Italy's Political Upheaval

Under the choppy surface, Italian politics has been stable; but with cold war's end has come churning in traditional party alignments

THE end of the cold war has created a new situation in Western Europe, and Italy is one of the first countries where the political consequences are being played out. Consider these results of the Italian elections of April 5 and 6, which suggest the shape of things to come:

* The Christian Democrats (DC), who have dominated postwar politics, dropped 5 percent, a big change for Italy.

* The former Communist Party, which altered its name to the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), received about 16 percent of the vote, while the old-style communists who bolted the party have 5.5 percent.

* An anti-South and anti-immigrant regional movement that advocates a federal Italy received more than 9 percent of the vote.

* The four-party coalition that ruled Italy no longer has a working majority, and an increase in the number of parties in Parliament has made it more difficult to put together a government.

Several important trends help explain these dramatic results. The collapse of international communism and the slow decline of the Italian Communist Party that preceded it meant that Italians who voted for the DC out of fear of a communist takeover could cast their ballots without this shadow over them. For decades the Christian Democrats have blocked progressive reforms advocated by their Socialist (PSI) and smaller political allies; instead of pressing for reforms, they relied on their status as an anti -communist bulwark to maintain their position as Italy's largest party.

The party's failure to modernize public and social services and to support constitutional reforms has now turned against it. For example, had the DC not blocked a proposed rule requiring at least a 5 percent vote for representation in Parliament, the fragmentation that occurred during these elections would not have taken place. Currently, parties need only 1 percent for representation.

Christian Democratic foot-dragging on essential reforms has created an odd contrast between a modern economy and inefficient public services. This condition fueled a protest movement, centered in Milan, called the Lombard League. It argues that Rome collects exorbitant taxes from the enterprising and prosperous North and gives only inefficiency in return, blocking economic progress. The League's rhetoric is also laced with racist pronouncements similar to those of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and the Repu blicans in Germany.

According to Umberto Bossi, League leader, the central government is dominated by southern Italians, who are lazy and milk northerners through the government's special programs for the South. In addition, Italy has become a mecca for immigrants. Primarily from Africa, these immigrants have become a flash point for resentment, as they have in other European countries. In the recent elections, the League won enough votes to become the largest party in Milan, Italy's industrial and financial heartland.

The traditional parties must take drastic measures in response to the strong message from the voters.

The first step will be to form a cabinet committed to reform, an extremely difficult task. Had things remained stable during these elections, Socialist Party secretary Bettino Craxi would have returned as prime minister in an attempt to repeat his successful tenure from 1983 to 1987, and Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti would have been elected president of the Republic. Now this solution seems unworkable.

While the parliamentary arithmetic allows for several different solutions, the most satisfactory would be a "Governissimo" (big government). This cabinet would include all the parties committed to the Constitution, including the PDS, and would command about a 65 percent majority. In the past, the US State Department has been opposed to the inclusion of communists (or, in this case, ex-communists) in the Italian government, but it appears to have moderated its position - assuming the Americans have any in fluence.

This course has already been proposed, but the rivalry between Mr. Craxi and PDS leaders, as well as PDS fears of being absorbed by its rival on the left, are major obstacles to political accommodation. Because of his track record as prime minister and his party's maintenance of its position in the recent election, Craxi seems best positioned to head such a broad-based government committed to the implementation of reform measures that have been discussed for years.

If an effective reform cabinet is the end result, the political earthquake of 1992 will have been worth it, but such a positive solution seems unlikely. Besides the quarrel among the leftist parties, the DC would probably resist relinquishing the premiership for fear of admitting the scope of its defeat. At 29 percent, the DC remains the largest party and central to any coalition.

Since a series of referenda that will probably eliminate proportional representation are scheduled for June, some observers believe that a "decant" government of "technicians" will be formed to implement the new electoral reforms over a two-year period. At that time, early elections would take place under new rules that it is hoped would provide more stability.

At least in the short term, however, greater political fragmentation seems to be in the cards for Italy and Europe.

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