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Still the Anomalous Democracy? Politics and Institutions in Italy 1

  • Martin J. Bull and James L. Newell


Until the early 1990s, the Italian political system was regarded as anomalous among advanced democracies because of its failure to achieve alternation in government. Since then, that problem has been overcome, but Italy has been popularly viewed as continuing to be different to other democracies because it is ‘in transition’ between regimes. However, this position itself is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain because of the length of time of this so-called transition. Rather than focus on what is rather an abstract debate, it may be more fruitful to analyse what, in substance, is distinctive about Italian politics in this period: the manner in which a debate over fundamental institutional (including electoral) reform has become entangled in day-to-day politics. This can best be exemplified through an analysis of two key electoral consultations held in 2006: the national elections and the referendum on radically revising the Italian Constitution.



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The authors would like to thank the journal's two anonymous referees for their thoughtful suggestions on improving the article.



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2 Bull, M. J. and Newell, J. L., ‘Italian Politics and the 1992 Elections: From “Stable Instability” to Instability and Change’, Parliamentary Affairs, 46: 2 (1993), pp. 203–27.

3 Technically, Berlusconi's hold on office was not uninterrupted: ‘Following the heavy defeat of the Casa delle libertà (Cdl) in the April 2005 regional elections, Berlusconi was obliged by his allies – and more precisely, by pressure from the Union of Christian Democrats and Centre Democrats (UDC) – to resign and to create a second government through a rapid cabinet reshuffle,’ G. Pasquino, ‘The Political Context 2001–2006’, in J. L. Newell (ed.), The Italian General Election of 2006: Romano Prodi's Victory, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2008, pp. 15–32.

4 M. Cotta and L. Verzicelli, Political Institutions in Italy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 259.

5 The 1993 law provided for three-quarters of the seats to be distributed according to the single-member simple plurality system, thus requiring parties to form electoral coalitions behind alliance-wide candidates.

6 FI's vote declined from the 29.5 per cent it had won in 2001 to 21.0 per cent, while both the UDC and the League saw their vote shares rise (to 5.0 and 5.9 per cent respectively). Meanwhile, the parties of the centre left made only modest gains, passing from a combined share of 44.5 per cent in 2001 to 46.1 per cent in 2004.

7 Notwithstanding the earlier apparent falls in his popularity, in the 2006 election Berlusconi is widely thought to have staged a nearly successful ‘comeback’ based on a ‘solitary’ electoral campaign focused on his personal charisma. The thesis is one that arises from the gap between the expectations based on the centre left's pre-vote poll lead and the smallness of the distance between the two coalitions in terms of actual votes. The thesis is faced with four challenges in our view: (1) when compared not with poll results but the results of the two previous general elections the actual distance between the two coalitions is much less surprising; (2) if the pre-vote polls accurately reflected a centre-left lead that was then eroded, it remains to be explained why exit polls, on the two days of the vote, predicted a very similar lead; (3) the vote for Berlusconi's own party declined from 29.4 per cent in 2001 to 23.7 per cent; (4) the 24,755 votes separating the two coalitions in the Chamber domestic, majority-premium, arena was arguably due, not to a comeback, but to the electoral law and the consequent breadth of the two coalitions – which virtually eliminated ‘third-force’ candidacies and meant that votes for such forces would effectively be wasted votes in any case. For details see: Newell, J. L., ‘The Italian Election of 2006: Myths and Realities’, West European Politics, 29: 4 (September 2006), pp. 802–13; J. L. Newell, ‘Introduction: An Ambiguous Outcome?’, in Newell, The Italian General Election of 2006, pp. 1–12.

8 The 2006 campaign was much less candidate-centred than other post-‘First Republic’ campaigns because the electoral law was of the ‘closed-list’ variety. It remained, however, ‘leader-centred’.

9 A. Chiaramonte, ‘How Prodi's Unione Won by a Handful of Votes’, in Newell, The Italian General Election of 2006, pp. 203–22.

10 That is, in 1996, the centre right won 40.3 per cent of the vote in the plurality arena, but 42.1 per cent in the proportional arena. In 2001, when it took 45.4 per cent in the plurality arena and 49.6 per cent in the proportional arena, the difference was even larger.

11 Chiaramonte, ‘How Prodi's Unione Won by a Handful of Votes’.

12 In fact, parties and candidates unaligned with either of the two main coalitions won just 343,028 votes or 0.87 per cent of the valid vote total in the Chamber of Deputies election: see Chiaramonte, ‘How Prodi's Unione Won by a Handful of Votes’, table 10.1.

13 For details see D. Campus, ‘Campaign Issues and Themes’, and F. Roncarolo, ‘ “And the Winner is …”: Competing for Votes in the Print and Broadcast Media’, both in Newell, The Italian General Election of 2006, pp. 139–55 and 156–76 respectively; Newell, J. L., ‘The Italian General Election of 2006 and the Social Construction of Reality’, Italian Politics and Society: Review of the Conference Group on Italian Politics and Society, 63 (FallWinter 2006), pp. 1532.

14 Separate because electoral reform is not formally part of the Constitution, but at the same time entangled because of the recognized dependence of aspects of constitutional reform on the nature of the electoral system. Significantly, in this case, the electoral reform was introduced (in December 2005) only a month after the centre right's constitutional reform bill had been given definitive approval in parliament.

15 On the origins of the reform, see S. Vassallo, ‘The Constitutional Reforms of the Centre-Right’, in C. Guarnieri and J. L. Newell (eds), Italian Politics: Quo Vadis?, London, Berhahn, 2005, pp. 117–35.

16 On this debate, see Mastropaolo, A., ‘La democrazia manomessa: riformare, deformare, conformare’, Meridiana, 50– 51 (2004), pp. 101–32;

17 That is, the Bozzi Commission in the 1980s, the De Mita/Iotti Commission in the early 1990s and the D'Alema Bicameral Commission in the late 1990s.

18 Which is not to suggest that no institutional reform occurred; on the contrary, piecemeal institutional change occurred in various areas. See Bull, M. J., ‘Parliamentary Democracy in Italy’, Parliamentary Affairs, 57: 3 (July 2004), pp. 553–60; and M. J. Bull and J. L. Newell, Italian Politics: Adjustment under Duress, Cambridge, Polity, 2005, ch. 7.

19 G. Sartori, Mala Costituzione e altri malanni, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2006, pp. 54–5 and 60; and see S. Vassallo, ‘The Constitutional Reforms of the Centre-Right’, in Guarnieri and Newell, Italian Politics: Quo Vadis?, p. 127. In fact, Sartori was writing before the reform of the electoral system and had suggested that for Follini there were ‘no cows in sight’. On the advantages of the new electoral law for the non-FI members of the centre right, see Newell, ‘The Italian Election of May 2006: Myths and Realities’, pp. 803–4.

20 And perhaps not without some historical justification: the Festa della Liberazione of 1994, which occurred shortly after the formation of Berlusconi's first government, was to a large extent transformed by the political left into an ‘anti-Berlusconi/FI/AN/Lega’ day, which left a long-lasting impression.

21 See Sartori, Mala Costituzione, pp. 64–5, for a devastating indictment of the government's failure to consider the cost implications until the eleventh hour.

22 Ibid., pp. 31–2.

23 See Manzella, Andrea, ‘Dieci no alla Grande Riforma del Polo’, la Repubblica, 12June 2006.

24 Diamanti, Ilvo, ‘Il grande equivoco del federalismo’, la Repubblica, 25June 2006.

25 Franco Bassanini (ed.), Costituzione: una riforma sbagliata, Florence, Passigli, 2004.

26 Floridia, A., ‘Gulliver Unbound. Possible Electoral Reforms and the 2008 Election: Towards an End to “Fragmented Bipolarity”?’, Modern Italy, 13: 3 (August 2008), p. 318.

27 D. Albertazzi, D. McDonnell and J. L. Newell, ‘Di lotta e di governo: The Lega Nord and Rifondazione Comunista in Coalition’, paper presented to the panel, ‘Outsider Parties in Western Europe: The Opposition in Government?’, 57th Annual Conference of the UK Political Studies Association, University of Bath, 11–13 April 2007.

28 The third proposal would have the effect of abolishing the possibility of fielding the same candidate in more than one constituency, an option that, by allowing party notables to head the lists in multiple constituencies, gives them, so the argument goes, unwarranted powers of patronage. This is because, by simply opting for one of the many seats they are able to win, they have it within their power to secure the election of the best placed of the non-elected candidates in all of the other constituencies in question.

29 Cited in Vassallo, S., ‘Il mito della della “devolution” e la realtà delle riforme’, Il Mulino, 426: 4 (2006), pp. 655–6.

30 Bull, M. and Pasquino, G., ‘A Long Quest in Vain: Institutional Reforms in Italy’, West European Politics, 30: 4 (September 2007), p. 690.

1 The authors would like to thank the journal's two anonymous referees for their thoughtful suggestions on improving the article.

Still the Anomalous Democracy? Politics and Institutions in Italy 1

  • Martin J. Bull and James L. Newell


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