Italy Produces a Ballot-Box Revolution

April 03, 1994|By DAVID I. KERTZER

An electoral revolution swept Italy this past week in parliamentary voting that decimated the parties that had ruled Italy since 1948.

Indeed, the remnants of the Christian Democratic Party, which had monopolized political power throughout the post-war years, received only 11 percent of the vote. The Socialists, the Christian Democrats' long-time partner in power, received so few votes they did not qualify to elect anyone. The smaller parties that had long been part of the ruling coalition -- the Social Democrats, Liberals and Republicans, no longer existed.

In their place, for the first time since Mussolini, the right was poised to take power. In an odd menage a trois, a coalition composed of forces supporting the media and business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, the anti-central-government Northern League, and the neo-fascist National Alliance won a solid majority of seats in the lower house, and came within a hair of an absolute majority in the Senate.

The chaotic state of Italian politics is reflected in the fact that of the seven parties that passed the 4 percent threshold to elect members of Parliament, not one existed under the same name in 1980. Amazingly, only one of the seven existed as recently as 1990.

The old parties in power had been so discredited by the massive corruption scandal that has swept Italy over the past two years that, if they presented themselves at all, they did so only after dissolving and reforming under different banners. This was the case of the Christian Democrats, with many of its top leaders and hundreds of its other office-holders awaiting trial. Just two months ago the remnants of the party regrouped as the Popular Party, seeking to stake out a claim to the political center.

Meanwhile, the Italian Social Movement, the neo-fascist party known for its fondness for Roman salutes and black shirts, sought to remake its image by creating a new party it dubbed the National Alliance. Its strategy was wildly successful, as it almost tripled its vote of just two years ago, receiving 13 percent of the ballots cast. More important, while in previous years no other party would risk having anything to do with the neo-fascists, they had now become a key part of the victorious coalition.

With the former parties in power discredited, the election became a contest between the coalition on the right and a coalition dominated by the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). The PDS had itself formed only in 1991 as a result of the jettisoning by the old Italian Communist Party of what was left of its Communist identity. Italian Communists had long had the largest party outside the Communist world. In the 1970s, the Communists had come close to winning national elections, but in recent years the party had suffered a slow decline tied in part to the collapse of the Communist regimes.

In local elections throughout the country last year, the PDS won big. With the collapse of its long-time opponents, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, the PDS was widely believed to be in a position to win these elections. This made their defeat all the more bitter.

This was the first parliamentary election in a new electoral system that many predicted would lead to a new Republic, so radical were its anticipated effects.

The old system of proportional representation, associated with the constant need for national party leaders to wheel and deal behind closed doors to form coalition governments, was thrown out. In its place, in a compromise, three-quarters of the seats were based on single-district contests in which the candidate with the most votes would win. The other quarter of the seats were to be distributed on a national, proportional basis.

The aim of the electoral reform -- the product of a grass-roots referendum movement -- was to weaken the power of the parties and make elected officials more responsive to their constituents.

Indeed, at the heart of both the corruption scandal and the popular disgust with the political system was what Italians dub the "partitocrazia." The term refers to the way the parties have exerted control over the nation's economy. A huge sector of Italy's economy -- from transportation to basic industries to banks -- is owned by the state. The major parties essentially divide up the spoils by doling out the jobs in these state enterprises.

Yet the experience of this first vote under the new system gives little reason to believe party power has been undermined. From the early dissolution of the current Parliament in January, only a month was allowed for candidates to get on the ballot. With no provision for primaries, and with the need in the new system to ensure inter-party cooperation in putting forth coalition candidates in each district, candidates continued to be selected by party machines.

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