Conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi casts his ballot in Milan, Italy, April 13, 2008. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)
Berlusconi's back, again
But how long can he last in the revolving door of Italian politics?
April 15, 2008
Think minority government is a delicate balancing act in Ottawa? In Rome, it's a fine art — and a fact of life.
Since the end of the Second World War, no single party has won enough seats to control the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate, the two houses that make up the Italian parliament.
The election of April 13-14, 2008, was no different.
A reported 158 parties contested it, but most of the popular vote went to two coalitions. The election was a two-horse race between the centre-right People of Freedom party led by billionaire Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-left Democratic Party of former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni.
Bolstered by right-wing allies — an anti-immigrant party and a former neo-fascist grouping — Berlusconi, 71, won generous majorities in both houses.
If you don't like who's ruling Italy, wait a while – chances are that it will change. The country has seen 62 governments in the 63 years since the end of the Second World War, as coalitions have dominated and smaller parties have taken seats.
Here are some of the political shakeups of recent years:
April 1996 – Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition wins a national election and forms a government.
October 1997 – Prodi's government loses a confidence vote. Massimo D'Alema becomes Italy's first ex-communist to become prime minister at the head of a centre-left coalition.
December 1999 – D'Alema resigns, then wins a confidence vote to form a new government.
April 2000 – D'Alema resigns again after a poor showing in regional elections. Giuliano Amato takes power.
May 2001 – Berlusconi wins a national election and forms a centre-right coalition.
April 2005 – Berlusconi resigns over coalition demands. He forms a new coalition government.
April 2006 – Romano Prodi wins the national election and forms a centre-left coalition government.
February 2007 – Prodi resigns over a government defeat in the Senate, but later wins confidence votes in both the upper and lower houses.
January 2008 – Prodi resigns after losing a confidence vote and the support of a small party in his coalition. Senate Speaker Franco Marini is asked to try to form an interim government, but can't.
April 2008 – Berlusconi wins a majority in national elections.
The flamboyant former media tycoon has on-the-job experience, having served two previous terms as prime minister. With his 2001 government, he also became one of the rare Italian prime ministers even to come close to a full five-year term.
In the 315-member Senate, Berlusconi was projected to control at least 167 seats to Veltroni's 130, according to a final count of ballots cast in Italy with overseas votes still needing to be counted. The margin in the lower house was 46.8 per cent for Berlusconi's bloc and 36.7 per cent for Veltroni's group.
About 80 per cent of Italians turned out to vote, according to election officials, down three per cent from the last election in 2006.
In that election, about 50 million people were eligible to vote, including 2.5 million Italians living abroad. Among them were about 100,000 Canadians.
How Italian politics work
The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, has 630 seats. The Senate, which is the upper house, has 315 seats.
Eighteen seats — 12 in the chamber and six in the senate — have been set aside to represent Italians living abroad. Those 18 seats will be divided among four geographical areas:
- North and Central America (three)
- Europe (nine)
- South America (five)
- Australia (one)
Voters do not cast their ballots for candidates. They are handed lists of parties and coalitions for each house. Parties and coalitions that achieve certain minimum levels of support get to send candidates on their list to the chamber and the house. For instance, a coalition needs at least 10 per cent of the vote to win seats in the chamber.
Candidates at the top of a list have a better chance of being allocated a seat than candidates who are further down party or coalition lists.
Political stability proves elusive
In politics, stability is relative — and in Italy "relative" gets a lot of leeway.
National elections in Italy normally are held every five years, although the president can ask the prime minister to move up the date. Governments rarely last that long.
Majorities in both houses make another longer run possible for Berlusconi, but there are always issues with a coalition. Observers says the maverick Northern League, known for its demands for northern Italian regions, could prove to be a deep thorn in the government's side.
"Now we need to implement reforms. If not, we will lose our patience," Northern League leader Umberto Bossi said in an interview with an Italian newspaper.
There is also a lingering sense of voter apathy, with many Italians telling journalists that they were fed up with politics and politicians, and didn't care who won the latest vote.
One, a businessman in the southern town of Sorrento, was given a ticket by police after he tore up his ballot paper and ate it as a sign of protest.
Big problems loom
"Difficult months and years await us, and I'm getting ready to govern with the utmost commitment," Berlusconi said Monday night after his election win.
Indeed, Italy is teetering on the edge of recession, with a 0 per cent growth rate expected for the rest of 2008.
Berlusconi has pledged to jumpstart the sluggish economy and clear an often-complicated lawmaking process in parliament. Another key priority, he says, will be saving the troubled Alitalia national airline.
"I want to go down in the history of this country as the statesman who has changed it," he said.