Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Ungovernable Italy?

Last week there was a flurry of Italian national pride when European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said that Italy, like Bulgaria and Romania, was ungovernable.

Oettinger: „Mir machen Länder Sorgen, die im Grunde genommen kaum regierbar sind: Bulgarien, Rumänien, Italien.“ Dazu komme, dass in vielen Ländern EU-kritische Bewegungen stärker würden. In Großbritannien regiere Premier Cameron mit einer „unsäglichen Hinterbank, seiner englischen Tea-Party“.
The slight was more being put in the same category as Bulgaria and Romania, but the question remains: is Italy ungovernable?

In a sense, whatever the answer, as social scientists we ought to be grateful to Italy and the Italians for providing us with an apparently disfunctional polity which allows us to test our hypotheses.

Two elections in three months can illustrate why it is and it isn’t.

The duration of the government or the time needed to form a new one are not prima facie evidence of ungovernability. From the fall of fascism in 1943 to 1994, a watershed year, often called “the first republic”, there were 56 “governments”, which last just under 11 months on average. Sometimes the “crises” were resolved in a day or two, sometimes it took more than three months. And yet Italy was far from being “ungovernable”. It was a period of great growth, for the most part, massive social change was managed, not always well but seldom disastrously and the “governments” did what governments are supposed to do: present, develop and implement policy. They did it in a muddled way but they did it.

The single individuals involved in government were the most stable class in the world, including the Soviet Union and even neighbouring Albania with Enver Hoxha. Giulio Andreotti outlasted them all.

Belgium, too, in its recent crisis (2010-11, 541 days needed to form a government) showed that a country could function quite well without a fully empowered government. The present Italian government was formed after a mere two months although some of the incompatibilities between the parties are as great as in the Belgian case. But forming a government in a tenth of the time the Belgians took does not equal “governability”.

The present difficulty, and the reason for Oettinger’s remark, are due to structural-institutional reasons and political-social ones.

The institutional reasons are easy to list. The electoral system and Italy’s perfect bicameralism.

The present electoral system, PR with fixed party lists, a national premium for the chamber, regional premiums in the senate, guarantees a working majority in the Chamber (the winning party or coalition takes 340/630 seats. Today the PD led coalition with 29.55% of the vote has 340 deputies or 54% of the seats, while the PdL led coalition with 29.18 has 124 or 20%). In the Senate, no party has a majority. The centre-left won 31.63% of the vote and took 113 seats (36%) while the centre-right won 30.72 and 116 seats (37%). Grillo and the Five Star Movement won 23.79% and 54 senators (17%).

These numbers would not be a problem if Italy did not have perfect bicameralism – unique, I think, in a parliamentary system. The theoretical nightmare which constitutionalists had been worrying about for years, actually happened in February. To form a government, a prospective PM needs the confidence of both houses and there was no way that Bersani could do it given Grillo’s absolute refusal to negotiate and his own refusal to form a coalition with Berlusconi’s PdL.

A solution is therefore to reform both these pieces of institutional architecture: change the electoral law in order to guarantee a working majority in both houses and/or dismantle the perfect bicameralism. There are moves to do both; yesterday President Napolitano again reminded the parties of their commitment to reform.

There have been other attempts; the present electoral law is the third since the foundation of the republic and talk of reforming the senate goes back to the 1980s. Letta gave himself and parliament 18 months from September to complete the reforms – he will be lucky if his government lasts half that time and even if it did, the chances of passing major constitutional reform in less than two years are very slim.

But it is the inhabitants of the constitution that are the real problem, more than the architecture. But we know that it is not the architecture which conditions the politics but vice versa. Italy itself has normally had coalition governments and when it didn’t, as with Berlusconi in 2008, the big majority did not guarantee his government’s survival. Even the UK has a coalition. Nor is the problem the fact that Italy is split three ways – there are plenty of countries where there is a three way division and they are able to govern effectively, starting with Germany.

The problem, or rather the symptom of the change is, or was until a month ago, that the three elements were unwilling to work together.

The solution that was reached is not a happy one and it is very fragile.

It was reached by President Napolitano pushing the powers of the presidency to the limit. He had made his support of a “Grand Coalition” between PD and PdL very clear from the beginning and so prevented Bersani from actually trying for a minority government. There was certainly no guarantee that he would have succeeded in creating a PD government with occasional but sufficient external support from Grillo to survive.

Instead, Italy has an uneasy coalition in which the minority component, the PdL, conditions the government’s survival and can pull the plug whenever they want. It is as fragile as a minority PD government might have been.

But in the meantime, Italy has been taken off the EU’s excess deficit blacklist, the difference between the interest rates on German and Italian bonds (“the spread”), is under control so there are positive signs even if they are the result of action taken by Monti and even by Tremonti in Berlusconi’s government.

Much more worrying is the precariousness of the government, vulnerable to even minor crises in the PD or PdL. In the local elections last month, the turnout hit record lows showing that Italians’ alienation of politics is still growing.

This means that the “government” has indeed great difficulty in doing what it says it wants to do. Oettinger was right.

This is a summary of a talk given to heads of departments from the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Oslo.

1 comment:

italpolblog said...

Richard Fremantle made this very acute comment à propos US presidentialism:

The American system has something else which greatly limits the power of the central government: each American State has it's own government, and decides most things which form everyday life: each of the 50 States has it's own finance for its own laws and taxes, its own Governor (President) and Congress, its own police, its own schools, its own roads, etc. Each State runs most of its own everyday affairs without interference from the central government in Washington. In the case of Wyoming with some 500,000 people this is a fairly insignificant matter - although Wyoming has 2 Senators in Washington like every other State, and as such very powerful figures - this Obama has discovered and now knows well - but California not only also has only 2 Senators...it has 60,000,000 people (the population of the UK, Italy, France)...most of whom hardly pay attention in their everyday lives to what happens in Washington, a whole continent away... This self government of each of the 50 States hardly gets a mention in the papers or on TV except in Tornado or New Orleans or Sandy-type emergencies, as its too mundane in everyday US life to sell newspapers. But this independance of the States is one of the prime reasons that Presidential power is much more limited in the US than in Europe, where the various regions of countries have almost no independant power at all.

My own reply: Very nicely put - and until Italian regions raise their own taxes, there can be no serious federalism here.

Richard's answer: "I always say the UK originally had a similar system of independance in the counties but already in the 18th c that had been abused - one of the reasons the Americans in 1787 preserved States' powers, as a check to central government excesses.
Of course Britain has hardly done anything about the centralization since, causing much of the ever growing mess.