An olive branch to democracy

The triumph of the Olive Tree coalition could herald a more stable era in Italian politics, says Andrew Gumbel
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The victory may not have been overwhelming and the road ahead may still be rocky, but the Italian centre-left's winning vote suggests the beginning of a new era. The triumph of the left after 50 years of exclusion from national government proves that the country is finally coming to terms with the normal rules of Western democracy, whereby power alternates from one main bloc to another.

Romano Prodi and his Olive Tree coalition will not have a free run, since they won an absolute majority only in the Senate, the upper house of parliament. In the Chamber of Deputies, they will have to rely on the co-operation of either the far-left Rifondazione Comunista, with whom they had an electoral pact but almost no policy points in common, or the Northern League, the volatile separatist movement which cashed in on a massive protest vote in Lombardy and the region around Venice. But if they can negotiate a viable modus vivendi, Italy stands a real chance of dispensing with its unvarying cycle of unstable governments and corrupt cross-party coalitions.

The new government's first and most important task will be to prepare Italy for Europe, streamlining the state apparatus to bring the country's runaway public debt under control and to restructure the overcomplicated, much abused tax system. But Mr Prodi has also promised to open negotiations with the opposition on institutional reform, including a new electoral law to replace Italy's messy hybrid of proportional representation and first-past-the-post.

What form the new system will take is not clear - there is talk of copying the American system, the French system, the German system, even the British system - but Mr Prodi and his allies understand they have an historic opportunity. Theirs will be the 55th government since the Second World War, maintaining the average of almost one every 10 months; a new electoral law might require a 56th to take office before the end of the millennium, but thereafter it is in everyone's interests - the opposition's included - to close the revolving door for good.

Italy's chronic instability has been due to two factors: the need to prevent any return to dictatorship after the defeat of Fascism, and Italy's key role in the Cold War. The first led to a constitution so overladen with checks and balances that no government could ever last, while the second blocked the Italian Communist party, the largest left-wing force in the country, from participating in national government.

For decades there was a kind of organised chaos, with the Christian Democrats remaining in the driving seat, but with efficient government forever impeded by shifting alliances and factional bickering within the ruling party. Instead of alternating power blocs, Italy was lumbered with "trasformismo" - an elegant word to describe the inelegant opportunism, back-scratching and favour-seeking that motivated parties and factions to switch allegiances at the drop of a hat for short-term political advantage.

In many ways, this was a prolonged version of what France went through under the Fourth Republic. But France managed to rewrite its constitution amidst the chaos of the Algerian war, and achieved the normality of alternating government when Francois Mitterrand brought the left to power in 1981.

Italy, by contrast, muddled on through the end of the Cold War, the break- up of its Communist party into the mainstream PDS and the irredentist Rifondazione Comunista and - eventually - the collapse of the governing parties under the weight of their own corrupt contradictions in the early 1990s.

The years since have been fraught with false starts and renewed instability. The new electoral system, approved by referendum in1993, only increased the number of parties in parliament, and it failed to provide a durable working majority when the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi swept into power at the head of a new conservative coalition in March 1994.

Mr Berlusconi's victory was hailed as a new beginning, a Thatcherite revolution in the making and the birth of a new political animal, the entrepreneur as leader. But Mr Berlusconi was steeped in the old system, owing much of his success to his friendship with the now disgraced Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi; and in his brief period in office he vigorously pursued his own interests rather than the country's.

The Berlusconi phenomenon now looks like an aberration, not a new start. The man himself is on trial for tax fraud and faces further judicial investigation into his business practices. It seems safe to predict that the next few years will see a realignment on the right, with moderate voters of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party coalescing around a new leader and the reformed neo-fascist National Alliance pushed back to the fringes.

Mr Prodi's Olive Tree coalition is essentially an anti-Berlusconi alliance rather than a true force of the left - it includes, for example, the free- marketeering Lamberto Dini, the outgoing prime minister. But if institutional and electoral reforms go through as planned, one can envisage a new left and a new moderate right evolving out of the present blocs, in time for the next election, and a durable two-party system taking shape. The modernisation of Italy and the stability of its parliamentary democracy will depend on it.