After a year of Lamberto Dini’s caretaker government, the left won the elections for the first time in its postwar history, led by The Professor, Romano Prodi. His government lasted 28 months, a long haul by Italian standards. But in 1998, his reign suffered the same fate as Berlusconi’s when its partners, the Refounded Communists, refused to sign his budget, pulling out of the coalition and forcing Prodi’s resignation. The Communists were pushing for greater social spending at a time when Prodi had just brought the deficit under control, qualifying Italy to take part in Europe’s single currency.
The next leader to the fore was Massimo D’Alema, a former Communist who went to summer camp in the Soviet Union. His tenure would coincide with a steep rise in immigration, and consequently a palpable rise in anti-immigrant sentiments. D’Alema’s government lasted until elections in the spring of 2001, when Berlusconi, aka The Knight, came galloping back with a surge of popular support, winning around 60 percent of the vote. Bossi’s Northern League, no longer separatist and now running on a mostly anti-immigrant platform, was still in the coalition, but his slimmed-down power base no longer presented a threat of blackmail to Berlusconi.
The real threats to Berlusconi’s government, in the end, were the charges of tax fraud and bribery brought against him in connection with his dealings with Craxi in the ’80s. Berlusconi had already been acquitted for three charges of bribery, but had to rely on a statute of limitations to nullify a fourth. He still claims that judges in those cases were politically biased against him. It would, at any rate, cost him his post.
Once again under the stewardship of Prodi, and once again with the Refounded Communists as reluctant coalition partners, the center-left slipped into power with a wafer-thin majority in 2006. The results were upheld by the nation’s highest appeals court. But in 2008, Prodi’s feeble coalition splintered apart, and Berlusconi’s renamed People of Freedom party won the national elections by a wide margin.
The next three years of Berlusconi’s rule were marked by recession, more scandals that this time included allegations of paying for sex with a minor, and finally a Mediterranean-wide credit crisis that sent Italy to the brink of default, and ultimately cost Berlusconi his job. After his resignation in 2011, former European Commissioner and economist Mario Monti was installed as prime minister.
Precarious alliances have resulted in the collapse of several Italian governments. Italy has in fact gone through more than 60 postwar governments, at last count, causing much grumbling abroad about the country’s political instability. There are dozens of major parties (and hundreds of minor ones that rarely win any parliamentary seats), so no party has a very good chance of establishing a majority on its own. Coalitions are therefore composed of a half dozen parties, some of which share close ideologies, some of which do not.
In the conservative camp these days are Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the National Alliance, the Northern League, and two descendants of the once-unflappable Christian Democrats: the CCD and the CDU, united in a party named the UCD. The center-left includes the Democrats of the Left, the Greens, the Socialists, and the Italian Communist Party. A number of other small groups flesh out the coalitions, but the two kingmakers, the fringe parties that have made or broken governments in the past, are the Northern League and the Refounded Communists. No mainstream party truly wants these outspoken groups in their coalition, but they rarely have much of a choice.
A technical note about Italian elections: The parliamentary seats are filled according to proportional representation in each region; that is, the parties in general are assigned seats depending on how well they did in the elections overall.
The other big players on the political scene are the lobbies. The most significant of these are the labor unions”especially the left-wing CGILand the more centrist CISLand UIL”weighing in on the side of the liberals; the industrialists’ group Confindustria, on the side of the conservatives; and the Catholic Church, which applies whatever pressure it can on either side of the spectrum, depending on the issue. Clearly, the Vatican is more at ease with the conservatives’ social agenda, but more recently, it has shared common ground with the liberals on matters of foreign affairs.
The church, and the pope in particular, commonly speak out to promote pacifism whenever Italy is indirectly involved in an international conflict. And Italy is almost always indirectly involved in any international conflict, sandwiched between the formerly Communist world and the West, and hosting a handful of crucial NATO bases. In the great tradition of Italian diplomacy, prime ministers have always walked a tightrope between offending their neighbors and commercial interests in the Middle East, and appeasing the powerful victors of the Cold War. But Italian leaders will never offer their country’s soldiers or weapons in direct combat, only peacekeeping, because they are expressly forbidden to do so in their 1948 constitution.