Watching the political news in Italy is a real act of faith for Italians and foreigners alike. For those who grew up here, the act of faith comes from a feeling of disillusionment that nonetheless never seems to steer people away from heated political debates with complete strangers at any point of the day or night. For foreigners, it often comes from the difficulties of understanding a different political system and culture, which is also fascinating in its own right.
The latest developments in the country’s center-right majority government attest to Italy’s ongoing political saga. After the narrow vote of confidence cast in favor of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s government on September 29, the schism within the Popolo della Libertà (Pdl) has become ever more evident as those who support Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s long-time ally with whom the premier recently had a falling out, gain significant political ground within the Pdl arena. Not only has Fini’s newly formed political party, Futuro e Libertà (Fli), flexed its political muscles, proving its capacity for swinging the parliamentary vote either in favor or against the government’s crucial five-point political reform (the Mezzogiorno, internal revenue, fiscal federalism, justice and security) but it has also opened the possibility to future elections in the coming spring.
Let’s start with the basics: The Pdl heads the center-right coalition holding the majority of seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, thanks to the support of the Lega Nord (LN), a party that claims to represent solely the interests of Northern Italy. Recent events, however, have caused a strong political impasse in the Pdl as the newly formed Fli headed by Fini, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, has literally seceded from Berlusconi’s party. Fini previously held one of the top seats in the Pdl, but he withdrew his support after clashing heads with the premier on several topics, including immigration, fiscal reform and justice. The institutional drawback to this standoff is a possible legislative deadlock and the possibility of new parliamentary elections if the Fli decides to cast a ‘no confidence’ vote against the ruling government.
Does this all still seem like Greek to you? In a nutshell, ever since Italy passed its latest electoral law in 2006, which is based on a system of party-list representation, where the coalition that controls the relative majority receives 55 percent of seats in the lower chamber, similar political parties have slowly gravitated towards centers of common ideologies that allow them to share bigger pieces of the parliamentary pie. Their movement is also fueled by strong polarization in favor of or against Premier Berlusconi. This polarization translates into a right-versus-left dispute and has resulted in two major political groups headed by the center-right’s Pdl and by the center-left’s Partito Democratico (PD).
However, instead of creating a stable and consolidated two-party system, the party dynamics have led to a whole different ball game in which smaller parties have, instead of fusing completely within larger ones, continued to hold tightly to their own views in a quite unfriendly tug-of-war politics within the bigger coalitions. This is evidenced by the growing public support of and political influence of smaller populist parties like LN, whose often rebellious and controversial antics have made it the subject of considerable debate.
Current headlines testify that similar problems to those prior to 2006 continue to thrive in Italy’s current political culture and system. With the end of the Berlusconi-Fini love affair, the country’s majority coalition has slowly begun to implode while its center-left opponents, for reasons concerning lack of a stronger leadership and political agenda, continue to linger behind in national polls.
Although, with the exception of the point on justice reform, the Finiani support Berlusconi’s five-point plan to carry out the desperately needed reforms, important doubts still linger: Will the division of the center-right under the newly formed Fli lead to new parliamentary elections next spring? Will Italy’s center-left follow suit, or will it join forces with other parties in the opposition or Berlusconi’s new dissidents?