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The origins of abstentionism in the history of the Italian Republic

Ahead of the Italian elections, the historian of contemporary Europe reflects on the long processes leading more and more Italian voters to abandon political participation.

Giulio Andreotti in Rome, Italy on November 5, 2004, a few days after Italy's highest court cleared him of cultivating ties with the Sicilian Mafia. Vandeville Eric/Press Association. All rights reserved.All citizens have the right to freely associate in parties to contribute to the democratic processes that determine national policy

-- Article 49, Constitution of the Italian Republic

As Italy approaches elections on 4 March 2018, it becomes ever clearer that one of the fundamental testing grounds is not just ‘for whom shall I vote?’, but rather ‘should I vote at all?’ Let me state immediately that I intend to vote on 4 March, and that I believe fervently in the democratic duties as well as rights of the citizen. But the argument cannot just stop there. Amongst friends, colleagues and the citizenry as a whole, it has become a commonplace to express indignation and disgust with the party system, and a consequent intention not to vote.

The latest opinion polls for the upcoming elections see abstentionism hovering at around 34%. According to Demos & pi, at the end of 2016 lack of faith in the political parties stood at a cataclysmic 94%. What on earth has happened? And how can we combat it? The discourse would be a long one and here I can only sketch it out. Furthermore, I am not a constitutionalist but (only) a historian. Yet perhaps a little history could help here.

The post-war partitocrazia

In the period of fierce political and constitutional discussion from 1945-1948 which shaped Italy’s system of representative government, the parties emerged with an excessive degree of political power. Few if any effective controls, either external or internal, were exercised upon their activities, nor was any obligation made to guarantee their internal democracy.

There were various reasons for this, of which self-interest was only one. The need to combat centrifugal tendencies – long a preoccupation of the ruling Italian elites – was another. The superficial turbulence and ideological division of the new ruling class misled many a foreign journalist’s uneducated eye, but in reality guaranteed great lines of continuity. Over 90% of the citizens regularly went to vote, at both a local and national level.  

This was the era of mass political parties, reassuring in some respects but much less so in others. In particular, the historic and deeply embedded system of favours and raccomandazioni, of clientelism and familism, was nowhere tackled head on. These ancient but not archaic social mechanisms were taken up by the Christian Democrats and their allies and given a new veneer. In 1957 Giulio Andreotti went so far as to theorise the nobility of the clientelistic system, “Honour […] to those who serve others with a modest human contact that sometimes restores hope to those who no longer believe in the solidarity of others.’ The only problem being that such long-suffering acts of Christian caritas were rarely disinterested and frequently illegal.

It was upon these bases that the Italian partitocrazia was constructed. The ruling political parties, unhampered by the magistrates of the time (many of whom were ex-Fascists), or by other institutional restraints, systematically occupied the state and divided amongst themselves all the positions of power and influence therein. Corruption was systemic, not occasional, as were contacts and exchanges of favour between politicians and criminal organisations.

The hollowing out of direct democracy  

I have returned to the early years of the Republic in order to explore, however briefly, the origins of present-day alienation from the political system and consequent abstentionism. Naturally, any analysis of this process is long and complex. It would have to pay special attention to those moments, like the Milanese magistrates’ Mani Pulite initiative of 1992, when it seemed as if politics was again in flux, as in the years 1945-48. It was not to be, and the failure of that moment weighed heavily upon key sections of the electorate, increasing its cynicism, retreat to private life and despair.

My second reflection concerns the relationship between representative and participative or direct democracy. Articles 50, 71 and 75 of the Italian Constitution all make reference to the possibility of using ‘direct’ methods for expressing the will of the people. The right to organise a popular petition, to initiate a popular law and above all to organize an abrogative referendum are important tools, if rather blunt and limited ones, to enable citizens to have some sort of say in the running of the country.

Over the last 20-30 years at an international level there have been profound attempts to link the two types of democracy, of which the participatory budget, ‘biancio partecipativo,’ of Porto Alegre in Brazil is only the most famous. The key distinguishing element here is the citizens’ participation in deliberation, in the sense of their both discussing and then deciding on specific issues. In Italy, by contrast, great play has been made by the partitocrazia on the need for participation, but their vision of the latter is a vague consultation, employing the most modern mechanisms but with no powers to decide.

Matteo Renzi’s much publicised assemblies at Florence’s Leopoldo – “not party meetings, but a meeting of people who believe in politics” – were a perfect example of this trompe-l'œil. Other variants include Beppe Grillo’s so-called ‘digital democracy’, which masks his inordinate power in his party and that of his best friend’s son. Or there’s the blunt, all-party refusal to implement the results of the 2011 referendum on water as a public good.

Nowhere in the Italian party system is there the minimal recognition that the constant activity of participation guarantees, stimulates and controls the quality of representation. Rather it is true that the more corrupt and decrepit representative democracy becomes, and the more toothless its participation, the more likely it is that citizens will withdraw their votes in ever more massive numbers.


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