In the last few years Italy has undergone an unusually profound and open political crisis, which is still very far from having settled down into a largely accepted, or even moderately viable, political arrangement. The crisis had been building for a long time, but broke—this is the conventional starting point—with the opening of a judicial inquiry into a case of political corruption in Milan: the so called Mani Pulite—‘clean hands’—inquiry in February 1992. The political elections of the following April did not reveal the full extent of the change that Mani Pulite had set in motion. Although the political career of the traditional government parties’ leaders—Andreotti and Forlani for the Christian Democrats, Craxi for the Socialists—immediately came to an end, the parties themselves and their smaller centrist allies still managed to obtain a small majority in both Houses. In June Amato, a Socialist better known for his competence and technical expertise than for his commitment to party politics, was appointed head of the government and held the office for less than one year; in April 1993 he had to pass the premiership to the former Governor of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Ciampi, who was known only for his technical expertise—his political views being a matter for speculation outside the circle of his personal friends.

As the Mani Pulite inquiry unfolded, revealing the depth and extent of political corruption throughout the country and monopolizing front pages for months on end, it became increasingly clear that support for the Socialist–Christian-Democratic majority which was backing Amato and Ciampi in parliament had evaporated in the country: polls, the results of various referenda and local elections held between 1992 and 1994 left no doubt on that score. This divide between parliament and country could not last for long. Elections held under a new, largely majoritarian system were called at the end of March 1994 and the judgment of the electorate was harsh. The Socialist Party almost entirely disappeared, the Christian-Democrats were reduced to a minor party and a clear victory was handed to centre-right and far-right parties: Forza Italia, led by the television magnate Berlusconi; the Lega, led by Bossi; and the former neo-fascist party, renamed Alleanza Nazionale, led by Fini. Despite their differences on many fundamental political questions, to exploit the new ‘first past the post’ electoral mechanism Berlusconi, Fini and Bossi had formed a curious alliance. With Bossi in the north and Fini in the south, Berlusconi was the architect and pivot of the alliance and was appointed Prime Minister in May 1994. This uneasy arrangement lasted only seven months, due to the defection of the Lega. Despite the protests of Berlusconi who wanted new elections—he had coined the abusive neologism ‘ribaltone’ (tip over) to mean that Bossi, with his defection, had betrayed a clear electoral mandate for a right-wing government—the President of the Republic appointed another central banker, Dini, as Prime Minister. He is still supported by a shaky majority composed of the Lega, minor centre-left parties—the largest being Partito Popolare, the left-wing offspring of Christian-Democracy—and most important of all the pds, the former Communist Party.

Dini presented a limited programme to parliament in January 1995 which was supposed to provide a ‘technical’ bridge between the political government of Berlusconi and a new government that would emerge from the next election which, it was anticipated, would be held early. Before such an election, however, the most intractable component of public expenditure, pensions, had to be controlled, a severe budget enacted and, if serious anti-trust legislation was to be avoided, at least a minimal set of rules about the use of television during the electoral campaign had to be imposed. While Dini pursued his programme with surprising political skill, the anti-Berlusconi coalition found a suitable candidate for the Premiership in Romano Prodi, a centre-left Christian-Democrat and a respected economist who had been the president of iri—the largest publicly-owned conglomerate—during the years of Socialist and Christian-Democratic rule, but had never been involved in party politics or in any major scandal. The lack of an appealing candidate had been one, though by no means the most important, of the factors behind the defeat of the Left in the 1994 elections and in an increasingly personalized political arena such a candidate had to be found. Moreover, after an acrimonious internal struggle the remaining Christian-Democrats split along a left–right divide, an outcome they had tried to avoid but which became irresistible; this means that the Lega is now the only party which is prepared to run alone, refusing both a centre–right and a centre–left alliance. As a consequence the stage seem to be set, if not for a two-party political contest, at least for a ‘two-coalition’ one, the centre–right led by Berlusconi and the centre–left by Prodi. The contest seems to be head-to-head. The local and regional elections of April 1995 resulted in a resounding victory for the centre–left. The sobering results of the June referenda—when a majority of Italian voters found nothing strange in letting Berlusconi keep half the national television network—reminded distracted or over-optimistic left-wingers that there is a big difference between local elections and a personalized, national political contest.

Does this development mark the end of the Italian political crisis? It seems too clean and rational a solution to be true. The minor parties, in both the centre–right and the centre–left camps, are worried by the prospect of early elections under the present system: they need the support of the big parties if any of their candidates are to have a chance of winning a seat in single constituencies. They are pressing for a new reform of the electoral law, this time in a proportional direction. The Lega is very much against Berlusconi but does not want to align formally with the Left, since it fears losing many of its voters, who are traditionally anti-communist. The big interests, both in the public and private sectors, are also very sceptical about the return of openly partisan politics: they trust neither Berlusconi and his populism, nor Prodi, because of the electoral alliances which will be forced upon him. Dini, by contrast, is competent and reliable, and is one of them, after all.

Both the unforeseen political ability of Dini and continuing political flux provide these establishment forces with some persuasive arguments. When Dini resigns, having completed his programme, why not give him a further and more ambitious task? There is much to be done before Italy reverts to partisan politics based on new rules: the electoral law has to be changed because the present one is a mess and nobody likes it—though for many different reasons; the 1948 Constitution has to be revised because it was based on a strictly proportional electoral system; and serious anti-trust legislation has to be introduced, going well beyond the hasty, unsatisfactory regulation of political propaganda during national elections, so as to keep the forces of money and power from blatant interference in politics. Most important of all, there is a negative argument: what will happen if the next election has no clear winner? If, as seems probable, the centre–right coalition prevails over the centre-left as narrowly defined, then would the latter depend on the votes of the Lega, or even Rifondazione—the die-hard communists—to produce a Prodi government? No coherent political programme could be implemented by such a coalition, and a crisis of government would soon result. Which is worse for democracy: to tolerate one or two more years of ‘technocratic’ government which would set the stage for a more orderly partisan conflict, or to plunge immediately into an incoherent and problem-ridden ‘political’ government? The big parties, who officially stand for early elections and could easily impose them, do not seem very sanguine about following this course of action. They worry about disappointing those among their supporters—presumably a large number in the case of Forza Italia—who are quite happy with Dini and do not see the need for change. What is more, the parties realize that the results of an election are really most uncertain: neither the centre–right, which would not win, nor the centre–left, which would get a parliamentary majority—but an unmanageable one—are very happy with that, and this explains why they do not press for early elections.