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Il Cavaliere Rides Again

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Silvio Berlusconi has won a third term as Italy’s prime minister. His victory may have important consequences.

The center-right coalition of Silvio Berlusconi has won a massive and perhaps historic victory in Italy’s general election. The final election returns show Berlusconi’s coalition—mainly the People of Freedom movement, which combined Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party with the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance—got 47 percent of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies, compared to 38 percent for the center-left coalition—mainly the Democratic Party, the descendant of Italy’s Communist Party—led by former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni. The center-right got a slightly higher majority for the Senate, though the numbers round out the same way.

This means that Berlusconi will have solid majorities in both the Chamber and the Senate. The current rules (they are constantly being changed) give proportionate representation to the coalitions and the smaller parties, with a 4 percent threshold. The centrist Union of Christian Democrats, led by Pier Ferdinando Casini—which was part of Berlusconi’s coalition in the 2006 election and is an offshoot of the once dominant Christian Democratic Party—got 5.6 percent, enough to qualify for representation. But Berlusconi will have a large majority because of a provision (which he engineered) that awards a supermajority of deputies to the party or coalition with the largest number of votes. The rule scuttled Berlusconi’s chances in 2006, when his coalition got 24,755 votes less than the center-left coalition headed by Romano Prodi; but this time it helped the politician whom Italian newspapers refer to as il cavaliere (“the cavalier”).

Meanwhile, the “Rainbow Left,” an unreformed Communist coalition headed by Fausto Bertinotti, got only 3.1 percent of the vote, not enough to meet the threshold. Bertinotti promptly resigned. This means that, for the first time since the Republic of Italy’s inaugural election in 1948, there will be no Communists in either chamber of parliament. To appreciate the significance of that milestone, it’s worth noting that the old Italian Communist Party was typically the second largest party in parliament.

In the Senate, the threshold for winning seats is 8 percent; so neither Casini’s nor Bertinotti’s coalition received any seats there. Berlusconi’s coalition will have a large Senate majority. This has important consequences for both Italian government and Italian politics.

For government, it means that Berlusconi will almost certainly have a stable majority for five years, as he did from 2001 to 2006 and as Prodi did not from 2006 to 2008. He needs to do a better job of pruning back the bloated Italian bureaucracy and introducing free-market economic reforms than he did in 2001-06 or than Prodi was able to do in 2006-08.

For politics, the election results mean that Italy is moving toward a stable two-party system. This is quite a transformation, although Italian politics was never as chaotic as its reputation suggested. The key election was in 1948, when—with ample help from the CIA and the U.S. government—the Christian Democrats, an avowedly Catholic party, beat the Communists. The opposite result might have led to something like what happened in Czechoslovakia, where Communists won a plurality and formed a government and then acquiesced in a Soviet takeover. That might seem preposterous today, but in 1948 next-door Yugoslavia was still Communist (though Tito was about to break with Stalin) and the United States had a limited military presence in Europe outside of Germany (Italy was never under military occupation and enjoyed continuity of government).

The partisan patterns of Italian politics were set in that election and persisted for many decades. My theory has long been that the different regions voted for the parties representing the forces that provided protection from the Nazis in the awful years from 1943 to 1945, when war raged throughout Italy, food was scarce, and safety could not be guaranteed. (For a graphic description of life in those years, see Iris Origo’s beautifully written War in Val d’Orcia.) The southern region, where the U.S. Army protected people from the Nazis and from disorder, voted for the Christian Democrats. In the so-called Red Belt region—which includes Tuscany, Umbria, and Emilia Romagna—the main protection came from Communist guerrillas, and the people there voted Communist for years after. The Lombardy and Piedmont region—with cities such as Milan and Turin—was a mixed bag; the Veneto and the Northeast, threatened by Yugoslav Communists, voted heavily for the Christian Democrats.

From 1948 to the early 1990s, the Christian Democrats dominated government; there were plenty of changes in cabinets, but under the surface chaos there was great stability. The Communists were barred from government, though under the compromesso storico of the late 1970s (the project of Aldo Moro, an Italian prime minister kidnapped and murdered in 1978) the Communists were consulted on policy. This situation persisted through the 1980s, when the Socialist Bettino Craxi headed an unusually long-lasting government from 1983 to 1987.

Scandal and skepticism ended this system, which Italians refer to as the prima repubblica. The scandals included charges against Craxi, who moved to Tunisia to avoid prosecution, and the mani pulite scandals, which affected many political figures in 1992. But skepticism was more important. Italian electoral politics pitted against each other believers in two faiths: Catholicism and Communism. But by the early 1990s, few Italians really believed in Catholicism any more, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, very few Italians believed in Communism either. A new party system started to emerge in response.

The election results mean that Italy is moving toward a stable two-party system.

Berlusconi, one of the wealthiest men in Italy and the owner of all three of its private television stations, started Forza Italia, a secular and purportedly free-market party. The neo-fascists, long since believers in democracy, became the respectable National Alliance and supported Berlusconi in coalitions starting with the 1994 election. The Northern League, advocating more autonomy for Italy’s affluent north, became an electoral force. The Communist Party renounced totalitarian Communism and renamed itself: first as the Party of the Democratic Left and most recently as the Democratic Party. Bertinotti’s true-believing Communists split off.

Berlusconi’s coalition won the 1994 election, supported by some Christian Democrats and opposed by others. He was maneuvered out of office in 1996 after the Northern League withdrew support from his government, and in the election that year he was narrowly defeated by a coalition made up mostly of former Communists but led by Prodi, a former Christian Democrat. This marked the first time that former Communists were in government, and in 1998 Prodi was succeeded as prime minister by former Communist Massimo D’Alema. But D’Alema was not the center-left’s candidate for prime minister in 2001; instead they picked the mayor of Rome, a Green Party politician named Francesco Rutelli. Berlusconi won a solid enough victory in 2001 to govern for five years and then lost by the narrowest of margins in 2006.

So from 1992 until this year, Italy has been moving toward a two-party political system in a period Italians call the seconda repubblica. Now it seems to have gotten there. Veltroni’s admirable refusal to include Bertinotti’s unreformed Communists in his coalition, together with their failure to meet the threshold for representation in either house of parliament, means they are probably through as a force in electoral politics. Berlusconi’s graceful acknowledgement of Veltroni’s gracious concession has spurred talk that they will make a deal—or embark on a “bipartisan reform,” to put it in more elevated terms—to change the electoral system and make it more favorable to two-party politics. (One way would be to raise the Chamber’s threshold for representation from 4 percent to the Senate’s 8 percent.)

Berlusconi might be elevated to the presidency, a largely but not entirely ceremonial post (the president played a key role in pushing Berlusconi out of office in 1996). Veltroni set a precedent as the first member of a formerly totalitarian party to be a coalition candidate for prime minister in an election; that precedent suggests that Berlusconi could be succeeded not only as prime minister but as candidate for prime minister in the next election by Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance.

The regional patterns in this week’s election resemble those of the prima repubblica. The north and the south were Berlusconi country; the center, including the Red Belt and the region around Rome, favored Veltroni. (You can see all of Italy’s regional boundaries and major cities on this map.)

Berlusconi’s strongest regions were Lombardy, Venetia, Sicily, and Campania: regions which are culturally and economically very different from each other. He got 58 percent of the vote or more in prosperous northern sub-regions with small cities and many high-skill prosperous industries (such as Como, Bergamo, Verona, and Treviso). His best sub-region in the country, at 64 percent, was Catania, in eastern Sicily. Veltroni carried Rome narrowly, but Berlusconi carried Lazio, winning a big majority in the city of Latina, where Mussolini famously drained the Pontine Marshes.

Berlusconi will almost certainly have a stable majority for five years, as he did from 2001 to 2006.

Veltroni carried the Red Belt by large margins, and ran especially strong in the sub-regions of Firenze and Siena: he won both by a margin of 56 percent to 28 percent. (Exactly why the cities which invented banking and double-entry bookkeeping are so strongly in favor of a formerly Communist party is beyond me.) The only sub-region in Tuscany that voted for Berlusconi was Lucca, which was an independent republic until it was abolished by Napoleon in 1805 (it’s what the ladies are discussing in the opening scene of Tolstoy’s War and Peace). Lucca is now the home of Marcello Pera, who served as president of the Senate from 2001 to 2006.

The Casini party ran marginally better in the south (perhaps due to Catholic loyalties?) than it did in the rest of the country. The only region in which the Bertinotti party exceeded the 4 percent threshold was Tuscany. Regional parties took the bulk of the vote in French-speaking Valle d’Aosta and German-speaking Trentino-Alto Adige. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s father Otto Santorum is an immigrant from this region, which was the home base of Italy’s first prime minister after the 1948 election, the Christian Democrat Alcide de Gasperi.

I compared the percentages by region for Berlusconi’s and Veltroni’s coalitions with the figures from the 2006 election. Berlusconi gained in every region but Trentino-Alto Adige (which, as mentioned, has a large German-speaking population) and the center-left coalition lost ground in every region. The biggest swings came in what I have called the south: Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. And there were somewhat smaller, but bigger than average, swings in Piedmont and Lombardy (beyond the central cities of Turin and Milan) and in Venetia. Voters in these areas, perhaps disenchanted with Berlusconi’s failure to reduce the size of government more during his 2001-06 tenure, took a chance on the center-left in 2006, but they returned in large numbers to the center-right this year.

Finally, a note on the exit polls. On the morning of April 14, just as the polls closed in Italy, I took part in an election panel at the Italian Embassy in Washington. Also participating were E.J. Dionne (who was the New York Times correspondent in Italy during the 1980s) and Federiga Bindi of the Brookings Institution, Edward Luttwak (whose family found refuge from the Nazis in Sicily during World War II) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Paolo Valentino of the Milan-based Corriere della Sera newspaper, and Giulio Borrelli of Italy’s government television network RAI. The exit polls that were being projected on the screen by RAI seemed to indicate that the Berlusconi coalition was leading the Veltroni coalition by a margin of only 42 percent to 40 percent, or thereabouts (the Italian exit pollsters, wisely, showed a range of possible results).

On the basis of those numbers, members of the panel projected a Berlusconi government, but one without a reliable majority in the Senate. (Remember that winning the popular vote gives you a supermajority in the Chamber of Deputies, but not in the Senate, which is where the Prodi government fell.) It seemed like a plausible interpretation. The Berlusconi coalition had been leading in the polls by about 6 percentage points until 15 days before the election, after which Italian law prohibits the publication of poll results. It appeared that Veltroni had been gaining during those final 15 days. In 2006, the Berlusconi coalition had run better than the 15-day-old polls had shown.

But the exit polls were wrong, as I found out shortly after noon when I attended a lunch at the Italian ambassador’s residence. As the votes came in, it was obvious that the Berlusconi coalition was winning by a sizable margin. His 42 percent in the exit polls turned out to be 47 percent in actual votes, while the Veltroni coalition’s 40 percent in exit polls turned out to be 37 percent in actual votes. As it happens, this mirrors the performance of exit polls in the United States, which have turned out to over-predict the Democratic percentage of votes in the last several elections, and which have tended to over-predict Barack Obama’s percentage of the votes in many (though not all) of the Democratic primary elections this year. What explains these discrepancies?

One theory is that Veltroni voters and Democratic voters and Obama voters are relatively more eager to take the exit poll. In the United States, about half of the people approached by exit pollsters refuse to answer their questions. Another explanation is suggested in a report by the late exit poll pioneer Warren Mitofsky, who found that the biggest gaps between actual vote counts and exit poll results occurred in precincts where the exit poller was a female graduate student. He speculated that such pollers were more willing to approach voters who looked like they shared the pollers’ own political preferences.

Mitofsky once told me that 90 percent of voters in Mexico and Russia, two countries that were once ruled by dictatorial regimes, would take the exit poll when approached, while only about 50 percent of voters in the United States would do so. In this respect, Italy, a stable (if turbulent) democracy for the last 60 years, may be more like the United States than like Mexico or Russia—which says good things about Italy (and about the United States) but bad things about exit polls in our two countries.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.

Image by Getty.

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