Italy is set for its 68th government in 76 years. Why such a turnover?
Italy’s new parliament convened this week to install its 68th government since the end of World War II
Averaging a new cabinet every 13 months, it seems that having a new government has become something of an annual tradition in Italy.
Here we look at why the country has such a high turnover of governments.
A brief outline of Italy’s political history
Italy has been a constitutional republic ever since an institutional referendum in 1946 decided to eliminate the monarchy.
In the first few years after World War II, the beleaguered country emerged weakened and humiliated due to its wartime alliance with Nazi Germany. The partisan forces that fought Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime temporarily set aside their political differences to form a coalition government that would lead the country out of the wreckage.
Italy’s political landscape, nonetheless, grew highly polarised by the 1950s, and saw the country largely split into two political camps: that of the Christian Democrats and the Communists.
The Christian Democratic party — a broad church that united moderate right-wingers and leftists under a socially conservative, paternalistic platform — dominated Italian post-war politics, and was in government for nearly half a century.
Guided by the idea that Italy needed to be anchored to foreign support and European integration to restore its international relevancy, the Christian Democrats led the country through its post-war economic miracle and fostered strong transatlantic ties with the United States.
On the opposition were the Communists, who perennially threatened the Christian Democrats’ chokehold on Rome’s political establishment and often obtained excellent electoral results, despite never managing to come to power. They initially embraced the USSR but ended up untangling themselves from the Soviet sphere of influence over the decades.
There were other noteworthy parties as well — the leftist Socialists, centrist Republicans, and far-right Italian Social Movement, for instance — some of which often joined coalition governments, but the main political cleavage throughout the post-war decades remained between the two aforementioned camps.
In the 1970s, such tribal political rivalries started bubbling up, leading to a period of far-right and far-left political violence known as the “Years of Lead”. An attempted compromise between the Christian Democrats and Communists fell through; the turmoil eventually culminated in a set of terrorist attacks and the assassination of a former prime minister in 1978.
A brief “honeymoon” period of economic prosperity in the 1980s was eventually followed by further upheavals. In the 1990s, Italy’s party system collapsed under the weight of corruption scandals that swept through all the major parties.
The end of the Cold War and a new phase in the European integration process also rendered longstanding ideological divisions obsolete; the growing influence of regionalist politics, especially that of the secessionist Northern League party, further muddied matters.
As a result of the crisis, all major parties were effectively dismantled by the mid-1990s, concluding Italy’s so-called “First Republic”.
It’s in the midst of this political wasteland that Silvio Berlusconi enters the picture.
The media tycoon, who had already built a private television empire, created a new party, Forza Italy, which mixed the conservative Catholic politics of the defunct Christian Democrats with a shiny, business-friendly model of populism. Indeed, the party’s name, which translates loosely as Go Italy!, is derived from a popular football chant.
Berlusconi quickly rose to power and ended up heading four non-consecutive governments over the span of nearly two decades, making him Italy’s longest-serving PM since World War II.
In spite of his widespread popularity among the Italian public, detractors accused him of corruption, cronyism and Mafia ties; sexual misconduct scandals further rocked his image in the 2000s. By 2011, the mounting Eurozone crisis resulted in him losing his majority in parliament and being forced to stand down.
In the wake of Berlusconi’s political demise, no single party or bloc was able to command a majority. This resulted in a rapid succession of big-tent coalition governments headed by largely unpopular technocrats over the course of the 2010s. Amid austerity and heightened refugee influxes, populist forces — ranging from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to Matteo Salvini’s refashioned, pan-Italian League — skirted with electoral success and even entered government.
Come 2020, both the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged the country, and the particularly stringent restrictions that accompanied it provoked significant socioeconomic hardship, and left the electorate politically divided.
Such turbulence, alongside the added challenges posed by the Ukraine war and the cost-of-living crisis, prompted many Italians’ decision to embrace a turn to the far-right and pin their hopes on who will soon become the country’s first female prime minister: Giorgia Meloni.
Changing electoral laws and unstable coalitions
An explanation for Italy’s remarkably high government turnover can’t be boiled down to a single factor or explanation – rather, it comes as a result of various interlocking political and social causes, starting from the country’s own young and fragmented history.
At the heart of the matter is the structure of the country’s electoral and parliamentary system, the latter of which is perfectly bicameral as it sees the lower (Chamber of Deputies) and upper (Senate) houses possessing equal legislative power.
Throughout the First Republic, Italian general elections were run on a “hyper” proportional representation method, resulting in acute political fragmentation. Such an electoral system itself was seen as a crucial component in Italy’s transition from being a Fascist dictatorship to a fully-fledged democracy.
Nevertheless, the struggle to obtain a majority resulted in minority coalition governments, which throughout the course of the First Republic were almost always led by the Christian Democrats.
Coalition governments are themselves often inherently unstable since they rely on an alliance between parties that are electoral rivals and which will often pursue their interests when push comes to shove.
Italy is a good example of this where in-party squabbles — exacerbated by the Christian Democrats’ own internal political divisions — rendered governments particularly feeble.
In 1954, one Christian Democratic cabinet lasted only three weeks, after members of the party itself did not support it in a confidence vote.
“Throughout the First Republic, internal divisions contributed to such instability,” Daniele Pasquinucci, a political historian at the University of Siena, told Euronews. “Governments often collapsed because of these divisions, and this made our parties fragile.”
The chaos afflicting post-war Italian politics was ultimately unsustainable and the electoral system itself was widely seen as facilitating such corruption. After years of pressure from various political camps, Italy’s electoral law was revised in 1993, becoming a mixed system which included elements of first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting.
As a result of such electoral reforms — which themselves have been amended several times since then — Italy’s governments have lasted somewhat longer from the 1990s onwards.
But longstanding political frictions and personal feuds have resulted in much of the same problems that beset governments during the First Republic.
Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s big-tent coalition, for instance, collapsed after disagreements on Italy’s economic aid decree resulted in three of the governing parties (the Five Star Movement, Forza Italia and Northern League) withholding their support in a confidence vote this July.
The chief instigator of the crisis was no other than former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was himself ousted in a not-too-dissimilar scenario last year after a faction within his coalition pulled the plug over political disputes.
Throughout the years, attempts have been made to resolve what has now become a chronic problem. In 2016, a proposed constitutional change drafted by Matteo Renzi’s government aimed to reduce the volatility of Italian politics by reforming the parliamentary system and curtailing the Senate’s power.
It was put to the vote in a public referendum held in December of that year but failed to go through. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, the amendment’s failure resulted in Renzi’s own resignation and the formation of a new cabinet.
How does Italy compare to other European countries?
Italy is often portrayed as an outlier in Europe due to its high government turnover rate. But is it really so different to its neighbours?
At the time of writing, the country has been governed by 67 cabinets since World War II, including a further two prior to the country becoming a republic.
In contrast, the UK has had up to 30 and Germany 24, if one includes all cabinet reshuffles.
France, on the other hand, beats Italy with 73 governments since 1946. But most of the turnover happened during the post-war ‘Fourth Republic’ period that lasted until 1958.
At the time, France had a proportional representative electoral system that also resulted in unsteady coalitions and rapid successions of prime ministers – 16 in only 12 years, with an average of a new cabinet every six months.
As Pasquinucci noted, Italy shares some commonalities with its western neighbour, and — while certainly distinct — is not unique in Europe, noting that short-lived governments are not an inherent sign of political instability.
“The high government turnover in the decades after the war finds its closest comparison with the French ‘Fourth Republic,'” Pasquinucci stated. “The Italian ‘First Republic’ could almost be described as a French ‘Fourth Republic’ that lasted longer.”
“Italy has had many governments, for sure, but I don’t want to say it’s a ‘typically Italian’ issue,” he added.
Will a Giorgia Meloni-led government manage to defy the odds?
While Giorgia Meloni gets to work on drafting up her cabinet, a big question on people’s minds is whether the fresh-faced PM can defy the odds and manage to survive a government crisis.
An analysis of Italy’s past few decades shows that right-wing governments can be said to enjoy a slightly greater degree of stability and cohesion than their leftist counterparts.
Since the collapse of the First Republic, Italy has had 17 governments. Four of these have been right-wing, with a total duration of 9.1 years; seven have been leftist, lasting 10.3; the rest have been big-tent coalitions.
This would prove that, over the past three decades, right-wing governments have tended to survive somewhat longer than those of their ideological opponents (2.3 years versus 1.5 years). Moreover, they have all been headed by headed by the same prime minister (Silvio Berlusconi), and never resulted in the calling of a snap election.
“[Right-wing governments] have been longer-lasting and have maintained largely similar electoral coalitions,” Andrea Mammone, a historian at Rome’s Sapienza University, told Euronews.
Nevertheless, all may not be so rosy for Meloni as she takes office.
The right-wing alliance she leads brings together movements with a wide range of ambitions, with hidden rifts and tensions between its leaders.
Her coalition currently includes own Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), a nationalist party with roots in Italy’s neo-fascist tradition; Matteo Salvini’s populist, anti-immigration Northern League (Lega Nord); veteran Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia; and Maurizio Lupi’s small, centrist Us Moderates (Noi Moderati).
On election day last month, Berlusconi was recorded telling his supporters that he wanted to “beat” his coalition colleague Matteo Salvini, accusing the League politician of “never having worked.”
“I still have love for him,” Salvini quipped on Twitter in response to the former PM’s jibes.
Salvini and Meloni herself have also not always seen eye-to-eye.
In a leaked recording from last October, the Northern League leader can be seen describing his coalition colleague a “pain in the ass”.
Nevertheless, Meloni has publicly dismissed rumours of internal feuds in her coalition.
“[The press] can put its mind at ease,” she recently wrote on Twitter. “The unified centre-right [coalition] won the election and is ready to govern.”
But do the facts reflect Meloni’s words? The far-right leader’s coalition includes political figures with wide-ranging, often clashing views, on the whole gamut of issues, ranging from the Ukraine war to the European Union.
In regards to Ukraine, Meloni has taken an ardently pro-NATO position and has firmly defended the Western response to Moscow’s aggression. Salvini, on the other hand, has maintained a somewhat ambivalent stance on sanctions, while Berlusconi – a longstanding friend of Vladimir Putin – even defended the Russian President last month by claiming he was “pushed” into invading Ukraine.
“It’s difficult to make predictions,” Mammone remarked. “The biggest problems they’ll face will be on foreign policy issues.”
The right-wing bloc’s leaders may have been able to brush such differences aside in the election season, but things may play out differently while in power.
The track record of right-wing governments ultimately suggests Meloni faces brighter prospects than some of her predecessors. Nonetheless, the new PM will still face a Herculean challenge if she wants to try to keep her government together and finally break the pattern that has been plaguing Italian politics from its genesis.