Well, we have a government in Italy at last: it was finally sworn in on Friday. When the inconclusive elections of 4th March took place, the snow left by the Beast from the East still lay in heaps where I’d cleared the drive. 88 days later, and I’m writing this in shorts and T-shirt, the sound of crickets rasping away in the olive trees drifting in through the open window of my study. Those 88 days of horse-trading, deal-making and arm-twisting have made it the longest ever period the country has had to wait for a new government to be formed. And even now there is little confidence that the uneasy ‘populist’ coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing La Lega, with a few technocrat appointees to steady the ship and make sure everyone plays nicely, will last much longer than any of its sixty-four post-war predecessors. That said, while other European nations (and many Italians) despair of this latest game of political musical chairs, I would urge people not to judge Italy’s tendency to political instability to harshly. After all, the political system that allows such deadlock to occur (and to occur so frequently) was created with the best of intentions in the immediate aftermath of World War II, two years of Nazi occupation and civil war, and more than twenty years of fascist rule.
Italy’s political system is enshrined in the Constitution that was enacted by the Constituent Assembly that was elected – by universal suffrage and with an 89% turnout – in 1946 in the first free national elections since 1924. Freshly liberated from the forces of fascism which had been defeated only 15 months earlier (see my blog post of 29th April for a bit more detail on this), and still bearing the scars of dictatorship, the newly elected deputies deliberately – and quite understandably – designed a strictly proportional system that consequently also allows for the existence of many small parties. This, along with the multiple complex checks and balances that were also built into the system, made sure that it would be all but impossible for any one party or any one individual to hold too much power, or to hold on to it too tightly, or for too long. Basically – and again, quite understandably – the Constituent Assembly wanted to make sure Mussolini’s rise to power could never happen again. And few would disagree with the logic or motivation of the newly elected deputies and senators back in the heady early days of hard-won freedom and newly-born democracy. As one prominent anti-fascist and member of the Constituent Assembly, Piero Calamandrei, put it:“If you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where our Constitution was created go to the mountains where partisans fell, to the prisons where they were incarcerated and to the fields where they were hanged. Wherever an Italian died to redeem freedom and dignity, go there, young people and ponder: because that was where our Constitution was born.” But their optimism and idealism also created a system that makes it all but impossible for a single party to achieve a majority, thus making coalitions the norm, enabling minor parties to hold the balance of power, and making unlikely political marriages of convenience an all too frequent necessary evil. Hence the shenanigans of the last three months.
What adds to the irony of all this is that this latest political soap opera was concluded the day before one of Italy’s most important holidays that is right up there with Bastille Day in France and Independence Day in the USA, complete with military parades, marching bands and fly-pasts: 2nd June is the annual Festa della Repubblica. 2nd June was the day in 1946 on which the Italian electorate voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy – which had become fatally compromised by its associations with Mussolini and his fascist regime – and replace it with a republic. 2nd June was also the day in 1946 on which that first post-war general election for the Constituent Assembly was held.
Sources: Wikipaedia, The Economist, The Local Italy, Lonely Planet, Il Resto del Carlino (Macerata edition)