Apr 18, 2013 | 11:00 GMT

5 mins read

Explaining Italy's Fragmented Politics


On April 18, the Italian Parliament began the process of appointing Italy's next president. The decision takes place amid the political paralysis that has taken hold since elections in February netted an inconclusive result.

While the current political uncertainty fits within the context of Europe's economic and political crisis, Italy's social and political fragmentation is historical — the result of its geographic characteristics, its unequal levels of economic development and its repeatedly being invaded by foreign powers. The essential role of the central government in Rome is to manage the contradicting interests of internal and external actors, a burden that hobbles attempts at economic and political reform. As instability grows, finding that balance becomes an increasingly difficult task.

In the February elections, all of Italy's political parties fell short of the number of parliamentary seats needed to form a government. Despite the resulting political paralysis, the parties must find a way to elect a new president — the mandate of the current president, Giorgio Napolitano, expires May 15. The president holds a largely ceremonial position, but he becomes particularly important in times of crisis because he has the power to dissolve parliament and call for early elections, among other prerogatives. While the president is supposed to be an apolitical figure, the major Italian parties have failed to agree on a candidate, reflecting the profound political fragmentation in the country. However, Italy's constitution calls for as many voting sessions to take place as are needed to elect a candidate — meaning a president eventually will be chosen.

Italy's seemingly perennial political fragility is a product of geopolitics. Italy is a mountainous country. The Alps in the north provide a natural border with its neighbors, and the Apennines descend from north to south down the length of the Italian Peninsula. Italy also controls Sicily and Sardinia, the two largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea. This rugged geography facilitated the emergence of strong local identities, exemplified by the extensive variety of dialects spoken in Italy.
Italy's geography also explains its unequal levels of economic development. The Po River basin in the north, which runs from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea, is one of the wealthiest regions in Europe. The richness of its soil, the navigability of the river and the region's connections to other commercial centers in Europe enabled the Po Valley to become Italy's commercial and industrial core. These conditions fed the growth of Turin, Milan and Venice, three powerful economic and political centers that constantly compete with one another.
By contrast, southern Italy's substantially lower degree of economic development is the product of a semi-arid climate and an economy primarily based on agriculture. Governments before and after Italy's unification have failed to apply effective land reform, and southern Italy has long suffered the activities of brigands and organized crime — conditions that did not prevent the emergence of relatively important economic and cultural centers, such as Naples and Palermo. To this day, southern Italy relies on state subsidies, and unemployment rates are higher in the south than in the north.
Its combination of high economic development in the north and a privileged position at the center of the Mediterranean made Italy a target of constant invasions. From the Germanic invasions that ended the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century, to invasions by the Austrian, Spanish and French empires in the 18th and 19th centuries, Italy has endured a succession of invasions by its neighbors. This further contributed to the political fragmentation of the country.
The unification process of the 1860s brought about little real change. Although the country formally became a kingdom and, after World War II, a republic, the country remained loosely bound politically, and separatist movements emerged intermittently in the north and in the south.
Italy has had 61 governments and 25 prime ministers over the past 67 years, and the country constantly seems on the brink of political collapse. This is because the central government merely manages local interests. The function of the government in Rome is primarily to seek a balance between the general needs of the country and the interests of local powers, which range from local, regional and national political leaders to labor unions, the Catholic church and the various criminal organizations operating in the country.
The European crisis has added another element of complexity to Italian politics. As the crisis has deepened, Rome has come under pressure from Brussels and from international markets, which are fearful of the financial consequences of Italy's political instability. This is forcing the Italian central government to negotiate with domestic and international actors, seeking to apply the minimum possible measure of reforms to appease contradicting pressures from inside and outside the country.
Examples of this dynamic have abounded since the outset of Europe's economic crisis. The traumatic process of labor law reform in 2012 saw the final version of legislation be substantially softened under pressure from the unions. The central government has achieved only limited success in curtailing tax evasion, largely because actions taken by the tax police have run counter to local and regional interests. Meanwhile, the country's long-running struggle to reform its electoral system continues.
In this context, Italy's main geopolitical imperative is to achieve a minimum level of political unity to prevent the disintegration of the country, while balancing the pressure from domestic and foreign actors. Italian politicians believe that, because of the size of the Italian economy and its position at the center of the eurozone crisis, EU authorities will ultimately provide financial assistance to the country if necessary. However, as the crisis deepens, social unrest broadens and the rejection of mainstream parties expands, Italy's political integrity grows more tenuous, making Rome's strategy increasingly risky.

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