Freedom in the World
Italy’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to continued, widespread grand and petty corruption, especially in the south.
In July 2012, the government approved $32 billion in spending cuts over the next three years to tackle Italy’s growing public debt, a move that led to anti-austerity protests across the country. Umberto Bossi, the founder and leader of the Northern League regional party and a fierce critic of corruption, stepped down in April after accusations that he had used party funds for personal use. Meanwhile, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was sentenced in October to nearly four years in prison for tax fraud, a charge that he was appealing at year’s end.
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. 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 2011, Italy’s growing public debt, at 120 percent of gross domestic product, fueled international concerns. 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 resigned in November 2011 and was replaced by 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 July 2012, the government announced spending cuts of €26 billion (about US$32 billion) over the next three years, which will include reducing the number of public sector workers by 10 percent.
A combination of the country’s financial difficulties and fraud charges against Berlusconi led to declines for both the PDL and the Northern League during local elections in May 2012, in which left-leaning parties and grassroots movements performed well. A protest movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo that ran in opposition to austerity measures and the traditional political system won the mayor’s seat in Parma. In December, Berlusconi announced his intention to lead his party in the 2013 parliamentary elections—just two months after he had stated that he would not enter the race.
A series of earthquakes and aftershocks hit towns in central and northern Italy in May, killing more than 20 people, leaving thousands homeless, and causing billions of dollars in damages. In January, the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground outside the Tuscan town of Giglio, killing more than 30 passengers onboard; an investigation into the disaster was ongoing at year’s end.
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 regional representatives. 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 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 path to the premiership. Monti’s technocratic government was supported by the elected Parliament, though Monti is not 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. The Northern League, which was founded in 1991 as a federation of several regional parties, is allied with the right-leaning PDL.
Corruption remains a central issue in Italian politics. In October 2012, a court sentenced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to nearly four years in prison for tax fraud, a charge that he was appealing at year’s end. This was Berlusconi’s fourth lower court conviction and the first since stepping down as prime minister. In February, a court in Milan ended a corruption trial against him for paying a British lawyer, David Mills, to lie for him in court; the court ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. Berlusconi still faces three other trials, including a criminal trial for allegedly paying an underage prostitute for sex. In May, police ordered a series of pre-dawn raids to clamp down on a growing match-fixing scandal that has tarnished the country’s national sport, football (soccer). Umberto Bossi, the charismatic founder and leader of the Northern League, resigned in April after an investigation found that he had used party funds to pay for home repairs and purchase cars. Italy was ranked 72 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are constitutionally guaranteed. There are many newspapers and news magazines, most with regional bases. Newspapers are primarily run by political parties or owned by large media groups. When 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. Internet access is generally unrestricted. Courts still convict individuals for criminal defamation. In June, journalists Orfeo Donatini and Tiziano Marson of the newspaper Alto Adige were convicted of defaming a local politician in a 2008 article alleging that he had participated in a neo-Nazi summit; the information for the article had been obtained from a police report. Both journalists were sentenced to four months in prison and fined €15,000 ($18,500). In September 2012, the Supreme Court upheld a 14-month prison sentence for then-editor of the right-wing paper Libero, Alessandro Sallusti. Sallusti was originally convicted in 2011 for allowing the publication of an anonymously written article in 2007 that called for the death of a gynecologist and others over an abortion performed on a 13-year-old.
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. 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 spread across the country in November 2012 in opposition to austerity measures imposed by the government.
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. Some prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding. The country continued to make some gains against organized crime in 2012. In March, police arrested 16 judges accused of taking bribes from a crime syndicate known as the Camorra in the southern city of Naples. However, the mayor of the southern town of Monasterace in Calabria resigned in April after her business was set on fire and her car shot for in what she believed was retaliation by the local mafia for instituting financial reforms.
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. 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. In September 2012, the government began implementing a new law imposing sanctions, including fines and prison sentences, on employers who hire undocumented workers. In February, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy had violated the European Convention on Human Rights in 2009 when it turned away a boat of African migrants and asylum seekers and sent them to Libya as part of its agreement with the country’s former leader, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi.
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 tried to tackle the problem by prosecuting more traffickers; it also finances nongovernmental organizations that work to raise awareness of the problem and support trafficking victims.