The Ongoing Italian Unification Struggle

A Long View of Italy’s Fragmented Politics

The Chamber of Deputies, the Lower House of the Parliament of Italy, housed within the Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome.

Across the globe, the last few years have seen the stunning rise of populist leaders and/or political parties that have challenged the statuses quo of their respective countries. This has been particularly salient in Europe, where the existence of the supranational government of the European Union (EU) has served as a tangible foil for Euroskeptic, anti-establishment political actors. The latest arena of upheaval has been Italy, which held general elections in March 2018 that weakened the established political parties.

The election results there have served as yet another rebuke to the domestic establishment in Italy and to EU elites. The clear winners, the anti-establishment Northern League and the Five Star Movement, have weakened or subsumed the old center-right and center-left coalitions, creating a new partisan landscape in Italian politics. Whereas the League is a right-wing federalist populist party, Five Star is a big tent anti-politics populist movement that emphasizes public infrastructure improvements and environmentalism.

The EU had already felt the shocks of other populist reactions before the Italian election. These included the pro-Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the rapid rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, and the upending of Greek politics by the left-wing SYRIZA and far-right Golden Dawn. There have been issues both related to the EU and separate from it fueling this populist rise in Europe. Prominent among them are immigration and the migrant crisis. It is no accident that the bulk of populist actors hold immigration and national security concerns as central to their platforms. Terrorism and the negative behavior of the mainly Muslim migrants across Europe have made immigration the first or second most important electoral issue in most European countries.

However, beyond these common issues relevant throughout Europe are the particularities of Italy itself. There have been long-term historical problems in Italy that are important to consider and are unrelated to the EU and immigration. The current geo-political iteration of Italy as a nation-state has only been true since 1871, which, in Western Europe, makes Italy the same age as Germany and older than only Iceland and Ireland. The struggle to consolidate the various dominions of Italy and enact proper national political integration, thus, has been an ongoing problem throughout Italian history and one that continues to this day. The 2018 elections are just the latest stage in this struggle, inflected by contemporary European issues but also a continuation of persistent Italian problems.

In Napoleon’s Wake

For most of medieval and modern history, the Italian Peninsula was a divided realm of city-states, duchies, kingdoms, and the Papal States. The First French Empire under Napoleon upset this status quo, with the northwest and the Papal States annexed directly to France, the Northeast and the South reconstituted as two French client states, and the small Republic of Lucca ruled by Napoleon’s sister, Elsa. Only Sardinia and Sicily remained truly independent. The collapse of the First French Empire fragmented the Peninsula once more, but with fewer dominions than was true before Napoleon, with borders designated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Top: The Peninsula in 1796 before Napoleon. Middle: The Peninsula under the First French Empire. Bottom: The Peninsula after the Congress of Vienna of 1815.

The entry of Napoleonic forces and ideas into the Peninsula, and the support of them by some local actors, gave rise to a heightened nationalistic consciousness among its peoples. This consciousness was girded both by a sense of shared history reaching back to the Roman Empire and by the need to develop a unified, strong nation-state that could compete with other powers and defend against enemies within and beyond the Peninsula. Thus, during 1815–71, the long process of Italian unification, or Risorgimento (Resurgence) in Italian, was spearheaded and completed by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, with its capital in Turin.

Unification required militarily combating other Italian states, as well as the Austrian Empire in three wars. In the Congress of Vienna, Austria had been granted rule over the former territories of the Republic of Venice and the Duchy of Milan. The penultimate stage of Risorgimento in 1861 saw all Peninsula territory absorbed by Piedmont-Sardinia with the exception of Austrian Venice and the Papal States centered in today’s Lazio Region around Rome. A new Kingdom of Italy was declared that claimed Rome as its capital. In the interim, the capital was moved from Turin to Florence in 1865. In 1866, Italy seized Venice from Austria and in 1871 it seized the remaining Papal States. The capital of the Kingdom was then moved from Florence to Rome.

Chauvinistic Liberalism

The period from 1861–1922 is historiographically referred to as the Liberal age of the Kingdom of Italy. It existed as a constitutional monarchy, under the House of Savoy, with a parliamentary form of government. The head of government was officially called the President of the Council of Ministers, a title that remains to this day, and is the equivalent of a Prime Minister. The fragmented nature of the new nation-state already manifested in several ways.

Whereas there was an intense project of modernization and industrialization in the North, the South suffered neglect, overpopulation, and destitution following the collapse of its Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1861 and its absorption into the Kingdom of Italy. These severe conditions are what led to mass emigration of Southern Italians and Sicilians to the Americas, especially the United States, as well as to other European countries. The growth of the Mafia and similar syndicates occurred in Sicily and the South because these were de facto peripheral regions where there was weak government control and few services.

Liberal-conservative Rightists, historiographically known as the Historical Right, led the government of the Kingdom for most of the years during 1861–76. Nonetheless the Rightists had to give major concessions to oppositional Leftists in order to remain in power, such as the nationalization of the railways. Even with these concessions during this period, there were 11 different Prime Ministers. Such was the instability and regional fragmentation of the national government and of the Rightists themselves. In 1876, the Rightists lost power to the Leftists, historiographically known as the Historical Left.

The Leftists dominated the government for the next twenty years. Although championing apolitical initiatives like Trasformismo (Transformism), a policy to fill the government with nonpartisan experts, the Leftists, in reality, preserved their power through authoritarian measures and corruption. Progressive domestic policies did include widening suffrage, free elementary school education, and ending religious teaching in schools. However, there were also militaristic foreign policies that emphasized a muscular Italy in Europe and one that would seek colonies abroad. The period from 1896–1922 saw the dominance of the Leftists decline, as they increasingly shared power and exchanged the Prime Minister’s office with the Rightists. During 1911–22, this coalition was known as the Liberal Union and governed Italy through World War One.

Fascism and Il Duce

The Liberal Union was greatly weakened following the war, as the country was wracked by political upheaval, mass strikes, high unemployment, and broader economic chaos. It is in this context that Benito Mussolini, who founded the organization that would become the National Fascist Party, entered the national political scene. Mussolini exploited the weakness of the government and of the constitutional monarchy itself to launch his March on Rome. In October 1922, 30,000 members of the Fascist militia, known as the Blackshirts, assembled along the River Po in Northern Italy and trekked towards Rome demanding to be put into power in order to restore national stability.

Fascist Blackshirts during the March on Rome. Benito Mussolini is second from left.

The King, Victor Emmanuel III, still had the Italian Army at this disposal, but he faced a binary choice between the Fascists and the far-left Italian Socialist Party. The King chose the former. Mussolini became Prime Minister of a coalition of liberals and nationalists and was commonly referred to as Il Duce (the Duke). Knowing that the extreme socio-political fragmentation would mean public favor for a strong, dominant party in Parliament, Mussolini and his allies passed the Acerbo Law. This designated that the party that received 25% of the vote in the next election would automatically receive two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. Political scientists refer to this as a majority bonus system (MBS). Through subsequent voter intimidation and violence during the campaign, the Fascists met this threshold, capturing Parliament and proceeding to enact authoritarian measures to cement their newfound power.

The public perception that order had been restored meant Mussolini was widely popular with Italians and remained so until the military defeats suffered during the second half of World War Two. Public approval of Mussolini and the Fascists meant that the primary apparatuses of the state fully cooperated with Mussolini’s party machinery and remained independent of it. The military, police, judicial system, industry, business, and finance retained relative autonomy. The Fascist militia, in fact, was placed under military control. Thus, despite the establishment of an authoritarian government, Italian society fully consented to the streamlining of Parliament and executive leadership to overcome fragmented, corrupt, and dysfunctional political life.

The End of the Kingdom

On 4 June 1944, two days before the D-Day invasion of occupied France, Allied forces captured Rome. The Italian state was split in two at that point, with the Kingdom of Italy still functioning but with genuine jurisdiction over only Rome and the South, while the North was controlled by the Italian Social Republic, a German puppet state. Realizing that his legitimacy was compromised for supporting Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III transferred his powers to Crown Prince Umberto, a popular member of the royal family, who then became Regent.

The results of the 1946 referendum. Northern Italy favored the creation of a Republic, while Southern Italy favored the preservation of the Monarchy.

Victor Emmanuel III eventually abdicated in May 1946 and the Crown Prince ascended the throne as Umberto II. While he was still Regent, he drew up plans to hold a referendum on the status of the monarchy. The question would be a simple one: Republic or Monarchy? On 2 June 1946, Italians voted 54% to 46% in favor of a Republic. What is remarkable about the referendum results was the geographic distribution, which seemingly displayed two different countries in one. Whereas the northern half of Italy was strongly in favor of a Republic, the southern half was strongly in favor of preserving the Savoy Monarchy. Thus, the Parliamentary system was preserved, but the Head of State was now a duly elected President.

Persistent Divides and Clientelism in the Republic

The advent of the Italian Republic also solidified geo-electoral partisan divides that would define Italian politics during 1946–93. In this long period lasting through the Cold War, a centrist party, Christian Democracy (DC), led every single Italian government. Comparing election maps throughout this period, a clear and seemingly immovable pattern emerges. Various Leftist coalitions and parties drew their strength from the North-Central Regions of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, often referred to as the Red Belt. However, the rest of the country, North, South, the Islands, and Lazio (home to Rome) were a near lock for DC.

Left and Right: The Chamber of Deputies and Senate election maps of 1948. Blue represents Christian Democracy and red represents the Leftists. This geographic partisan alignment would remain mostly unchanged during 1946–93.

DC was the dominant party of all the coalitional governments of the period and also controlled the Prime Minister’s office for all but five years. Despite DC’s dominance, the coalitions were still remarkably unstable, directly caused by the pure proportional representation (PR) system that was utilized. In that system, any party that achieved 300,000 votes on the national level was guaranteed to have seats in Parliament. This meant that the average government lasted only nine months at a time during 1946–93. With party lists controlled by elites, the relationship between politicians and the public was not one of healthy policy aggregation, but rather pork barrel spending. Clientelism thrived and therefore so did immense corruption at all levels of society.

Regional Matters

Before proceeding with post-1993 history and the ensuing electoral upheavals, it is essential to also discuss how geo-electoral partisan divides have had a direct effect on the development of Italy’s Regions, especially since unification brought uneven attention to them. Regions are the first-order administrative divisions of the country. The Regions had been in existence since the Kingdom of Italy and yet never gained legal autonomy on political matters until the 1948 Constitution of the Italian Republic. That withstanding, devolution of powers to the Regions was delayed by DC governments, for fear of losing control to the Italian Communist Party or other Marxist actors within the Red Belt. Thus, the first elections in the Regions only occurred in 1970.

The Regions of Italy with Autonomous Regions highlighted in red.

Fifteen Regions operate under an ordinary statute of law, which means they develop their own constitution, system of governance, and exercise power not reserved to the national state. However, the regular Regions only retain 20% of taxes levied, most of which fund the healthcare system that is Region-based. The remaining five Regions, Aosta Valley, Trentino-Alto Adige, Fiuli-Venezia Giulia, Sicily, and Sardinia, operate under a special statute of law that grants them additional autonomy. These Autonomous Regions have extended administrative and legislative power and retain a greater percentage of taxes compared to regular Regions. Greater autonomy has meant the ability to preserve local languages and cultures, but the national government’s main concern after World War Two was to prevent secession in these Autonomous Regions.

Until the 1990s, Regional Councils were elected using PR. This system again brought division and political gridlock. Therefore, in 1995, the system was changed to first-past-the-post (FPTP) and automatically assigned a majority of seats to the coalition with the largest number of votes, even if just a plurality. This law was known as the Legge Tatarella and once again functioned as a majority bonus system (MBS). It is remarkably similar to the Acerbo Law that helped secure Mussolini’s Fascist majority after World War One. It is apparent that many of the same political and electoral struggles in Italy have fundamentally remained consistent through different historical periods.

From First Republic to Second

The aforementioned development of clientelism came to a head in the early 1990s, with a nationwide investigation into corruption known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands). First exposed in 1992, the elaborate system of corruption was referred to as Tangentopoli (Kickback City). Corrupt figures from numerous parties and organizations were exposed. On 5 March 1993, the DC Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, cynically attempted to pass a decree that would change the existing criminal charges of various figures into administrative charges. The Italian President refused to sign the decree, declaring it unconstitutional. Under public pressure, a referendum was then held on 18 April 1993, in which the public voted to abandon the pure PR voting system.

Antonio di Pietro, the public prosecutor most popularly associated with Mani Pulite. He would later serve twice as Minister of Public Works-cum-Infrastructure.

Days later, a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system was adopted per a proposal by DC figure Sergio Matarella, who happens to be the current President of Italy. Nicknamed Matarellum in his honor, this hybrid system had 75% of seats allocated using FPTP and 25% allocated using PR. Between these electoral changes and the corruption scandals, all four of the parties in the 1992 coalition government eventually ceased to exist: DC, Italian Socialist Party, Italian Socialist Democratic Party, and Italian Liberal Party. This partisan implosion and electoral reform is considered the end of the First Republic in Italy and the beginning of the Second Republic, which has, per common historiography, held to this day.

From 1994 until about 2013, a new partisan alignment manifested, with the Right dominated by Forza Italia (Forward Italy), led by Silvio Berlusconi. The latter has served as Prime Minister of three governments. The Left went through a number of shifts, briefly represented by the Democratic Party of the Left in 1994. Then, during 1995–2007 it came to be defined by The Olive Tree coalition, which was primordially associated with former Leftist DC politician Romano Prodi, who served as Prime Minister of two governments. The Olive Tree was later subsumed by a larger coalition called The Union. Regardless of specific branding and coalitional restructuring, however, the Italian Left settled around the leadership of the Democratic Party, founded in 2007, which remains the dominant party of the Left to this day.

Electoral Reform Galore

Withstanding the supposed continuation of the Second Republic hitherto, Matarellum was hardly the last electoral law change to be made since the rupture of Mani Pulite. The Matarellum system left the public greatly dissatisfied, for many felt it did not solve the problems it was supposed to. During 2005–15, a new system, later derogatorily referred to as Porcellum (Small Pig), introduced bloc voting, eliminating single-member constituencies and introducing modified PR based on coalitions. For the Chamber of Deputies, the Lower House, the voting bloc was nationwide, whereas for the Senate, the Upper House, the voting blocs were Region-based. A MBS was applied once more, with the largest party or coalition being awarded 54% of nationwide seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 55% of seats within respective Regional voting blocs.

In December 2013, the Constitutional Court found parts of Porcellum invalid and the following month the law was overturned completely. This gave rise to Italicum, a new electoral law that applied during 2015–17. This applied only to the Chamber of Deputies and introduced a two-round PR system with open lists. Once again, a MBS was tacked onto that, using 100 constituencies with each electing between three and nine members depending on population. If a party or coalition received 40% of the votes, it would have been assigned 54% of seats, with the remainder assigned proportionally to other parties.

Italicum only applied to the Chamber of Deputies because the government expected a total reform of the Senate through a separate Constitutional referendum. This effort was intended to make the Senate a body that was far more limited in power and that could be overruled with two votes of the Chamber of Deputies. This was intended to streamline governance. 95 Senators would be indirectly elected by Regional Councils and already be members of Regional and Municipal governments, receiving no additional remuneration. The President would appoint the remaining five Senators. Former Presidents, themselves, would be Senators for life.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party, who championed the dual reforms of Italicum and the Constitutional referendum of 2016.

This whole effort for both Houses of Parliament proved to be a disaster for Matteo Renzi, Democratic Party Prime Minister during 2014–16, who was its main champion. The Constitutional Court found Italicum unconstitutional and the Constitutional referendum, held on 4 December 2016, returned a result of 59% to 41% opposed to the Senatorial reform. Voters who approved of the reform were Italians abroad, residents of South Tyrol, an ethnically Austrian Province, and the Red Belt Regions of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. Even in these areas, the majority approvals were meager. Thus, the broad effort of Italicum failed and was never actually implemented in an election.

The current electoral law, active since 2017 and used for the first time in the 2018 election, is Rosatellum. Although opposed by the populist Five Star Movement and several minor parties, it received broad support from the Democratic Party, Forza Italia, and the Northern League. In Rosatellum, 37% of seats are allocated using FPTP and 61% using PR with only one round of voting. The remainder of the seats goes to Italians abroad for both Houses as well as Senators for life in the Senate. The implementation of Rosatellum combined with anti-EU, anti-establishment, and immigration concerns led to the political earthquake that was the 2018 election.

The Rise of the Anti-Establishment

On 4 March 2018, Italy held its general election that saw the established parties, most notably the Democratic Party and Forza Italia, lose massive ground to both the Northern League and the Five Star Movement. Within the PR voting, Five Star received 32%, the Democratic Party 19%, the League 18%, and Forza 14%. Within the FPTP voting, where coalitions are made, the centre-right coalition that includes the League and Forza received 38%, Five Star 32%, and the centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party 23%. In both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, this meant Five Star and the League being the first and third largest parties on their own, with the Democratic Party second but effectively irrelevant to the impending governmental formation.

The League began as a regional party in 1991, espousing Padanian nationalism and separatism, advocating for Northern Italy to secede and become an independent state. Although factions that espouse this ideology still exist within the League, the party as a whole eventually shifted its stance to emphasize federalism instead, combining that with right-wing populism, Euroskepticism, and restrictions on immigration. Given its regional history, it has remained distrusted among Italians of the South and the Islands. Thus, its move towards federalism has made nationalistic Northern and Central Italians the key groups more willing to vote for it.

Beppe Grillo, a comedian and actor, founded Five Star just in 2009. Its name stands for five key issues: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to Internet access, and environmentalism. Like the League, Five Star is populist, anti-establishment, Euroskeptic, and skeptical of further immigration in the current context. However, its big tent ideology means it eschews any regional or ethnic chauvinism, is socially liberal, and favors strengthening direct democracy. As it considers itself anti-politics, its position is to never join electoral campaign coalitions beyond governmental cooperation within the Parliament.

The electoral maps of the 2018 election reveal a pattern that is new and old. The centre-right coalition led by the League swept Northern and portions of Central Italy, split along the way by the Red Belt, which still held relatively firm for the Democratic Party. Five Star, given its big tent ideology, won the South, the Islands, and Central-East overwhelmingly. The same regional differences that have been true through Italian political history have remained so, but merely in a new form.

Left and Right: The Chamber of Deputies and Senate election maps of 2018. Center-right in blue includes the Northern League and Center-left in red includes the Democratic Party. Yellow is the Five Star Movement.

As the election results favored Five Star and the League, it was presumed that members from both parties would assume the leadership positions in the new government. However, early disputes between Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, and Luigi di Maio, leader of Five Star, put that in doubt for a brief period. Di Maio even reached out to former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party to consider going into coalition, but Renzi’s refusals pushed di Maio to even make a brief call on 30 April for new elections.

Eventually, though, Salvini and di Maio settled on a governmental coalition agreement, and nominated Giuseppe Conte, and law professor and political independent, as Prime Minister. The selections of the Prime Minister and all other Ministers required the assent of the President, currently Sergio Matarella, creator of Matarellum. In the second half of May, a dispute over who would become Finance Minister caused a rift between Matarella, Conte, and Salvini, which threatened to break down governmental formation once more. A caretaker Prime Minister was appointed briefly, until Five Star and the League agreed on a different Finance Minister that Matarella then approved of, clearing the way for Conte to become Prime Minister.

The Third Republic?

This extended consideration of Italian history and politics illustrates that the latest political upsets and fragmentations are nothing new to Italy. There is a strong case to be made that Italian history may currently be entering a Third Republic, but one must question whether such historiographical demarcations are even useful for meaningful analysis. The initial period of Italian unification is hardly ancient history and each subsequent period of history has been different and yet also somewhat the same. Political and electoral issues have hindered the development of more functional politics. These issues are rooted in socio-regional divides and uneven development that are transformed directly into partisan rancor and coalitional feebleness.

Regional divides and neglect, combined with historically corrupt and mismanaged governance, have produced understandable dissatisfaction among the public. However, the public and politicians have yet to actually solve the underlying problems of state consolidation and poor governmental efficacy. Instead, there has been a fetishization of electoral law as somehow being the panacea for other problems. The issue of Italian unification is not about actual separatism and secessionism at this point, for even the League had to adapt to become more appealing. Rather, Italian unification remains an ongoing process that will require dealing with regional distortions on national politics. Genuine national integration and stability depends on dealing with the worldly gaps left by Italy’s initially uneven unification that have persisted to this day.