Clouds of uncertainty mar Italy's new dawn: New electoral system puzzles a nation shaken by scandal

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The Independent Online
IT IS supposed to be the dawning of a new age in Italy. The general elections in a week's time were meant to consecrate Italy's transition from being, in effect, the last one-party state in Europe to a country in which there was a genuine opportunity for the opposition to assume power. But the changes brought about by the past two years of Italy's turmoil have been less revolutionary than that.

Most of the old guard, who lorded it over the political scene for two generations, have gone - embroiled in corruption scandals or tainted by allegations of assocation with the Mafia. The Christian Democrats who dominated the country for half a century are disgraced. Bettino Craxi, former prime minister and leader of the most unashamedly corrupt party of all, the Socialists, goes on trial the day after the elections.

Most of the candidates for parliament are fresh faces. New wine in new bottles? Well, the bottles of this latest electoral system are mainly new, but partly recycled from the shattered remains of the old system.

For the first time, three-quarters of the seats will be filled under the Westminster-style first-past-the-post system. The remaining quarter will be filled by a modification of the old system of proportional representation. This gave Italy one of the most representative parliamentary democracies in the world, but also one of the weakest and least effective.

There was no presidential system as in France, with power concentrated in the hands of one man. Some did seek such a system, albeit with checks and balances to prevent the return of Italy's own experience of a dictator. The prime proponent of presidential government was the authoritarian Mr Craxi, who argued that Italy needed strong leadership to take hard decisions about its growing public spending problems.

Power lay in the hands of the party bosses. They would determine which frontman or more substantial politician would act as prime minister. A minister need not even have been an elected deputy and was accountable not to the public, or to parliament, but to his (only occasionally her) party secretary-general.

The new system only reforms the old one. So voters will still not know that the leader of the party with most seats will be prime minister.

Indeed, Achille Occhetto, the leader of the PDS, the Social Democrat heirs to the old Communist Party, has said that if his party and its left-of-centre allies can form the next government, he would favour entrusting the management of the country to the current Prime Minister and former Governor of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

For the nearly-new system will not create an outright winner. Parties will still have to cobble together coalitions to gain the majority required to form a government. The mounts may be different, but the rules of the horsetrading will be similar.

On the left, the PDS is in broad electoral alliance with the Greens, the anti-Mafia La Rete of the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, what is left of the Socialists and the hardline Communist Refoundation.

Yet for all the moral righteousness of the left, rejection of the old system and its corrupt ways is unlikely to translate into electoral gains. In part, this is because the former communists, though never in government, also participated in the political spoils system, even if they did so far less than the ruling parties.

Many former Christian Democrats cannot bring themselves to vote for the PDS, even though it has shed its communist label. Years of indoctrination by the church, which threatened instant excommunication for voting communist, will not evaporate overnight.

Most polls are predicting victory for the right-of-centre alliance, which groups three very different political forces. The Northern League of Umberto Bossi, whose raucous campaign against the rule of corrupt politicians in Rome and greater devolution of power to the regions did so much to hasten the collapse of the old parties system, has in effect achieved its goal. By contrast, the neo-fascists of Gianfranco Fini (with Alessandra Mussolini their best-known candidate) seek a stronger central state.

But the most virile new movement is that of the television and media mogul and owner of football club AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi. He has long been vilified by the left for his insidious control of swathes of the Italian media, his one-time membership of the evil P2 masonic lodge, and his former close friendship with Mr Craxi. But he epitomises an Italian ideal of success combined with sophistication, and his movement Forza Italia ('Go for it, Italy') has the right slogan to appeal to a generation seeking to be lifted from the national despond.

For voters, the choices are hard. Gone are the old certainties. Those disgusted with the way the old parties traded votes for bribes and pilfered the treasury can go right or left. Those who exploited the system will also be deserting their former parties, since without power they will exercise no patronage.

Italians know what they do not want, but few know what they do they want. That is the challenge of the new Italy. At one point, it seemed the Italians were steeling themselves for a leap into the unknown. They have instead held back from the brink, and are groping rather more cautiously for the right way forward.

Charles Richards's 'The New Italians' is published by Michael Joseph on 28 April at pounds 17.99.

(Photograph omitted)