Freedom in the World
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Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition, which includes his own Forza Italia, the post-Fascist National Alliance, and the northern-nationalist Northern League, swept to power in national elections held in May. Weeks after his government took office, rioters disrupted the Group of 8 summit in Genoa, prompting a heavy-handed response from the police that left one protester dead and more than 230 injured. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States, the opposition center-left alliance was thrown into disarray by disagreements over support for the war in Afghanistan.
Modern Italian history dates from the nineteenth-century movement for national unification. Most of Italy had merged into one kingdom by 1870. Italy sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary at the outset of World War I, but switched to side with the Allied powers during the war. From 1922 to 1943, the country was a Fascist dictatorship under Benito Mussolini, who sided with the Axis powers during World War II. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican constitution, which provides for a president whose role is largely ceremonial. He is elected to a seven-year term by an assembly of members of parliament and delegates from the regional councils. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, a member of the largest party in the chamber of deputies, the lower house of parliament. Members of the upper house, the senate, are elected on a regional basis.
Italy's fractious and unstable governments have failed during the past several years to implement the reforms necessary to tackle the country's myriad political problems. Such reforms include overhauling current electoral laws, which engender political instability by allowing dozens of small parties to wield disproportionate influence in parliament; creating a framework for devolution in order to neutralize secessionist sentiment among northern Italians; and developing measures to prevent conflicts of interest. Observers believe that the chances of any serious electoral reform are slim, and thus it is likely that the present government will suffer the same instability as previous ones.
Following the collapse in 1994 of a center-right coalition led by Berlusconi, a media mogul, the center-left held power from 1996 to 2001. Despite the infighting that led to four government changes in five years, the coalition presided over economic austerity measures that brought Italy into line with Maastricht Treaty criteria for the European Monetary Union. However, the sweeping defeat of center-left parties in Italy's first direct regional assembly elections in April 2000 led to the resignation of Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema and the end of the 57th Italian government since World War II. With a view to an upcoming referendum on electoral reform, President Carlo Ciampi avoided dissolving parliament by appointing Giuliano Amato prime minister in April 2000. By the end of the year, disunity, a lack of new policy ideas, and low poll ratings paved the way for the success of Berlusconi's center-right coalition in the May 2001 elections. The coalition won a comfortable majority of 368 out of 630 seats in the chamber of deputies and 177 out of 326 in the senate, and a strong showing for the Forza Italia gave Berlusconi firm control of his coalition.
Berlusconi's victory raised questions regarding his personal probity-he is facing charges of criminal wrongdoing which have yet to be resolved-as well as the worry that he would be unwilling to resolve his long-standing conflict-of-interest problems with regard to control of the media. A bill approved by parliament in September to decriminalize false accounting will allow him to evade some of the charges against him, and his suggestion that a government-appointed "authority" monitor senior political figures to prevent conflicts of interest has been derided by the opposition.
On the economic front, Italy continues to see the slowest growth of the major European countries. Instability in financial markets, coupled with disagreements among coalition partners and a fear of assets falling into foreign hands, kept the long-standing program of privatizing state industries incomplete during 2001. In addition, Italy's leading trade association reported in late 2000 that some 20 percent of all Italian businesses are controlled by organized crime. During the summer, two changes of ownership at major industrial companies raised questions about the influence of family-owned business empires on the Italian economy. On the positive side, the Italian Antitrust Authority has stepped up its efforts and become increasingly effective in the past two years against anticompetitive practices in the private sector.
Italians can change their government democratically. Citizens are free to form political organizations, with the exception of the constitutionally forbidden prewar Fascist Party. The postwar constitution, designed to prevent another Mussolini-style dictatorship, sharply restricts the powers of the executive in favor of the legislative and judicial branches of government. The result has been unstable governing coalitions, political deadlock, and heavy reliance on the referendum as a political tool. In a referendum on constitutional change, voters in October 2000 approved proposals on devolution designed to give regional authorities more control over taxes, education, and environmental policy. A series of bomb blasts throughout the year have targeted a variety of companies, political organizations, and government offices.
The judiciary is independent but notoriously slow and inefficient. A 1995 law allows for preventive detention as a last resort or in cases where there is convincing evidence of a serious offense, such as illegal activity involving organized crime or related to drugs, arms, or subversion. A maximum of two years is permitted for preliminary investigation. About half of some 52,000 inmates are waiting to be tried. The average waiting period for a trial is about 18 months, but can exceed two years. A decree issued in November 2000 extends the time limit on pretrial incarceration of suspects charged with pedophilia or prostitution of minors. It would also give judges greater discretion in extending pretrial detention up to a six-year limit. Other provisions include abolishing the plea bargain for suspects facing life imprisonment and increasing surveillance of suspects under house arrest.
In July 2000, the government announced plans to reform Italy's prison system. The plans include building new prisons, renovating existing facilities, recruiting new prison officers, and deporting prisoners from outside the European Union sentenced to less than three years. Prison conditions and overcrowding have drawn criticism from domestic and international observers; Italy's prisons are holding about 9,000 more prisoners than they were designed to accommodate.
Concern over human rights violations by law enforcement officials surfaced several times in 2001. In April, Amnesty International called for an inquiry into allegations of ill-treatment of protestors both on the streets and in police stations during a Global Forum meeting held in Naples in March. In July, demonstrations at the Group of 8 summit in Genoa were marred by violence and allegations of police brutality, and led to the death of one protestor and the arrest of hundreds more. A fact-finding parliamentary inquiry established in August ended in disagreements between members and a refusal by some to endorse the committee's final report. In a biannual report issued in September, Amnesty detailed a number of reports of "gratuitous and deliberate violence" inflicted on both demonstrators and detainees by law enforcement officers during the first half of the year.
The Italian press is free and competitive. Most of approximately 80 daily newspapers are independently owned. The main state-owned television network and the three main channels of Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI) provide Italians with most of their news. Their boards of directors are parliament-appointed. A February 2000 law on political advertising requires broadcasters to give political adversaries equal time, bans paid political ads on national television, and requires public broadcasters to give all parties free television time at certain hours. Private broadcasters must also provide equal time to opposing parties if they choose to run political ads. Fears that the independence of the press could be compromised were raised after Berlusconi's appointment as prime minister; as one of Italy's wealthiest men with extensive holdings in the media, he could potentially control 90 percent of all TV broadcasting as well as having a significant stake in the publishing business.
Freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed by the constitution, with the exception of organizations that promote racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination. Religious freedom is protected, and the government subsidizes several religions through tax revenues. In March 2000, the government formally recognized Buddhists and Jehovah's Witnesses as official religions for the first time. Official recognition allows religions to establish their own schools and to benefit from a system in which taxpayers can donate a percentage of their income tax payment to the faith of their choice. Observers have raised concern over what appears to be an increase of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, particularly in the north. Umberto Bossi's public statements against Muslims, homosexuals, and foreigners appear to resonate with Italians who fear that an influx of foreigners threatens the national identity. In February, police arrested 12 members of the banned international neo-Nazi group Blood and Honor in the regional capital of Bolzano.
There are no restrictions on women's participation in government and politics. Though few women hold elective office, they currently constitute 9.8 percent of the chamber of deputies and 7.7 percent of the senate. Women enjoy legal equality in marriage, property, and inheritance rights. Foreign women are particular victims of human trafficking. Tens of thousands have been smuggled in to work as prostitutes, primarily by Albanian organized crime rings. Often, their passports are destroyed, and they are abused in an effort to frighten them into submission. Immigration laws offer special protection to trafficked women, such as automatic six-month legal residency with the possibility of renewal. In addition, an estimated 1,200 women in 48 programs throughout the country have been given assistance finding alternative employment.
Workers may strike and bargain collectively. Some 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. The law prohibits discrimination by employers against union members and organizers.