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  • Updates on Japan & ItalyThe Birth of the "Second Republic"
  • Gianfranco Pasquino (bio)

The results of the parliamentary elections that Italy held on 27-28 March 1994 were surprising, if not totally unexpected. To judge from the opinion polls, the victory scored by the Alliance for Freedom—a coalition comprising three conservative groups (the neofascist National Alliance [AN], Forza Italia, and the Northern League [Lega Nord]) plus a few small parties—had been in the making at least since the beginning of March. What was less widely anticipated was the coalition's conquest of a 366-seat majority in the 630-member Chamber of Deputies and a 155-seat near-majority in the 315-member Senate; the two houses together make up the first Parliament chosen under the complex new electoral laws adopted in August 1993. Under the new system, proportional representation (PR) has been largely abandoned in favor of plurality elections in single-member districts, although a quarter of the seats in each house are allocated according to party-list PR with a 4-percent threshold requirement.1

What is more, the respective showings made by each of the three coalition partners were also major surprises. In less than three months, television magnate and soccer-team owner Silvio Berlusconi made a powerful electoral machine out of his brand-new Forza Italia, whose name is borrowed from a sports cheer that means "Go Italy, Go!" Its 20-percent share of the national vote was the largest that any single party received. For a new party in an established democracy, to get one out of every five votes cast is an achievement without parallel.

The National Alliance, which used to be known as the Italian Social [End Page 107] Movement and can trace its roots back to Benito Mussolini, ran few "new faces" on its ticket but almost tripled its vote share, polling an unprecedented 13.5 percent. Although appearing as the junior partner in the coalition, the Northern League appealed effectively to its strong regional base and doubled the size of its parliamentary contingent. Thanks to the peculiarities of Italy's revamped electoral system, the strongly anticentralist Lega Nord is now the largest parliamentary group within the Alliance for Freedom in both the Chamber and the Senate (see Table 1), and one of its Milanese deputies, Irene Pivetti, has been elected speaker of the lower house.

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Table 1.

—Election Results for the Chamber of Deputies

The defeat of the Progressive Alliance, as the loose left-wing coalition was known, appeared as less of a surprise to most observers, though the resounding character of the defeat seems to have stunned many inside the coalition. Having won almost all the important mayoral elections held across the country in November and December 1993, and having achieved a hard-won state of agreement amongst themselves, the Progressives entertained high hopes for a sizeable national victory, to be [End Page 108] followed by governmental power at long last. Indeed, their triumph seemed like such a strong possibility that Berlusconi entered the arena precisely to prevent it. Seeking to counter those he called "Communists, former Communists, and post-Communists," he openly exploited what remained of the communist-anticommunist cleavage, once the central divide of Italian politics. The electoral results suggest that what remains of this cleavage is still quite salient, and perhaps even decisive.

Coalescing for the first time in their history (in a move dictated by the logic of the new electoral system), the left-of-center elements in Italian politics nonetheless found themselves punished with their lowest vote percentage since the critical elections of April 1948. Then, early in the Cold War, the Socialists (PSI) and Communists (PCI)—united as the Popular Front—received only 31 percent of the vote; the Social Democratic Party (PSDI), a recent breakaway from the PSI, obtained 7 percent. In 1946, when they ran separately, the PSI and PCI had posted a combined total of 39 percent. Subsequently, the combined electoral strength of the various left-wing parties fluctuated around 40 percent, reaching a peak of 46 percent in 1976. In 1994, the Progressive Alliance—comprising the Democratic Party of the Left...