Alberto Mingardi  

The myth of Italian instability

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Italy vote.jpg
On December 4th, Italy is going to vote in a referendum on the constitutional reform recently enacted by the Parliament. Together with the fate of a constitutional reform, Mr Renzi's government is at stake - and for this reason the vote is deemed to be very important if not altogether potentially fatal to the future of the euro. This is in the case the "no" vote prevails, and Mr Renzi ends up prematurely dissolving his government.

Constitutional issues are very intricate, and this one isn't an exception. As happened in England with Brexit, it is easy to forecast that a fair number of people will be voting one way or another not because they have a reasoned opinion over the new constitutional text - but to signal satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the way prime minister Renzi is helming the country. This should come as no surprise: indeed, most people are not eager to invest time and effort to make sense of something as arcane as constitutional change.

One of the reasons Mr Renzi and his allies claim this reform is needed is to provide the country with more stability. That might be true, but almost invariably in the international media that idea is echoed by comments on the fact Italy has had governments with "mayfly-like lifespans:" 63 executives in 70 years.

This should be qualified with another observation: Italy may have had 63 governments in 70 years, but it has had only 27 heads of governments.

What I want to say is that between 1948 and 1994--the 46 years during which Italy had 50 different governments--the country wasn't politically unstable: it has been remarkably, perhaps excessively, stable instead. All these governments were voted by a parliamentary majority in which the biggest party was invariably the Christian Democracy: before it was swiped away by corruption allegations, a remarkably successful party, which had stayed in power without interruption since the end of World War Two. Top government positions were easily rotated precisely because just the same people were in power all the time, and giving them ministerial jobs was the way to keep them happy.

There are several reasons why this happened; the most important one was geopolitical constraints. Italy was part of the Western bloc and, while the Communist Party was regularly the second largest one in national elections, they could not really gain national government.

Many of the Italian diseases, still here today, came about because in this regime of "blocked democracy," the Christian Democrats bought consensus by public spending. But the phrase "you go to London to see the change of the guard and to Rome to see the change of the government" is a nice joke, but not a good description of the kind of system Italy has had since the end of WWII.


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COMMENTS (1 to date)
Mark V Anderson writes:

This is very interesting. To me Italy has always been confusing. I've heard my whole life about the chronic instability of Italy, because of the constantly changing governments. And yet I never heard of civil unrest there, which usually goes with unstable government. Also, the economy has done pretty well since WWII, which also seems unlikely with very uncertain government rule. Your explanation helped explain that; in Italy it seems that the changing of governments does not really equate to change in rule. You speak of this stability as a bad thing, but it seems Italy hasn't done too badly post-War.

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