Italy's Political Fragmentation

6 MINS READNov 8, 2012 | 11:45 GMT
A puppet showing former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is displayed at the start of the No Monti Day demonstration on October 27, 2012 in Rome.

A puppet showing former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is displayed at the start of the No Monti Day demonstration on October 27, 2012 in Rome.


The discrediting of the traditional parties, the rise of anti-establishment movements and the accelerated growth in the distance between voters and the ruling elite caused by Europe's economic turmoil has created a major political crisis in Italy. The country is moving toward greater political fragmentation and governmental instability, which will make implementing reforms increasingly difficult. Even if the European crisis is mitigated, Italy will remain a source of concern for its partners in the European Union.

After World War II, the Italian political system was built within the context of the Cold War. The four decades following the war were dominated by the Christian Democracy, a conservative Catholic party that aligned Italy with Western Europe and the United States. This political system prompted the "Italian economic miracle" and the fight against communist groups. This political order collapsed in 1992 when the "Bribesville" scandal exposed the network of corruption among the leaders of the Christian Democrats.

The implosion of the Christian Democrats created a power vacuum that was filled by Silvio Berlusconi, an outsider who heavily criticized Italy's traditional political elites. Berlusconi, a wealthy entrepreneur, campaigned against the country's "professional politicians" and promised to govern more efficiently. However, his governments were plagued by political and sexual scandals. Italian society's scandal fatigue during Berlusconi's most recent premiership, coupled with a severe economic crisis, led to his resignation as prime minister and his replacement by the technocratic government of Mario Monti in November 2011. This change had numerous consequences.

Locator Map - Italy

First, the Italian center-right collapsed when Berlusconi's resignation was followed by a corruption scandal affecting the Northern League party — Berlusconi's key political ally. Then, the center-left became trapped in an awkward situation: The Democratic Party supported Monti's measures while trying to preserve its ties with unions and left-wing voters. This caused a leadership crisis within the party, and now three candidates are competing for the party's nomination in 2013.

Moreover, in September, a corruption scandal in the province of Lazio led to the resignation of the province's governor, Renata Polverini (a member of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party). The accusation of misuse of public funds by the province's government at a time when Italy is struggling with austerity measures further weakened the country's traditional parties.

The Reaction to Corruption

These factors explain the recent growth of the Five Star Movement. This party is led by Beppe Grillo, a comedian who rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s and later became a political activist. Grillo's message is basically anti-establishment; he harshly criticizes the Italian political elites, denounces the failure of representative democracy and proposes a "return to the roots of democracy" that would give citizens more direct involvement in making political decisions.

Grillo bases his campaign on his discursive ability and his use of social networks (his blog is one of the most read in the world). He announced that the Five Star Movement will select its candidates for the 2013 elections online, where users can chose the candidates by voting in Grillo's blog. When the European economic crisis began deepening, Grillo added euroskepticism to his rhetoric. Recently, he suggested that Italy should leave the eurozone and renegotiate its relationship with the European Union, though he has been very vague about what this would mean.

In May, the Five Star Movement had a strong performance in local elections, reaching the second round in various cities and winning the mayoralty of Parma. On Oct. 29, the Five Star Movement was the largest party in the regional elections in Sicily — an election in which more than half of the Sicilians did not vote. According to polls, the party could get roughly 20 percent of the vote in the April general elections, slightly behind the Democratic Party and ahead of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.

However, the Five Star Movement faces significant obstacles. First, it lacks a concrete program of government. To a large extent the vote for Grillo is a "protest vote" against the elites, not a vote for a particular government plan. Second, Grillo cannot run for office, because in the early 1980s he was involved in a traffic accident in which a person died. Third, Grillo has said that his party will not seek alliances with other political forces, which undermines his chances of forming a government.

Fourth, although the traditional political elites are weakened, they are still important players. Some of the mainstream parties are likely to form an alliance if this is necessary to keep power. Demography is also likely to play a role in the general elections. Italy is an aging country, and the electorate is likely to vote for a mainstream party instead of a fringe movement.

The centers of political power in Italy will likely help the traditional elites prevent a fringe party from taking power.

Finally, Italy operates within concrete political and economic limits. The centers of political power in Italy (employers, unions and even the Catholic Church) will probably help the traditional elites prevent a fringe party from taking power. Internationally, the European Union is also likely to help Italian establishment politicians, offering flexibility or political signals at the right time.

Italy's Political Future

The most likely scenario is that Italy will resemble Greece. There, the traditional parties lost much of their popular support to anti-establishment groups (the Coalition of the Radical Left and Golden Dawn), but the mainstream parties managed to achieve a working —though highly unstable — coalition.

Italy is becoming an environment of political instability, where governments are fragile and popular discontent is high. The 2013 elections will not mean a substantial break with the past, and the elites will be able to survive. However, the country will struggle to apply structural reforms. Italy's influence in EU affairs will be directly linked to the risks associated with an Italian default, and Rome's ability to be a leading voice in the European Union will be very limited.

In television debates, newspapers, magazines and books published in Italy, there is a widespread impression that the Italian political class has not lived up to the tasks it has been called to perform and that the Italian problem is not economic but fundamentally political. The country has a deeply pessimistic view about the future, and the political class does not offer answers. Italy's political and economic problems began long before the European crisis and will linger even if the international crisis is abated.

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