A Cacaphony of Cackling Chickens - An Observation of Italy's Political Culture
On the 25th of September 2022, Italians went to the polls to elect their new parliament. The result was no surprise, as the Centre-Right Bloc declared victory, which had been predicted in most polls over the months preceding the election. What is in fact surprising, is that this election happened in the first place. Most Italians are used to heading to the polls frequently, as Italian governments last for thirteen months on average. In this article, we will look at why Italian governments collapse so frequently. In order to understand the situation, we shall be looking at Italy’s electoral system, their electoral history and some personal experiences from Italian-born CDA City Council member in Eindhoven, Miriam Frosi.
Over the years, Italy has had several attempts to amend its constitution and its electoral system. Former Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Renzi had called a referendum in 2016 to amend Italy’s constitution, mainly to shrink the size of the Italian parliament and streamline the legislative process. This was rejected by 59.1% of the vote, President Mattarella asked Renzi to draft a budget and pass it through the parliament, which Renzi did after which he resigned soon after, also bringing down his government. The government that succeeded Renzi’s government was made up of the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement (M5S), the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) along with smaller leftist and centrist parties.
The Conte-II cabinet as it was called, passed a reform to cut down the parliament’s size from 951 MPs to 600 MPs. The Senate would have 200 Senators and the House of Representatives would have 400 MPs, this reform would come into effect next election after the reform was passed. Along with this, a third of each chamber would be elected through regional first-past the post elections, which encourages the creation of coalitions to ensure electoral success. The rest of parliament would be elected through regional proportional representation districts. This electoral law ensures that there is no party that can have a strong majority and thus maintain control of the government at any point in time. This is one of the reasons why governments in Italy tend to collapse so quickly.
As mentioned earlier, this reform would come into effect in the next election. In 2021, the Conte-II cabinet would collapse due to disagreements over handling the “Next Generation EU” funds, after which Mario Draghi was then tasked to form a National Unity Government. Even this government would collapse, due to disagreements from the M5S over a package to help Italians with their cost of living, which included a waste incinerator for Rome. M5S was reported to have a lot of support in and around Rome, which is why they voted against the package in what became a confidence vote of the government. M5S then withdrew support and the government collapsed.
An attentive reader of this article might have already noticed that throughout this article, several Italian governments collapsed within the span of six years. One factor of why this is the case has already been mentioned. Due to the electoral system not producing majorities like in countries such as the United Kingdom, France or the United States, there will always have to be broad coalitions of several parties who all try to appeal to their base. The second cause has to do with Italy’s culture, they naturally distrust politicians.
According to Miriam Frosi, Italy can be characterised with two main divisions: North and South, and Left and Right. The South of Italy is where parties such as M5S prevail, due to the neglectance of the sentiments of the people who live there. This is a feeling which M5S’s populist rhetoric can easily appeal towards. Northerners often see themselves as the ones keeping Italy afloat, which is how the right-wing Lega Nord, led by Matteo Salvini, came into existence. It is a party that initially sought to federalise Italy, for it later to be split up between the North and the South.
The North-South split goes all the way back to Italy’s unification in the nineteenth century. The Northern-led kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont had unified most of the North and had started to invade the South by sending General Garibaldi with a few thousand troops to disintegrate the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. This campaign was a success and Italy was soon unified. The Northern rulers often neglected the South and preferred to invest in the North of Italy, where many of its most famous cities are. Florence, Milan and Venice have been flourishing for centuries, since the Renaissance.
The Left-Right split is different from other countries. While most Western democracies are divided between left-wing and right-wing politics, Italy also experienced a societal divide. During the Cold War, there were fears over Communism taking over Italy, just like how other Western countries had feared Communism. However, in Italy’s peripheral districts the divide was more serious. Entire neighborhoods being classified as “Communist” or “Fascist”, people not going out to certain pizzeria’s because said pizzeria is supposedly Fascist and they should instead go to the Communist pizzeria. This division would generate so much apathy in Italy that, as Mrs. Frosi puts it: “last election, the Apathy Party, or the party of non-voters got the most votes,”. She later adds that people are worried whether public transport runs on-time and the fact that trash is getting piled up on the street.
None of the two aforementioned parties won out during September’s election, but instead it was the right-wing Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdL). According to Mrs. Frosi, FdL in essence is ideologically not different from Salvini’s Lega. Frosi also believes that Meloni’s conservative attitude towards the LGBT+ community will not have much impact on policy, due to the far-reaching impact of the Catholic Church, which is at the moment tolerant towards LGBT+ people. The only difference between Salvini and Meloni is that they are more charismatic. This reasoning is in-line with Italy’s political history. Before Meloni, Salvini seemed to be the obvious successor to Draghi. Before Salvini, it was the M5S led by Beppe Grillo and later Luigi di Maio. Even further back, Silvio Berlusconi seemed to be the supposed “Messiah” for many Italians. This leads to every other election being centered around the new “pop-star” politician.
Most Italian governments collapse due to the fear of political leaders to alienate their own voter base, and also the personal ambition of politicians to acquire more fame, money or power. At the time of writing, Italy’s new right-wing coalition under Meloni is under pressure due to Silvio Berlusconi’s personal friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During Berlusconi’s earlier terms as Prime Minister, he was involved with corruption scandals as well as mafia affairs. It is in times like the COVID-19 pandemic or the fight against the Italian mafia where the country’s politicians set their differences aside and form more stable governments to combat major crises.
In conclusion, Italy’s political instability has three major causes: first of all, it is the electoral system which encourages broader coalitions to achieve electoral heights, while still appealing to the same voter base. Second of all, general apathy and hope for change has generated a complex situation which results in politicians and political parties rising and falling within a matter of years, maybe even months. Last of all, the personal ambitions of politicians to appeal to their voter base, acquire more fame or wealth have made it so that politics in Italy is high-stakes at all times, meaning that coalitions can collapse at the slightest of disagreements. Fixing Italy’s political instability is easier said than done as the widespread apathy has built up over the past decades. As mentioned before, people are worried about trash piling up on the streets. Italy’s politicians must first root out the revolting smell within its own political culture, before they can ever think about cleaning up the rest of the country.