Italians Vote On Future of Small Parties

By R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, Sunday 21 May 2000 ; A26

ROME, May 20 —Loredana di Felice says she is fed up with the dozens of tiny political parties that have paralyzed Italy's government and helped dissolve 54 ruling coalitions in the past 53 years. So on Sunday, the cosmetics saleswoman plans to vote to abolish the law that promotes their existence.

“We have a saying in Rome: ‘With too many roosters singing, the new day never comes,’ “ di Felice said, noting that Italy has 44 political parties and its government rarely passes a major piece of reform legislation. “If the parties knew how to govern, Italy would be the richest country. . . . But they form coalitions of five or six parties, and to do what? This poor Italy needs change.”

If it passes, the referendum could revolutionize Italy's political system by changing the way parliamentary seats are allocated, thereby discouraging the fractious coalitions often formed for temporary convenience and allowing just two or three broad-based parties to dominate the scene.

Supporters of a “yes” vote say the frequent turnover of Italian governments has made the country a laughingstock in Europe and limited its global influence. The record for brevity was set in 1987, when a coalition lasted just 11 days. The last government was dissolved in April after four months.

The referendum was forced by petitions signed last year by more than 800,000 voters. Predictably, many members of Italy's political elite oppose the measure because it would greatly limit the power of minor parties to block or enact legislation.

But the leader of one of those minor parties, Emma Bonino, is a leading supporter of the measure. If it succeeds, her Radical Party, which won just 2.8 percent of the vote in the last election, will lose its seat in the 945-member Parliament. But Bonino, an energetic former high school teacher, says it is a price worth paying.

“Even if you are King Kong, you cannot run a country with 12 political allies,” as Massimo D’Alema tried to do as prime minister from early 1998 until last month, she said. “I don’t know any developed country that has more than 40 parties. . . . The Italian system is the worst that I know.”

Bonino and others note that it is not that the government cannot pass laws; in fact, on average, a new law or decree is promulgated every day. But even when a large majority supports a bill, small parties can—and frequently do—blackball legislation that displeases them by threatening to withdraw support for the ruling coalition.

As a result, Parliament has not been able to pass controversial legislation to address Italy's most pressing economic and social issues, such as a youth unemployment rate hovering at 30 percent, a huge pension debt, tax rates as high as 55 percent and the lowest economic growth rate in Western Europe.

Frustrated with the political gridlock, Italians resort to public referendums more than any other people in the world, according to EURISPES, an independent Italian think tank. But referendums are blunt instruments in Italy, because they can only remove existing laws, not establish new ones.

The proliferation of political parties is encouraged by a law that sets aside a portion of Parliament's seats for small parties that cross a minimum threshold of the popular vote. It also stems from a law that requires the treasury to reimburse election-related expenses incurred by any group composed of at least 10 lawmakers. Another proposal on the ballot would eliminate this public financing.

Many political leaders—including Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing media magnate whose party is the country's most popular with the support of roughly 30 percent of the public—are urging voters to stay home Sunday. Berlusconi and others hope to deprive referendum advocates of the 50 percent turnout—roughly 22.5 million votes—needed to make the outcome legally binding.

By law, opinion poll results cannot be published in Italy in the weeks before a vote, so it is not clear how much support the referendum proposition has. Many analysts predict that a majority of those who vote will cast “yes” ballots, but they are less confident that participation will be high enough to validate the results.

A grocer in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood, who gave her name only as Nadia, said she plans to boycott the vote. Although she favors the proposed changes, she is skeptical that her vote would make a difference, because Parliament disregarded the results of two previous referendums that favored reducing the number of political parties.

“That's why everyone is demoralized and they don’t believe anymore in politics,” Nadia said. However, this year's referendum proposal is more carefully worded than previous ones, and if it passes it will be more difficult for Parliament to ignore the results.

To improve the chance of reaching the required turnout, Bonino and her supporters recently camped out in front of ministerial offices in Rome for seven nights to press the government to purge dead or long-absent voters from the rolls. Her party estimates that more than 2 million such names have been maintained on the rolls illegally for more than a decade, because provincial leaders have been reluctant to undertake a housecleaning that could ease the approval of propositions by referendum.

So far, the government has purged 415,000 names under a decree by the prime minister, but even this move has provoked opposition from lawmakers who said it was done too hastily.