Italian history at a glance

Italy did not attain national unification until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until the unification, the Italian territories consisted of a range of more or less independent states all with their separate historic and cultural traditions. Rivalry among the northern city states permitted foreign powers such as Spain and, later, Austria, to dominate large portions of Italy. Not until the French Revolution of 1789-93 and Napoleon’s subsequent invasion of Italy, did a sense of Italian nationality begin to gain ground among educated elites. Nationalist agitation culminated in a resurgence of nationalistic sentiment known as the Risorgimento (1848 – 70). In most of the territory, the unification consisted partly of a military occupation by Piedmont, partly of a revolution from above. This was to present the newly established Kingdom with severe problems of legitimacy as the elitist character of the Risorgimento had failed to give the peasant masses a feeling of participation in the nation-building process. Lack of general legitimacy was also accentuated by the fact that the pope refused to recognize the new secular state and hence prohibited Catholics from voting. Gradually, however, both Socialist and Catholic mass parties were assembled, both of which were against World War I participation and which threatened to encroach on the rights of private property.

After the war, the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party represented a middle-class backlash against these attitudes following the entry of the Italian masses into politics. With the aid of an armed militia, financed by industrialists and large landowners, the Fascist Party began a terror campaign against the Socialist and Popular parties in local communities all over the country. The Fascist’s 1922 march on Rome eventually led the king to appoint Mussolini the next prime minister. Mussolini soon took the advantage of his executive powers to establish a Fascist dictatorship, however far less totalitarian than the German version. Italian fascism did not put primary stress on doctrines of racial supremacy, and retained the king as nominal constitutional monarch.

After all of Italy was freed in 1945, the democratic traditions from 1919-22 could be resumed and a referendum was held to decide the faith of the monarchy. Italy became a republic in June 1946 and a new constitution went into effect in 1948.

The political history of post-war Italy may be divided into phases. Between 1945 and 1947 a so-called tripartite rule prevailed, where the Christian Democrats, the Communists and the Socialists collaborated in coalitions. Between 1947 through 1962 the Socialists and Communists were ousted from parliament and centrist-coalitions dominated by the Christian Democrats became the rule. In 1962, the first center-left government was formed and in 1963 the Socialist party, now no longer allied with the Communist party, entered parliament after sixteen years in opposition.

For the next twenty years, the center-left coalition was the dominant combination in Italian politics. Two parallel developments were present during this time: the increasing moderation of the Communist party, along with the declining strength of the Christian Democratic Party. In 1982, a new phase lasting a decade was initiated when the republic’s first Socialist-led coalition took power under prime minister Bettino Craxi. Until 1993 oversized coalitions ranging from the moderate left to the moderate right became the norm.

Politics in the new era

From the early 1990s the Italian coalition formulas underwent some startling changes. Corruption probes began in 1992 and led to the arrest of hundreds of business and political figures and the investigation of many others, including several party leaders and former prime ministers. The corruption scandals caused voter confidence in the traditional parties to decline sharply. April 1993 hence represented a watershed in Italian politics as Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, director of the Bank of Italy, became the first non-politician and non-parliamentarian to become prime minister.

The elections of 1994 further weakened the parties which had hitherto dominated Italian politics, and brought a number of new parties to parliament. It was becoming evident that the old coalition formulas were not merely going to be revised, but that they were to be drastically transformed. The new cabinet formed in May 1994 was headed by Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate and leader of Forza Italia ! (Go Italy!), a new conservative catch-all party that had been established only three months ahead of the elections to fill the vacuum of the old parties. Berlusconi’s coalition government included the National Alliance (a neofascist party), but did not last long. A series of short-lived coalitions followed, one of which was Romano Prodi’s center-left government which collapsed in 1997. Massimo D'Alema, of the Democratic Party of the Left, then became prime minister as head of a new coalition government that included several political parties. In April 2000, D'Alema resigned after his coalition suffered losses in regional elections. Socialist Giuliano Amato, D'Alema's finance minister, formed a new center-left government that was substantially similar its predecessor.

Parliamentary elections in 2001 gave Berlusconi's conservative coalition a solid victory, and he became prime minister of a center-right government for a second time, ending six years of liberal rule. In 2003, parliament passed a law making the prime minister and other top Italian officials immune from prosecution while in office. The law was seen as a heavy-handed move to end Berlusconi's trial for bribery, and provoked an outcry from many Italians. The constitutional court overturned the law, however, allowing the trial to proceed, and he was acquitted of bribery in 2004; other charges were dismissed.

Losses by the governing coalition in local elections forced Berlusconi to resign in April 2005, and re-form his government. Later in the year Berlusconi secured passage of electoral changes that reestablished proportional representation as a basis for electing national legislators; the changes were designed to minimize his coalition's losses in the 2006 elections. Nontheless, in the April 2006 elections Berlusoni's coalition narrowly lost to a center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. Berlusconi challenged the results, alleging irregularities, but Italy's supreme court confirmed them later in the month.


Heidar, K. and Berntzen E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform . Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Hancock, M. D., D. P.Conradt, B.G. Peters, W. Safran,and R. Zariski (1998) Politics in Western Europe. Basingstoke: Mamillan Press Ltd.