Some Reflections on Italian Political Life


Italian premier Romano Prodi’s resignation has prompted me to share a few reflections with you on Italian political life:

I lived and worked in Italy from March, 1981, to July, 1985, and again, after a nine-month sojourn in the Basque country of Spain, from July, 1986 to July, 1989.

At the time, Italy was governed by the so-called Pentapartito (five-party) system, an alliance of several parties aimed at keeping the Communist Party out of power. There would be crisis after crisis (crisi di governo) when a Prime Minister would resign and a “new” government, made up of the same old array of political drama queens, but occupying different cabinet posts, would replace the old in a perpetual game of musical chairs under the watchful eye of the much loved Italian President, pipe-smoking Sandro Pertini.

Italy’s political parties of that time reflected Italy’s history.

The oldest, the Anglophile Partito Liberale (Liberal Party) had been the party of Cavour, Prime Minister of Sardinia/Savoy/Piedmont, whose little nation had been the prime mover within Italy for unification.

The Socialist Party had been founded by Garibaldi, the eroe di due mondi (the Hero of Two Worlds), who had led his red shirts in the attack on Sicily and the march on Rome which had secured the Bourbon-ruled Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south and the Papal States in the centre of the peninsula for the new Italian kingdom, and at a time when most Sicilian peasants thought his slogan, “Vittorio Emmanuele e Italia”, was a reference to the Italian king and his wife. It is ironic that Garibaldi’s birthplace, Nice, was ceded to France in return for Napoleon III’s help in defeating the Austrians and securing the northern provinces of Lombardia (Lombardy) and the Veneto for the Kingdom of Sardinia/Savoy/Piedmont.

Christian Democracy as a political movement was born at the end of the 19th century, largely as a result of the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, in which the Vatican recognized workers’ misery and agreed that something should be done about it, in reaction to the rise of the socialist and trade union movements. The position of the Roman Catholic Church on this matter was further clarified in a subsequent encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, by Pope Pius XI in 1931. It’s strongholds are the strongly Catholic regions of the Veneto in the north-east of Italy, where I spent a total of three years, and the south. It was a broad church, comprising politicans who were left of centre to those on the right.

The Communist Party dates back to the 1800s and its strongholds are Emilia-Romagna, where the Don Camillo stories, telling of the constant rivalry between the Catholic priest, Don Camillo, and the Communist mayor, are set, Toscana (Tuscany) and Umbria.

Strangely, for us Brits and you Americans, living in countries where politics is much more divisive, relations between some Christian-Democratic politicans and the Communists were cordial. I remember in the summer of 1984, while travelling around Italy, reading a newspaper article on how the Christian-Democratic politican, and seven-times Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, had been invited to speak at the annual conference of the Communist Party and stating that Germany would forever remain divided.

The Republican Party was formed after the abdication of the last Italian king at the end of the Second World War, whose descedants, the current pretender to the Italian throne and the Savoia family, live in exile. It was pro-American and centrist.

The Pentapartito system collapsed when the corruption which was rampant in Italian political life was exposed in Operazione Puliti Mani (Operation Clean Hands), and several leading politicians were forced into exile to escape imprisonment, including former Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi..

Since then, media-magnate Silvio Berlsuconi, who led Forza Italia to election victory in 1994, and who, it was said, only became Prime Minister so that he could make laws making him exempt from investigation into illegal business practices, and Romano Prodi, an intellectual from Bologna University, have taken it in turns to be PM.

The last time I visited Italy was during a skiing holiday in the Dolomites in the winter of 1997. Taxes had been raised and several state-owned industries sold off, so that Italy could meet the economic criteria for entry into the euro. Some things never change!


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