Freedom in the World
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Scandals involving underage women and escorts continued to plague Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2010, causing many to question his ability to govern. In July, Berlusconi split from longtime ally Gianfranco Fini, who left the governing coalition and formed his own party.
Italy was unified under the constitutional monarchy of Piedmont and Sardinia in the 19th century. Its liberal period ended in 1922 with the rise Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party, which eventually led the country to defeat in World War II. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.
The “clean hands” corruption trials of the early 1990s prompted the collapse of the major political factions that had dominated postwar Italian politics—the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Since that time, many new parties and coalitions have emerged.
Parliamentary elections in 2006 ushered in a new center-left coalition government led by Romano Prodi, leaving Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-rightbloc in opposition for the first time since 2001. Berlusconi’s premiership had been marred by abortive attempts to prosecute him on money laundering, fraud, and tax evasion charges, and by his personal domination of the national media, including state outlets and his extensive private holdings. However, Prodi’s new government proved unstable; in 2007, it lost key votes in Parliament over Italy’s troop presence in Afghanistan, and it finally collapsed after a no-confidence vote in January 2008.
Berlusconi’s rightist coalition, People of Freedom, handily won early parliamentary elections in April 2008, capturing a total of 344 seats in the lower house and 174 in the Senate in combination with two smaller allies. A center-left coalition led by Rome mayor Walter Veltroni’s new Democratic Party placed second with 246 seats in the lower house and 132 seats in the Senate. Berlusconi ran on pledges to crack down on crime and illegal immigration, and the new Parliament passed a number of measures on those issues in 2008 and 2009.
In the March 2010 regional elections, the opposition center-left lost a number of key regions that it had dominated in previous years, including Piedmont and Lazio, where Rome is located. The regionalist and anti-immigration Northern League party made gains, increasing its support in the longtime strongholds of Lombardy and the Veneto, as well as in the traditionally leftist region of Emilia Romagna.
The board of governors of the state-owned RAI television network had suspended political discussion on its three channels for a month in the lead-up to the elections. The move—which was viewed by some as a politically motivated attempt by Berlusconi’s government to limit potentially critical commentary—was officially attributed to the difficulty of ensuring “equality of treatment” for all parties.
In June 2010, the Senate passed a bill that would limit the use of wiretaps and punish journalists with fines or up to 30 days in jail if they are found guilty of publishing content from such recordings before the defendant in question goes to trial. The bill, which was seen primarily as an effort to keep embarrassing information about politicians out of the news, was opposed by all of the major newspapers in Italy. Journalists responded with a national strike in July. The bill remained stalled in the lower house at year’s end.
Also in June, the country’s major trade unions called a national strike to protest fiscal austerity measures taken by the government in response to the global economic downturn. The measures included cuts in funding for local governments and a freeze on public-sector salaries.
Scandals involving Berlusconi and underage women and escorts continued to emerge in 2010, leading many to question his ability to govern. In October, the media reported that the prime minister had personally intervened on behalf of a 17-year-old Moroccan girl who was detained in May by police on suspicion of theft. Berlusconi allegedly told investigators that the girl was the granddaughter of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, when in fact she was the daughter of immigrants, resided in Italy illegally, and had attended at least one party at Berlusconi’s house. The incident, along with accusations that Berlusconi routinely hosted sexually explicit parties, led to calls for his resignation, but he remained in office at year’s end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Italy is an electoral democracy. The president, whose role is largely ceremonial but sometimes politically influential, is elected for a seven-year term by Parliament and representatives of the regions. Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist, was selected for the post in 2006. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, the leader of the largest party in the 630-seat lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The upper house is the Senate, with 315 seats. Members of both chambers serve five-year terms.
A 1993 electoral law replaced the existing system of proportional representation with single-member districts for most of the seats in Parliament. The move was designed to reduce the number of political parties that could obtain seats and ensure a more stable majority for the parties in power; Italians had seen more than 50 governments since 1945. However, in 2005, proportional representation was restored, with a provision awarding at least 54 percent of the seats in the lower house to the winning party or coalition, no matter how small its margin of victory. For the Senate, victory in a given region assures the winning party or coalition a 55 percent majority of that region’s allotment of seats. Just six parties won seats in the lower house in the 2008 elections, down from 26 in the previous elections.
The opposition Democratic Party has been the main party of the left since it was formed through a merger of multiple smaller parties in 2007. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-leaning PDL first emerged as a multiparty electoral alliance in 2008. In 2009, it became a single party following a formal merger between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and the formerly neofascist National Alliance party. The Northern League, though still part of the ruling coalition, decided to remain an independent party. The PDL fractured in July 2010, after Gianfranco Fini— former leader of the National Alliance and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies—split with Berlusconi over the prime minister’s handling of corruption allegations leveled against him. However, at the end of September 2010, Berlusconi survived a no-confidence vote with the support of the Northern League and Fini’s new center-right Future and Freedom for Italy party. After weeks of scandal surrounding Berlusconi’s personal life, four members of the government resigned in November, and the premier survived another vote of no confidence in December by a margin of just three votes.
Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the changes in government over the past decade. Italy was ranked 67 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, the second-lowest ranking in Western Europe. Berlusconi has faced numerous corruption charges over the years, but has never been convicted. In October 2009, the Constitutional Court overturned a law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution while still in office. The ruling allowed for a number of pending court cases against him to proceed, the first of which began in November 2009. The trial—which related to tax fraud accusations involving his Mediaset media company—was eventually adjourned, as the prime minister could not attend due to state business. In March 2010, Parliament passed another “legitimate impediment” law that allows the prime minister to postpone any trial for up to 18 months. Berlusconi has insisted that he cannot be called to trial while serving as prime minister because of his government duties.
Freedoms of speech and of the press are constitutionally guaranteed. However, Berlusconi controls up to 90 percent of the country’s broadcast media through state-owned outlets and his own private media holdings. There are many newspapers and news magazines, most with regional bases. Newspapers are primarily run by political parties or owned by large media groups. Internet access is generally unrestricted.
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and respected in practice. Although Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and the state grants some privileges to the Catholic Church, there is no official religion. The state provides support, if requested, to other sects represented in the country. Agreements between the government and a number of religious groups have been signed, but an omnibus religious freedom law has yet to be passed. In May 2010, a Muslim woman was fined approximately $650 for wearing a niqab (facial veil) to a mosque in Novara. A bylaw in the city makes it illegal for anyone to wear garments that cover the face and hinder identification by police. Academic freedom is respected.
Italians are free to assemble and form social and political associations, and around 35 percent of the workforce is unionized. The constitution recognizes the right to strike, with the exception of those employed in essential services and a number of self-employed professions, such as lawyers, doctors, and truck drivers. There were several strikes during 2010 to protest the government’s austerity measures. In December, thousands of students protested proposed cuts to the education budget.
The judicial system is undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. Despite legal prohibitions against torture, there have been reports of excessive use of force by police, particularly against illegal immigrants. In March 2010, a Genoa court confirmed the convictions of 15 police officers, prison guards, and doctors who had been found guilty of mistreating protesters detained during the 2001 Group of Eight summit. The court also overturned the initial acquittals of 29 others involved in mistreating the detainees. Some prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding.
The country made some gains against organized crime in 2010. In July, over 300 people were arrested and millions of dollars in weapons, drugs, and property were confiscated during police raids across Italy against the ’Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria. In September, Italian police seized over EUR 1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) worth of assets—including over 40 wind and solar companies—from a Sicilian businessman accused of working with the Mafia. In addition, a major Sicilian Mafia boss, Giuseppe Falsone, was arrested in France in June.
Italy is a major entry point for undocumented immigrants trying to reach Europe, and the government has been criticized for holding illegal immigrants in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions and denying them access to lawyers and other experts. A government crackdown on illegal immigration that began in 2008 has led to the arrest of hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants.A 2009 immigration law imposes fines on illegal immigrants and grants authorities the power to detain them for up to six months without charge. Under a 2009 agreement with Libya, Italy in 2010 continued provide the North African country with patrol boats to intercept ships carrying illegal immigrants from Africa. The policy has been credited with sharply reducing the number of migrants reaching Italy, but criticized for failing to protect the rights of migrants.In January 2010, race riots engulfed a small town in Calabria. Local organized crime groups were accused of igniting the riots by throwing rocks and burning cars, provoking the African immigrants who live in the area and work as fruit pickers.
Women benefit from generous maternity-leave provisions, equality in the workforce, and considerable educational opportunities. However, violence against women continues to be a problem, and female political representation is low for the region. Women hold 21 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. In July 2009, Italy became the last European country to approve the use of the abortion-inducing medication mifepristone. However, unlike in the United States and other European countries, the pill can only be administered in hospitals, where the patient must remain until it has taken effect.
Italy is a destination country for the trafficking of women and children for sexual and labor exploitation. The Italian government has made efforts to tackle the problem by increasing its prosecution of traffickers; it also finances nongovernmental organizations that work to raise awareness of the problem and support trafficking victims.