Update [2005-4-5 9:17:39 by gilgamesh]: thanks to The Maven for offering some clarification on the regional electoral system.

[promoted by BooMan]

First of all, I need to clarify some misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Italian system of government that I’ve seen expressed authoritatively, but erroneously, on dkos and that, I suspect, are shared by many Americans ignorant of the Italian system.

1) The Italian electoral system is no longer, as it once was, based entirely on proportional representation. The Italians abandoned PR, at the national level, in 1992 after the Tangentopoli (Bribegate) scandals in favor of majoritarianism (actually pluralism just like in the US) for the following reasons:

a) Notwithstanding the existence of PR, a single party (the Christian Democrats) managed to completely dominate almost every aspect of society during the entire period running from 1948 to 1984. The governing coalitions were also extremely unstable. There was, on average, about one government every six months.

b) In the Italian case, it was almost always the same officials being recycled over and over again (e.g. Guilio Andreotti was elected Prime Minister something like 8 or 9 times. I don’t remember the exact number off the top of my head. He was eventually indicted for mob ties and corruption, but they couldn’t do a damned thing because, by the time his case come to trial, he had already been appointed a Senator-for-life because of his “long and devoted service to the nation.”) and not just the same parties.

c) Most importantly, the main reason the Italians abandoned PR was not the instability
of governments, but the extraordinary amount of corruption (the legendary “Tangentopoli” or “Bribegate” in English which I mentioned earlier) that had resulted from 40 years of what they call “partitocrazia”.  In order to maintain their hold on power in a system of PR, the Christian Democrats had to negotiate (read: bribe and corrupt) the members of other parties (Social Democrats,usually) and viceversa into remaining a part of the coalition. The parties divided up among themselves the control of key industries and even the television stations. In order to get a job in, say, education, you had to first grease the palms of an important party boss or get a recommendation (usually mafia) from someone already in it.

The whole thing collapsed with Tangentopoli, the arrest of almost the entire political and corporate elite of the time and the semi-revolution which partially abolished PR and instituted a mixed system of majoritarianism and PR. The new hybrid system is four/fifths proportional and 1/5 majoritarian at the national level and 4/5 majoritarian and 1/5 proprotional at the regional level.

2) Regions in Italy do not have the same degree of autonomy as do states under the US federalist system. In fact, the issue of federalism and “devolution” of powers to the regions was one of the primary controversies of the just-completed elections. Berlusconi, with a strong push from the secessionist Northern League party in his coalition , are trying to pass a fundamental reform of the Constitution which would give the regions greater autonomy with respect to public health, scholastic organization, administration and an independent police force. The center-left opposes this because it would lead toward an even greater disparity and divergence of the wealthy, industrialized northern regions from the poor and agriculture-based south.

Now, as to the recent elections, Italy is divided into 20 regions as defined by the constitution (Piemonte, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria, Emiglia Romagna,
Toscana, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzi, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicilia and Sardegna). This is very important to consider when trying to understand the significance of the overwhelming defeat that the center-right coalition government has been dealt as of yesterday.

But first of all, what are the center-right and center-left coalitions? In Italy, after the reforms of 1991-1996 which introduced a majoritarian (first-past-the-post) electoral system, it became necessary for the various
(innumerable) small parties to ally themselves into two grand blocs so that they could obtain a majority of votes and maintain a stable majority government. However, because about 20% of legislative seats remained proportional, the existence of small parties was not eliminated. This current hybrid system is alled “bipolarism” (i.e. center-left and center-right) and it was expected to be a universal panacea to all of Italy’s ills when the sytem was originally introduced. Of course, it hasn’t exactly turned out that way.  

The primary parties within the two blocks break down as follows:

Center-Right or CDL (House of Liberty)

Forza Italia (headed by Silvio Berlusconi). Its political program or platform can basically be defined as US Republican light. It supports lower taxes on the wealthy as a way to stimulate economic growth and increased cooperation and involvement of the Catholic Church in matters of personal and public morals. E.g., the recently passed laws which harshly limit artifical insemination and stem-cell research.

Alleanza Nazionale (headed by Gianfranco Fini). This party is a direct descendent of the MSI (Mussolini’s fascist party). Until recently, it explicity espoused a neo-fascist agenda.  It’s main focus these days is on harsh anti-immigration laws and tough-on-crime legislation modeled on that of Mussolini.

 Lega Nord or Northern League (headed by Umberto Bossi). It started out its existence as a secessionist movement with strong antipathies and resentment toward the south because of its alleged dependence on the taxes of wealthy northerners. It is now a legitimate political party trying to achieve the same fundamental objecive of division through the mecchanisms of the political process.

UDC (Union of Christian Democrats). These are ex-Christian Democrats with right-wing tendencies.

 Center-Left or l’Unione

Margherita (currently led by Francesco Rutelli). This is a very important and powerful party of ex-Christian Democrats with left-leaning tendencies.

DS (Democrats of the Left). This is the majority party in the center-left coalition. Some freeper or ex-Cia operative tried to defame this party yesterday on dkos by referring to it as an “ex-Stalinist” party. In reality, it is the former PCI (Italian Communist Party) which had been independent of Moscow and democratically-oriented since the 1950’s. In recent years, indeed, it has been divided into two main currents:

a) the reformist current (led by Massimo D’Alema, the ex-Premier) which is market-oriented and wishes to achieve welfare reform on a large scale. It generally seeks cooperation between the two coalitions and is very pragmatist in outlook. It can reasonably be compared to the DLC and the moderate part of the Democratic party.

b) the “piazzisti”. This is the more leftist wing which is much more intransigent and ideological on most issues.

Rifondazione Communista (headed by Fausto Bertinotti). Bertinotti <u> claims </u&gt to still believe in the total public control of private property and other market activities. But, in practice, the individual members of his party tend to be ferociously anti-war and anti-Berlusconi and have not offered much in the way of a positive vision with regard to the direction of the country.

UDEUR: another group of ex-Christian Democrats. They are more moderate than the Margherita and have often threatened to switch sides. It is difficult to tell where they will fall on any particular issue. But they will always abide by the interests of the Vatican.

As I said before, to understand the results of the recent elections, you have to realize that Italy is divided into only 20 regions which will now be headed by Presidents (governors) who are members of the center-left coalition. That is to say, 80% of the country will be in the hands of l’Unione. The equivalent situation in the US would be the Democratic Party suddenly winning control of forty governorships after a single election. Considering, also, that Berlusconi himself campaigned heavily in all regions for the Polo (as did Romano Prodi for l’Unione), that is a devastating, if not exactly catastropic and irrecuperable, defeat for the CdL.

And here’s some other interesting data which I’ve been able to gather from various sources. According to the DS’s exit polls, on a national level the center-left has taken 52.3% of the overall vote against a miserable 44.1% for the Cdl. Just before the election, Berlusconi had repeatedly insisted that the national-level data would tell the true story about how the public views the two sides and that the Cdl was absolutly certain to win the popular vote by a substantial margin. Well, the voters have spoken and the outlook is bleak indeed for next year’s presidentials if this years regionals are any indication . Berlusconi, of course, knows they are, but won’t do the responsible thing and resign because that would mean the effective collapse of the entire center-right coalition and probably the death of Forza Italia as a significant political entity.

Turnout was not excepionally high by Italian (or European) standards but, as usual, it puts the US to shame. 71.4% of eligible voters cast their votes which was a dropoff of 1.6% from the 2000 regional elections. And all this in the middle of nine days of mourning for the death of the Bishop of Rome!! Striking indeed.

Romani Prodi put it this way, according to l’Unità:

The Italian people are asking us to prepare ourselves to govern the country.

And, according to Piero Fassino (DS):

The Union has won in an incontestible manner. Berlusconi’s majority is no longer recognized by the majority of Italians.

The reation on the right? Francesco Storace, who before the vote made this onimous prediction, “If we (the center-right) lose Lazio, Prodi will be the next Premier”, described the defeat as “a hecatomb for us in all of Italy.”

Here’s a breakdown of the results in the most important regions (i.e. the regions that were undecided before the election):  

Marazzo (center-left) 51.2%

Storace (center-right) 46.9%
Bresso (center-left) 50.5%
Ghigo (center-right) 47.5%
Vendola (center-left) 51.2%
Fitto: (center-right) 47.9%

The center-right has won only in Lombardy and Veneto. To give you some idea of what this means: losing one of those two would be comparable to George W. Bush losing Texas.

I’m predicting anticipated elections or a vote-of-no-confidence by the end of the year.

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