Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Italy´s electoral crisis
Corriere della Sera - February 4th 2008

For an outsider to comment on Italy’s political crisis feels rather like a neighbour intruding on a family tragedy: tempting, perhaps even desirable, but unlikely to be welcome. Even so, there is something to be said for a wider view of the issues raised by Italy’s crisis: about the role of electoral reform, the part played by small parties and the question of whether long-lived governments are any better at achieving reform than short-lived, unstable ones. To an outsider, Italy’s political situation does, admittedly, seem peculiar—until the outsider really thinks about it. When he does think harder, he should conclude that Italy may be strange but it is certainly not unique.

            First of all, the lesson from other countries is that electoral reform is no panacea. For example, when Japan found itself in a mixture of economic and political crisis in the early 1990s, with the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party discredited and deep in financial scandals, many people argued that the solution lay in electoral reform. More than 15 years later, a system that was designed to achieve a stable, two-party system, with alternation of governments, still has not done so. The government is an LDP-led coalition that lacks a majority in Japan’s equivalent of the Senate, and the main opposition party is divided and chaotic.

            No doubt it would be better if Italy had fewer small parties. No outsider can understand why the Prodi government has been destroyed by such a small party; if it had been a policy dispute within the left, we could have understood it, but not this. Even so, small parties can emerge and gain strength in other systems too: look at the growing influence of the Left Party in Germany, in a system expressly designed to keep out tiny parties. Its influence is growing because of Germany’s “grand coalition” between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, which encourages anyone discontented with the government to vote for extreme parties.

            The real problem with Italy’s electoral system, from an outside point of view, lies not in its particular rules but rather in the fact that it was possible for it to be changed merely by a vote of Parliament, so soon before the 2006 election. If electoral laws are capable of being used as a tool of party politics, as they were used in that case, then the outcome is always going to be damaging and destabilising. In the longer term, that constitutional issue needs to be addressed, even more than the electoral system itself.

            When we pontificate about politics and the need for reform, in all countries we tend to say that what we want to see is strong leadership, from a long-lived stable government, within a system in which eventually that government can be removed from office in an election if it proves ineffective or corrupt. But experience elsewhere in Europe shows that it is easier to pontificate in that way than actually to find a formula by which this can be achieved. France has had long, strong presidencies ever since General de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, and although sometimes recently presidents of one party have “cohabited” with parliaments dominated by the opposition, often they have had clear majorities. But that has still not brought reform and modernisation, whether under Francois Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac. Only now, with Nicolas Sarkozy, does reform look likely actually to occur, at least to some extent. That, though, is a result of the man and of his personal approach to politics rather than for any systemic reasons.

            Outsiders are now lamenting that Italy has returned to its old habit of having short-lived, unstable governments. But what, we should ask ourselves, was achieved by the longest-lived, most stable Italian government of recent decades, the one led for five years by Silvio Berlusconi? Not nothing, perhaps, but not very much, either. Mr Berlusconi was hailed by many outsiders (OK, not by either me or by The Economist) as an Italian equivalent to Nicolas Sarkozy, a man capable of getting things done, a man of action, a man who stood for a “rupture” with the old ways. He was—and is—no such thing, whether you support him or oppose him, and the reason has nothing to do with the electoral system.

       Italy does need such a figure to emerge. Right now, this outsider cannot see a Sarkozy type waiting in the wings of the Italian political opera. But not long ago, no such figure looked likely to succeed in France, either.


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