual for news-stands and other small, privately-owned and operated businesses, to “strike” by simply not opening up for business the next day. Newspapers can be kept off the streets by striking journalists or printers. TV news programs are subject to strikes. Even lawyers are known to go on strike from time to time. All of the above are “rights” that have been hard fought and won thanks to “McCarthyism” Italian-style.