WHAT DOES THE BERLUSCONI ERA TELL US ABOUT THE CONSTITUTIONAL AND POLITICAL MATURITY OF ITALIAN POLITICS?
By Yulia Kitova
In the early 1990s the old system parties collapsed in Italy and was subsequently replaced with the new regime (Shin and Agnew, 2008). This was followed by Berlusconi’s two-decade political dominance that became an example of the shifting from old to new politics. This essay will discuss the period of Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power, his governance and his style of doing politics, explaining the changes in the Italian party system, electoral system and the transition from to executive dominance over parliament. The essay will briefly explain how the political situation in Italy and a weak political opposition have contributed to Berlusconi’s electoral success. This essay will conclude by analysing the nature of main features of transition from old regime to new regime since the period of the aftermath of the crisis.
The aftermath of the crisis 1992 – 1994 in Italy required an urgent change and move from the crisis, institutional incompetence, weak civil society and ‘the legacy of the Mafia and corruption’ (Andrews, 2005). When the corruption scandals and investigations brought down the Democrazia Christiana (DC) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), Berlusconi entered the field of politics by organising a new party and ‘setting about creating a centre-right constellation of parties that had never previously existed in Italian politics’ (Shin and Agnew, 2008, p. 1). With the collapse of the major political parties and the rise of his Forza Italia political party, Silvio Berlusconi became Italy’s Prime Minister (Andrews, 2005). A set of a new party required a charismatic and, preferably, a wealthy leader. Berlusconi as an entrepreneur, media tycoon and ‘Italy’s wealthiest man’ (Shin and Agnew, 2008, p.vii) represented a new type of a party leader – ‘in Forza Italia the leader came before the party’ (Bordignon, 2014). One of his important advantageous was that his media Empire has been created, not inherited. His image of ‘a man of people’ and a self-made businessman was particularly important in Italy where ‘populism is endemic’ (Gundle and Parker, 2003, p.132). Another advantage was that he could engage in politics using media, but not sufficient condition for his success. The contribution of the centre-left coalition, which governed Italy during that time, has become another factor. This also gives an understanding of the situation of Italian political parties during that time, the centre-left coalition, in particular. The leader of coalition lacked qualities that Berlusconi had and was not able to compete and confront a new potential leader (Ginsborg, 2004). The splits and general ineffectiveness of the centre-left combined with Berlusconi’s power as a media entrepreneur made his election in 2001 possible (Andrews, 2005). Andrews (2005) also states that in addition to the division between the centre-left parties and communists and the growth of Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s victory has been also connected to particular moments in Italian history, ‘the paradox of Italian culture and the long-term crisis in the state’ (p.ix). Therefore, significant transformations Italian society has undergone in the preceding decades have become another factor that explains Berlusconi’s initial political success. In addition, the end of the Christian Democrats domination in the government and the end of ‘the Catholic political hegemony’ (Andrews, 2005) reflected in decline of the church’s authority in modern Italy and liberalisation of attitudes towards homosexuality and divorce. It is important to note that the Berlusconi’s rise can be understood only within the context of the political disruption in Italy. It was the age of political disengagement and new technology in Italy when the shift to the new politics has been influenced by the media.
Berlusconi ‘imposed himself in the vacuum’ (Andrews, 2005, p.12) generated by the collapse of the DC and the crisis on the left. Berlusconi’s approach to politics contrasted that of the previously governed Christian Democrats. As ‘the billionaire owner of most of the country’s commercial TV channels’ (Mancini, 2011), represented a new style of politics bypassing political norms and structures such as, for example, a fundamentally incoherent alliance. In 1994, in order to avoid the defeat during the general elections, the Lega Nord agreed to make ‘an electoral pact’ the Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in northern Italy (Bull and Gilbert, 2001, p.32). The pact assigned a majority of the candidates in northern Italy to the Lega Nord, and the Lega, in return, committed its huge network of activists to Berlusconi’s cause (Bull and Gilbert, 2001, p.33). Berlusconi has been accepted as a leader of the coalition. At the same time, he had a similar agreement with the neo-fascist in southern and central Italy (Bull and Gilbert, 2001). Overall, years from 1991 to 1996 became a remarkable period of the emergence of large numbers of new parties, electoral coalitions, alliances and splits in Italy. ‘These far-reaching changes in the political parties went hand-in-hand with considerable party-system continuity, particularly, with regard to fragmentation’ (Morlino, 2009, p.13)
The period between 2001 and 2005 was marked as a ‘strongly prime ministerial style’ with hegemony of Forza Italia, a large majority in chambers and party leaders inside the cabinet (Amyot and Verzichelli, p. 112). This represented ‘a state of affairs traditionally seen in Italy as an important test of coalition solidarity’ (Amyot and Verzichelli, 2006, p. 112).
In the wake of globalisation, the centre-right coalition was concerned with the global prestige and was facilitating the emergence of international businesses and financial companies in order to be able to compete with France and Germany. At the same time, the alliance with the Lega Nord was marked by the adoption of some ‘proposals for a federal state’ and promotion of local industries and ‘regional systems of production’ (Bull and Gilbert, 2001, p.151). Bull and Gilbert also state that in this situation it was complicated to accommodate the ‘diverse socio-economic constituencies, which were pulling in opposite directions’ (p.151). Italy required the transformation if its institutions and electoral system. The Berlusconi government was in a position to introduce electoral and constitutional reforms (Morlino, 2009 p.14). In 2005, a new electoral system was introduced. ‘This remained a partially proportional system with low electoral thresholds and a majority premium’ (Morlino, 2009, p.15). In terms of constitutional changes, Berlusconi launched ‘a major constitutional reform that gave a dominant role over Parliament to the Government and Prime Minister, who would henceforth have the power to dissolve the legislature’ (Morlino, 2009, p.18). Despite the budgetary powers given to the regions by this reform, political scientists saw in the reform a weakening of the system of institutional checks and balances and, therefore, heavily criticised it (Morlino, 2009).
Italy was facing a number of governance issues – public finances, devolution, leadership, conflict of interests and judicial issues (Amyot and Verzichelli, 2006, p. 114). The years leading up to 2001 there had been ‘at least the semblance of a sense of common purpose’ (Ross et al., 2009, p.29), whereas, in the Berlusconi’s years Italian society became ‘both more unequal and more deeply divided’ (Ross et al., 2009, p.29). Italian economy was suffering from serious structural weaknesses, the origins of which go back several decades (Mammone and Veltri, 2010, p.xv). It required a balance between the state and the private sector as well as between the state and civil society. Many key indicators pointed to the fact that Italy was loosing ground on an international scale (Ginsbord, 2004). Very poor economic performance was combined with an adoption of the euro and a consequent rise in prices. Those Italians who elected Berlusconi ‘on the basis of his record as a salesman’ (Andrews, 2005) were hoping he would bring economic stability and would make them richer. However, Berlusconi’s era has not been marked by any significant economic reforms to stimulate growth in the country. There was also low international esteem and some level of ignorance in Europe, as the main focus was on Berlusconi’s personal life and political gaffes. Meanwhile, there were other issues to deter his political moves. Berlusconi pursued Keynesian economics and played economy to his political advantage. Increased pensions and cut tax were Berlusconi’s strength and determined the outcome of the elections. However, falling tax revenue and low growth have led to major public spending cuts. Consequently, Berlusconi’s management of economy and his politically irresponsible generosity have become the failure of Berlusconi’s management of economy and caused deficit crisis as a consequence.
The deep political crisis prepared the ground for the charismatic leader. Before the elections ‘polls showed that Berlusconi’s name was recognized by 97 percent of participants in focus group and 78 percent expressed preferences for a candidate who was not a politician (Ross et al., 2009). His rise as a media entrepreneur and the electoral victories, coupled with political and economic instability and uncertainty over Italy’s future throughout the Berlusconi’s era reflected constitutional and political climate in Italy.
Domestically, the beginning of the Berlusconi’s era was marked by the end of the two dominant political traditions of modern Italy, long-term structural economic decline and increasing regional divisions between North and South of Italy (Andrews, 2005). There were also some changes that characterized the transition from old pre-1992 politics to new regime happened during his governance. Changes in the party system and electoral system, encouraging parties to form coalitions caused the emergence of a number of new political coalitions and movements. Moreover, the changes in the dominance of the executive over the legislature since the Berlusconi’s constitutional reform. Internationally, Italy’s overall standing and quality of its institutions, efficiency of public services and competitiveness of its businesses ‘has dropped 20 places from 26 to 46 between 2001 and 2004’ (Andrews, 2005, p. 182).
 Italian Christian Democracy party
 Centre-right political party in Italy, led by Silvio Berlusconi
 ‘ North League for the Independence of Padania’ - a regionalist political party in Italy