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POLITICS

Why do Italy’s governments collapse so often?

Political instability is nothing new to Italy, which has seen 14 prime ministers and 19 different governments over the last 30 years alone. After Prime Minister Mario Draghi's resignation this week, it's likely that another will soon join the list.

Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi looks on during the government crisis debate at the Senate in Rome on July 20, 2022.
Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi looks on during the government crisis debate at the Senate in Rome on July 20, 2022. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Draghi’s resignation on Thursday was the third by an Italian prime minister in three years. Five Star Movement (M5S) head Giuseppe Conte quit in August 2019 after around a year in the job, only to return at the head of a different coalition two weeks later.

Conte was forced to step down again January 2021 after Matteo Renzi withdrew his small Italia Viva party from government, leading to Draghi being appointed as a technocratic prime minister to helm a ‘unity’ coalition that ultimately imploded on Wednesday.

In other words, Italy has had three governments since its last general election in March 2018, and now faces early elections in the autumn – several months before this parliament’s five-year term was due to be up.

READ ALSO: LATEST: Italy’s Draghi steps down after government implodes

Italian politics aren’t always this unstable, of course; nor is the problem unique to Italy.

The past few years have seen disruption to the old political order across the continent. All over western Europe, political discussions have become more polarized, and the current problems in Italy share many aspects of those in its neighbouring countries.

The Five Star Movement (M5S), the largest partner in each of Italy’s past three coalition governments, billed itself as anti-establishment when it stormed into Italian politics a little over a decade ago, and was one of many populist groups in Europe to rise fast and take votes from both the left and right. And the issue of immigration has been divisive in Italy as it has in Germany, Sweden, Spain and other countries that also struggled to form governments after their most recent elections.

The fact remains, though, that while the situation in Germany, Sweden and other European countries – especially northern ones – is treated as unprecedented, in Italy the latest crisi di governo is seen in some ways as business as usual. Over the past 30 years, Italy’s 14 prime ministers compare to just five in Spain and six in Sweden, while France has been led by five presidents and Germany by just four chancellors.

So what is the Italian factor?

For starters, it’s a young country. The Kingdom of Italy was officially founded in 1861, making it nearly a century younger than the USA. Before this, the area which is now Italy was made up of rival regions which were under varying systems of rule, including for example the Papal States, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and Kingdom of the two Sicilies.

As the name suggests, the newly created Kingdom of Italy was ruled by a monarchy until the Second World War. After the war, Italy’s borders changed again, the monarchy was abolished, and Italy became a democratic republic.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system


Inside Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/Pool/AFP

Historical divisions between what were originally different states remain clear, and some regions (particularly the five that have a ‘special status’ in Italy) have very strong regional identities.

Italy’s south has far higher unemployment and poverty levels. These challenges combined with a frustration at perceived neglect by previous administrations contributed to huge numbers voting for the new Five Star Movement and its policies of a monthly minimum income and pension reforms in 2018.

Meanwhile Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League – formerly the Northern League – fared well in its wealthier heartlands in the north (though polling suggests it has succeeded in wooing more southern voters since then). So in some ways, it can be argued that the conflicts within Italy’s government reflect the competing concerns of different groups of Italians.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you’ll need to understand Italian political discussions

But Italy’s political landscape hasn’t always been as fractured as it is today. From 1946 to 1992, the dominant parties were the centrist Party of Christian Democracy and the Italian Communist Party. The Christian Democrats especially were the central force of Italian politics, featuring in every government, either alone or in coalition, for nearly 50 years.

Then, in the early 1990s, Communist regimes collapsed across Europe and the Italian party disbanded. At the same time, an unprecendented investigation into political corruption in Italy, now known as Mani Pulite (‘Clean Hands’), saw half of all lawmakers indicted and irrevocably damaged the reputation of most of the main parties. The Christian Democrats were among the worst tarnished and saw their support drastically eroded until the party was finally dissolved in 1994.

The resulting shake-up was so dramatic that it ushered in a whole new era in Italian politics. The period from 1992 onwards is now called the Second Republic, effectively ending the First Republic created after the Second World War, even though there was no actual change to the constitution.

Old parties reinvented themselves and new parties broke through, including Forza Italia and some organized around specific issues. One such party was the Northern League, created to campaign for autonomy for Italy’s northern regions but now fixated on opposing immigration and EU governance while demanding greater federalism.

BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO ITALY’S MAIN PARTIES: 

So Italy has a lot of political parties, most of which are either very new or have changed drastically in form and stance over the years, and it also has a political system under a century old. This means greater choice for voters, and no two-party system like those seen in the UK and USA. People are perhaps less likely to vote for a certain party simply because their parents have done, because it is the norm in their town, or because they consider themselves either left- or right-wing.

A large number of parties win seats in Italy’s two chambers of parliament, and no single party, nor even a coalition, has managed to secure enough seats to govern over the past six years.

Instead, Italy has been ruled by grand coalitions, or a group of parties from across the political spectrum which join together after the vote. Since the parties typically hold very different views, it’s not hard to see why such coalitions often have a hard time agreeing on legislation, and often end up in disagreements that lead to government collapse.

And in some ways, this instability is a feature rather than a bug of the system.

For a long time, Italy used proportional representation and had no minimum threshold of the total vote in order to gain seats, meaning small parties had a greater chance of representation. When the system was first created, the idea was to avoid the possibility of one party or leader becoming too powerful.

A new electoral law introduced for the last election brought in thresholds (3 percent for individual parties and 10 percent for coalitions) as well as a first-past-the-post element, which increased the incentive for forming coalitions.


A senator counts ballots in a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: Yara Nardi/Pool/AFP

But unlike Germany, Spain or a few other parliamentary democracies in Europe, which have adopted the rule that parliament can only bring down a government if a majority of lawmakers is agreed on who should replace it, in Italy these coalitions can see partners pull out at will – even if, as the tiny Italia Viva party demonstrated in 2021, they represent only a minority of MPs.

That leaves coalition governments vulnerable to blow-ups and opportunism, as junior partners seek more influence or cabinet positions by threatening to pull the plug on the administration, and in some cases actually doing it.

With no party in Italy currently in a position to rule alone, another coalition seems almost inevitable: at this stage, the most likely scenario is a ‘centre-right’ coalition led by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the far-right Brothers of Italy and the League following early elections in the autumn.

But with relations between the League’s Salvini and the Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni already strained as the two leaders vie for dominance over one another, whether such a government would offer more stability remains to be seen.

This is an updated version of an article first published in 2019.

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POLITICS

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.

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