BERLIN – The Italian election was heartening for populist forces. Yet the results do not break with a venerable Italian tradition — one that political scientist Giuseppe di Palma described in “Surviving without Governing: The Italian Parties in Parliament.” Those who are suddenly overcome with anxiety for Italy and Europe might find solace in its pages.
Di Palma’s work, published in 1977, emerged in the wake of parliamentary elections that look a lot like Sunday’s results:
The Italian Communist Party won 34.4 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election — slightly more than the populist Five Star Movement is projected to have gained in Sunday’s vote.
The centrist Christian Democrats won 38.8 percent, close to the result of the center-right coalition in 2018. They’d been weakened, like the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi today, by the recent loss of a referendum (theirs had been on divorce, Renzi’s on a constitutional reform).
The echoes between then and now are striking. Political observers feared a collapse of the center. Economic analysts dwelled on the potential damage to the Italian economy, which was also underperforming after a global economic crisis. “The present Italian governments,” di Palma wrote, in the plural because Italy was on its 34th post-World War II government as he wrote it, “can no more cure themselves than they can the social and economic malaise of the country.”
Di Palma offered a compelling explanation why Italian parties were better at electoral survival than at governing. He wrote:
“The emergence of limited government after World War II can be partially read as a reaction to historical events: the trauma of over 20 years of Fascist dictatorship. In Italy, the weakness of the postwar regime has been, in a way, one of its assets, providing the system with its rubber-ball quality: Men and formulas fall, but bounce back, at the slightest impact.”
It’s actually a tried-and-true strategy for dealing with totalitarian trauma. The Czech Republic, with its ever-changing political landscape and ineffective coalitions, appears to have opted for a similar model after its spell as a Soviet satellite. Last year’s Czech election produced an even worse mess than the current one in Italy. Populist parties did well, too. In January, the resulting minority government lost a confidence vote. The country still doesn’t have a stable Cabinet.
Other European countries with totalitarian or dictatorial experiences behind them — notably Germany and France — opted for a strong central authority. Their voters seek stable governments that can work a full term. Even when the political system’s foundations are shaken and traditional parties falter or even die, an election winner’s ability to govern is a strong consideration. In these countries, people will sometimes vote strategically for a candidate they don’t fully support to get that result. France’s vote for Emmanuel Macron in last year’s presidential election and the German Social Democrats’ vote of support for a coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives provide just two examples of such strategic behavior. In a country accustomed to weak central governments, however, there’s no need for such compromises: People can happily vent, protest, vote to make a point. They don’t expect things to get much worse if they do.
That may be because the central government may have less of an effect on their daily lives than their society’s other institutions, which don’t necessarily change much as a result of elections. These institutions can include strong local communities, informal economic networks and businesses. Institutional resistance to Trumpism in the United States, with states, cities and companies pursuing policies with which the Trump administration disagrees, shows the power of these institutions and networks. If central government fails, these power centers pick up the slack.
Italy has a long history of relying on anything but political power for governance. In his book, di Palma stressed the importance of public companies and public service agencies, all but immune to political change and representing the real authority while governments change kaleidoscopically:
“To be sure, their very existence and their politics have become, and often rightly so, the ready symbol of the distortions of continuing centrist rule. Corruption, inefficiency, waste of public money, particularism, spoils, incompetence, politicking, secrecy, irresponsibility, empire-building, self-perpetuation and everything else that is disaffective about rule by the center have been imputed to these bodies. Hence, they are certain testimony to the perpetual crisis of the regime. But their capacity to endure and to buy time for the regime is something else.”
In other words, in a weak political system, the institutions that take on the functions of government can be both a disease and a cure, usurping power but maintaining a centrist common sense.
With another inconclusive election, another show of political fragmentation, another triumph of ballot-box sarcasm, Italy isn’t failing or dragging down all of Europe. Yes, it’s the third biggest euro area economy — but it’s also one where Silvio Berlusconi, who served the longest of any post-World War II prime minister, had to form four different Cabinets to rack up his nine years at the helm. Italian voters wouldn’t put up with this kind of instability had it not been their conscious choice to have a weak central government rather than an empowered one.
It’s an important consequence of this choice that Italy cannot be a driver of positive change in the European Union: That role falls to countries with stable governments. But such is the power of weakness that Brexit-style movements cannot really originate in Italy, either. The extreme political theater is just the shop window; the owners decorated it with red Communist flags in the 1970s and they’re using stars now, but the shop itself sells largely the same wares, and the customers are merely a different generation of the same families.
Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.