Book Review: La repubblica dei veti


Francesco Zucchini, La repubblica dei veti: Un’analisi spaziale del mutamento legislativo in Italia (Milan, Italy: EGEA, 2013). 148 pp., €18,00 (paperback), €10,99 (e-book), ISBN: 9788823843950.

This work represents the ambitious attempt to characterize the contemporary Italian political system, taking into account the major changes that took place since the political crisis of the 1990s and the transition from the “first” to the “second” Italian Republic. Francesco Zucchini, moreover, tries to focus on the potential link between the political system and Italy’s mediocre economic performance over the past decades, as well as its difficulties to engage in structural reforms. These weaknesses, the author assumes, are not due to sector-specific constraints or obstacles. Rather, they originate in the structure of Italy’s political system, closely linked to Italy’s party system.

The book is based on spatial modeling and provides a useful introduction to this method and its application to lawmaking, party competition and bureaucracy. This part of the book is somewhat separate from the rest, even if the following chapters do require some prior knowledge of spatial modeling.

The analysis is rich and does not simply put Italy into comparative perspective, but clearly realizes important and rather original comparative analyses, especially in chapter 3. It emphasizes several characteristic traits of Italy compared to other Western democracies. The great stability of the party system, with the permanent presence of the Christian Democrats in government until the early 1990s, contrasts with the extreme polarization within government. A third feature is the comparatively weak agenda-setting autonomy of the executive. This particular combination has led to a strong status quo bias. Polarization indicates the difficulty in reaching legislative agreements. High political stability has gone together with legislative gridlock. In addition, the government never had the institutional powers required to overcome gridlock.

The “veto republic,” the term used to describe Italy in the title, thus features an unusual combination of factors preventing policy change. Significant legislative change only took place under rather exceptional circumstances, i.e., when the entire political system underwent a major crisis of legitimacy. Zucchini identifies two such instances in Italy’s post-war history: first, the social mobilization following the student movements of the late 1960s, and second, the political crisis of the early 1990s that led to the end of the first republic. These “emergency periods” (p. 60-61) contrasted with normal policymaking.

The reasons underlying the persisting failure to change the legislative status quo are to be looked for within the 5-party governing coalition (pentapartito), rather than among opposition parties. It is the ideological heterogeneity of government coalitions that explains the difficulties of the lawmaking process, rather than the polarization of the entire party system. This shifts the focus of attention away from the Communist Party and back to the governing coalition. The presence of the Communist Party only mattered to the extent that it prevented alternation. It provided the glue that held the heterogeneous pentapartito together.

The argument is empirically tested thanks to an “important-laws” data set, confirming that it is the specific Pareto set of each government that determined legislative change. Important laws contrast with the absolute number of laws, where Italy has been among the most productive. Yet, this is known to be a poor indicator. In fact, the high number of laws may precisely be due to the great heterogeneity, and thus explain the difficulty in changing the status quo. Laws may neutralize each other or result from pork-barrel politics. The apparent strength of the Italian Parliament may, thus, only be a by-product of the heterogeneity of the governing coalition.

The second republic has at least changed one major parameter. There is now an alternation, even if polarization has not really diminished. Party competition is now organized into two major connected coalitions. This in turn has led to “obstructionism” on behalf of the defeated. This, in fact, is very common in other majoritarian polities, such as France, the UK and the US. Laws are now approved by a much closer margin and this has led to a spectacular decline in the number of adopted laws. Reasons for this can be sought in the diminishing capacity of commission law-making, an original Italian feature. At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in decree-laws, i.e., the delegation of lawmaking to the government by the Parliament, thereby increasing government autonomy somewhat.

The author finally explores other potential veto players in the Italian political system. Successive changes in electoral laws appear to have resulted in the chambers of Parliament becoming less congruent, as shown by the evolution of debate lengths or the number of readings. The greater number of alternations may also have increased the effective incentives to veto adopted laws by the Constitutional Tribunal.

The transition to the second republic has brought along some significant changes, but there is still a strong status quo bias, due to the continuing need for the two main parties to build large — catch all, we could add — coalitions with a centrist pivotal player.

At times, especially in chapter 3, the author sketches out an original research agenda — reminiscent of Tsebelis’ work — that ought to be developed more fully. This, in particular, raises several additional questions. A first question concerns the evolution of differences on the most important policy dimensions. It is true that the Berlusconi era ended with a strong economic crisis, but ever since there has been a strong economic constraint on all governments, all of whom have pursued an austerity agenda — albeit based on different political justifications. A second concern, which is closely linked, concerns the presence of an “EU veto player” or more generally, of an external economic and/or political constraint. It is true that spatial models are rarely extended to multilevel settings, but the reality is that today this external constraint is undeniable for virtually all member states of the EU. The conclusion in fact acknowledges that the rise of the Movimento 5 Stelle is linked to the European crisis. Even if this may only be a passing phenomenon, the emergence of a strong EU or globalization cleavage in most EU countries will put further pressure on existing party systems.
A final series of questions concerns the time component. The electoral system has changed three times in twenty years. Yet, institutional changes take a lot of time to become effectively interiorized by all relevant actors. It is not certain that this time was given to the electoral laws of 1993 or 2005.

In a nutshell, Zucchini’s work opens up an interesting perspective on the structural problems of particular political systems. This has been done essentially for non-Western countries so far1, but Zucchini shows that our “old” democracies may encounter similar structural biases. We hope that his initiative opens the way for similar attempts regarding Spain, Germany and Denmark. From that perspective, we regret that the book is not (yet?) available in English. It would certainly be a helpful companion to classes devoted to Italy and comparative politics.

Emiliano Grossman, Sciences Po, Paris


1 See, for example, Spiller, P. T., & Tommasi, M. (2007). The institutional foundations of public policy in Argentina. New York: Cambridge University Press; Spiller, P. T., Stein, E. H., Tommasi, M., Scartascini, C., Alston, L. J., Melo, M. A. & Penfold, M. (2008). Policymaking in Latin America: How Politics Shapes Policies. Inter-American Development Bank.

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