Coalition Governments Italian Style

Posted on July 6, 2011


It’s been a few weeks now since I voted for my first referendum. Although my initial position was to abstain, the late events concerning Italy pushed me to a sudden change of mind. I had always rather secretly ‘supported’ the prospect of a stable (by Italian standards) coalition government as opposed to a short-lived single party government. Silvio Berlusconi was able to put his name to the two most durable governments in the republican history of the country. I will list some data, so that the extent of Italian political instability may be understood, even though at a superficial level.

The present government included, Italy has witnessed 60 different governments in 62 years, starting from its birth in 1946 to nowadays. The United Kingdom has seen 14 since 1945.

I would be lying if I stated that, before voting against the government during the recent referendum, I hadn’t thought with pleasure -even for a split second, that this referendum may have undermined Berlusconi’s aspirations to endure with his government for the full five years that a legislation is supposed to last. Still, I was conscious that if the government fell the crisis would have been likely to worsen. Moody’s (the credit ratings agency) had threatened to downgrade Italy’s rating due to political instability and a falling government would have but proved their point. I knew that the referendum would be successful, yet I had no idea that it would be such an astounding victory for the opposition. Many previous referendums were not even able to reach the ‘quorum’ (in order for a referendum to be successful the number of voters must be over 50%), but with this last one the opposition was able to break the 50% barrier (54% of citizens voted) and more than 90% of those people decided to vote against the government. I knew our prime minister would not give up his place because of a referendum, but I and many other Italians felt that we had to show that we do not support Berlusconi’s joke policies. For me it was a sort of statement, to make my position official: I do not support this government.

Berlusconi knows all too well that the coalition formed by his party (the People of Freedom) and the secessionist Northern League party is probably the only entity that could form a government that lasted more than a couple of years. Mind you, it is not because of a synergy in motives or ideas. It is because without the Northern League Berlusconi would not be able to obtain a majority in parliament at all. The Italian situation does, I think, reflect the foundational weakness of coalition governments. Berlusconi’s party currently holds 227 seats in parliament, a number which is inflated by the 59 seats of the Northern League and the 29 seats which are shared by a number of small parties that supported Berlusconi during the 2008 elections. The Parliament is made up of 630 seats, meaning that Berlusconi ‘leads’ a coalition that represents exactly 50% of the Italian Parliament. The situation in the senate is not quite so tragic for the current government yet Berlusconi will lead it for as long as he can count on a majority in parliament. He will have this majority as long as he has the Northern League on his side and he will have them on his side as long as he does what they demand. This situation created a sort of stalemate, where the coalition is hostage of a smaller party -the Northern League- that can be considered as an opposition force within the government itself. An example of this political disaster was the Lybian crisis of march 2011. The government asked for the support of the parliament for the deployment of Italian forces during enforcement of the ‘No-fly Zone’ over the North-African country: they obtained a majority not thanks to the Northern League, which voted against the operation; instead they reached a majority thanks to the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party, which voted in favour (with some exceptions).

In order to solve this situation, many parties have proposed to cut down the number of seats in the parliament. Most people support this view, it was one of Berlusconi’s promises before the elections in 2008. One of the many promises he did not keep. How are the dozens of ‘useless’ politicians that sit in the chamber thanks to the magic of nepotism or corruption going to get their easy 150.000 Euros wages otherwise?

Posted in: Opinion