Obituary: Italian Parliamentary Democracy

By Sebastiano Sali*

Almost 60 days after the national elections, Italy still does not have a government. Certainly, very far from Belgium’s 543 days world record, but nonetheless not reassuring at all. Italian politics and Italian politicians (statesmen in Italy do not appear in sight) have been so much confused about forming a new government after February 24/25th polls that have decided not to decide, setting forth the end of the Italian parliamentary democracy.

For sure, precedents of sort can be found in the past. For instance, many have been the Presidents of the Republic who have appointed Prime Ministers supported by a parliamentary majority different from the one that had come out from the polls. The latest was PM Mario Monti appointed by the PR Giorgio Napolitano. Differently from most of the precedents though, Napolitano’s appointment of Monti sanctified the end of Italian parliamentary democracy: not only because Monti was not even an MP (he was nominated lifelong Senator by Napolitano himself the very moment before being appointed PM); not only because he was chosen by Napolitano directly and not suggested to Napolitano by the parties (as constitutional practice would recommend). But mainly because the weakness of Monti’s government, its inability to speak to the Italian population, its scarce appeal to the main parties, and the consuming effect it has had on Italy as a whole, had implied an outstanding influence of the PR on politics and on policies that has no precedence in the history of the Republic.

During Monti’s government, it has been Napolitano holding the political parties, the unions, the business associations and ultimately the Italian citizens, and thereby the country, together. It has been Napolitano and his moral suasion preventing the country to fall apart, economically but most importantly socially. Not accidentally, but yet paradoxically, everyone speaks of the first former Communist PR elected by the centre-left delegates only with a simple majority seven years ago, as the most impartial, unifying and perhaps even loved President ever.

And once again today, seven years later at the end of his mandate, it has been Napolitano to break the stalemate for the formation of a government the parties fell into. Applying what in the Netherlands is called the ‘Polder Model’, Napolitano appointed ten wise men, essentially with the task of gaining some time to bring him close enough to the end of his office and thereby to introduce another variable in the political trade among the parties that could have made an agreement possible: the selection of a new PR.

With renewed enthusiasm, the centre-left and centre-right leaders, Bersani and Berlusconi, froze negotiations on the government and started talks on who should have been the next PR. This decision would have been crucial because the new PR would have also appointed a new PM who in turn will form a new government. Napolitano (87 years old), physically and politically worn out especially by the last year and a half of extra work, immediately called himself out, denying his availability for a second term.

The Democratic Party (PD) and its leader Pier Luigi Bersani, holding the golden share for suggesting candidates by being the largest minority in the Parliament, have been unable to offer a feasible solution. First, the candidate agreed with Berlusconi, a Democrat with a strong Catholic background and a past in the union -Franco Marini-, incredibly fell short  of the required qualified 2/3 majority (671/1007) because of few defections within his own party. Thus, for Berlusconi’s delight, the Democrats started an internal bloody fight which was only apparently ended by the unanimous choice of current UN envoy for Mali and former EU Commission President and Italian PM Romano Prodi: probably the best CV for a head of state. However, even more incredibly, Prodi gained even less support from his own ranks than Marini’s and could not reach an even easier absolute majority (504). Prodi’s failure also triggered the political explosion of the PD, clearly not only the largest minority in the Parliament, but allegedly not even a party any longer.

In a deadlock after four rounds of vote, strengthless and without ideas, the parties found no better solution than begging Napolitano to rethink his denial and accept a second term. In the meantime, people piled up in front of the Parliament, occupied the social media and in many cities even the PD’s seems to protest against this solution. People in the streets, mainly from Grillo’s 5 Stars Movement but many from the PD as well, were shouting for Stefano Rodotà for president. Rodotà, former MP for the old Italian Communist Party and then President of the first party, direct heir of it after 1989 (Democrat of the Left Party-PDS), more recently was President of the Independent Privacy Authority, thereby widely recognised as a super partes man. However the Democrats never felt to endorse his candidacy but rather preferred to go back to Napolitano, further evidence of the PD’s incapability of deciding and holding a coherent political line anymore.

Thus, we are now with the first PR that will hold two consecutive terms. Elected with a large majority (738), rumour has it that Napolitano accepted the offer only under the precondition that the parties would agree to support his idea for the next PM and government components and platform. Once again, the Parliament has been cut out from policy decisions; or better, the parliamentary forces proved unable to exercise their constitutional functions, deciding not to decide and willingly gave up their power to the President. As if that is not enough, the biggest party on the Italian left-wing, heir of the strongest Communist party of the Western Block and of the ‘leftist’ catholic tradition, has exploded and it is now in a mayhem, leaving the destiny of the Italian parliamentary democracy even more uncertain.

*Sebastiano Sali is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies-King’s College London and currently TUBITAK Research Fellow at the Centre for International and European Studies at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. His doctoral project focuses on the self/other relations in the process of political identity construction and the connections with foreign policy formation, especially in the case of Turkey. He holds a MSc in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a MA in Political Science from La Sapienza University of Rome. He was active in politics in his native city Mantova in Italy and thus still keeps an alert eye on Italian politics. You can contact him at sebastiano.sali[at] and on twitter at @5ebs


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