1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


The sweeping defeat of center-left parties in Italy's first direct regional assembly elections in April 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 a May referendum on electoral reform, President Carlo Ciampi avoided dissolving parliament by appointing Giuliano Amato prime minister. A former prime minister and renowned financial expert, Amato won a vote of confidence for his new center-left government on April 28.

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. The May referendum, in which voters overwhelmingly approved proposals related to electoral reform and judicial restructuring, failed to pass because of low voter turnout. Observers believe that the chances of any serious electoral reform before the next general election in April 2001 are slim, and thus it is likely that the next government will suffer the same instability as previous ones.

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 parliamentarians 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.

The center-left has held power since the 1996 general elections, which followed the collapse of a center-right coalition led by prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi in 1994. Despite the infighting that has led to four government changes since 1996, the center-left presided over economic austerity measures that brought Italy into line with Maastricht Treaty criteria for European Monetary Union. However, by the end of 2000, disunity and low poll ratings suggested that the 2001 elections will go to Berlusconi's center-right coalition, which includes his own Forza Italia (Go, Italy), the post-Fascist National Alliance, and the northern-nationalist Northern League. While the left appears wanting for new policy ideas, Berlusconi promotes policies to tackle crime, overhaul the tax system, privatize pensions, modernize infrastructure, provide technical training to young people, and encourage tourism in the south. He received 59 percent approval ratings in opinion polls at year's end, despite a string of convictions for bribery and accounting irregularities.

Yet victory by the right is by no means certain. Xenophobic attacks against gays, Muslims, and foreigners by Northern League head Umberto Bossi in October drew harsh criticism from political opponents and rights advocates. The National Alliance leader of the regional council of Lazio, which includes Rome, announced his intention to set up a commission to review school history books. He explained that the books glorify World War II anti-Fascists without giving sufficient attention to the murders of Italians by Yugoslav Communists in the north. Such moves, aside from embarrassing coalition partners, may affect the center-right's popularity before April 2001.

On the economic front, Italy continues to see the slowest growth of the major European countries. A general suspicion of free market forces, coupled with the belief that privatization is unpopular with voters, has kept the process of privatizing state industries incomplete. Moreover, the process has been fraught by mismanagement. In addition, Italy's leading trade association reported late in the year that some 20 percent of all Italian businesses (accounting for about 15 percent of GNP) are controlled by organized crime. 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. During the summer, it fined insurance companies $350 million and oil companies $320 million for price fixing. Although the authority is understaffed, it has been praised by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for the transparency and speed with which it functions.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

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.

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 Italy, a defendant is given two chances to appeal a guilty verdict, during which he is presumed innocent and not jailed. The average civil trial lasts between three and five years. In 1999, Italy decriminalized minor offenses such as defaming the flag, insulting the dead, and public drunkenness in an effort to streamline the penal system. Under the new provisions, a number of transgressions were downgraded from criminal to civil offenses, and judges may impose curfews or sentences of community service on minors.

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. Unrest reportedly occurred in some 52 prisons in the first half of July alone.

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. One journalist from Il Messagero was assaulted by police while covering a demonstration against the visit of Austrian far-right politician Jorg Haider to Rome in December. A television anchor and two assistant news directors at RAI resigned in September after the station broadcast graphic images in a report on child pornography. The broadcast created a political uproar as Italian prosecutors launched a massive crackdown on video, print, and Internet child pornography.

Freedom of assembly and association is guaranteed by the constitution, with the exception of fascist and racist groups. Religious freedom is protected, and the government subsidizes several religions through tax revenues. In March, 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. Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Waldensians, Baptists, Lutherans, Jews, and members of the Assembly of God already enjoy this right. Observers have raised concern over what appears to be an increase of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, particularly in the north. In one of several cases, a Catholic of Jewish descent was brutally attacked by three individuals who shouted anti-Semitic epithets at him. Umberto Bossi's public statements against Muslims, gays, and foreigners appear to resonate with Italians who fear that an influx of foreigners threatens the national identity.

There are no restrictions on women's participation in government and politics. However, few women hold elective office; they constitute 11 percent of the chamber of deputies and 8 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, primarily by Albanian organized crime rings, to work as prostitutes. Often, their passports are destroyed, and they are abused in an effort to frighten them into submission. The justice department has made efforts to end the practice, but many victims lack the courage to cooperate.

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.

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