Politics in Italy has changed less in recent decades than in any other Western nation. Now, however, major changes, if not a brand new constitutional order, are under way. On June 10, 1991, Italian voters approved a referendum to make a marginal change in the country’s electoral law. Approved by 95.6 percent, against the strenuous opposition of the country’s political establishment, the referendum was the equivalent of a small hole in an earthen dam: it allowed the near unanimous outpouring of the Italian people’s pent?up sentiments against the political parties that have ruled the country in a kind of oligopoly since 1944.

After that vote Italy’s powerful parties tried to preempt serious institutional changes by proposing reforms to strengthen the system. But the issue of reform escaped the parties’ control and dominated the campaign for the general elections of April 5, 1992. The election results weakened the parties’ capacity to resist changes that would drastically reduce their influence. The system is not likely to survive the massive, open iconoclasm that has spread from the general population to the political class itself.


The central fact of contemporary Italian political life is that it is dominated by party organizations and that the people have never had a chance to say no.

The parties’ oligopoly actually began in 1919 when parliament scrapped the traditional single?member?district electoral system (such as exists in the United States and France) and instituted proportional representation. Ever since 1892 the Italian Socialist Party had bound its parliamentary members to vote as directed by party leaders. The inchoate Liberal majority in the Italian parliament, struggling to build governing coalitions against the disciplined bloc?voting Socialists, hoped that proportional representation would bring discipline to its own ranks. In a contest that hinged on discipline, however, victory went to Benito Mussolini’s Fascists, an even more disciplined offshoot of the Socialist Party. Beginning in 1922 the Fascists drove the other parties underground, abroad or into the Vatican. The Fascists also absorbed and expanded most of the socialist and Catholic mass organizations and patronage networks.

Mussolini fell on July 25, 1943, when King Victor Emmanuel deposed him from the prime ministership. Those who rushed onto the newly reopened political scene were largely unknown in Italy. The American and British governments, not the Italian people, forced the king to accept the self?appointed leaders of the Christian Democratic, Socialist, Communist and other parties as the authoritative representatives of the Italian people. After June 1944 Prime Minister Ivanoe Bonomi claimed to act in the name of "the political parties from which the government has emanated [and which] are the expression of the will and aspirations of the Italian people."

Whatever else divided them the party leaders were unanimous in their determination to shut out competition. They specified that only parties, not individuals, could take part in the election of deputies to the constituent assembly that would draw up the new constitution, and that only the national directors of each party could approve candidacies. As the election was by proportional representation, individuals were elected solely because party bosses had placed their names high on party lists. Hence self?appointed party leaders were able to pick both the assembly that drew up the constitution and the parliament that ratified it.

Proportional representation has shaped Italian politics. The voter casts his ballot for a party, and parties divide the seats in parliament in proportion to the votes they receive. If a party receives, say, 25 percent of the vote in a district, the top fourth of its list for that district is elected. Hence members of parliament are little more than employees of the party leaders who make up those lists. In the old days, Communist members of parliament would turn their salaries over to the party and receive a party paycheck. Members of parliament from other parties are under looser discipline, but all are subject to the list makers.

From the system’s infancy the politicians insulated themselves from the voters. All Italian parties have tried to copy the Communists’ organization—general secretaries, directorates, central committees. In practice those who are lower in the pyramid are creatures of those above. Unlike Americans, Italian voters could not affect struggles within parties because primaries do not exist in Italy. Italians cannot vote against individual politicians they do not like any more than they can vote a government out of office. The electoral law allows the voters to express their preference for individual candidates on party lists. In 1991 the Christian Democratic leadership, having won a plurality of the vote in Palermo, gave the mayoralty not to the candidate who received the overwhelming majority of "preference" votes but to the one who came in twenty?third.

Bosses from the several parties decide among themselves who will form the governing majority and what laws will pass. They are the final authority on everything from budgets to patronage. Italy has averaged more than one government per year since the fall of fascism, and those fifty governments have fallen and been reborn not by mandate of the electorate or by votes of parliament but by discord or agreement among a handful of party bosses.

The parties’ relative strength at the polls and in parliament has shifted back and forth over the years. The Christian Democrats, with more than a third of the vote, have been the core of governing coalitions, while the Communists, with less than a third of the vote, have been formally in opposition since 1947. Until 1963 the Social Democrats, Republicans and Liberals, each with about five percent of the vote, were the balance wheels of government. Since then the Socialists, with about a tenth of the vote, have filled that role. During the 1970s the Communists were the driving force, but have since declined. The parties’ fortunes, however, have had less to do with the minuscule changes in the percentage of the vote than with their ability to make deals with one another. The chief purpose of those deals has been patronage.

Post?fascist governments dissolved only five of the hundreds of fascist mass organizations, and placed the fascist networks in everything from the oil industry to filmmaking to banking under central ministries or local authorities. The fascist state’s industrial holding company, IRI, became the centerpiece of the first Italian republic’s patronage apparatus and remains so to this day. Everywhere fascist appointees were purged and replaced by designees of the parties. Each party fought to increase its share of the spoils, and all the parties’ internal factions also clamored for more. Hence, from the very beginning, each Italian government was doubly driven to create more posts under its control.

Every political event became an opportunity to expand the patronage base. After the Christian Democratic Party ousted the Communists and Socialists from the cabinet in 1947, it sought to expand its clientele in order to rival the Communists’ and to counterbalance the weight of church organizations within its ranks. Hence in the 1950s Christian Democratic?dominated governments expanded the para?state sector and started monumental development projects in the south. While the effects on Italy’s economy are debatable, the high costs and multiplication of the Christian Democratic network are not. When the Socialist Party reentered the cabinet in 1963 new places and emoluments had to be found for its supporters. Hence electric utilities were nationalized. Socialist leader Pietro Nenni described this move as "a stick thrown into the wheels of Italian capitalism." Be that as it may, the Socialists got the patronage, the owners got uneconomically high prices, and Italian consumers were stuck with the bill. And when the Communists all but entered the government during the late 1970s, a further expansion of patronage was necessary to accommodate them, including expansion of the state broadcast company and the IRI.

Anyone who opens an Italian newspaper can see that a substantial portion of the day’s news concerns struggles between the parties over le nomine, who will fill what post on the "board" of the state broadcast organization, a bank or a company. Each official post gained at the top delivers a bounty of posts in lower layers. Moreover, since each post gained in the public sector radiates influence into the private sector, the parties’ patronage has no logical end. Italian society pays an incalculable economic and moral toll.

Not surprisingly, antiparty grumbling has been a perennial feature of Italian political life. The response from party politicians, as well as from American intellectuals who take their lead, has been that such grumbling is illegitimate. While C.S.R. Harris’ official British history of World War II described the first manifestation of antiparty feeling in 1946 as a reaction to greedy "self?constituted party leaders," Carlo Sforza characterized it as "neo?fascist fifth column activity." In 1972 one of the most widely circulated books on Italian government said that the pejorative term partitocrazia "often comes from the pen of a former fascist or fascist sympathizer with little insight into or sympathy with the democratic process."

Why did the Italian people—not known for their docility—bear with this party oligopoly in relative silence for so many years? Because Italian politics for some forty years beginning in October 1947 was overshadowed by one question: Will communists rule Italy or not? Since 1947 the Christian Democratic Party, secure in the knowledge that it was the indispensable alternative to communism (the self?described "anti?communist dike"), hardly had to campaign, much less worry that anyone could muster enough of the public’s energies to try to reform the system.

Thus for nearly a half century cabinets have risen and fallen, policy has lurched left or right, careers and fortunes have been made and lost, strictly by deals made among factional potentates. The voters have been spectators.


This is not to say that Italian politics has been either tame or devoid of significance. On the contrary Italy’s political parties dramatically fought their own cold war against a background of social revolution. The Italian elections of 1948 only threw the Communist Party off stride. In the late 1950s the Communist and Socialist parties led their united clienteles into a round of strikes and riots to pressure the Christian Democrats to open the cabinet to the Socialists. After that maneuver succeeded in 1963 the Socialists, a variety of violent and nonviolent leftists, plus many Christian Democrats tried to open the government to the Communists. In the mid?1970s there occurred a kind of civil war—anyone who dared express opposition to communism was liable to be beaten or shot, while the authorities feared antagonizing self?proclaimed progressives.

The judiciary, too, was radicalized. Thus communist magistrates temporarily jailed Edgardo Sogno, the former commander of the Liberal Party’s antifascist partisans, for alleged fascist activities. The crisis came in 1978, when the terrorist Red Brigades broadened their list of enemies to include the Communists and their chief Christian Democratic ally, former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, whom they abducted and murdered. The public’s and the parties’ unanimous reaction to the murder of Moro doomed the terrorists and, more importantly, banned threats of violence from Italian public life. In 1979 the Socialists, under Bettino Craxi, reversed course and staked their future on anticommunism.

Once the Socialists stopped pushing for Communist inclusion in the government, and once the Communists could no longer rely on demonstrations and labor strikes to coerce other parties, communism began to fade as an issue in Italian politics. Italy’s internal cold war ended. Thus in the 1980s other matters became politically significant; among these was the Italian people’s distaste for their own political system.

The way in which the Communist Party lost power in the 1980s says much about the Italian political system. After the 1979 elections, while the party was near its peak electoral strength with nearly a third of the seats in parliament, the Communists had already ceased to be a credible threat to enter the government. When the Communists lost the capacity to coerce the ruling Christian Democrats, they lost nearly everything. By 1992 the principal successor to the Communists accounted for about half the votes the party had received a decade earlier. Outside a few bastions in central Italy, however, communist influence had virtually disappeared from the country.

The Socialist Party’s rise in the 1980s also was shaped by the system. Throughout the decade the Socialist Party’s leader, Craxi, was clearly Italy’s predominant politician. Had there been a national election for chief executive, he probably would have won easily. His party’s vote, however, depended on its clientele, and that grew more slowly. Having begun the decade with some 10 percent of the vote, the Socialists ended it with less than 15 percent.

Elsewhere in Europe Socialist and Christian Democratic parties alternate power. But in Italy, where the Socialists have been part and parcel of the government, the public cannot consider them as an alternative government. Indeed Craxi, who was prime minister longer than anyone else during the 1980s, could hardly call for "throwing the rascals out." So, although the Socialists outgained the other parties at the polls during the 1980s, both the electoral system and public opinion barred any quick advances.

The Christian Democratic Party remained steady in electoral strength throughout the 1980s. But the fall of communism made salient what had been undeniable since the party and the Catholic Church parted company in the 1950s: the Christian Democrats stood for nothing but the enrichment of their own clientele. When the communist flood receded, so did the need for an anticommunist dike. Hence the vestiges of the Christian Democrats’ legitimacy faded away.

Through the 1980s a feeling spread through all layers of Italian society that the quarrels of the postwar period among fascists, communists and others were a closed chapter of history. The different parties offered only different brands of parasites; the country needed to shape up in order to keep company with the world. The chief obstacle to its doing so was the political system.


Over the decades, talk of institutional reform has vanished in the turbulence of party politics. Prior to the 1953 election the Christian Democratic Party proposed a change in the electoral law to award a bonus of seats to any party that gained a simple majority—that is, to itself. After 1958, a few Italian politicians expressed admiration for minor constitutional features of France’s Fifth Republic, like the automatic passage of bills to which the government attaches the "question of confidence," as well as for the German practice of deposing chancellors only by electing their successors. But none proposed adopting the Fifth Republic’s major pillars: the direct election of a powerful president and a legislative branch elected in single?member districts. To talk about the relationship between the voter and the government would have cast doubt on the Italian parties’ claim that they alone embody "democracy."

In the mid?1970s "years of lead," about a hundred Christian Democratic members of parliament objected that the party leadership’s opening to the Communists was a breach of faith with the electorate. One of these "hundred," Massimo de Carolis, a Milan city councilman, got himself elected to parliament by asking the electorate to give him their "preference vote." In exchange, promised de Carolis, he would follow the voters’ wishes rather than those of the party leadership. De Carolis and the "hundred" also talked of the need to do away with proportional representation. The Red Brigades shot de Carolis, as well as the newspaper editor who backed him. The "hundred" were finally neutralized by the realization that they could not capture the Christian Democratic party organization, only wreck it to the Communists’ benefit.

In the early 1980s Italy’s most promising politician took up the cause of reform. Chastising the lack of connection between Italian elections and Italian government, Craxi championed the direct election of the president. That proposal, had it been adopted, would probably have resulted in his becoming head of state. It was very popular in the country, but anathema to the party directorates. The principle of direct, contested election of government officials, whom the voters can turn out of office, was the very negation of Italian political oligopoly.

Craxi’s talk of reform further strengthened the popular feeling that something must be done to the country’s political institutions. Craxi himself, however, underestimated that feeling. Indeed in 1989 he threatened a government crisis to force the Christian Democratic leaders to renege on a commitment to support the direct election of mayors and other minor reforms. By thus closing the parliamentary door, Craxi left the reformers no choice but to attack the system through referendums.

In 1990 Mario Segni, a young Christian Democrat in parliament, started a committee to gather signatures to propose three referenda. Although the son of a former president and a lifelong Christian Democrat, Segni had never been a party careerist. In the 1970s he had been among the leaders of the Christian Democratic "hundred." In 1990 his committee was ostentatiously nonpartisan and attacked "the regime of the parties."

The first of the proposed referenda would have caused nearly four?fifths of the Italian Senate to be directly elected in single?member districts. The second would have allowed the direct election of mayors in all Italian cities (currently it is allowed only in towns with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants). The third would have restricted the voter to expressing one rather than five preferences for individual candidates on the parliamentary list of the party of choice.

Gathering the signatures for the petitions was no problem. But Italy’s constitutional court—which like every other branch of the judiciary is anything but independent of the parties—declared the first two proposals unconstitutional and would not let them be submitted to the voters. The third proposal, approved by the court, differed from the others chiefly in that it was almost completely without practical significance and not the sort of thing that might have been expected to engage popular sentiment. It is most unlikely that anyone in Italy’s political establishment anticipated the battle that followed, much less its results.

The referendum’s practical significance was straightforward: the electoral law allowed the voter, after choosing a party list, to write in up to five numbers, each corresponding to one of the candidates on the list. Thus, once in a while, the electorate managed (as Milanese voters did in the case of de Carolis in the 1970s) to send to parliament someone whom the party bosses would have preferred to keep out. Most of the time, however, the preference system was used to keep a detailed account of who votes for whom, thus negating the secrecy of the ballot.

Here is how the accounting worked. Most Italian precincts are small—often with fewer than one thousand voters. Hence even the largest parties seldom receive more than a few hundred votes per precinct. In small southern towns any given party’s votes per precinct seldom exceeds one hundred. If, then, the local sub?boss instructs someone whose vote is being exchanged for a favor to write in five numbers in a prearranged sequence, each party can be mathematically certain whether each and every one of its voters followed orders. This practice, which dates back to 1919, is of obvious importance for managing the lower end of a patronage system.

In 1991, except in the south, the importance of eliminating preference?checking by reducing the number of permitted preferences from five to one was more symbolic than practical. The same is true of the proposal’s other effect—to end the pooling of preference votes that allowed party factions to boost one of their candidates.

The symbolic stakes, however, turned out to be huge. Those who urged a "no" vote or counseled voters to boycott the polls, pictured themselves as defenders of the "democratic" constitution against chaos or worse. Those who urged a "yes" vote portrayed themselves as the advocates of people power and morality against an immoral partitocrazia. Effectively, the referendum was on the question: Do you want the political system to continue as is, or do you want to change it to reduce the influence of the party bosses?

The most vocal opposition came from Craxi’s Socialist Party. Having argued that the proposal was unconstitutional and that the court should not have allowed it to go to the voters, the Socialists added that the referendum was worthless and counseled Italian voters to spend a weekend at the beach rather than at the polls. If, as seemed likely, fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, the referendum would fail for lack of a quorum. This, in Craxi’s words, would be a "reinforced no." Ironically, by showing that he cared very much how the referendum came out, Craxi probably convinced many Italians that they too should care.

The Christian Democratic leadership did not want to make that mistake. Its strategy was to treat the referendum as "small stuff," which in Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s words, should interest only "four cats." Hence the leadership did not formally tell voters to stay home, although the former party secretary, Ciriaco De Mita, announced that he would not vote, and the current secretary, Arnaldo Forlani, announced that the party was working on a "serious" reform plan for "later." The Christian Democrats preferred a low?key approach also because a formal "no" position would probably have energized some other dissident party members to become even more active on the "yes" side than they actually became.

Craxi had argued against this strategy and, as the campaign drew to a close and more and more individuals from the Christian Democratic orbit announced that they would vote—and probably vote "yes"—Craxi charged the Christian Democratic leadership with duplicity. But the behavior of the Christian Democratic?controlled electoral bureaucracy indicates that the party leaders’ intentions were the same as Craxi’s. Up to a week before election day it seemed that about half the nation’s polling places might not even open; roughly that many precinct "presidents" had either called in sick or not answered the prefects’ formal call to take up their duties. This could hardly have happened without a strong message from the top of both the Christian Democratic and Socialist patronage networks.

The Communists, who had recently renamed themselves the Democratic Party of the Left, wielded their much?reduced influence in favor of a "yes" vote. The tactical advantage of appearing more democratic than the Christian Democrats, especially than their nemesis, Craxi, outweighed whatever losses the Communists would suffer in capacity to check up on their shrunken patronage network. The small "lay" parties were split and counted for nothing.

The "yes" campaign led by Segni’s nonparty committee was augmented by rebels against the parties (but primarily against the Christian Democrats) and consisted exclusively of party?bashing. The leading rebel and chief source of free publicity for the referendum was the president of the republic himself, Francesco Cossiga.

Like Segni, Cossiga is both a Christian Democrat and a Sardinian. As president he was supposed to be above party politics. But, he argued, nothing in his job description obliged him to be silent on basic civic duties, like voting, or on the tone of public life. Thus on May 9, 1991, the Italian president told the television cameras that the government had become a "cosa nostra" of the parties. He thereby legitimized the harshest criticism of the regime—that the government serves as a conduit of organized crime and that its activities are often indistinguishable from the crime syndicates’. Earlier, from his august position, he had legitimized the argument that a constitutional revolution was needed: "Don’t be afraid of the term ‘second republic’."

But above all Cossiga picked fight after public fight with those who counseled abstention. De Mita spoke for perhaps a majority of the nation’s party leaders when he said that Cossiga’s words "belong in a county fair." Others used even ruder language. But polls showed that some two?thirds of Italians approved of what Cossiga was saying and wanted him to say more. The furor around the head of state surely drew public attention to the referendum.

A few other prominent Christian Democrats—such as former Economics Minister Beniamino Andreatta and Tina Anselmi, a former minister of labor active in Catholic women’s circles—joined the "yes" camp. But it appeared that in so doing they were following, not leading, some of the party’s largest social constituencies. The financial community, represented by the national employers’ federation, the Confindustria, weighed in just before the vote by declaring that the regime of the parties is the greatest obstacle to greater prosperity.

Perhaps the heaviest blow of all came from the Catholic Church. While the Italian bishops’ conference remained officially neutral, individual bishops paraded before the cameras with statements like "the referendum is a democratic instrument not to be ignored," and "this referendum can lead to more substantive, urgently needed reforms." Not until a month after the referendum did Pope John Paul II speak to the press against "the excessive weight of political mediation" and link the parties to "the widespread illegality which has placed the institutions in a crisis." But the pope’s feelings on this matter had evidently long since filtered down to most parish priests, because they had sounded this theme consistently, throughout the country, throughout the campaign. Catholic lay organizations too, including the left?of?center Communion and Liberation, urged a "yes" vote with none?too?subtle reproaches to the parties, above all their own Christian Democrats.

The results were unprecedented. Italians are known for their divisions, not their cohesion. But it seems that northerners and southerners, rich and poor, Catholics and secularists agreed to strike a blow at the political system. Over 62 percent went to the polls, about average for a referendum. No one can know how many would have gone had all the precincts been open and in the absence of official discouragement. But once in the booth, 22 out of 23 electors voted "yes." Even if everyone who did not vote were counted as a "no," the "yes" still would have won by 26 million to 18 million votes. Nothing in Italian politics has ever been plainer. Nor can such unanimity be attributed to the endorsement of authoritative figures. The only explanation for this grass?roots phenomenon is that the regime of the parties has very few defenders. The party leaders’ total surprise at the result showed how much they had taken for granted an electorate that had never had the chance to say no to them.


The other organized force that is driving Italy toward reform, the regional "leagues," offers an even more radical way of saying "no." The Italian constitution criminalizes anyone who proposes undoing the republic. Yet that is precisely what millions of northern Italians loudly say they would like to do. Anyone driving through the vital business centers of northern Italy notices countless graffiti reading "Away from Rome!" and "Rome = mafia" and "We work, Rome robs." Even casual conversation confirms the northerners’ resentment that the government draws revenue disproportionately from the north while spending to support the south’s clientelistic ways, as well as disgust with a state bureaucracy that is forcing northerners, more and more, to adopt southern habits of corruption.

During the mid?1980s the political establishment did not take the leagues seriously, in part because their leaders were young, penniless and without connections, and because, to make their point of regional identity, they spoke publicly in local dialects—a sure mark of low socioeconomic status. But the leagues captured ever bigger slices of the vote in local elections. On November 25, 1991, the Lombardy League gained 24.4 percent of the vote in the municipal election of Brescia, Lombardy’s second?largest city, barely beating out the Christian Democrats to become the city’s largest party.

The leagues of course have no interest in getting bogged down in government; they are a protest movement. As such they are feared above all by the Christian Democrats. The leagues may be on the fringe, but their voters are not. Unlike those who vote for the neo?Fascist or Communist parties, the leagues’ voters have no history of sociopolitical activism. They are not chronic malcontents, nor do they look to the past. Rather they look to a European future. For the most part the leagues’ voters are the quiet, productive people who had voted Christian Democrat primarily because it was the "anticommunist dike." Now that the communist flood no longer menaces, they tend to see the Christian Democrats as the mainstay of something noxious. The leagues cause chaos not only within the Christian Democratic Party, as local candidates scramble to distance themselves from the national party, but also among the parties, when the weakened Christian Democrats find it increasingly difficult to form governing coalitions.

Thus in 1992 more and more politicians had become convinced that to avoid being squeezed between the referendum committee and the leagues, they had at least to appear to do the last thing in the world they wanted: diminish their own prerogatives.


Even before the referendum the Christian Democratic Party formulated its solution for two of the chronic complaints against the regime—lack of connection between the voting booth and the government, and lack of governments sufficiently coherent and long?lived to be held responsible. The Christian Democrats proposed that about 80 percent of the Chamber of Deputies be elected as before, by proportional representation in multi?member districts. The remaining 20 percent of the deputies would come from a nationwide pool. Of these 120 seats, 75 would be awarded as a bonus to any party or group of parties that had presented itself as a coalition and had gained a plurality of the total vote (at least 40 percent). The remaining 45 would be distributed among the parties according to the percentage of the vote they received. The nationwide pool is intended to give a governing edge to any party (read, the Christian Democrats) or coalition of parties that receives the most votes but not enough to govern. Other parties, especially the Socialists, tend to see this proposal as the Christian Democrats’ power grab.

To make governments long?lived and responsible, the Christian Democrats propose instituting a "chancellorship"—cabinets that, unlike nearly all of Italy’s postwar governments, could not resign simply because of party squabbles outside of parliament but that would have to stay in office until they were replaced by a vote of parliament. Members of parliament would remain mere creatures of the party bosses, and the only change would be a somewhat more efficient and transparent process for making and unmaking governments. This proposal does not alienate any of the parties. Hence it might well be adopted. But it is difficult to imagine that either proposal would satisfy the voters.

The Socialist Party’s predicament is difficult. Any modification of proportional representation emphasizes the party’s twin liabilities—its small size and its public image as a government party as corrupt as the Christian Democrats. To fully exploit its biggest asset—Craxi—the party would have to obtain the Christian Democrats’ agreement to the direct election of the president. But the Christian Democrats are certain to block such a proposal, even if the Socialists agreed to severe restrictions on presidential powers. That is because, regardless of any written constitution, anyone directly elected by the voters could control the political agenda just by speaking out.

The Communists have even less choice. They know that a single?member?district electoral system would instantly reduce them to a token number of members of parliament from central Italy and that, as in France, a presidential system would seal their exclusion from national influence. They have thus proposed a hybrid of the French and German systems, in which 300 deputies would be elected by single?member districts, 270 by proportional representation out of the unsuccessful candidates and 60 by proportional representation out of national lists. But the Communists’ main focus is on the short run. They have a clear interest in being the Christian Democrats’ staunchest allies in maintaining the current system, or in joining with the Socialists as a leftist alternative to the Christian Democrats, or in joining with almost any other party in almost any enterprise, just to escape from the crippling isolation they have suffered since 1978.

The minor parties—the Liberals, the Social Democrats, the Republicans—know that any change in proportional representation would wipe them out. Yet they are already so small—drawing two to five percent of the vote—that they are little more than vehicles for a small handful of individuals. These individuals, however, may well believe that they would lose nothing, and perhaps gain, by changing the system.

Again and again since the birth of modern Italy in 1870 its politicians have exhibited a quality they call trasformismo—the tendency not to die on old barricades, but to transmogrify political identities to fit changing conditions. In the 1890s there was a rush to be a liberal. In the 1920s and 1930s fascism was de rigueur. In the 1970s a shift was underway toward "antifascism" as defined by the Communist Party. In the 1990s politicians may race to champion direct election to office.


Party leaders carried their positions into the campaign for the election of April 5, 1992. Christian Democrats, Socialists and even Communists too would have preferred a boring debate on their proposals after which the public would vote as usual, giving the party bosses another lease on power. The Christian Democrats and Socialists would split the posts of president and prime minister and would compromise on changes to the electoral law. Members of parliament would be held in check by the threat of dissolution of the government and yet another round of elections. It quickly became clear, however, that the party directorates had lost their grip on their own subordinates, as well as on the country.

The Christian Democrats’ troubles may best be seen in the desperate attempt of Paolo Lazzati, secretary of the Milan branch, to entice Segni to head the Christian Democratic list in the Milan area. Lazzati realized that the party’s traditional leaders had no credibility as reformers and hoped that the only man in the country with such credibility would come to his rescue. Segni politely refused, citing his obligation to represent his native Sardinia. Nevertheless the Milanese Christian Democrats and those of the Veneto region campaigned as Segni supporters and pledged to work with him to gather signatures for his referenda, regardless of what party headquarters in Rome might say.

Moreover, as leaders of the various parties bargained about what to do after the elections, Segni was working to invalidate their deals. He registered a new party, called the "Referendum List," and asked people who were already candidates on other lists to join. Candidates would be accepted if they pledged to vote for legislation effecting the proposed electoral reforms, regardless of the wishes of party leaders and of whether their vote would cause any government to fall.

The point was not to gain votes for this list, but to publicly pledge as many members of the new parliament as possible to a set of reforms, rather than to the party bosses. Within a week some 200 Christian Democratic, Socialist, Communist and minor party candidates asked to appear on Segni’s list. In the end some 600 candidates joined, to the dismay of party leaders who for the first time since 1919 realized that they would not be able to control a significant portion of the members of parliament elected with their label. In response Christian Democratic leaders managed a weak threat against Segni in the party newspaper, Il Popolo. But by March 1992 they needed him more than he needed them.

Throughout the electoral campaign President Cossiga continued his attacks on the party system. The Catholic church went out of its way not to be seen as supporting the government. In the north the leagues launched insult after insult at the system. The business community, for its part, seemed to second them; for the first time the national employers’ federation held its convention only with members from the northern regions. On the other side the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties’ campaign boiled down to this: We are the constitutional system and to attack us in a way that undermines this system is criminally irresponsible, indeed subversive.

The least revolutionary result of the April elections was that in the Chamber of Deputies the governing coalition lost 28 seats and fell to 48.8 percent of the vote. Nevertheless the old four?party coalition retained a bare majority. In the Senate the coalition also managed a bare majority of seats, despite receiving only 43.3 percent of the vote. Nationwide the leagues got 9.9 percent of the vote. But there are deeper reasons why Christian Democratic and Socialist leaders appeared on television with shell?shocked looks and mutters reminiscent of Soviet officials in August 1991.

The Christian Democrats received 29.7 percent of the vote in the Chamber and 27 percent in the Senate—down by five and seven points. That understates the debacle. Only in poor, Mafia?riddled Sicily did the Christian Democrats hold their own. Even there a movement of dissident anti?Mafia Christian Democrats captured 12 seats. In Lombardy, the nation’s vital center, with an economy bigger than Austria’s, the Christian Democrats slipped to 23.2 percent, well behind the leagues’ combined total, 26.7 percent. In the north as a whole, the Christian Democrats barely beat the leagues’ 20 percent. Hence the Christian Democrats are sure to find their northern members of parliament unmanageable. The elections made the Christian Democrats’ traditional alliance with the Socialists politically untenable because the new parliament contains 144 members who are publicly pledged (on Segni’s Referendum List) to desert their own parties, if need be, on the crucial issue of reform. The Vatican newspaper’s cheers for the Christian Democrats’ defeat added insult to injury.

The Socialists, with 13.6 percent of the vote, lost only about one point numerically. But they failed to overtake the Communists. Worse, because the Christian Democratic Party is now so weak, the Socialists can no longer count on using it to ride to power. So the Socialists are hemmed in on both the right and the left, and their bargaining power with both sides has dropped. Most disheartening is the fact that Craxi, once the great innovator of Italian politics, found himself in the role of its last defender.

The Communists received 16.1 percent of the vote—a huge ten?point loss. Nevertheless, all things considered, their short?term prospects are not bad. If the Christian Democrats and Socialists want to stay in office and do business more or less as they have for the previous forty years, there is little alternative to dealing with the Communists. The minor parties, despite their gains, count for less than ever.

It may well be impossible for the parliament that convened on April 23, 1992, to form a government for any purpose other than to reform the constitution and the electoral law. President Cossiga’s term was due to expire on July 3, 1992. His desire to preside over a constitutional reform was well known. Had the major party directorates agreed to the appointment of a prime minister, such as Segni, whose cabinet would perform caretaker functions while elaborating reforms to be submitted to the electorate’s choice, the process of reform might have been short and relatively smooth.

But the Christian Democrats and Socialist directorates made clear their intention to thwart the appointment of a reformist government, to wait out Cossiga’s term and to elect a new president less committed to reform. They regard the parliament elected on April 5 as "constituent"—empowered to draft and approve constitutional changes. They want to form a government along with the Communists in the name of achieving "governability." Such a government would then try to pass a "reform" tailored to the parties’ interests.

On April 28 President Cossiga resigned, forcing parliament (augmented by regional delegates) to elect a successor. This preempted the formation of a Christian Democratic?Socialist?Communist government, and made sure that in the first post?election test of strength reform would be the only public issue. The three big parties cannot count on winning. The 107 deputies and 37 senators pledged to support Segni’s reforms could defect from their parties and prevent the election of an antireform president. Moreover the sight of the Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists uniting in ballot after ballot to throttle reform threatens to inflame the country.


In 1992 the great divide in Italian politics is between those who want to maintain something like the first republic and those who want drastically to reduce the role of the parties. To the extent that members of parliament put party interests ahead of true reform, they lump themselves together for the voters’ retribution at the polls. The next election will surely see a multiplication of protest voting. Those northern voters who refrained from supporting the leagues during the 1992 elections, in the hope that reform might come some other way, would be driven to support outright secession. Moreover Segni’s reform referenda are gathering signatures and riding a wave of public opinion. A grand?coalition cabinet put together for the sake of governability would lack the moral and political authority to defeat them. Would the government try to outlaw the referenda or annul the results? This would amount to a coup. There is no reason to believe that the Italian nomenklatura would succeed where the Soviets failed.

In the wake of the 1992 elections little is clear other than that the first Italian republic is all but dead. Contrary to the views of eminent academics, anticommunism was the only reason why the Italian people tolerated it. As soon as they were able to junk the system safely, they set about the task with gusto.

What will follow the first Italian republic is less clear. No doubt the Italian people want to hire and fire their representatives directly. No doubt, too, millions of Italians want to get rid of the vast patronage system and to break the connection between government, business and crime. The political and legal processes by which reform will occur are cloudy enough. Much more difficult to foresee is the process by which Italians will tackle the vested interests and habits that the first republic will leave behind. The short history of reform in formerly communist lands of eastern Europe is long enough to teach that new laws and economic policies are only the public manifestations of a phenomenon that must essentially occur at the moral level.

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  • Angelo Codevilla is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His next book is entitled Governments and Consequences.
  • More By Angelo M. Codevilla