The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Silvio Berlusconi looks like stability to many Italians

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is 81 years old. During his many years leading the country, he gained a reputation as a would-be authoritarian and a key European ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin — though he was probably better known for his “bunga bunga” parties with young women and various scandals than his policies.

Berlusconi hasn't been prime minister since 2011, when he was forced from office amid a national debt crisis. He was later convicted of tax fraud and stripped of his seat in Italy's Parliament. Nevertheless, Berlusconi is a key figure in this weekend's elections, and the chart above should give you an idea why.

Italian politics are characterized by instability. In the past 30 years, there have been 13 different prime ministers in the country. The only one to serve a full five-year term since 1988 was Berlusconi, who has been prime minister for a little over nine total years during three separate stints. That's the longest time in office of any prime minister since the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

This is an unusual level of political turnover in a major European economy — to say the least. In the past 30 years, there have been just three German chancellors, five French presidents and six British prime ministers. Even among smaller Western European countries that have relatively volatile parliamentary systems, the rate of change in Italy stands out: Belgium and Austria have had eight parliamentary leaders in the same period, for example.

Indeed, the level of change in Italy's top political office is comparable to only a few European Union nations — most of which are post-Communist states in the east such as Bulgaria, which has had 15 prime ministers since 1990 (though five were acting prime ministers who only served a few months).

Given the high rate of turnover in Italy, Berlusconi may seem like a safe pair of hands — a laughable concept given that he can't even hold office until next year due to his fraud conviction. “Berlusconi is there because others have failed,” said Massimo Franco, a columnist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper, to The Washington Post recently. “He’s a survivor.”

Italians are well aware that their political instability is not a good thing. According to E.U. data from last year, 60 percent of Italians are unsatisfied with how their democracy works. Unfortunately for them, attempts to overhaul this process don't appear to be working.

These attempts are long-running — Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement made its own effort when it was in opposition in 2006. Ten years later, the center-left government of Matteo Renzi held its own referendum on reforms that would change the way Italians voted and put more power into the hands of the prime minister. That bid also failed, forcing Renzi — a key rival to the center-right Berlusconi — to resign at the end of 2016.

New laws were finally passed in 2017 after a laborious debate between those who favored a strictly representative Parliament that supported smaller parties and those who wanted to introduce majoritarian measures to ensure stable governments. Critics say that the end result was ultimately an unsatisfying and unnecessarily complicated hodgepodge of these two schools of thought. Many expect no party to gain an outright majority on their own in the upcoming election.

A recent poll of economists conducted by Bloomberg found 38 percent of Italians believed there would be a hung Parliament after the election, while 33 percent suggested there could be a grand coalition of Berlusconi's center-right alliance and Renzi's center-left Democratic Party. A smaller number, 22 percent, thought that Berlusconi's coalition could form a government themselves, while only 8 percent thought that the Five Star Movement (the single party with the most support, according to polls) could form its own government.

Given the political fragmentation in Italy, all of these scenarios carry the risk of government collapse, raising the prospect of new elections or even another rewrite of election laws. Writing in World Politics Review, Mark Gilbert of the Bologna-based Johns Hopkins University-SAIS Europe warned that Italy could be about to move beyond its regular “perennial political chaos” to a real democratic breakdown like the ones that occurred in the 1970s, amid an era of political terrorism, and the early 1990s, when a corruption scandal took down many major political parties.

And guess whose prime ministerial career began after the most recent of those two political crises?

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