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.

This problem will have to be faced when Dini resigns sometime in the late autumn—if it does not happen earlier during the discussion of the budget. Three outcomes are possible: a Dini government supported by the present ribaltone majority; a Dini government supported by a larger, ‘grand coalition’ majority including both the centre–left and the centre– right; or new elections. We have described the drawbacks of the latter, but the first two outcomes are not very viable or desirable either. A ribaltone majority would be very small and shaky, and would give disproportionate power to the Lega; it would be fiercely attacked by the centre–right, since the worst of the economic emergency is now over and the government should start to tackle deeply political problems; most important of all, it would put the pds in the very embarrassing position of supporting a government that is anything but left-wing and may be forced to take rather unpopular measures. A grand coalition would diffuse political responsibility for unpopular decisions and is also the most appropriate solution for the task of redrafting basic constitutional rules; on most issues, however, the positions of the two camps are very distant and the amount of trust and goodwill between them is desperately low. As I write this in mid August, I cannot judge precisely how probable each of these outcomes are. It is likely, though, that the grand coalition solution will be seriously sought—the President of the Republic could give Dini a specific mandate for it—but that it will be impossible to obtain. Since the ribaltone solution would be discarded by the pds and Dini, new elections would become inevitable. Everybody knows that elections will probably not solve the problem—that they are rather like kicking the radio when more appropriate means of repairing it have failed. There is though always the tiny hope that this kick will work, and a stable, coherent centre–right or centre–left majority will materialize in the new parliament.

This is a short outline of the superficial aspects of the recent Italian political crisis. It serves as a simple reminder for those who do not follow the intricacies of Italian politics very closely. Though it might appear extreme and baroque, this Italian story contains some points of interest for those who live in advanced democracies where an open political crisis has not (yet?) occurred. The experience of a country where the forces making for continuity and stability are weaker, where the ruling elite is less unified, the state apparatus less competent and efficient, political allegiances less deeply rooted and ideological conflict more pronounced, and where regional differences are more extreme, can clearly illustrate the general trends producing instability everywhere. Ross Perot did not win the presidency, whereas Berlusconi became the head of government, but both are an expression of underlying populist tendencies present in many advanced democracies. Television politics had a sudden and disproportionate influence in Italy due to the role played by Berlusconi but clearly the old ways of organizing political consensus are not so healthy in other developed countries: the mass party, that great political invention of the late-nineteenth century, is giving way to personalistic leadership and almost Stalinist—or business-like—internal party practices all over Europe. In Italy two big parties, springing from important European political traditions, have practically disappeared, while their brethren continue to survive or even prosper elsewhere. Yet it is reasonable to ask: do these giants not have feet of clay? The disaffection of the Italians with their parties was certainly extreme, amply justified by the incompetence, arrogance and corruption of their politicians, but are the other political elites of Europe much appreciated by the citizens of their own countries? Is not corruption becoming an important political issue in Spain, France and Germany? What would happen in these countries if the judiciary had the same freedom of manoeuvre and political activism it showed in Italy, and if it was prodded into action by a populist government?