If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Italy is currently gripped by the most serious political crisis that it has experienced since the consolidation of Christian-Democrat power after the general election of 18 April 1948. The present crisis is so deep that it could have offered the Left an unparalleled opportunity to gain a popular mandate for radical and far-reaching political and social change had the pds—the renamed majority of the former Communist Party (pci)—been capable of taking resolute and decisive action with extreme rapidity, in other words precipitating a parliamentary crisis that would have fatally undermined Amato’s tottering government before the 18 April referendum and led to a general election under the old rules this summer, whilst working-class discontent with the government’s economic and social policy of savage austerity was still swollen by a much broader and far more socially amorphous popular outrage against the criminality and corruption of an entire governing class. Instead the political crisis is bound to lead to a rapid shift to the right, to the installation of a new electoral system that will restrict the possibility of meaningful change and, within a very short period of time, to a Second Republic, which in the worst possible scenario might well take on a presidential character—with Segni as the Italian De Gaulle—and will certainly scrap the postwar settlement of the Republic born of the Resistance in favour of an all-out offensive against the trade unions and the welfare state to the accompaniment of a brutal British-style privatization programme, returning to monopoly capital sectors of the economy that even Mussolini believed were best run by the state.

A clear ‘No’ vote in the 18 April 1993 referendum on the electoral system would have finally swept away one of the most rotten, vicious and murderous ruling classes ever to govern a West European country within the formal framework of universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy. The inquiry into Tangentopoli (Bribesville) instigated by the courageous magistrate Di Pietro exposed corruption on such a massive scale that it shocked even a deeply cynical nation which had long associated politics with bribes and kick-backs but imagined that the party secretaries were more likely to turn a blind eye to the petty misdeeds of their underlings than to be directly receiving tens of millions of pounds intangenti in their own offices. Yet for all their opulence and arrogance, Craxi and his cronies—like the gross De Michelis who had taken such delight in placing Venice’s historic heritage at risk for the sake of money-spinning pop concerts, or the hypocritical justice minister Martelli, who played a leading role in pushing through harsh laws consigning petty drug offenders to jail soon after failing to explain the presence of marijuana on his Kenyan plane—were only an extreme instance of the practices that had infected all the countries of Mediterranean socialism in the 1980s. The ruling parties of Mitterrand’s France, Gonzalez’s Spain and Papandreou’s Greece behaved in a similar fashion, even if they did not always manage to pocket sums of an equal magnitude. It was the crimes of blood associated with Christian-Democracy, rather than the financial swindles of Craxismo, that really marked out the Italian ruling elite from its counterparts—crimes of blood conventionally attributed to black terrorists, red terrorists, or mafiosi but whose organizing intelligence was never far from the Piazza del Gesù, no matter who actually planted the dynamite or pulled the trigger. Christian-Democrat complicity had extended from massacres linked to the strategy of tension, like Piazza Fontana in 1969 or Bologna railway station in August 1980, to the murders of General Della Chiesa in broad daylight in central Palermo in 1982 and of the anti-Mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino in 1992, via what must rank as the most bizarre incident of all, the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, which the victim himself in his last writings blamed on his Christian-Democrat colleagues, rather than his nominal captors, the heavily-infiltrated Red Brigades. On the very eve of the referendum the long invulnerable Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister, frequently defence minister or foreign minister, in power for fifty years and popularly known as Beelzebub, finally faced a Senate committee, accused of deep Mafia involvement by Palermo magistrates, profoundly unsure that he would survive this scandal in the way he had survived all the others.

Yet the ‘Yes’ vote has ensured the survival of the old oligarchy, with a Chamber of Deputies that voted at the end of April to protect Craxi from the magistrates. It is a sad irony that many of the 82.7 per cent who voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum on the Senate did so in the belief that they were passing judgement on men whom they regarded as thieves and murderers, an irony which can only be accounted for by the systematic distortion of what was at stake in the referendum by the controllers of the mass media and the leadership of the pds. Whatever pretence of equity may have been adopted during the period of the campaign—a pretence exposed by the last-minute appearance of commentators and politicians urging a ‘Yes’ vote on programmes transmitted on the evening of 18 April when polling was still going on—the fact remains that the three state television channels are controlled by the three major political parties: Rai Uno by the dc, Rai Due by the psi and Rai Tre by the pds, all of whom were urging a ‘Yes’ vote. Berlusconi’s private television channels lined up behind the ‘Yes’ campaign in the belief that a victory for Segni would increase the chances of a subsequent privatization of all or part of the Rai at bargain-basement prices. Moreover, the three major daily newspapers are controlled by the major industrial firms, and Confindustria made no bones about its enthusiasm for a ‘Yes’ vote. Those who complain so loudly about the British Murdoch press may be surprised by the fact that both La Stampa of Turin and Il Corriere della Sera of Milan are owned by fiat, providing an example of direct linkage between monopoly capital and the media that the uninitiated would assume impossible outside the pages of an old-fashioned Soviet propaganda manual, whilst the industrialist De Benedetti of Olivetti fame has a controlling stake in La Repubblica. The dismal role played by the pds, which was absolutely decisive in many regions of Italy, will be analysed later—at this stage it is sufficient to point out that in a week in which the Christian-Democrats and Socialists were left in total disarray, the only party to plaster the country with posters urging a ‘Yes’ vote was the pds.

Given the centrality of the referendum to the outcome of the Italian crisis, some explanation of the history of the Italian electoral system since unification is essential. Whilst some of the inevitable distortions induced by a shift from proportional representation to a barely modified replica of the British system will be apparent to all who have followed the debates over electoral reform in the United Kingdom over the last decade, some of the potential consequences in large areas of Southern Italy will only become clear in historical context. Although the next general election will be the first using something close to the Westminster system, other versions of winner-takes-all, single-member constituencies dominated the first sixty years of the unified state. Throughout the Liberal era the Senate was a nominated, not an elected, body, so it is only the system adopted for the Chamber of Deputies that need concern us. Single-member constituencies, inherited from the Piedmontese state, became the norm in 1861 and remained so until 1882. After an experiment with multi-member constituencies, a slightly different version of the single-member constituency system was adopted in 1891 and remained in force until 1919.

Both the 1861–82 and 1891–1919 systems involved provisions for a ballotaggio, a second round, if no candidate won a sufficiently clear majority in the initial contest, which gave the systems a French rather than a British flavour. The suffrage during most of this period remained a restricted one based on property and literacy qualifications. In 1870 1.98 per cent of the population had the right to vote; the extension of the franchise in 1882 raised the figure to 6.9 per cent. The contrast with the parliament of the French Third Republic or the German Empire’s Reichstag elected by universal male suffrage is quite marked and reflected a belief on the part of the narrow Liberal ruling elite that the masses were prone to clerical and socialist subversion and best excluded from politics altogether. Elections in such single-member constituencies with small numbers of voters frequently degenerated into popularity contests between local notables, with corruption and coercion being commonplace in Southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia.

1912 saw a more substantial extension of the franchise to all males over thirty, and to all males over twenty-one who had either done military service or passed a literacy test—a provision which excluded a fair number of young illiterates judged unfit for military service in the malaria-ridden and poverty-stricken South. Nonetheless, this near universal male suffrage raised the potential electorate to 24 per cent of the population. Whilst the Socialists made noticeable gains, the single-member constituency acted as a barrier to the emergence of a fully fledged mass politics in the 1913 election. A clandestine deal between Giolittian Liberals and right-wing Catholics—the Gentiloni Pact—contained the Left’s advance, even if it increased the number of Catholic deputies and contributed to the eventual disintegration of the Giolittian system. The political and social upheavals produced by the First World War ensured that 1919 saw a move to genuinely universal male suffrage and, more significantly, proportional representation and multi-member constituencies. The postwar elections of November 1919 and May 1921 saw the rise of mass politics, with the Socialists and the newly formed Catholic party, the Partito Popolare, sweeping away many Liberal notables in Northern and Central Italy. The fact that the two mass parties combined took half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies paralysed the workings of parliament and some accounts see it as a major factor in the rise of Fascism, pushing the old elites towards extra-parliamentary methods. Suffice it to say that the introduction of proportional representation in Italy coincided with the arrival of mass politics, whilst single-member constituencies had long been associated with wealthy notables employing corruption and coercion—including in western Sicily a long-standing alliance with the Mafia. The Fascists abolished proportional representation in 1923 with the notorious Acerbo Law which assigned two-thirds of the seats to the list which gained the largest number of votes, providing it achieved 25 per cent. The intimidation during the 1924 election ensured that the lists associated with the Fascists obtained 64.9 per cent and therefore triggered the legal mechanism favouring the majority party. Given the association between Fascism and the first attack on proportional representation, an attack that preceded the total abolition of parliamentary democracy, it is hardly surprising that when democracy was restored after the Second World War, in a fuller form that extended the franchise to adult females, the Constituent Assembly of 1946 was elected by a system of proportional representation, and that this assembly in its turn decided by an overwhelming majority to adopt a proportional system for the first conventional general election in 1948.