Italian crisis and proportional representation

[Green Left Weekly, #97, April 28, 1993]

Perhaps other GLW readers have, like me, been fascinated by the recent stream of revelations about massive corruption in Italian public life. It seems that just about the entire ruling "political class" of Christian Democrat and Socialist leaders and MPs have been compromised — or soon will be — by the ever-spreading stain of corruption scandals.

The present revelations are also an indictment of the postwar Italian political system which was constructed — with strong US backing — above all to keep the powerful Communist Party (PCI) out of government. With the collapse of the old Soviet bloc and the decline of the PCI, this whole rotten system has lost its rationale and has come unglued.

However, I have been astounded at the solution almost universally advocated in the various press reports, namely the abolition of proportional representation in electing MPs and senators. An editorial in the April 25 Guardian Weekly refers to the country's system of “extreme” proportional representation — a rather amazing proposition when one thinks about it.

How moving to a far less democratic electoral system will end corruption completely escapes me. In the April 21 Melbourne Age, Graham Barrett writes that "PR Italian-style means a political process that is clogged with state-subsidised parties and rubber-stamped MPs, just the kind of approach that invites shady activity". It seems to me that PR — surely a basic principal of genuine democracy — and the sleaze of Italian political life are unjustifiably amalgamated here.

In the recent referendum, Italian voters not only voted to scrap PR (for three-quarters of the Senate seats) but also to end public funding for political parties. This latter move seems like a good one, but going to some variant of first-past-the-post is a retrograde step and can only help perpetuate the domination of politics by the various bourgeois parties and serve to exclude smaller left and green forces from parliamentary representation.

Far from the scene, it seems to me that even in its extremity the old order has managed to put another one over on the Italian electorate. Moving to some variant of what Graham Barrett calls "Britain's no-nonsense style" — that's certainly one way of describing this notoriously undemocratic electoral system! — won't end corruption.

Any explanation of the sheer scale of Italy's corruption would have to take into account the country's Third-World-like south, the stronghold alike of the Mafia and the Camorra ... and the Christian Democrats.

However, while each country has its peculiarities, in western countries where everything has its price, corruption is bound to be endemic. Recent history in Australia should make us wary of thinking that things are completely different here. And in the United States, the world's leading democracy, it would seem that corruption is a way of life in politics.