Italy: The Continuing Political Seesaw

The Continuing Political Seesaw

Beginning in the late 1960s, there was considerable industrial unrest in the country as workers demanded higher wages and better social services. Following the general elections of May, 1968, the Moro government fell again and a government crisis began that was only ended in Dec., 1968, when Mariano Rumor, a Christian Democrat, formed a coalition government with Socialist support. After Rumor's coalition fell for a third time in July, 1970, he was replaced as premier by Emilio Colombo, also a Christian Democrat.

Colombo resigned in Jan., 1972. After a long period of crisis, Giulio Andreotti, also a Christian Democrat, formed a new coalition government in June, 1972; for the first time in 10 years, the government had a center-right, rather than a center-left, character. But this combination also did not last long and was replaced (July, 1973) by a slightly left-of-center coalition headed by Rumor. In Mar., 1974, Rumor resigned, but he soon formed another center-left cabinet, the 36th government since the fall of Mussolini in 1943. In mid-1974, Italy faced an economic crisis; an austerity program was initiated in an attempt to reduce the soaring inflation rate and the overwhelming foreign trade deficit. Rumor's administration resigned again in October and was replaced by Moro.

Many other governments followed but had little success dealing with economic decline, corruption, and lawlessness. Growing popular dissatisfaction with Italy's chaotic political situation helped the Communists achieve a measure of participation in the government coalition in 1977. The extreme left and right, excluded by the coalition between Christian Democrats and Communists, accounted for a steady increase in political violence that terrorized politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, and members of the judiciary. In 1978 former premier Moro was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigade, a left-wing terrorist group.

Center-left coalitions dominated by the Christian Democrats continued to hold power until 1983, when the republic's first Socialist-led coalition took power under Premier Bettino Craxi. The continuing sluggishness of the economy caused Craxi to institute another austerity budget, which included tax increases, service cuts, and wage adjustments. Craxi led the government for four years, until he resigned in 1987 and was replaced by Christian Democrat Giovanni Goria. Ciriaco De Mita succeeded Goria in 1988, and was himself succeeded in 1989 by Giulio Andreotti, who at the age of 70 became premier for the sixth time. In 1991 the Italian Communist party changed its name to the Democratic Party of the Left. In the 1992 elections the Christian Democrats barely maintained their coalition with the Socialists, the Liberals, and the Social Democrats. Socialist Giuliano Amato was named premier.

Corruption probes, begun in 1992 and headed by Amato, led to the arrest of hundreds of business and political figures and the investigation of many others, including several party leaders and former premiers. In 1993 Premier Amato resigned and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, head of Italy's central bank, succeeded him. In addition, legislation largely ending proportional representation in parliament was passed. The Christian Democratic party changed its name to the Italian Popular party in 1994, but after a split in 1995, the center-right faction became the United Christian Democratic party.

In new elections in Mar., 1994, a coalition of conservatives and neofascists won a majority in parliament. Billionaire industrialist Silvio Berlusconi of the fledgling conservative party Forza Italia became premier, but his coalition government disintegrated in Dec. It was succeeded by a “nonpolitical” center-left government under Lamberto Dini, and then, after elections in Apr., 1996, by a center-left government under Romano Prodi that included the Democratic Party of the Left. Following a series of upheavals over austerity measures put in place to prepare for European economic union, Prodi's government collapsed in Oct., 1998.

Massimo D'Alema, of the Democrats of the Left (the former Democratic Party of the Left), became premier (1998) as head of a new coalition government that included several political parties. Parliament named former premier Ciampi as president in May, 1999, replacing Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who had held the office since 1992. In Apr., 2000, D'Alema resigned after his coalition suffered loses in regional elections. Socialist and former premier Giuliano Amato, D'Alema's finance minister, formed a new center-left government that was substantially similar to D'Alema's.

Parliamentary elections in 2001 gave Berlusconi's conservative coalition a solid victory, and he became premier of a center-right government for a second time, ending six years of liberal rule. In 2003 parliament passed a law making the premier and other top Italian officials immune from prosecution while in office. The law was seen as a heavy-handed move to end Berlusconi's trial for bribery, and provoked an outcry from many in Italy. The constitutional court overturned the law, however, allowing the trial to proceed, and he was acquitted (2004) of bribery; other charges were dismissed.

Losses by the governing coalition in local elections forced Berlusconi to resign in Apr., 2005, and re-form his government. Later in the year Berlusconi secured passage of electoral changes that reestablished proportional representation as a basis for electing national legislators; the changes were designed to minimize his coalition's losses in the 2006 elections. In the Apr., 2006, elections Berlusoni's coalition narrowly lost to a center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. Berlusconi challenged the results, alleging irregularities, but Italy' supreme court confirmed them later in the month. In May, Giorgio Napolitano, of the Democrats of the Left, was elected to succeed Ciampi as Italy's president, and Prodi subsequently formed a government. A government reorganization plan that would have increased the premier's powers and the autonomy of Italy's regions was defeated in a referendum in June, 2006; the plan had been proposed by Berlusconi's coalition.

In Feb., 2007, Prodi's government lost a foreign policy vote in Italy's senate and resigned, but the following week he re-formed his government and won a confidence vote. Later in the year the Democratic party was formed through the merger of the Democrats of the Left and center-left former Christian Democrats. Prodi's coalition unraveled in Jan., 2008, and he resigned after losing a confidence vote. Parliamentary elections were held in April, and resulted in a solid victory for Berlusconi's coalition; Berlusconi again became premier. In Sept., 2008, years of negotiation with Libya over compensation for three decades of Italian colonial rule ended with Italy agreeing to pay for 20-year, $5 billion compensation package.

In 2010, Italy, like many eurozone nations, was forced to adopt austerity measures to reduce government deficits that had increased as a result of the 2008–9 global downturn, but the proposed legislation provoked strong oppostion. A number of financial scandals involving government ministers as well as personal scandals involving Berlusconi also led to a loss of popularity for his government. There were increasing tensions and ultimately splits within the governing coalition during 2010; the government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in December, and again in Oct., 2011.

In 2011 the government suffered losses in local elections (May) and in referendums on several pieces of legislation (June). As concerns over the country's financial situation increased in mid-2011, the government adopted an austerity budget in July, which was subsequently revised as Italy's difficulties with the bond markets continued and the European Central Bank made aid contingent on increased austerities. Berlusconi struggled to hold his splintering coalition together, and was finally forced from office (Nov., 2011) by the erosion of market and EU confidence in his economic and financial policies.

Mario Monti, an economist and former member of the European Commission, became premier of a nonpartisan government consisting of technocrats, and subsequently won passage of austerities and economic reforms. Italy continued to face recurring pressures in the bond markets during 2012, which led to the adoption of additional measures. In Dec., 2012, Monti's government lost the support of Berlusconi's party, and he submitted his resignation; the president dissolved parliament and called new elections for Feb., 2013.

The Democratic party–led center-left coalition won a lower house majority, but only a plurality in the senate. The popular vote was closer, however, with Berlusconi's coalition narrowly behind, followed by comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (the largest party in terms of votes); Monti's coalition was fourth. A new government proved difficult to form, with the Democratic leader, Luigi Bersani, resisting a coalition with Berlusconi, and the Five Star Movement refusing to take a secondary role in a coalition. The election of a new president also proved contentious. Napolitano was reelected (April) after party leaders appealed to him to become a candidate for a second term; he became the first Italian president to be reelected. Party disagreements led Bersani to step down as Democratic leader, and Napolitano appointed the deputy leader, Enrico Letta, as premier. Letta quickly formed a broad coalition that included the Democrats and Berlusconi's and Monti's parties. In the subsequent local elections (May–June) the center-left coalition did well while the Berlusconi's party and the Five Star Movement did poorly. In September Berlusconi withdrew support for the government over an impending vote that removed (November) him from the senate (because of his criminal convictions), but a revolt in his party forced him to support the government in a confidence vote in October. Berlsuconi's party subsequently withdrew (November) from the government, but his party split and the government survived a confidence vote.

In early 2014 the new leader of the Democrats, Matteo Renzi, became increasingly critical of the Letta government, which he accused of proceeding too slowly with reforms and failing to improve the economy. In February Letta resigned, and Renzi, who had been mayor of Florence and had never served in the parliament, became premier. Renzi subsequently sought a series of government reforms, and won passage of cuts in local government in April; labor reforms were passed later in the year.

In Jan., 2015, Napolitano resigned as president for health reasons; Sergio Mattarella, a former government minister and justice of the constitutional court, was elected to succeed him. The following May, Renzi pushed through a revision of the electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies that retained the proportional system (overturned in part by the constitutional court in Jan., 2017), and in Apr., 2016, he succeeded in securing legislative approval of significant constitutional changes to weaken the Senate and reduce the power of the regions. In the June, 2016, local elections, the Five Star Movement made gains against the Democrats. After a referendum in Dec., 2016, in which voters resoundingly rejected Renzi's proposed constitutional changes, he resigned as premier and was succeeded by Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

Local elections in June, 2017, were marked by center-right gains. In Oct., 2017, a new mixed constituency and proportional voting system that encouraged the formation of electoral coalitions was enacted by the parliament; the Five Star Movement, which had said it would not form such alliances, denounced the voting system. Parliamentary elections in Mar., 2018, resulted in a potentially deadlocked legislature. The center-right coalition won the largest bloc of seats, with the right-wing League becoming its leading party, displacing Forza Italia; the Five Star Movement (placed second but was the largest single party; and the Democrats center-left coalition was third. Ultimately the Five Star Movement and the League agreed to form a coalition. In June, Giuseppe Conte, a law professor who was a member of neither party, became premier of a populist government, but Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, was generally regarded as the most powerful politician in the government.

The new government's proposed budget for 2019 was criticized for violating European Union rules on debt and other issues. The European Commission called for revisions, and the government ultimately reduced its proposed budget deficit. Tensions in the government, sparked by Salvini's strident anti-immigrant policies and then his desire for new elections, led to Conte's resignation in Aug., 2019.

The Five Star Movement and the Democrats then formed a new government, with Conte as premier; the coalition also included Free and Equal and Viva Italia, a party found by Renzi in Sept., 2019, when he left the Democrats. The country was extremely hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, especially in the north. In Sept., 2020, a referendum to amend the constitution to reduce the size of the parliament by one third overwhelmingly passed. Renzi, calling for bolder economic action in response to the pandemic, pulled his party out of the government in Jan., 2021, which cost Conte his senate majority, but he subsequently won a confidence vote in the senate. In 2021, president Sergio Mattarella, invited Mario Draghi to form a new government, replacing Conte.  After a series of disputes over economic stimulus and support for Ukraine in the Ukrain-Russia conflict, Draghi lost a no confidence vote in July, 2022, and resigned as prime minister. A snap election was held in Sept., 2022, in which Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party won a majority of parlimentary seats. Meloni was appointed the first female prime minister of Italy in Oct., 2022.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Italian Political Geography