Sergio Fabbrini

The Three Defects Behind Italian Inertia

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Sergio Fabbrini

America24, 27 gennaio 2014, 04:44

The conversation that was launched over the package of electoral and institutional reforms agreed upon by the Democratic Party (PD) and Forza Italia represents the pinnacle of the defects that have so far condemned Italy to inertia. There’s a fatal attraction on the part of a considerable segment of our political class to keeping things the same. Buit they have three faults in particular.

The first vice is maximalism. Every attempt at reform is blocked by criticism that it’s not enough. The Matteo Renzi–Silvio Berlusconi electoral reform proposal is surely a step ahead compared with the electoral system Italy used in the past three elections. But, naturally, it has inevitable defects, which is usually what happens when a proposal is the result of a compromise between divergent visions and interests. If we were a nation with solid, practical traditions, we would have understood that it still represents the only possible option under the circumstances to get ourselves out of this stalemate and we would have approved it as soon as possible. Then, the new Parliament could have figured out how to improve it. But we are not a practical country. In Italy, instead of asking how we can move reform ahead given diverse political interests, we ask how to make it perfect. It’s like watching a college seminar. The urge to be the best, the most democratic, is unquenchable. There’s an entire group of electoral reform professionals who live their lives passing one proposal after another, the result being that there is never any reform. It the same for other kinds of reform. Every proposal that is put forward is immediately drowned out by requests that it be done more and better. The result: we have drawers full of splendid projects never realized.

The second vice is particularism. The Renzi-Berlusconi proposal is never talked about in terms of the benefits it could bring to the political system. No, it’s discussed on the basis of related interests and the particular needs of one group or another. The “proportional” mentality is widespread, in all parties. In Germany, you don't get into the Bundestag if you don’t get 5 percent of the votes. In fact, no one warned of the end of democracy when, in elections last September, the liberal PD didn’t make it to Parliament despite having been in the government for five years. All great parliamentary democracies have big parties or big political coalitions. The small parties are used to signal problems that have been forgotten or overlooked by the big parties. They can and should get them out of Parliament. Otherwise, they turn into small public bureaucracies whose only interest is to survive. But in Italy, grouping small parties into bigger movements or parties, finding another way to represent the basic options of the electorate, all this is apparently irreconcilable with the public spirit cultivated by our political class. So you have a paradox: a segment of the bigger party (the PD) asks to lower the threshold to obtain a seat in favor of the small parties instead of the PD preserving the seats to strengthen its own party.

The third vice is consensualism. Reforms only happens if everyone agrees. That consensus is constructed in general assemblies. Assemblyism is considered by many intellectuals to be the superior form of Italian culture. A well-respected political theorist recently wrote an article in “Unità” defending the Senate as it is. Progressive groups like Libertà Eguale mobilized to defend Italy’s parliamentary system, with its bicameral structural. Legal experts have lauded the importance of this last to favor the reasoned deliberation of laws. It’s not present in Great Britain or in France or in Spain, where only one house makes a decision and forms a government. Even reducing the number of parliamentarians is regarded as an attack on democracy. Despite the fact that in Italy there is one member of Parliament for every 64,154 inhabitants, while in Spain there is one for every 134,832, in Germany one for every 131,858, in France for every 134,832 inhabitants, in Great Britain for every 96,053. Are these endangered democracies? In Italy, you discuss, but you don’t know.

The combination of maximalism, particularism and consensualism has produced a periodic and regular stalemate in Italian politics. The overwhelming feeling is that democracy is depleting itself by overrepresentation. That and because of an overly formal and procedural legal system, political institutions have become uninterested in the government of the country. Or at least they managed to incorporate the government into their internal equilibrium. The Letta government, despite the best intentions of the prime minister and the positive initiatives undertaken yesterday by the council of ministers, has ended up all too often being the latest example of the introverted logic of Italian politics. Unable to produce an effective government, Italian democracy has instead farmed out this responsiblity to ministries or European institutions. And we all know the results.

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