Italy: in a democratic and constitutional crisis?

Italian democracy is in a prolonged state of exception. The elections of February this year have failed to decisively break with a period of technocratic politics and paralysis of party-based representative democracy that initiated a year and a half ago with the fall of Berlusconi and the subsequent establishment of the Monti government. Only now, at the end of April 2013, a new government has been formed, but it is not the outcome of electoral victory but a President-driven attempt to break out of enduring political stalemate. This blockage is the result of two months of failed attempts to form a government following the normal practices of formation as indicated by the Constitution. Rather than a formative initiative by the winning political party or coalition, the formation of an interim government of “larghe intese” (a grand coalition) is presided over and conditioned by the recently re-elected President Napolitano. The grand coalition combines forces from both the centre-right and centre-left, political forces that have been radically opposed and continuously engaged in reciprocal contestation in the last twenty years. In the process, the Italian citizens and their demands for profound change and enhanced bottom-up access to politics are largely marginalized.

The dismissal of the Berlusconi government at the end of 2011 and its replacement by a technocratic government, headed by Mario Monti and appointed by the President Giorgio Napolitano, heralded in what now proves to be a prolonged state of suspension of normal democratic interaction. In many ways, the nomination of the Monti government, not elected by popular vote, indicated a suspension of democracy, an insight that was perhaps most dramatically articulated in the legal referral by a Sardinian lawyer in which she claimed the installment of the Monti government violated the first article of the Italian Constitution, which refers to “popular sovereignty”. The Monti government – self-defined as a “governo di impegno nazionale” [a government of national effort] – formed a transition government that was supposed to only temporarily replace representative, party-based politics in order to address urgent matters related to the economic crisis in Italy. The transitory government was supported by a parliamentary majority, including both the centre-left (Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party, PD) and the centre-right (Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, PDL). This majority was however continuously threatened by a withdrawal of support by the centre-right and early elections, something which indeed occurred in December 2012.

The February 2013 elections was among other things supposed to mean a return to party and representative politics, thus ending the suspension of democracy and political representation. This was so not least because it meant voters would be able to express themselves on the draconic measures of the austerity policy of the Monti government (including “spending reviews”). In the 2013 elections, Monti himself actually ‘stepped down’ into normal politics by forming a political party, ambiguoously called “Citizens’ Choice” [Scelta Civica], a “list of civil society”, whose supporters included a business man such as Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, CEO of Ferrari.

The outcome of the 24-25 February elections was however extremely problematic, in that none of the two larger political parties – PD and PDL – won a clear majority, leading to political stalemate. The elections also saw the overwhelming success of a new political movement, by many seen as an ‘anti-systemic’ and ‘anti-political’ movement, the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Some numbers: the centre-left alliance headed by the PD obtained 29,54% in the ‘Camera’ (Chamber of deputies) and 31, 6% in the ‘Senato’ (Senate), the centre-right alliance of the PDL 29,13% and 30,66%, and the Five Star Movement 25,55% and 23,79%. The Monti list disappointed very much by obtaining only around 10%. Due to the ambivalent Italian electoral law, the centre-left alliance obtained a majority of seats in the Chamber of deputies (345), but the Senate clearly showed the picture of a ‘hung parliament’. The great winner is Grillo, who is now heading the largest singular political party (or movement?) in Italy.

Since the end February, Bersani as the leader of the centre-left alliance has been attempting to form a government, negotiating both with the Five Star Movement and the centre-right alliance of Berlusconi. The immediate outcome showed an unwillingness of collaboration from the side of two of the three major political forces (the PD and the M5S). For the PD, its grass-roots support (“la base”) clearly indicates a wholesale rejection of any collaboration with Berlusconi, while the M5S in various ways isolated itself. Bersani’s attempts to form a coalition government therefore failed due to the unwillingess to cooperate from the side of Grillo, while Bersani himself showed unwilling to form a Grand Coalition or “governo di larghe intese” with Berlusconi. Bersani’s task was further complicated by the fact that the mandate of the President of the Republic – Giorgio Napolitano – was set to end on 15 May.

After the failed attempts at formation, Bersani returned to President Napolitano, who set up an ad-hoc commission of 10 “wise men” (“saggi”) who were supposed to prepare the ground for necessary institutional and constitutional reforms (most urgently, the electoral law). The proposals of the group were then supposed to help find a broad political platform. Some observers have argued that the move by the President is unconstitutional, not least because the expert commission means a suspension of party politics and therewith of democracy. This would violate article 92 comma 2 of the Italian Constitution in that it forms a new, ad hoc instrument that is not mentioned in the constitutional procedure for forming a new government. What is more, Grillo’s Five Star Movement was sidelined in the expert commission.

A new phase started with the elections of a new President of the Republic, starting on Thursday 19 April. The political deadlock was once again clear in the presidential elections. Only in a sixth round, held on Saturday 20 April, did the parliament manage to vote with an absolute majority for a “new” president, the leaving President Napolitano. On various proposals for presidential candidates of Bersani, including the former head of the European Commission Romano Prodi, no broad political majority could be found (the Constitution prescribes a two-thirds majority in Parliament in the first three voting rounds, an absolute majority thereafter). After the presidential elections, Bersani himself stepped down as a leader of the PD. The election of the new President again indicates a constitutionally ambivalent move. That is, it is for the first time in Italy’s post-war history that a President has extended his mandate to 14 years in total, which according to the Constitution is seven years (art. 85). A constitutional convention since 1948 has been that a President can only be elected once.

Napolitano, the new-old President, has currently appointed the second man of the PD, Enrico Letta, as formator of a new government. Letta has formed a grand coalition with the centre-right PDL on Saturday 27 April, which would need to last for two years and to carry out, as requested explicitly by Napolitano, the proposals made by the commission of wise men. These proposals contain fairly far-reaching institutional and constitutional reforms. The government includes Angelino Alfano, right-hand of Berlusconi, Emma Bonino, an ex European Commissioner, and Fabrizio Saccomanni, president of the Italian Central Bank. What seems clear however is that the new government will (again) ignore a large part of popular sentiment that grows increasingly hostile to political elites, corruption, and technocratic austerity measures. First, because the grass-roots movement of Beppe Grillo is largely kept marginalized and in opposition (and with it the civic anger it stands for and that was expressed in its electoral success), second, since the reforms are largely initiated by the President, who is obtaining an ever larger weight in the Italian system, while party-political initiative seems reduced to the implementation of the programme. Political representation seems reduced in the process. Third, as seen in the bottom-up movements of Occupy-PD, within the centre-left a significant part of the civic base feels “tradito” or betrayed. This makes broad, civil society sustenance for the significant institutional and constitutional reforms that are on the table shallow and unstable. In a structural sense, it counterposes a politics closed in on itself to a disillusioned and increasingly impatient civil society.

A Hungarian translation has appeared in:


About blokkerpaul

I am a political sociologist. My work deals with processes of constitution-making (so far particularly focused on Central and Eastern Europe), constitutions and their symbolic dimensions, constitutional critique and different forms of constitutional justification, dissidence and democracy, civic participation in democracy, and the plurality of political cultures.
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3 Responses to Italy: in a democratic and constitutional crisis?

  1. Pingback: Italy – Comment: Bersani’s real failure | Czerulf's Thoughts

  2. Pingback: Italy – Napolitano pushed into extra time | Czerulf's Thoughts

  3. Pingback: Structure of Democracy Affects the Political Establishment | Naive Politico

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