The Italian Political Party, ‘Forza Italia’ between 1992 to the present day Essay

Tracing its performance and assessing its development, analyse the Italian Political Party, ‘Forza Italia’ between 1992 to the present day.

By 1992, Italy had a number of questions that it had to face up to regarding its future role in Europe, its party political structure, the role of the judiciary, the possible tenure of links to corruption and the ‘underworld’, as well as the associations that Italian politicians had with criminal organizations, and the balance of power between central, regional and local government (Ginsborg, 2001:p285) The demise of the old ruling classes had paved the way for a new order; the question was, who felt that they were capable of establishing this new ‘era in Italian politics’?

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This essay attempts to analyse Forza Italia, a party that has been a major political force over the past ten years in Italian politics and, primarily through its inspirational leader, a major talking point of varying degrees of warmth and sceptical thinking as far as its political aspirations and motives are concerned. An analysis of the state of the country leading up to the birth of the party, giving an understanding of why Forza Italia was formed will be given, as well as the structure of the party and its early political success.

Comprehending its raison d’etre; i.e. appreciating Berlusconi’s interest in politics will give us a possible insight into how the party developed so rapidly to be a competitive party in such a short period of time. The essay will then go on to assess its performance in the 1994, 1996 and 2001 elections and attempt to give reasons why Forza Italia and their coalition lost out to centre-left in 1996, but managed to regain power in 2001 despite a number of allegations surrounding their leader Berlusconi.

An important point to consider when examining the development of Forza Italia is the socio-economic and cultural changes that Italy incurred during the 1980’s period. In comparative terms to that of the other Western European countries, Italy was a latecomer to economic and social modernisation. In a post-industrial state, society distinguishes itself in diversity of lifestyles and a loss of collective consciousness structures, namely differentiation. Therefore the traditional major groups of industrial society are to a large extent disbanded and as there is no longer a sense of loyalty within a large group, people are liberated into voting for which party suits their personal needs rather than a general overview of an industry at whole. This new found individualisation gives need for personal satisfaction of needs and consumerisation has become a focal point for Italian society. This has been fed by the culture industry (e.g. media and advertising). (Zariski, 1998:p396)

Therefore, if we take this as an indicator of what was now expected in Italy in the early-1990’s, the political parties should have realised that a ‘catch-all party’ (Realpolitik) or cohesive coalition, aligned with the exploitation of mass media as a form of political communication with society in a competitive democracy, was what was needed in order to succeed in the electoral vote. The development of the Forza Italia Party through the intuitive skills of Silvio Berlusconi was the first Italian Party to do so (Seisselberg, 1996:p720)

Forza Italia is unique in that it was not just a new party, it was a new type of party; a media-mediated personality party. Although it could be questionably compared to the two major parties in the USA, the Republican Party and The Democrat Party, there is one distinctive difference; Forza Italia lacks a sense of inner democracy through its organisational and structural principles. Its essential criteria consists of having an extensive hierarchical communication and decision-making structure, a lead figure at the head of the party whose media-built personality is a central part in what the party has to publicly offer (i.e. the spokesperson and hierarchical figurehead), as well as a professional management of external political communication (Seisselberg, 1996:715).

The gradual loss of control by the established groups shows itself in the effective relinquishing of state authority to the more compact and powerful of the economic interests, particularly the big multi-national conglomerates – a re-emergence of the tradition of sub-government (Furlong, P, 1994:p223). In attempting to mediate the competing demands of the Berlusconi media corporations, the Italian state was having to deal with successful modern commercial enterprises whose cultural and administrative resources were much superior in quality to its own.

Silvio Berlusconi’s motives offer an insight into how the party became successful at an early stage in their creation. For many critics of the man, (in this case The Economist, 22nd Oct. 2003) politics has been a means to his business success. However, it may be unfair to suggest that his political aspirations were the sole reason for his successful business enterprises, as Berlusconi was a wealthy man before Forza Italia was created. The answer, perhaps, lies more in the fact that he was entering politics in the knowledge that it would be more than likely he would be able to protect his assets. www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story [22 October 2003]

He also recognised that his power in a number of different industry sectors could prove crucial come election time. Indeed, the novelist Umberto Eco remarked that Berlusconi ‘was the first to understand the collapse of traditional ideology in Italy and its replacement by mass media.’ (www.guardian.co.uk/italy/story.html) Thus the development of the party was assessed by Berlusconi as having a high success rate with his financial clout and media assets.

The National Election of March 1994 delivered a contrast in political campaigns, that of the more modernistic approach of Berlusconi and the coalition of Forza Italia, Lega Nord and Alleanze Nazionale, and the more repressed ‘progressives’ (PDS, the Reformed Communists, La Rete, the Greens and others). The development of mass media-related politics, allied to the coalition agreement with Lega Nord, gave the centre-right almost a clean sweep in the more advanced North. Although the regional votes in the South were more varied, Forza Italia had at the very least held its own with the ‘progressives’ and the Catholic Centre, gaining one important scalp in the island of Sicily, where a heavy victory was gained. This did raise questions behind the political motives of the home of the Italian mafia, as the incessant attacks by Berlusconi upon the reforming magistrates had given the ‘black market’ new hope (Sassoon, 1997:p266)

However, Berlusconi did not remained in power for only seven months and the centre-left coalition led a successful campaign that concentrated on extensive research and reaching out to the people through ‘individual interaction’. The leader of the Olive Tree Alliance, for example, paraded around on a converted coach travelling through Italy and deliberately going out of his way to meet people on the street (Seisselberg, 1996:p737).

The 1996 elections were perhaps an indicator of the weaknesses within Forza Italia. The defeat by the centre-left alliance, Ulivo (Olive Tree) was partly brought about by the loss of a coalition force in the Northern League, who decided to run separately and thus cost Forza Italia (headed by the Freedom Alliance), vital votes in the North Region. Berlusconi had underestimated the power of the Northern League through poor market research which was an indicator of the parties’ temporary downfall (Seisselberg, West European Politics, 1996:p734)

The left’s victory in 1996 not only substantiated the weaknesses of the right-wing alliance thrown together by Berlusconi but reinforced the imperfect bipolarism of the nascent party system (Donovan, West European Politics, Vol.19,1996:p805). Also, the political climate had somewhat changed since the political break-up of the First Republic in 1994. By 1996, a greater portion of the people of Italy wanted security and solidity. Efforts were made by the party to discreetly change the media personality of Berlusconi in order to satisfy the public’s demands without losing sight of the parties’ political product. However, the public were not overly attracted to the altered political face of Forza Italia enough to retain an electoral majority (Donovan, West European Politics, Vol.19,1996:p807).

Finally, Berlusconi had, ‘lost his edge’, in the sense that he was no longer looked upon as one of life’s great winners after his poor period as government leader; the midas touch that had reaped personal dividends on almost every business project he invested in seemed to have deserted him. It also didn’t help that judicial charges of corruption against him had come to the fore of political mindset. This had a direct effect on Forza Italia as the media-mediated personality party relied heavily on their charismatic leader to bring in the votes. The development of the party, it could be argued, had become somewhat stagnant by 1996, after Berlusconi and Forza Italia had been in power for just 7 months. www.eurunion.org/magazine/0210/p22.htm [22 October 2003]

The period of time when Berlusconi was not in power between 1994-2001 proved to be a difficult stage for his talents to shine. However, it may not have been as difficult as he, or Forza Italia, might have imagined. Pressure was on Berlusconi to resign after a series of allegations were made against him, ranging from the bribery of financial police to the illegal financing of a political party, from the attempted corruption of magistrates to tax fraud and the breach of anti-trust laws in Spain.

Not only this, but it was unanimously acknowledged that Berlusconi was in breach of a conflict of interests through his dominance of advertising and the media, although his unique ability to bypass laws and override accusations against him, however it was achieved, seemed to have put him and his party in good stead for the 2001 elections. (Ginsborg, 2001:p318) Another key factor was Berlusconni’s reaction to his loss in the elections of 1996. Seven years is a long time in politics, and Berlusconi did not waste them. He surrounded himself with shrewd advisers, such as Guilio Tremonti and Marcello Pera, and decided on a number of political initiatives; the reinvention of the Northern League was perhaps the most obvious, and the most significant.

Berlusconi also reinvented the party and developed it to a stage that he felt it could more than contend with the left-democrats. From its origins as a lopsided group based on media empire, Forza Italia was nurtured into a mass-based organisation not of political discussion, but a well-oiled machine well-rehearsed in rallies and political intervention in all parts of the national territory (Ginsborg, 2001:p320)

However, the re-development of the party was dealt a major media blow, perhaps rather surprisingly considering Berlusconi’s influence in his own country, through the vicious media campaign of The Economist, which in turn created a domino effect with national newspapers across Europe, such as Le Monde and El Mundo, who reiterated comments leading up to the elections. Despite the fact that the interventions of the foreign press were overwhelmingly negative and damaged the reputation of Berlusconi, the coalition led by Forza Italia still came to power which perhaps underlines the development made since 1994 that a setback as large as this one could not deter voters to sway towards the centre-right in such a closely contested election. (Ginsborg, 2001:p319)

The 2001 Election results was a good indicator of how far Forza Italia had come since their leader was unceremoniously dumped out of office in 1994. The party emerged as the single biggest party with 29.4%, almost twice as large as its nearest rival, the Democrats of the Left, who had 16.6%. Forza Italia had stormed back into power through the House of Freedoms coalition and, due to their electoral voting percentage, were put in a commanding position in government. However, the real winner was without doubt Silvio Berlusconi. (Newell;Bull, Parliamentary Affairs, 2002:p629)

Despite having half of the world’s press on his back as being, ‘not fit to lead the government of any country, least of all one of the world’s richest democracies’. (the Economist) Indeed, regarding the performance of Forza Italia and Berlusconi during their period in power in 1994, J.L Newell and M.J Bull described it as, ‘one of the most divisive, ineffective and short-lived governments of the postwar period.’ (Newell;Bull, Parliamentary Affairs, 2002:p628)

However, if we look at it from a different perspective, one could argue that Berlusconi was reinstated to power essentially because he had managed to construct a more efficient system of alliances given the electoral system in force, rather than because of any significant shifts of popular support. Does this perceive a development of Forza Italia, or simply a intuitive stroke of political genius by Berlusconi to mould together an alliance worthy of winning an election?

Forza Italia may be a new ideological party in that it is a media mediated personality party, but its links with Americanisation was its strengths in the 2001 elections. Even the election was in a lot of respects similar to those fought out in the USA, with a centre-left and centre-right group being represented by a single figurehead, and petitioning largely through technological capabilities and media interaction.

The people of Italy want to see change through their government, they want to see development in their political structure, they want to see improvements in social aspects of their life; Berlusconi and Forza Italia put administrative reform to the top of his election promises. Whether or not the party, and the man as a political hybrid, can realize that promise remains to be seen, but their progress, if one considers the length of time since their creation, has been slow yet steady, never dull, with the standard criticism of their lead figure always just around the corner.

However, these criticisms are invariably against the morals and motivations of the man, and less to do with political policies of the party as a whole. When condemnations by the electorate have been made, it is more against the governments over the past twenty years who have failed ensure a greater presence of women in Italy’s institutions; the inability of a G8 state to improve measures to protect the environment, and the haltering progress of educational reform, rather than picking out Forza Italia as the single culprit for these problems (Ginsborg, 2001:p324). However, if the party and its leader do not take measures to improve the situations facing the country, then they could find themselves regressing to a point of long return; a long return back into power.

Bibliography

Donovan, Mark, A Turning Point that Turned? The April 1996 General Election in Italy- West European Politics, Vol.19, No.4 (October 1996), Frank Cass, London

Ginsborg, Paul, Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State, 1980-2001, Allen Lane/Penguin, 2001

Newell, James L, & Bull, Martin J, Italian Politics after the 2001 General Election- Parliamentary Affairs (2002), Hansard Publishing

Sassoon, Donald, Contemporary Italy: economy, society and politics since 1945, 2nd edition, Longman, 1997

Seisselberg, Jorg, Conditions of Success and Political Problems of a ‘Media-Mediated Personality Party’: The Case of Forza Italia – West European Politics, Vol.19 No.4 (October 1996) Frank Cass, London

Zariski, Raphael, Politics in Western Europe: an introduction to the politics of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the European Union, Macmillan, 1998

www.eurunion.org/magazine/0210/p22.htm [22 October 2003]

(www.guardian.co.uk/italy/story.html [22 October 2003]

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