Freedom in the World
A technocratic government led by Mario Monti, a former member of the European Commission, took power in November 2011 after the country’s economic woes forced Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to step down. Opposition to unpopular austerity measures had led to massive protests that turned violent the previous month.
Italy was unified under the constitutional monarchy of Piedmont and Sardinia in the 19th century. Its liberal period ended in 1922 with the rise Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party, which eventually led the country to defeat in World War II. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.
The “clean hands” corruption trials of the early 1990s prompted the collapse of the major political factions that had dominated postwar Italian politics—the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Since that time, many new parties and coalitions have emerged.
Parliamentary elections in 2006 ushered in a new center-left coalition government led by Romano Prodi, leaving outgoing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right bloc in opposition for the first time since 2001. Berlusconi’s most recent premiership had been marred by abortive attempts to prosecute him on money laundering, fraud, and tax evasion charges, and by his personal domination of the national media, including state outlets and his extensive private holdings. However, Prodi’s new government proved unstable; it lost key votes in Parliament over Italy’s troop presence in Afghanistan in 2007, and it finally collapsed after a no-confidence vote in January 2008.
Berlusconi’s rightist coalition, People of Freedom (PDL), handily won early parliamentary elections in April 2008, capturing a total of 344 seats in the lower house and 174 in the Senate in combination with two smaller allies. A center-left coalition led by Rome mayor Walter Veltroni’s new Democratic Party placed second, with 246 seats in the lower house and 132 seats in the Senate. Berlusconi ran on pledges to crack down on crime and illegal immigration, and the new Parliament passed a number of measures on those issues in 2008 and 2009.
In the month preceding the March 2010 regional elections, which resulted in key losses for the center-left opposition, the state-owned RAI television network suspended political discussion on its three channels, ostensibly due to the difficulty of ensuring “equality of treatment” for all parties. Critics viewed the move as an attempt by Berlusconi’s government to limit potentially critical commentary.
The country’s major trade unions called a national strike in June 2010 to protest fiscal austerity measures taken by the government in response to a global economic downturn that began in late 2008. In 2011, Italy’s growing public debt, at 120 percent of gross domestic product, fueled international concerns about the sustainability of the country’s finances. A crucial austerity package was passed by both houses of Parliament in November, allowing the sale of state assets and hikes in the value-added tax, the retirement age, and fuel prices. The increasingly unpopular Berlusconi had pledged to resign once the legislation was approved, and he duly made way for a technocratic government led by the respected economist Mario Monti, a former member of the European Commission. The new government ushered yet another austerity package through Parliament in December.
In the months leading up to his resignation, Berlusconi had faced a series of personal legal difficulties that damaged his political standing and apparently influenced legislative priorities. In February, women across Italy held demonstrations to protest the prime minister’s multiple sex scandals, including one in which he allegedly paid an underage girl for sex. In March, Berlusconi appeared in court for the first time since 2003 to face charges of corruption. The lower house approved a bill in April that would cut short the length of some trials and potentially end a bribery case against Berlusconi, though it had yet to pass the Senate at year’s end. The prime minister was cleared in a fraud and embezzlement case in October. Also that month, the lower house resumed discussion of a bill passed by the Senate in June 2010 that would limit the use of wiretaps and force news websites to publish corrections automatically. The bill, which was seen primarily as an effort to keep embarrassing information about politicians out of the news, was opposed by all of the major newspapers in Italy.
Italy is an electoral democracy. The president, whose role is largely ceremonial but sometimes politically influential, is elected for a seven-year term by Parliament and representatives of the regions. Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist, was selected for the post in 2006. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, the leader of the largest party in the elected, 630-seat lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The upper house is the Senate, with 315 elected seats. Members of both chambers serve five-year terms. The next national elections are due to be held in April 2013, unless snap elections are held prior to that date.
The president may appoint up to five senators for life, and in November 2011 Napolitano used this mechanism to make Mario Monti a member of Parliament, smoothing his political path to the premiership. Monti’s technocratic government received the support of the elected Parliament, but he is not himself an elected officeholder.
A 1993 electoral law replaced the existing system of proportional representation with single-member districts for most of the seats in Parliament. The move was designed to reduce the number of political parties that could obtain seats and ensure a more stable majority for the parties in power; Italians had seen more than 50 governments since 1945. However, in 2005, proportional representation was restored, with a provision awarding at least 54 percent of the seats in the lower house to the winning party or coalition, no matter how small its margin of victory. For the Senate, victory in a given region assures the winning party or coalition a 55 percent majority of that region’s allotment of seats. Just six parties won seats in the lower house in the 2008 elections, down from 26 in the previous elections.
The Democratic Party has been the main party of the left since it was formed through a merger of multiple smaller parties in 2007, and it remained in opposition during Silvio Berlusconi’s premiership. Berlusconi’s right-leaning PDL first emerged as a multiparty electoral alliance in 2008. In 2009, it became a single party following a formal merger between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and the formerly neofascist National Alliance party. The Northern League, though allied with the PDL, decided to remain an independent party. The PDL fractured in July 2010, after Gianfranco Fini—former leader of the National Alliance and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies—split with Berlusconi over the latter’s legal woes.
Corruption remains a central issue in politics. Italy was ranked 69 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, the second-lowest ranking in Western Europe. Berlusconi has faced numerous corruption charges over the years, but has never been convicted. In February 2011, the Constitutional Court lifted Berlusconi’s immunity from prosecution under a law passed in March 2010, which had allowed the prime minister to postpone any trial for up to 18 months. Berlusconi had insisted that he could not be called to trial while serving as prime minister because of his government duties. As of the end of 2011 he faced three trials: one for allegedly bribing the British lawyer David Mills, one regarding the corruption of senators, and one for allegedly paying an underage prostitute for sex.
Freedoms of speech and of the press are constitutionally guaranteed. However, while Berlusconi was prime minister he controlled up to 90 percent of the country’s broadcast media through state-owned outlets and his own private media holdings. There are many newspapers and news magazines, most with regional bases. Newspapers are primarily run by political parties or owned by large media groups. Internet access is generally unrestricted.
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and the state grants some privileges to the Catholic Church, there is no official religion. The state provides support, if requested, to other sects represented in the country. Agreements between the government and a number of religious groups have been signed, but an omnibus religious freedom law has yet to be passed.
In March 2011 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes traditionally hung in school classrooms across the country do not violate the rights of non-Catholics. The decision overruled a 2009 decision by the same court that banned such crosses. Academic freedom is respected.
Italians are free to assemble and form social and political associations, and about 35 percent of the workforce is unionized. The constitution recognizes the right to strike, with the exception of those employed in essential services and a number of self-employed professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and truck drivers. Protests that were sparked by proposed budget cuts and inspired by the global Occupy movement turned violent in October. At least 70 people were injured, many of them police officers.
The judicial system is undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there have been reports of excessive use of force by police, particularly against illegal immigrants. In March 2010, a Genoa court confirmed the convictions of 15 police officers, prison guards, and doctors who had been found guilty of mistreating protesters detained during the 2001 Group of Eight summit. The court also overturned the initial acquittals of 29 others involved in mistreating the detainees. Some prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding.
The country continued to make gains against organized crime in 2011. In April, police arrested the head of an organized crime group in the Puglia region and seized over $300 million in assets from the ’Ndrangheta, a criminal organization based in Calabria. In May, police captured a leader of the Campania-based Camorra organized crime group who had been on the run for nine years.
Italy is a major entry point for undocumented immigrants trying to reach Europe, and the government has been criticized for holding illegal immigrants in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions and denying them access to lawyers and other experts. A government crackdown on illegal immigration that began in 2008 has led to the arrest of hundreds of people. A 2009 immigration law imposes fines on illegal immigrants and grants authorities the power to detain them for up to six months without charge. Political turmoil in Tunisia and Libya during 2011 led to a sharp increase in the number of undocumented immigrants landing on Italy’s shores. By August, around 52,000 immigrants had arrived since the beginning of the year.
Women benefit from generous maternity-leave provisions, equality in the workforce, and considerable educational opportunities. However, violence against women continues to be a problem, and female political representation is low for the region. Women hold 21 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Italy is a destination country for the trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. The government has made efforts to tackle the problem by increasing the prosecution of traffickers; it also finances nongovernmental organizations that work to raise awareness of the problem and support trafficking victims.