- The Axis Powers 50 Years LaterItaly-The Twilight of the Parties
Until recently, Italian democracy, established in the wake of Fascism and defeat in the Second World War, seemed to have performed quite well. Once a rather poor, mainly agricultural, and highly parochial country, Italy became the world's fifth or sixth largest industrial power. In spite of several challenges, among them terrorism in both rightist and leftist guises, the Italian political system and the handful of parties that dominated it managed to accommodate change without resorting to repression. Though spread unevenly among regions, prosperity appeared widespread, especially in the 1980s. Just beneath the surface, however, a crisis was brewing.
Over the last few years since the end of the Cold War, many unsolved problems have simply run out of control, with explosive consequences. Organized crime, particularly in the south, became especially brazen, murdering brave and able law-enforcement officials like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. A judicial investigation known as Mani Pulite (Operation Clean Hands) uncovered massive corruption involving most prominent governing politicians. Massive resentment of all parties and a severely critical attitude toward "Roman" politics and bureaucracy were among the themes adroitly exploited by the Lega Nord (Northern League), a new grouping that seemed ready to revive the old north-south divide. Finally, voters turned out in a series of referenda to demand reforms in the electoral system and to express their desire for new rules and institutions, turnover in the [End Page 18] immobilist political class, and real alternation in power. What is at stake in all this is not the existence of Italian democracy as such, but rather its performance and character. By the early 1990s, Italy's postwar political system had reached its nadir in public confidence and support; major change is now clearly underway.
The dominant element in postwar Italian politics has been the party system. Some scholars credit the Italian parties with helping to sustain democracy under a fairly harsh set of "confining conditions." Among these were Italy's status from 1945 to 1989 as a "front-line" country in the West's effort to contain the Soviet bloc. This meant, on the one hand, that the Italian Communist Party (PCI), despite its support among a significant share of the electorate, could never become a credible contender for governmental power at the national level. The PCI's leaders were perfectly aware of this, and focused instead on local politics, striving with considerable success to channel political discontent into their powerful party organization, and to extract sizable resources at the national level by creating and exploiting certain consociational devices.
The Christian Democrats (DC), on the other hand, were aware that they could not be replaced by a coalition that excluded them and included the Communist Party. Their principal problem was to steer a delicate course between the Catholic Church (which until the early 1960s often displayed reactionary political tendencies) and the popular strata whose votes they needed to attract. Never a cohesive and disciplined party, and always obliged to form governing coalitions with minor centrist parties, the DC gladly seized all opportunities to reach consociational agreements with the PCI. Minor centrist parties, such as the Liberals (PLI), the Republicans (PRI), and the Social Democrats (PSDI), extracted the resources indispensable for their electoral and political survival almost exclusively by forming alliances with the DC. This left the Socialist Party (PSI) in the most difficult position. The Communists were by far the strongest party on the left, but they could never be an acceptable coalition partner. Therefore, the Socialists' only path to government ran through a coalition with the Christian Democrats. Yet the DC would never become a reformist party on its own, and the Socialists, who experienced a couple of splits and a continuous electoral decline up to 1976, had no hope of compelling it to move in such a direction. The PSI's prospects revived only under the leadership of Bettino Craxi, elected party secretary in 1976. By that time, however, an entirely different story was about to be written.
The key to the stability of Italy's party system and the strength of its components lay in the peculiar...