The Stakes for Italy: An Analysis of the Current Electoral Campaign

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By Andrew Schaaf

On February 8, 2013 John Cabot University held an academic seminar to discuss the issues and controversies surrounding the impending Italian election, scheduled for the end of February. The seminar included speakers from John Cabot University, the University of Rome “RomaTre,” and the University of Bologna. The audience included students, professors, and members of the press.

Luigi Sensi, JCU: The paradox of Italy’s relationship with Mario Monti
Professor Sensi discussed the relationship that Italy has with technocrat Mario Monti, an outsider to the Italian political game. Monti helped to salvage the Italian economy, which found itself drowning in inappropriate fiscal policy—a situation parallel to that of Greece at one point. Monti established himself as an honest, competent, and intelligent leader. Monti reformed the pension and labor system, raised taxes, and cut spending, making some interest groups very upset. He was criticized for being too weak in in some areas but was never called dishonest or incompetent. Contrary to popular belief, Monti was very popular in terms of approval rating. He eventually decided to enter the political arena, rather than remain just a world class economist. Despite the economic reforms that he carried out when other Italian politicians failed to do so, most Italians still favor the parties that have been in power for 20 years. This conflicting voter behavior does not follow any established voting behavior model. This political phenomenon is unique for three key reasons:

  • Never have Italians had better reasons to be disillusioned with their government system because of all the failure and corruption;
  • The financial crisis along with the high youth unemployment has created an extremely fragile economic situation that requires serious guidance;
  • There is growing abstensionism, which does nothing to fix the issues of the political system. Abstainers need to be convinced to go out and vote for candidates who aren’t members of the major parties that are currently to blame.

Regardless of who is elected, there needs to be some sort of exceptional act that isn’t consistent with the current political behavior that Italy is experiencing.

Federigo Argentieri, JCU: The ghost of elections past: why are Italian parties still affected by the Cold War syndrome?
Although the main Italian figures of the Cold War such as Nenni, Togliatti, and De Gasperi have been long gone, their effects still linger in Italian politics. The Italian constitution has allowed for the proliferation of bureaucracy with ramifications that have been costly and plague the current Italian electorate. To explain the Cold War syndrome, Professor Argentieri offered a dialogue. He created a conversation between a Leftist (post-communist) and a Center-Rightist (anti-communist). Through this conversation, it was made very clear that the center-right was created in response to the communist party and its antagonism toward the European Union. He showed that the center-right engaged in illegal activities, such as utilizing the Mafia, in order to remove the communists from power. And so, the communists simply responded to the center-right with equally radical actions, leading to this self-perpetuating cycle of finger pointing, corruption, and scandals. All three of those things have been trademarked as a routine part of Italian elections. None of those three things should have anything to do with a democracy. And it is this lack of legitimate bipartisanship and national consensus that keeps Italy from making any real political strides towards stability and efficiency. This lack of genuine cohesion allows men such as Berlusconi to manipulate their way back into government time and time again.

Pietro Paganini, JCU: An insider’s perspective on party communication and strategy: possible scenarios of political consequences
Professor Paganini examined the controlled chaos that is the Italian electoral system. Recent polls have shown how volatile Italian constituents are and how unstable the political system remains. It now appears that the Democratic Party, which once could count on a sure fire victory, will no longer win with any ease. Berlusconi and his party, the Popolo della Libertà (PDL), are now rising in the polls. The Democratic Party maintains an old structure with old ideas and poor communication. They are always one step behind Berlusconi because of communications problems. The Democratic Party formed a very small coalition, which was an unintelligent move because they cut themselves off from the rest of the ideological spectrum that they could have utilized. Now Berlusconi and the PDL have the backing of other smaller parties that they can use to attract votes. Additionally, Mario Monti, is now being exiled from Italian politics and is being accused of being an outsider. Paradoxically, an outsider is exactly that Italy needs.  There is also FARE, the most American party in Italy because of its libertarian views. FARE is comparable to what Ron Paul attempted to do in the U.S. It attracted a lot of young votes because of its non-traditionalist views including the reduction of centralized government power.

Lorenzo Mosca, Università di RomaTre: The five-star movement between continuity and innovation in Italian Politics
The Five Star Movement does not consider itself a party and does not identify with either the left or the right. It is actually a hybrid, something in between a public movement and a political party. Its thematic focus calls for participatory democracy and emphasis on post materialist values. Its leaders, activists and voters use new media. It is a very modern party that is looking to revolutionize Italian politics and hinges on the dissatisfaction with Italy’s current state of affairs. The party leader, Beppe Grillo is a comedian well known for his provocative TV shows, some of which were taken off the air because of their satirical nature and attacks on the Socialist party. The five stars of the movement symbolize the protection of the environment, alternative energies, opposition to water privatization, sustainable mobility, and increased connectivity (free Wi-Fi).

The constituents of the five-star movement utilize the internet far more than other parties. The young age of parliamentary candidates could create a movement towards modernization of the Italian political system. The fact that a person who does not hold public office is controlling the party is a new feature on the political landscape and it will be interesting to see how events unfold.

Franco Pavoncello, JCU: The electoral systems of bipolarism in Italy – structures and consequences
Dr. Pavoncello elected to examine the structure of the Italian electoral system. Initially Italy had a system known as the Matarellum, single district member plurality, a majority based system. With this system, there was too much single party domination. And so the right proposed another system, the Porcellum, which was more of a proportional representation system that offered a percentage to receive the lower house majority. This complicated style of voting in conjunction with corruption, warranted the creation of various other parties and created a very heterogeneous parliament. There is now this sentiment of bipolarism, which is ineffective. The conflicting ideals of not only the various parties, but intraparty ideals as well, make for a very unresponsive government. It seems that electoral reform is necessary to make any sort of progress in the future. Hence, even if you were to win the lower house without a coalition, you could have other parties blocking your party’s bills in the Senate.

There are just far too many things that prevent the passage of legislation. This is a systematic failure that is created by the Porcellum.  As it stands now, the Italian political system is not capable of maintaining the country’s economy in relation to the global economy that it is so vitally a part of. This is the decline of the 2nd republic bipolar system and ideally we will see the rise of a system that will actually allow Italy to function and deal with pressing international issues.

Piero Ignazi, University of Bologna: The Italian parties and party system: national peculiarities and European standard
Professor Ignazi first addressed the birth of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Its widespread successes in the media and financial areas have distinguished it from the standard of most European political parties. As of 2008, it evolved into the Popolo della Libertà and still remains as one of the top two Italian parties. Ignazi then addressed party volatility and instability. Parties come and go in Italy faster than anywhere else and so naturally their constituencies change in accordance. This has created a low and ineffective institutionalized system, which must be changed soon, as Dr. Pavoncello said in his presentation. Thirdy, Ignazi commented on the campaign financing aspect of the Italian system. Funds that cannot be drawn from membership dues are provided by the state. Italian parties are notorious for having the highest amount of public contribution to their political campaigns.

Ignazi pointed out the peculiarities represented by a tycoon who enters politics and remains in power for such an extended amount of time despite the numerous scandals surrounding him and his party.

In the end, membership in political parties in Italy is stronger than ever. In order to change things in Italy do we need some structural reforms through legislation, or do we need a full-scale revolution? Despite the 1994 reforms, polarization remains and the social divisions have brought back. It seems as though this 2013 election will be strikingly similar to the 1994 election. Public opinion is becoming increasingly frustrated and the notion of a revolution is becoming more and more appealing.