Book Review: Politica in Italia

Aldo Di Virgilio and Claudio Maria Radaelli (eds.), Politica in Italia. I fatti dell’anno e le interpretazioni. Edizione 2013 (Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2013). 352 pp., €27,00 (paperback), €18,99 (ebook), ISBN: 9788815246707.

A book dedicated to the facts of the year which presents the main facts in chronological order, is difficult to review. A year is defined as being of great political significance when key events, derived from internal and external challenges to the political system, are able to produce discontinuities. This is what occurred in 2012; it was a crucial turning point in the Italian political system. In 2012, a technocratic government, led by Mario Monti, was established and the downgrade suffered by the Berlusconi party (PdL) signaled the likely end of an era dominated by Berlusconi. Throughout the year, it seemed clear that what was called the “Second Republic” was breathing its last breath along with the bipolarity, however imperfect, that had characterized this period of Italian politics. Moreover, it was the year in which a severe financial crisis called into question the economic policies of the country and led to a political discourse aiming to achieve “policy coordination” among institutions and a “communication channel” between leaders and the public (Radaelli). Addressing the financial crisis changed the government’s priorities. According to some literature (see, for example, Bosco, A. e Verney, S., 2012, Electoral epidemic: the political cost of economic crises in Southern Europe, 2010-11, in «South European Society and Politics», n. 2), pressure from international organizations, such as the European Central Bank (ECB) to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led Italy down the path of a “semi-sovereign democracy,” or according to another interpretation, of an “irresponsible democracy” (see Mair, P., 2009, Representative versus responsible government, MPIfG Working Paper, n. 8, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Köln) where the parties have neither the will nor the ability to make unpopular decisions.

As the chapters in this volume illustrate, 2012 can be seen as the year of the “Podestà Straniero” (“Foreign Mayor”) as referenced in the title of the introduction. The volume—as is usual for a political work published by the Istituto Cattaneo—is organized around three main sections: politics, institutions, and society. The editors (Aldo Di Virgilio and Claudio Radaelli) used the political triangle—politics, policies, and polity—to address the topics covered in the book. This distinction is not only an editorial criterion, it also indicates a choice: “The urgency of the issues on the table led to the absolute priority being given to policies” (p. 44). From this perspective, policy issues were critical in 2012. The response of the political élites, in general, was to change the formal “rules of the game”. The executive lacked direct electoral legitimacy and their entire raison d’être and source of public support was based on its policies of fiscal austerity and economical recovery. Herein lays the paradox or perhaps the illusion of a “government” that defines its legitimacy as output oriented, but needs political support to implement its decisions and actions. Hence in the process of policy making politics remains still decisive. It was placed on the back burner, downgraded to providing necessary support for the work undertaken by the technocrats in government, and squeezed between the policies (seen in the discourse of the government as “non-majority decisions”) and the polity (the Europeanization, the inter-institutional relations, and decentralization).

By reading the chapters in the section dedicated to politics this is not “wholly” in default. What was downgraded was the politics of the Berlusconi government, which was ensnared in personal legal proceedings and internal conflicts within the majority (e.g., the episode with Tremonti) and of the traditional parties represented in parliament who failed to react effectively to the three overlapping crises: moral (corruption and the mismanagement of public funding as described by Stella and Rizzo), fiscal (see chapters by Stolfi, Goretti and Ruzzuto, Sacchi) and institutional (the weakness in a form of government still rooted in a proportional and consensual logic). During 2012, politics was weakened by the dissolution of innovation and political transformations acquired during the previous two decades: the role of leadership (more or less charismatic) and their relationship with the party organization—both in the models of “leader with party” (PdL and Berlusconi; Bossi and the League) and “party with leader” (PD). However, a return to politics has been reassured by non-conventional participation, “sub-politics,” or anti-politics. Social reaction against so-called neo-liberal policies in Italy has been belated and fragmented when compared with other European countries (Melloni), such as Greece and Spain. Moreover, Italian protest movements during 2012 were engaged in territorial and highly symbolic conflicts (mainly the No-TAV movement against high-speed trains in north-western Italy). On the other hand, disaffected and discontent voters reacted by addressing electoral choices towards an anti-established party, external to the two rival coalitions, bringing about the success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in municipal elections in May 2012 and Sicily’s 2013 regional elections, known as an “earthquake election” (Vignati). In such political uncertainty, the primary elections, organized in November–December 2012 by the center-left coalition for the selection of parliamentary candidates including for the President of the Council of Ministers helped the Democratic Party to seek a solution to the wave of protests demanding change. Further, despite primaries being viewed as a participatory innovation, in reality, they turned out to be a mechanism of manipulation (Pasquino and Valbruzzi). A party’s leader can lose their grip and appeal, as evidenced by the experiences of the Northern League (Bull).

While Italian politics was wedged between crisis and protest, or from a different perspective, between privileges (enjoyed by the political class) and delegitimization (by citizens), the formulation of policy was adopted as a means of addressing emergencies that transpired as a result of the government’s narration of the crisis and the depoliticization of its decisions. Another important objective was to achieve policy reform: recovering international credibility and securing access to European institutions and markets. Thus, Monti’s government was characterized by its peculiar interaction with other political institutions, including the head of the state and parliament. The response of the President of the Republic could be interpreted as a desire to implement a structural change (de facto presidentialism) or as a reaction to contextual factors (economic emergencies and crisis with the center-right and its leader). The parliamentary parties supported the government until the two main parties distanced themselves from the executive, turning their attention to the forthcoming national election (Pedrazzini and Pinto); in similar fashion the interest groups and (partially) the unions are not much different from parties in removing the support to the caretaker government (Mattina). As explained by Stefano Sacchi, the austerity measures introduced by the government had an impact on pensions and labor market reforms, expenditure programs (in the search for efficiency in the production of public services), and policy priorities (for the reprioritization of public action). However, the outcomes were stymied by political obstacles, both “internal” and “external” to the institutions (Goretti and Rizzuto).

Daniela Giannetti’s following analysis of the different phases of the Monti government demonstrates that relations between the technocratic government and the parties offered the latter an opportunity to redeem themselves and recover lost ground. The phases of the Monti government included: 1) December 2011–March 2012, the phase of internal reforms (tax, pension, labor market); 2) April–July 2012, the diplomatic phase aimed at creating a “growth agenda for Europe”; 3) from September to December 2012, opposition to the Monti government resurfaces and, than, forces Monti to resign. Therefore, the experience of the caretaker government did not prevent a return to party politics. Rather, politics still matters.

Francesco Raniolo, Università della Calabria

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