Do we really need political parties?

On November 16, 2011 the headlines in Italy read,

“Of the 17 ministers nominated Wednesday by Italy’s premier-designate Mario Monti, not one is a politician.”

And Berlusconi finally got a well-deserved and long-awaited kick in the nether regions …

Italy has a long and storied history as a democratic republic. In June 1946 when a popular referendum gave the monarchy – the House of Savoy – the proverbial boot, the boot-shaped nation finally became a republic.

It was not the nation’s first brush with democracy though …  A constitutional monarchy was attempted by King Charles Albert of the Kingdom of Piedmont in 1848. That didn’t go down very well especially during the early 1900’s when Italy and large parts of Europe were swathed in the bloodbath of the First World War. Italian society, riddled with social inequality and continually pushed by the left-wing Marxist parties and pulled by right-wing conservative liberals, succumbed to the darker days Fascism and Mussolini.

Italy is now a parliamentary democracy. Executive power is held by the Council of Ministers led by the “Presidente del Consiglio” or in plain English, the Head of State. Legislative power is primarily vested in the two houses of parliament. And the judiciary is independent of both the Executive and Legislative branches of the government.

There have been 61 governments in Italy in the past 67 years. To put things into perspective, for most of the 67 years the Christian Democrats and allied parties have held the reigns of power in Italy. It was unthinkable for a Communist party to lead a western government during the Cold War years. Thus, the dominance of the Christian Democrats governments lent a continuity and a certain level of stability to Italy.

In the ’60s the political climate was altered when left-leaning Christian Democrats such as Aldo Moro attempted to inject the Socialist Party into the ruling alliance. The Communist Party was gaining membership in Italy due to its pragmatic rejection of extremism and by distancing itself away from Moscow. In fact the Italian communist party had even been elected to local government positions in a part of northern Italy called Emilia Romagna (capital, Bologna).

The compromise to include the Socialists into the ruling alliance was quickly snuffed out when Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the extremist Red Brigade and murdered in1978 in world headlines-grabbing incident.

The years that preceded and followed the assassination of Aldo Moro – approximately from 1969 until the 1980’s – was a period of turmoil and extremist political terrorism in Italy. These were known as the Years of Lead (the metal with which bullets are made) or anni di piombo in Italian.

It was a careful strategy of tension whereby bombings carried out by right-wing terrorists were blamed on the left. It was even alleged that the left-wing Red Brigade were being exploited by foreign powers such as the United States to discredit the Communists and scuttle attempts by those such as Aldo Moro to include Socialists into sharing political power.

On October 24, 1990, Giulio Andreotti, a Christian Democrat and the 42nd Prime Minister of Italy, revealed that there existed a secret NATO network called Gladio which had stockpiled weapons to facilitate an armed resistance to prevent a communist coup. This was proven without doubt in 2000 when a parliamentary commission tabled a report that established that Gladio was supported by the United States to prevent the communists and the Socialist party from gaining any executive power in Italy.

Despite the efforts of Gladio and the right-wing terrorists, in the years following anni di piombo, the Italian Socialist Party gained more and more support especially under the moderate leadership of Bettino Craxi. But a new illness was now plaguing Italian politics …

Scandals and Corruption.

From 1992 to 1997 Italian voters – disillusioned by political stalemates, a huge debt, the influence of organized crime in public life and extensive corruption – demanded political, economic and ethical reforms. The Mani pulite investigation that exposed the scandals and corruption of political parties and the 1993 referendum in which Italians voted for political reform led to a dissolution of the two largest political parties – the Christian Democrats and The Socialist Party.

It led to the rise of newer parties and a series of centre-left governments and four Berlosconi-led coalitions. By the time Silvio Berlosconi led his party to its fourth coalition, the hugely wealthy media magnate and former reformer was known more and reviled for his flashy populism and his bunga-bunga parties.

In comparison, the apolitical and technocratic government led by Mario Monti seems staid and downright boring. But Monti and his ministers have achieved more in their first 100 days than previous Italian governments have dating back to the mid-1990s! They have slashed borrowing costs with a mixed brew of eliminating budget deficit and promoting growth; they have simplified the tangled bureaucracy and are now discussing labour reforms by talking to both employers and unions. If the two sides fail to agree on terms, Monti and his team may impose reforms the way they think best.

For Italians, long accustomed to moribund coalition politics of bickering and compromise,  this is a business-like way of getting things done. They approve, 52% of them, and 69% do not know which party they would vote for at the 2013 election. The polls show that Monti’s government is robbing the political parties and their leaders of “visibility, centrality and prestige”.

The world should sit up and pay attention to a government that is not afraid to apply a mix of conservative and liberal economics to try to bring a nation back from the brink of economic collapse. What could be more nationalistic or patriotic than that?

So I ask, do we really need political parties to run our governments?

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2 responses to “Do we really need political parties?

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