Citizen Trust in the Italian Parliament

In most advanced industrial democracies support for political institutions, and especially for parliaments, has been subject to a long-term trend of erosion (Newton and Norris 2000; Leston-Bandeira 2012). Notwithstanding this diachronic evolution, there is still much to be learned about the health of the representative democracy by looking at cross-country variations and longitudinal changes in the attitudes of citizens towards national parliaments. In a previous account (Russo and Verzichelli 2012) we spoke of a persistent gap between parliament and citizens, noting that in the 2000s fewer than one-third of the latter tended to trust parliament. Here, we present a more detailed analysis, covering a longer timespan and producing a comparison with other European countries of a similar size. This will allow us to disentangle Italian peculiarities from the more general trend.

The major source of comparable data on this topic is the standard Eurobarometer,1 which since November 2000 has included a question measuring the level of trust in the national parliament. However, to compare the trend of the last 20 years with the preceding decades we rely on the European Values Study, which asked a very similar question in 1981, 1990 and 1999.2 According to that source, there were not many significant changes during the last two decades of the 20th century: about one-third of citizens expressed a great deal or quite a lot confidence in the Italian parliament (30 per cent in 1981, 30.6 per cent in 1990 and 34.6 per cent in 1999). While this means those trusting the national representative assembly were clearly outnumbered, the latest figure placed Italy not very far from other large EU (European Union) member states, such as the United Kingdom (36.2 per cent), Germany (37.2 per cent) and France (40.4 per cent).

Eurobarometer data (Figure 3.1) show that the last 20 years can be divided into three periods: up to 2007, when the level of trust remained comparable with earlier decades because those who had confidence in the Italian parliament represented 30^10 per cent of all citizens; 2008-11, when confidence fell to below 30 per cent; and the period since late 2011, when the proportion expressing trust in the Italian parliament fell below 20 per cent. Comparison with Germany or the United Kingdom, where confidence in parliament has grown, does not support the idea that the decline experienced in Italy is simply a manifestation of a global trend. The causes of such a disappointing level of trust in the Italian parliament should therefore be sought within the Italian political system, and especially in the functioning of the legislative-executive subsystem. There are two reasons for choosing this interpretation. First, the general satisfaction with democracy (measured by a specific question of the

Citizen trust in the Italian parliament (2000-18)

Figure 3.1 Citizen trust in the Italian parliament (2000-18)

Source: Standard Eurobarometer ( index.cfm).

standard Eurobarometer) has not declined nearly as much as confidence in the Italian parliament, suggesting we are observing a syndrome that particularly affects the national representative assembly. Second, the turning points of 2008 and 2011 are characterised by two turbulent political conjunctures: the early termination of the 15th legislature in 2008, after two years of conflicts that destabilised the centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi and the fall of the fourth Berlusconi government in 2011 under the impact of the economic crisis.

We believe these circumstances are not coincidences, but rather proof that during the last two decades Italian citizens have changed their traditionally relaxed attitude towards political instability. The introduction of electoral laws favouring a majoritarian dynamic raised new expectations on the role parliament should play in the political system. The enduring level of conflict within the parliamentary coalitions and the resulting instability seem to be the most important factors contributing towards falling levels of trust in parliament as an institution.

Descriptive Representation: What Changed After 1992?

What is the extent of change expressed by the profiles of Italian MPs after the revolutionary events of the early 1990s? This question is at the core of a number of recent works dedicated to the changing processes of elite selection (Kakepaki, Kountouri, Verzichelli and Coller 2018) or the specific dynamics of the Italian political system (Tronconi and Verzichelli 2019). However, a comprehensive interpretation of the transformation of the process of representation has still to come, since this long political transition has not yet determined a new prevailing model of parliamentary selection.

So, what do we know about the patterns of descriptive representation during the past two decades, and particularly after the new recent disruptive points of the 2013 and 2018 elections? Although unified by the leadership of Silvio Berlusconi and a (more or less) stable bipolar party system, the two decades between the elections of 1994 and 2013 did not offer a truly coherent framework: the fluidity of the party system, the weak institutionalisation of some parties and two reforms of the electoral systems did not help consolidate a coherent set of representative behaviour. However, the slow consolidation of the new ruling class seemed possible until 2008, when the two coalitions that once supported Berlusconi (centre-right) and Romano Prodi (centre-left) evolved into two majoritarian parties. The same Berlusconi won the elections at the head of the new PdL (People of Freedom) party a merger of FI (Forza Italia) and the AN (National Alliance), while Walter Veltroni became the leader of the opposition at the head of the PD (Democratic Party), which was a merger of the post-communist DS (Democratos of the Left) and the left- wing DL (Christian democrats of Democracy is Freedom - La Margherita). These two parties could get more than two-thirds of the vote, giving supporters of majoritarian democracy false hope. Indeed, the economic crisis and collapse of the fourth Berlusconi government brought a new phase of political turmoil and the formation of a technocratic government.

The controversial result of the 2013 elections did not relieve parliament of that stalemate, although five years of PD governments followed. In December 2016, a referendum defeated the Renzi government proposal for broad constitutional reform, leading to the appearance of a new populist drift. The 2018 elections gave M5S a majority of seats (Chiaramonte, Emanuele, Maggini and Paparo 2018), which, after protracted negotiation, resulted in the formation of a parliamentary coalition with Matteo Salvini’s LN, which had emerged as the largest centre-right party in parliament (Marangoni and Verzichelli 2019).

Of course, we should recall several of the dimensions and indicators that describe the transformation of the parliamentary selection processes and their implications for the profile of individual representatives at such a complicated period (Tronconi and Verzichelli 2014, 2019; Russo, Tronconi and Verzichelli 2014). For purposes of this chapter, we report just a few aggregate figures concerning the main indicators of descriptive representation during the past 25 years (Table 3.1).

The proportion of gender representation, while still clearly lower than in many other European democracies, has gradually increased over the years. However, figures from 2013 and 2018 clearly stand out. This is also true for the indicator for the mean age of MPs, which increased during the Second Republic before collapsing dramatically in 2013. The appearance of an antiestablishment party (M5S), which has a peculiar system of parliamentary recruitment that is inspired by a ‘social mirroring’ principle, has been

Table 3.1 Indicators of descriptive representation: Italian chamber of deputies (1992-2018)









% Female









% Graduate









Mean age









Mean age newcomers









% Leading party background









% Local elective background









Source: CIRCaP Observatory on Political Elites and Institutions - University of Siena.

suggested as the main factor driving these sudden changes. However, disaggregate analyses (e.g. Tronconi and Verzichelli 2019) have also stressed other novelties: for instance, the tendency of newly organised parties like the LN to recruit very young politicians, and the more pronounced attitude of the left PPGs to represent the female population and the more educated strata of society.

A quick look at the occupational origins of MPs (Figure 3.2) confirms that quite important changes have taken place in recent decades. These aggregate figures actually hide the traces of polarisation that emerged recently in the representative profiles of the opposing coalitions/parties (Verzichelli 1998). While the first generation of LN MPs (1992-2006) had a strong core of small

Occupational background of the Italian MPs

Figure 3.2 Occupational background of the Italian MPs: Chamber of deputies (1992— 2018).

Source: Author’s database.

businessmen and women and farmers, and while Berlusconi’s FI tended to attract managers and liberal professionals, the centre-left PPGs traditionally appealed more to representatives with purely political or public sector backgrounds.

This latter background, however, seems to have lost its traditional strength, with the 2013 and 2018 elections resulting in fewer civil servants and teachers being elected to parliament. This is another clear effect of the process of symbolic representation promoted by populist parties, and in particular by the M5S, where parliamentary recruitment is open to people from unprivileged backgrounds, including the unemployed, students, blue-collar workers and housewives.

From Snipers to Switchers: The Difficulties of Party Representation in Contemporary Italy

A paradox should be highlighted here: the parties that seem to have more clearly marked the social profiles of their representatives tend to progressively lose control over the PPGs formed by the same MPs. Different indicators should be discussed to cover the different dimensions of such a phenomenon, including legislative rebellions. Before moving to the role perceptions of parliamentarians, we limit our analysis to a general measurement of the difficulties parties have in controlling their parliamentary elite, by using the simple indicator of party switching frequency (Heller and Mershon 2008).

As Figure 3.3 shows, throughout the Second Republic period, both the indicator of the proportion of MPs who switch between PPGs and the monthly average of switches remain quite high - the only exception being the 2001-6 term, which was dominated by a strong majoritarian government led by Berlusconi. After the 2013 elections, the trend of parliamentary switching turned into a pattern of implosion, which was inflated during the formation and crisis phases of the Renzi government (from February 2014 to December 2016) as a consequence of the divisive nature of his leadership and the assertiveness of his policy proposals. This has resulted in a new record of mobility during the 17th legislature, when about 35 per cent of MPs changed their PPG at least once. This is a remarkable figure, even in a comparative scenario.

How is it possible that such continuity could persist for years? Of course, the main reason is the failure of the party system to reconsolidate. Given such an uncertain scenario, and with the additional problem of frequent changes to the electoral system, the ability of the parties to keep their parliamentary ranks united has clearly diminished. Even the two most important PPGs to emerge in the wake of the critical elections of 2013 and 2018 have suffered from party switching. The PD led by Matteo Renzi was quite remarkably attractive during the first half of the 2013-18 legislature, when the new secretary was able to lead the party to victory in the 2014 European elections. After that, the PD PPG lost a large number of members, especially after the defeat of the 2016 referendum.

Switching between PPGs. 1983-2018

Figure 3.3 Switching between PPGs. 1983-2018.

Source: CIRCaP Observatory on Political Elites and Institutions.

when a new left-wing group, Art.l-MDP (Article 1-the Democratic and Progressive Movement was formed). On the other hand, the PPGs (lower chamber and senate) of the new M5S lost about 20 per cent of its original representation as a result of personal conflicts that led to voluntary departures or expulsions dictated by party leaders and confirmed in votes by activists.

The difficult balance between the loyalty to the movement’s policies and the free expressions of individual MPs seems to be a problem within the M5S, even during the 18th legislature, which is marked by a significant number of expulsions from the broad PPG of this anti-establishment party. The destinations of those expelled MPs are often different, with some remaining in the residual mixed group (gruppo misto) while others find a new home in the parties of the left or right. This reintroduces the theme of individual or voluntary switches - i.e. those not connected to splits or mergers of entire groups of MPs - which was once more than 50 per cent of the changes between PPGs (Russo, Tronconi and Verzichelli 2014). On the basis of some recent parliamentary chronicles, it is possible to argue that the state of ambiguity in which many of the party actors find themselves keeps offering strong incentives for individualism. Indeed, there is a stable proportion of 'individual hoppers’, although research on the relationship between the phenomenon of group switching and the diverse nature of parliamentary selection (centralised or ‘inclusive’, like party primaries to select parliamentary candidates) is presenting rather mixed results (Rornbi and Seddone 2017).

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