Italian governments have a habit of falling apart.
In the past three decades, the country has had 13 separate prime ministers. Now, with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s plan to resign on Tuesday after just over a year in office, Italy will probably add a new government to that tally.
But will the next one last longer?
Given Italy’s track record and the current political situation, the odds don’t look great. Even Italy’s periods of relative stability have been rocky: The only premier to serve a full five-year term since 1989 is Silvio Berlusconi, the brash billionaire who has been synonymous with scandal.
This level of political turnover in Italy is unusual for an advanced economy. Among Italy’s Western European neighbors, Germany has had three chancellors, France has had five presidents and Britain has had seven prime ministers in the time Italy had 13. Even Australia, notorious for its own problems holding onto a government in recent years, has had only nine prime ministers since 1989.
Conte’s announcement this week is unusual in some aspects, but typical in others. In office since June 2018, the legal scholar had been the independent head of what was the first real populist government in Western Europe, leading a coalition that included the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League.
It became a fractious alliance. Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the League, pulled his party’s support from the government this month and pushed for early elections, hoping to capitalize on a surge in support in polls. Conte’s announcement on Tuesday was an indication that he would probably not win a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
But it looks like Salvini’s gamble may not pay off, either. Seeking to avoid a new election, the Five Star Movement may try to join forces with the center-left Democratic Party or even Forza Italia, the waning center-right party of the 82-year-old Berlusconi, analysts say.
This alliance could ask Conte to return to the prime minister’s position, but to lead a new government coalition. In Italy’s relatively complicated political system, this sort of parliamentary arithmetic is a persistent problem.
Italy adopted a purely proportional voting system — meaning that seats in Parliament were given to parties by the proportion of the vote they received — after World War II. That led to a large number of small parties and frequent coalition governments, in addition to political gridlock.
In 1994, following a wide-ranging corruption scandal, the voting system was reformed and the few elements of political stability in Italy — in particular, the persistently popular Christian Democrats party — were washed away with it. Since then, there have been a variety of attempts at reforms aimed at providing greater political stability in Italy.
A center-left government led by the Democratic Party’s Matteo Renzi failed in a referendum in 2016 that would have changed Italy’s constitution to put more power in the hands of the prime minister. A separate shake-up moved Parliament to a mixed system the following year, which would see two thirds of Parliament elected proportionally and the final third elected directly in districts under what is known as a first past the post system.
But election results in March 2018 suggested the new system had done little to create stability. Once fringe parties such as Five Star and the League surged in support, usurping mainstream political parties. The political fragmentation that had been seen in a variety of European nations over recent years was particularly pronounced in the Italian system.
After the results came out, the newspaper La Stampa ran a bleak headline: “Ungovernable Italy.”
Conte, who had no political experience, was tapped to lead the government in June last year after it became apparent there was no clear-cut winner. But as the League’s support stormed ahead in polls this year and Five Star collapsed, Salvini decided to make a move. As he announced his plans to resign Tuesday, Conte took aim at the League’s leader.
The departing prime minister said Salvini’s moves were “serious institutional recklessness, above all showing disrespect to Parliament and liable to tip the country into a spiral of political uncertainty and financial instability.”
Given Italy’s track record, that prediction looks like a safe bet.