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ITALIAN POLITICS

Why do Italy’s governments collapse so often?

Political instability is nothing new to Italy, which has seen 14 prime ministers and 19 different governments over the last 30 years alone. After Prime Minister Mario Draghi's resignation this week, it's likely that another will soon join the list.

Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi looks on during the government crisis debate at the Senate in Rome on July 20, 2022.
Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi looks on during the government crisis debate at the Senate in Rome on July 20, 2022. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

Draghi’s resignation on Thursday was the third by an Italian prime minister in three years. Five Star Movement (M5S) head Giuseppe Conte quit in August 2019 after around a year in the job, only to return at the head of a different coalition two weeks later.

Conte was forced to step down again January 2021 after Matteo Renzi withdrew his small Italia Viva party from government, leading to Draghi being appointed as a technocratic prime minister to helm a ‘unity’ coalition that ultimately imploded on Wednesday.

In other words, Italy has had three governments since its last general election in March 2018, and now faces early elections in the autumn – several months before this parliament’s five-year term was due to be up.

READ ALSO: LATEST: Italy’s Draghi steps down after government implodes

Italian politics aren’t always this unstable, of course; nor is the problem unique to Italy.

The past few years have seen disruption to the old political order across the continent. All over western Europe, political discussions have become more polarized, and the current problems in Italy share many aspects of those in its neighbouring countries.

The Five Star Movement (M5S), the largest partner in each of Italy’s past three coalition governments, billed itself as anti-establishment when it stormed into Italian politics a little over a decade ago, and was one of many populist groups in Europe to rise fast and take votes from both the left and right. And the issue of immigration has been divisive in Italy as it has in Germany, Sweden, Spain and other countries that also struggled to form governments after their most recent elections.

The fact remains, though, that while the situation in Germany, Sweden and other European countries – especially northern ones – is treated as unprecedented, in Italy the latest crisi di governo is seen in some ways as business as usual. Over the past 30 years, Italy’s 14 prime ministers compare to just five in Spain and six in Sweden, while France has been led by five presidents and Germany by just four chancellors.

So what is the Italian factor?

For starters, it’s a young country. The Kingdom of Italy was officially founded in 1861, making it nearly a century younger than the USA. Before this, the area which is now Italy was made up of rival regions which were under varying systems of rule, including for example the Papal States, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and Kingdom of the two Sicilies.

As the name suggests, the newly created Kingdom of Italy was ruled by a monarchy until the Second World War. After the war, Italy’s borders changed again, the monarchy was abolished, and Italy became a democratic republic.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system


Inside Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/Pool/AFP

Historical divisions between what were originally different states remain clear, and some regions (particularly the five that have a ‘special status’ in Italy) have very strong regional identities.

Italy’s south has far higher unemployment and poverty levels. These challenges combined with a frustration at perceived neglect by previous administrations contributed to huge numbers voting for the new Five Star Movement and its policies of a monthly minimum income and pension reforms in 2018.

Meanwhile Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League – formerly the Northern League – fared well in its wealthier heartlands in the north (though polling suggests it has succeeded in wooing more southern voters since then). So in some ways, it can be argued that the conflicts within Italy’s government reflect the competing concerns of different groups of Italians.

READ ALSO: The words and phrases you’ll need to understand Italian political discussions

But Italy’s political landscape hasn’t always been as fractured as it is today. From 1946 to 1992, the dominant parties were the centrist Party of Christian Democracy and the Italian Communist Party. The Christian Democrats especially were the central force of Italian politics, featuring in every government, either alone or in coalition, for nearly 50 years.

Then, in the early 1990s, Communist regimes collapsed across Europe and the Italian party disbanded. At the same time, an unprecendented investigation into political corruption in Italy, now known as Mani Pulite (‘Clean Hands’), saw half of all lawmakers indicted and irrevocably damaged the reputation of most of the main parties. The Christian Democrats were among the worst tarnished and saw their support drastically eroded until the party was finally dissolved in 1994.

The resulting shake-up was so dramatic that it ushered in a whole new era in Italian politics. The period from 1992 onwards is now called the Second Republic, effectively ending the First Republic created after the Second World War, even though there was no actual change to the constitution.

Old parties reinvented themselves and new parties broke through, including Forza Italia and some organized around specific issues. One such party was the Northern League, created to campaign for autonomy for Italy’s northern regions but now fixated on opposing immigration and EU governance while demanding greater federalism.

BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO ITALY’S MAIN PARTIES: 

So Italy has a lot of political parties, most of which are either very new or have changed drastically in form and stance over the years, and it also has a political system under a century old. This means greater choice for voters, and no two-party system like those seen in the UK and USA. People are perhaps less likely to vote for a certain party simply because their parents have done, because it is the norm in their town, or because they consider themselves either left- or right-wing.

A large number of parties win seats in Italy’s two chambers of parliament, and no single party, nor even a coalition, has managed to secure enough seats to govern over the past six years.

Instead, Italy has been ruled by grand coalitions, or a group of parties from across the political spectrum which join together after the vote. Since the parties typically hold very different views, it’s not hard to see why such coalitions often have a hard time agreeing on legislation, and often end up in disagreements that lead to government collapse.

And in some ways, this instability is a feature rather than a bug of the system.

For a long time, Italy used proportional representation and had no minimum threshold of the total vote in order to gain seats, meaning small parties had a greater chance of representation. When the system was first created, the idea was to avoid the possibility of one party or leader becoming too powerful.

A new electoral law introduced for the last election brought in thresholds (3 percent for individual parties and 10 percent for coalitions) as well as a first-past-the-post element, which increased the incentive for forming coalitions.


A senator counts ballots in a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: Yara Nardi/Pool/AFP

But unlike Germany, Spain or a few other parliamentary democracies in Europe, which have adopted the rule that parliament can only bring down a government if a majority of lawmakers is agreed on who should replace it, in Italy these coalitions can see partners pull out at will – even if, as the tiny Italia Viva party demonstrated in 2021, they represent only a minority of MPs.

That leaves coalition governments vulnerable to blow-ups and opportunism, as junior partners seek more influence or cabinet positions by threatening to pull the plug on the administration, and in some cases actually doing it.

With no party in Italy currently in a position to rule alone, another coalition seems almost inevitable: at this stage, the most likely scenario is a ‘centre-right’ coalition led by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the far-right Brothers of Italy and the League following early elections in the autumn.

But with relations between the League’s Salvini and the Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni already strained as the two leaders vie for dominance over one another, whether such a government would offer more stability remains to be seen.

This is an updated version of an article first published in 2019.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

What does Italy’s latest political crisis mean for the economy?

The potential collapse of Italy's government has thrown the post-pandemic recovery plan into doubt and brought back fears of a debt crisis - but how severe will the impact on the economy really be?

What does Italy's latest political crisis mean for the economy?

As Italy was plunged into a political crisis on Thursday, shockwaves immediately rippled through the markets: Milan’s stock exchange was down more than three percent over fears Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition government could come crashing down and spark snap elections.

All eyes are now on borrowing costs after the ‘spread’ – the closely watched gap between German and Italian 10-year interest rates – widened further on Friday following Draghi’s attempted resignation amid the deepening crisis.

READ ALSO: Four scenarios: What happens next in Italy’s government crisis?

But President Sergio Mattarella refused to accept the prime minister’s resignation – instead urging Draghi to address parliament on Wednesday in an attempt to find a way forward.

The country now faces prolonged uncertainty, with no clear path forward.

“Any signal that Draghi would not survive the 2023 parliamentary elections, or even leave office before, is a cause for concern for the markets,” Gilles Moec, chief economist at the Axa group, told AFP.

Although political crises are nothing new in Italy, Galietti said “this one is unprecedented” because of geopolitical factors, citing tensions with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Even without the current political instability, Italy’s economic outlook is suffering due to “the size of its debt, its low growth rate and its strong dependence on Russian gas,” Moec said.

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi tried to tender his resignation on Thursday, but was asked by President Sergio Mattarella to stay.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi tried to tender his resignation on Thursday, but was asked by President Sergio Mattarella to stay. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Italy has a mammoth debt of over 2.7 trillion euros or some 150 percent of GDP – the highest in the eurozone after Greece – though the debt-GDP ratio is beginning to shrink.

The country has long lagged behind others in the eurozone: between 1999 and 2019, the economy grew by just 7.9 percent compared to 30.2 percent in Germany, 32.4 percent in France and 43.6 percent in Spain.

Italy’s gross domestic product increased 6.6 by percent in 2021, after a 2020 slump due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bank of Italy expects GDP to increase by 3.2 percent in 2022 – but that figure could drop below one percent if Russian gas supplies are cut off over the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Italian PM says Russia’s excuses for gas cut are ‘lies’ as shortfall continues

After former European Central Bank chief “Super Mario” became prime minister back in February 2021, Italy’s 10-year borrowing rate fell below 0.5 percent.

It has now climbed to 3.4 percent.

Italy is counting on the European recovery fund to boost growth. It’s the biggest beneficiary of all member states, set to receive 191.5 billion euros if it ticks off a series of EU-requested reforms aimed at, among other things, improving creaking infrastructure and preventing large-scale tax evasion.

Draghi’s departure, however, would put those reforms at risk.

More than a thousand Italian mayors signed a petition on Sunday pleading with Draghi to stay on, saying the post-pandemic recovery plan required stability.

“Our cities… cannot afford a crisis today that means immobilism and division,” the petition said.

“We need stability, certainty and consistency in order to continue the transformation of our cities… Because without the rebirth of these, Italy will not be reborn either.”

But with Draghi’s grand coalition in disarray, the chances the country will head to snap elections after the summer are high.

READ ALSO: ‘We need stability’: Hundreds of Italian mayors plead with Draghi to stay

A far-right or populist win at the polls would weigh significantly on the spread, just as it did in 2018, when Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant League joined forces with the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Public finances are however unlikely to be derailed as in the 2012 crisis, economic experts said.

“Interest rates would have to rise very sharply and durably for us to begin to observe solvency problems,” Natixis economist Jesus Castillo told AFP.

Italy’s bonds last on average over seven years, which means the rise in rates will not immediately be reflected in debt.

What’s more, banks are in better shape now than in 2012.

“Economic fundamentals remain compatible with long-term debt sustainability,” Castillo said.

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