Italy’s Voters Move Right Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With their Socialist and Christian Democratic leaders caught in a swirl of corruption and controversy, Italians undertook political reforms and the formation of new political parties.

Summary of Event

The Italian government that emerged from the wreckage of Fascist Italy’s defeat in World War II was made up of parties ranging from the center to the far left. More conservative voters gravitated to the party that was strongly linked with the Roman Catholic Church—Christian Democracy. At the far left was the large Communist Party with its strong appeal to workers. Between these two was the Italian Socialist Party, which rejected Marxist violence but supported social policies benefiting the lower-middle class and the upper echelons of the working class. Italy;government Political parties;Italy [kw]Italy’s Voters Move Right (Mar., 1994) [kw]Voters Move Right, Italy’s (Mar., 1994) [kw]Right, Italy’s Voters Move (Mar., 1994) Italy;government Political parties;Italy [g]Europe;Mar., 1994: Italy’s Voters Move Right[08820] [g]Italy;Mar., 1994: Italy’s Voters Move Right[08820] [c]Crime and scandal;Mar., 1994: Italy’s Voters Move Right[08820] [c]Government and politics;Mar., 1994: Italy’s Voters Move Right[08820] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar., 1994: Italy’s Voters Move Right[08820] Craxi, Bettino Berlusconi, Silvio Prodi, Romano

Because the Italian constitution provided that all individuals elected to parliament would be chosen not directly by the voters but by the parties, under a system of proportional representation, party membership was the key to political activity. This form of representation had two effects: It brought into the parliament many small parties that otherwise would have been unable to participate in government, and it meant that the political parties brokered appointment to all government positions. Thus active party membership was not only the key to political participation but also the pathway to a civil service appointment.

As the Cold War Cold War developed, Italy’s Communist Party was seen as an ally of Soviet Russia. All Italian governments were thus coalitions of the various parties to the right of the Communist Party. Most of these coalitions involved alliances of the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, with some posts reserved for the very small parties that, thanks to proportional representation, had a few seats in parliament. This first Italian Republic, as it came to be known, had both a president and a prime minister; the former selected the latter on the basis of his party leadership and ability to forge a coalition that could win the support of parliament.

As time progressed, however, the larger parties lost popular support for a variety of reasons. The end of the Cold War led to the Italian Communist Party’s splitting into two groups: a large group that was more socialist than communist and a small group of hard-line Marxists. With the breakup of the Communist Party, opposition to communism ceased to be a viable justification for supporting either the old-line Socialist Party or, to its right, Christian Democracy.

Moreover, the various Italian governments had for the most part felt that their role was to serve as many Italians as possible. To this end, they had created the Italian “social state,” in which the civil service was enlarged to provide jobs for many Italians, and many social services were supplied by government-owned entities—insurance, banking, water supply, and others. These state-owned companies provided secure jobs for many Italians who did not have civil service jobs. However, the companies were relatively inefficient and depended heavily on government subsidies, leading to a large government deficit.

Many activities were supplied by companies on contract to the government, especially construction companies. The contracts, increasingly, came to be awarded with the understanding that part of the money would be “kicked back” to the party of the individual who had awarded the contract; indeed, although the parties enjoyed some state subventions, much of their money arrived by way of these kickbacks. All of this activity, however, occurred out of view of the public—until, in the late 1980’s, magistrates in Milan began investigating the network of kickbacks in which all the political parties were involved. The series of bribe scandals, known as Tangentopoli (bribesville), was revealed in 1992.

In 1989, a new criminal code was introduced, replacing that of 1931 with a system more like that in the United States, in which actual prosecution, rather than mere investigation, is key. At the same time, the economy had slowed, and some companies that had hitherto been comfortable paying kickbacks to get government contracts found that these raised the costs to the point that they were no longer profitable. The parties were revealed to be totally dependent on the bribe system, and some of the party leaders were shown to be the personal beneficiaries of the system, notably Bettino Craxi, leader of the Socialist Party, who eventually fled the country (to Tunisia) to avoid prosecution.

As the old parties lost their standing with the public, new parties arose. In the area around Milan, the center of the corruption investigation, disgusted voters migrated to a new party called the Northern League, which grabbed about one-third of the votes in northern Italy in the 1993 municipal elections. Southern Italy, which had been a major beneficiary of the Christian Democracy party, became heavily infiltrated by the Mafia, causing the old party to lose its ability to appeal to large numbers of voters. Thus the old “center” parties, the Socialists who were tainted by the corruption revelations and the Christian Democrats who were shown to be tools of the Mafia, were no longer in a position to put together a governing coalition.

At this point, a group of reformers, among them an Italian economics professor named Romano Prodi, managed to get a package of voting reforms through the Italian parliament. The first of these created a referendum election held in the spring of 1993 that not only abolished the system of government subventions of the parties but also modified the system of proportional representation so that, henceforth, most deputies in parliament would be directly elected to their seats. At first introduced in the 1993 senate elections, this reform was extended to the lower house of parliament in 1994.

By the spring of 1994, in the national elections, the old parties had been replaced by three new large parties: the Northern League, headed by Umberto Bossi; the National Alliance of conservatives from southern Italy; and a brand-new party, Forza Italia, Forza Italia headed by Italy’s richest man, Silvio Berlusconi, owner of three of Italy’s television networks. Berlusconi formed a government that lasted until December, 1994. By then, under the leadership of Romano Prodi, Italy’s center-left had regrouped and formed an alternative to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. For the rest of the decade, various “progressive” groupings provided a succession of cabinets until Berlusconi reclaimed the lead in 2001.


The collapse of the old parties of Italy’s first republic, as the vote in the election of 1994 revealed, marked a substantial turning point for Italy. Even though the substantial abandonment of proportional voting in 1993-1994 did not significantly reduce the number of small parties, the political process after 1994 more closely resembled that in other Western democracies, with governments alternating between right- and left-oriented coalitions. The realignment reduced the amount of political corruption as the parties no longer were the sole pathway to a stable career. Although the political reforms were not without difficulties—with pensioners and workers resisting the reforms that decreased the cost of government and that were needed to enable Italy to qualify for membership in the Euro zone—the result may offer greater political stability in the future. Italy;government Political parties;Italy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bufacchi, Vittorio, and Simon Burgess. Italy Since 1989: Events and Interpretations. New York: Macmillan, 1998. Presents substantial details on the parliamentary voting in the years during which Italian politics were being reconstituted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burnett, Stanton H., and Luca Mantovani. The Italian Guillotine: Operation Clean Hands and the Overthrow of Italy’s First Republic. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Presents all the details about the investigation of corruption that brought down the old parties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sassoon, Donald. Contemporary Italy: Economy, Society and Politics Since 1945. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1997. Focuses on the evolution of Italian politics since 1945, providing some perspective on the events of the 1990’s.

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Categories: History