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Political Stability in Italy -- A contradiction in terms?

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Message Carlo Ungaro

If bookmakers abounded in Rome as they do in London ,  bets could easily be placed on the duration of the present Italian "technical" Government, and on the probable date of the  next general elections -- whether as early as November, or in the Spring, when the  Parliament's  mandate comes to its  end.

Even the most daring of bookmakers, however,  would hesitate to hazard opening a book on the outcome of these elections, or, even more so, on Italy's political future.

It is  believed  that William Shakespeare  got  ideas, settings and characters for  his Italian based plays in the course of one or more visits to Italy. If so, also the expression "all the world is a stage" may well have had  the same origin, for Italians, like few other people,  freely display their histrionic prowess  in all phases of everyday life,  and this trait, which could not have escaped  the Bard's notice, is particularly evident in Italy's political life.

Those who fail to take this into account often label Italian political events as "paradoxical", where, in reality  they follow a totally logical  path, emphasizing  the  permanent, and widening gap  between  perceptions and reality, characteristic of   the Italian political scene.

From the immediate post war years until the end of what Italians inaccurately call "the First Republic" (circa 1994),   leading political commentators repeatedly described Italy, often in  ominous tones,  as the epitome of "political instability". It was very difficult, at the time,  to explain that in Italy reality was then, as, indeed, it is  now, very much different from appearances, and that the much criticised political system  had a stability of its own, which, instead, has been lacking over the past twenty years or so..

It is true that,  in a period spanning just under five decades, dozens of governments were formed and fell, sometimes after only days in office, while premature elections -- held  before the end of the  Constitutionally decreed parliamentary mandate - were  the rule rather than the exception.

A similar situation had obtained in France during the short-lived Fourth Republic, but General de Gaulle had had  the  strength and the charisma to put  and  end to this and the  "Fifth Republic" he bequeathed to the Nation  guaranteed  decades of political stability without sacrificing democratic principles.

An Italian version of de Gaulle has never appeared although some of the post-war  leaders  have posed as  their country's saviours: one of these -- Bettino Craxi -- ended up in luxurious self-imposed exile in  Hammamet as a fugitive from justice after heading the most corrupt -- but also the most "stable" -- Italian Government  in the  decades between  the birth of the Republic (1948) and his political  downfall (1992).

There, in fact, lies the apparent paradox, for it was precisely in those seemingly trouble-free years that the seeds were sown for the rise of the so-called "Second Republic" the un-mourned demise of which  now seems imminent, and which has been the theatre of the greatest "instability" in the country's recent history..  

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent, not totally unrelated,  cataclysm which shook the foundations  of the Italian Republic, brought about a dramatic ending to a system under which, after all, in spite of its perceived "instability", the country had prospered, Democracy had  flourished, the quality of life had become one of the  most envied in Europe and Italian style and design  were known and appreciated the world over. Today's Italy, by contrast, has known real, tangible instability and economic decay over the past two decades, even though -- with some exceptions -- Governments lasted out their full mandate with  large majorities  in Parliament. The instability -- invisible to all but the most jaundiced eye -- lay (and still lies) in the cynical, irresponsible and ultimately  dangerous infighting which took up all of the governing Parties' energies, and the ultimate result was the last Berlusconi-led  government (his fourth stint as Prime Minister, for a  total of 3340 days in office), largely responsible for Italy's present situation.

The timing of Italy's  next general election is actually not as important as it could have appeared some weeks ago, and  the  political leaders, as well as the voting public will be as unprepared for them next Spring as they would be in November. Their outcome, instead will be of fundamental weight in determining the country's destiny for the coming years.

The trend, which is being pursued rather clumsily,  with little of the classic Italian touch of subtlety, seems to indicate that, no matter what the outcome of the elections, the  more powerful political  parties  will attempt to band together into an unruly "moderate", Catholic-led centrist coalition, which would have a very good chance of lasting out the entire Legislature.  There is even cautious talk of a role for Professor Monti, either as head of the Government or as President of the Republic.

This solution is certainly not the most desirable one, for, while it would certainly bring apparent  stability  to the Italian political scene, it  could very well  reveal itself as a severe blow to the democratic process in Italy. In this way, the endemic volatility of the system would be allowed to fester, under a  deceptive cloak of respectable solidity, and the electorate's confidence in the political setup -- including, of course, the Government -- would risk growing to  a dangerous level.


Carlo Ungaro

 Sacrofano (Italy)

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).
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