Book Review: The Challenge of Coalition Government

Nicolò Conti and Francesco Marangoni (eds.), The Challenge of Coalition Government. The Italian Case (London, New York: Routledge, 2015). 174 pp., £24,49 (e-book), ISBN: 9781138815100.

This is a book on the challenges of coalition governments. In fact the coalition as a ‘temporary alliance for combined action’ (Oxford Dictionary) is a challenge by definition. A theme all the more stimulating because about 60 per cent of the democracies since 1945 have had coalition governments. Among these, as well-known, the Italian case is the most interesting: 63 governments since 1948, most of them based on coalitions and no alternation in government in the so-called First Republic.
A group of young scholars from seven different Italian and foreign universities, coordinated by Nicolò Conti and Francesco Marangoni has addressed this issue in order to assess whether coalition politics in Italy has really changed.

They start with an analysis of the institutions and their changes after the important turning point of the mid-nineties, to reach their focus on the activity of governments. The authors, while recognizing the importance of literature on coalition politics in Italy and from a comparative perspective, do note however that most of the studies on governments are limited to the analysis of their formation, or their first stage of government, without going into all that follows.

The aim of the book is to make an in-depth analysis – and with a new and significant data collection – that covers all the various aspects of government: the agenda, the implementation of priority policies, the management of inter partisan coalition conflicts, relations with parliament in the legislative process and the relationship between government and citizens.

As far as concerns the institutional ambit, the turning point, of course, was the choice of the new almost-majoritarian electoral system in 1993 that projected Italy for the first time towards a new model of coalition politics. This new system encouraged the formation of coalitions before the elections and not after, as was the procedure in the previous forty years; it also introduced the presentation of a common electoral program and, more importantly, the indication of a common leader as the future prime minister. The larger question behind the book is to see if these changes have led to the abandonment of the old model of an «input democracy» in which the main objective of the parties «was simply to provide citizens with en ‘entrance’ into the circuit of representation through the parliament» to arrive to a complete «output democracy» where the government becomes a major player able to «provide citizens with tangible output through policies» (p. 6).

In order to understand if and how the new politics of coalition and formation of governments, the bipolar party system and the presidentialisation of executives produced more efficient and accountable governments, the authors decided to focus their analysis on the performance and results of the activities of governments through an empirical analysis of six dimensions: coalition conflictuality, the executive agenda, the implementation of government agreement, the consensual approval of government legislation, the post-enactment legislative revision, and the citizens’ support for the government.

In regard to the intra-coalitional conflictuality, Marangoni and Vercesi highlight the discontinuities of the second republic from the first, starting from the practice of coalition agreements made by electoral governments. But at the same time, through a very precise and detailed analysis of the government conflicts, they underline the difficulties of transformation of the Italian political system into a true output democracy. The rate of fragmentation of policy decisions, in fact, continues to adversely affect the government’s action.

In the chapter on the formation of the executive agenda, Borghetto and Carammia, as part of a larger comparative project on this topic, study the evolving agenda of political parties from the election manifestos right up to the formation of the government’s agenda. Although the introduction of the Second Republic’s coalition agreements is an important factor, the authors do not actually find any correspondence between the pre-electoral commitments and the cabinet priorities.

In the third chapter Nicolò Conti documents the achievements of the Italian government in pledge fulfillment and reaches fairly negative conclusions – especially in the case taken as an example, the fourth Berlusconi cabinet – where achievements were not distributed among the policy field that were announced in the government agenda. So, the mandate model of the Second Republic is not enough to overcome the centrifugal tendencies of coalitions.

In the fourth chapter Andrea Pedrazzani investigates the complex issue of government bills in parliament, with special attention to the final voting stages, highlighting in his conclusions how the mechanisms of their approval are actually consensual even in the Second Republic.

The fifth chapter, by Enrico Borghetto and Francesco Visconti,is the most original of the book. It deals with legislative revision as an instrument of government, studying the post-enactment policy change in Italy and its dynamics from the First to the Second Republic. Surprisingly the advent of alternation in government did not involve an increase in the revisions of the previous majorities. The legislative process, undergoing massive party fragmentation, became more complex: «intra-coalition bargaining might have moved from the pre-enactment to the post-enactment phase, leaving majorities with the option of governing by revising» (p. 124).

Finally, the last chapter, by Vincenzo Memoli, making use of multi-variate analyses, investigates the impact of institutional efficiency, together with morality and legality on the citizens’ declining support for the Italian government.

To conclude, each author, by focusing on the single challenges posed by the coalition government, describes Italy as a case that has not yet become an actual output democracy.

This is a fairly ambitious book because, beyond the widely shared conclusions, it puts together chapters with different methodologies and often with time spans that do not perfectly coincide. This is why the work of the editors has been all the more valuable in coordinating themes that often reproduce repeated statements (such as the differences between the First and Second Republic).
With its interesting findings, and in the light of the recent redefinition of the Italian political system in a tri-polar sense, it may offer an inspiring research agenda for the future.

Annarita Criscitiello, University of Naples Federico II

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