Past demons threaten Italy's bid for change

Berlusconi's failure to deliver change has left Italy ungovernable and its First Republic alive and well, writes Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online
It wasn't meant to turn out this way. After all the corruption scandals, after the break-up of the old political order, Italy was supposed to have ushered in a new era of institutional reform and stable government. The general elections last March , which swept the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi to power were, according to the editorialists, the start of a Second Republic in which Italy would no longer be the laughing-stock of Europe with its byzantine political intrigues and revolving-door gover nments, but would take its place among the most modern and forward-looking of industrial nations.

How hollow that prospect looks now. Mr Berlusconi's government collapsed in acrimony after just seven months. His designated successor, Lamberto Dini, is struggling to find the majority he needs to survive even seven days. The parties are squabbling morebitterly than ever, parliament is split down the middle, there is no obvious governing majority and still less a coherent opposition.

In short, the country is once again thoroughly ungovernable. It is not that the ghosts of the First Republic are haunting the Second; the truth is the First Republic never died. It is alive and well and poisoning every area of public life.

The difference now is that the stakes are far higher. The ills of the country were supposed to be cured or, at the very least, well on the way to recovery. Instead, the old demons are still there: the runaway public deficit; the tangle of bureaucratic rules; the insidious influence of party politics in public appointments; and the suspicion of links between politicians and the Mafia. Editorialists have made disquieting comparisons with Weimar Germany, or their own country before the rise of Mussolini. Mr Dini's technocratic administration, the second such stop-gap in two years, is in itself a terrible admission of defeat: never in the 50-year history of the Republic has Italy had to resort to a government devoid of even a single sitting member of parliament.

The disappointments are all the deeper because of the expectations that had been raised. Italy, one Roman banker suggested last week, is a like an alcoholic swearing he's going off the bottle for good. "One week, he promises his wife he will stop drinking, stop hitting her and hand over his full salary the day he gets it. She is so desperate she believes him. Then what happens? The next weekend he comes home rolling drunk without a penny in his pocket. What is the wife to do? Trust him again? No, if she's got any sense she's going to get the hell out." Which is what the banker has been advising his clients to do with their Italian investments.

Within the right and left, the bad habits of the past are resurfacing. Earlier this month, three parties in Milan - the former Communist PDS, the Christian Democrat Popular Party and the Northern League - were accused of carving up jobs for the boys in the local health authority and placed under judicial investigation. Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the reformed neo-Fascist National Alliance have faced accusations of collusion with organised crime in the south. In Calabria, a land-owning baroness called Teresa Cordopatri has accused a number of magistrates and politicians, including the National Alliance's parliamentary floor leader, Raffaele Valensise, of pressuring her into selling land to the Mammoliti, a well- known local Mafia clan. The baroness has resisted, but not without paying a heavy price: her brother was killed outside his house after receiving numerous threats. Mr Valensise has denied any criminal involvement, but anti-Mafia investigators are looking into the affair.

Italy has always been a country of miracles, a place of seemingly incredible solutions to seemingly intractable problems. But to hope that the system could be transformed in a few months was to stretch the nation's faith a little too far. "When you thinkof the earth-shaking events that prompted France's transition from a First to a Second Republic - four different constitutions, the Napoleonic experience, war and the Congress of Vienna - it is not surprising that we in Italy are still working within the old system. At best we can hope to enter a secondary phase of the First Republic," said Professor Ettore Gallo, a former president of the Italian Constitutional Court and a prime mover behind the campaign for institutional reform.

For Professor Gallo, the electorate's faith last year in the Berlusconi "miracle" - a million new jobs, economic prosperity and a clean start in public life - betrayed a fatal naivety. "When Mr Berlusconi was just in business," he said, "he ran up a deficit of trillions of lire but accumulated great riches for himself. Then he tells us he is going to run Italy like a commercial enterprise. Can we be surprised at the results?"

What Italy needs, suggests Professor Gallo, is not a new constitution but serious amendments to the old one. Power needs to be devolved from the centre to the regions, parliament needs some Whip-like discipline, and the balance of responsibilities between president, prime minister and the institutions needs to be reassessed. But the first step to overcoming Italy's endemic instability is the electoral system. Last year the country tried once, dispensing with pure proportional representation in favour ofa largely first-past-the-post system, but failed to produce a workable governing majority. Mr Berlusconi found himself caught between two coalition partners, the National Alliance and the Northern League, with clashing and often contradictory interests - a plight shared so often in the past by Christian Democrat or socialist prime ministers. Now that Mr Berlusconi has gone, Italy is at an awkward impasse: there is no point holding new elections until the system can be changed, but with parliament so divided the system may not be able to change without them.

Mr Berlusconi and his friends want to move further towards the British voting model - that is to say a single-round, constituency-based majority system stripped of its last vestiges of proportional representation. They argue this is the only way to create strong government. Their opponents, however, accuse them of wanting to stifle smaller parties and distort voting figures to their own advantage.

The alternative, advocated by Professor Gallo and many on the centre and left, is a French-style two-round model. Small parties can have their say in the first round, but are forced to take one side or another in the run-off. That way, Professor Gallo argues, pluralism is preserved but voters are offered a choice between two political programmes. Mr Berlusconi's allies hate this idea, not least because when it was put into practice in the November 1993 municipal elections, the centre-left ended up taking 80 per cent of the country's town councils.

For the moment, the debate on electoral reform is on hold for lack of a government to enact it. Mr Dini has been equivocal on the issue, and knows that any attempt he makes at serious change will be met with resistance by one or other side of the Chamberof Deputies. The country is therefore stuck in a rut of its own making. Those editorialists drawing comparisons with the 1920s look to the likes of Mr Berlusconi and the reformed neo-Fascist National Alliance and see worrying signs of authoritarianism in the making. This is no ordinary government crisis. Having failed to reform the system once, the country must race against the clock to get it right. The demons of the past are closing in.