Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 57,200,000
GNI/Capita: $19,390
Life Expectancy: 80
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (predominant)
Ethnic Groups: Italian, small minorities of German, French, Slovenian, and Albanian
Capital: Rome


Italy's assumption to the presidency of the European Union (EU) in July 2003 was marred by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's comparisons of a German member of the European Parliament to a Nazi. The incident occurred only weeks after Berlusconi had pushed through legislation making himself and four other top members of his government immune from prosecution for a number of cases pending against him in court.

Modern Italy begins with the mid-nineteenth century Risorgimento that brought together the various regions of the peninsula under the control of the northwestern region of Piedmont. Italy's liberal period ended abruptly with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party, which ruled the country for 20 years beginning in 1922. During World War II, Italy, under Mussolini, joined Germany and Japan as an Axis power. The Allied invasion in the south, along with the help of the anti-Fascist resistance in the north, led to the eventual liberation of the whole country in 1945. A referendum in 1946 replaced the monarchy with a republican form of government.

In the late 1990s, Italy began a number of institutional reforms to address a list of pressing issues, including revolving-door governments; Italy has had over 50 governments since 1945. In 1993, a new electoral law switched the country from a pure system of proportional representation to a more restrictive plurality system in an attempt to reduce the number of political parties that can obtain seats. Other reforms have included efforts to modernize the judiciary by streamlining the prosecution of cases in the courts and devolving more power to the country's 20 regions. There has also been a move to reduce unnecessary legislation: Italy has more than 90,000 laws compared with France's 7,325.

The "Clean Hands" corruption trials in the early 1990s led to the collapse of the major political parties that had dominated postwar Italian politics – the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. Since that time, many new parties and coalitions have emerged, including the Casa delle Liberta (House of Liberties), which won national elections in May 2001. The Casa coalition includes Berlusconi's Forza Italia, as well as the post-fascist Allianza Nazionale, and the regionalist Lega Nord. About 85 percent of eligible voters went to the polls – a turnout that was lower than the postwar average of over 90 percent. There are currently two leading coalitions in parliament. The main opposition to the Casa delle Liberta is the leftist Ulivo (Olive Tree) coalition, which contains the former Communist Party, now called the Party of the Democratic Left (DS), as well as different Green formations and former leftist Christian Democrats. The constitution forbids the reemergence of the Fascist Party.

Italy took over the presidency of the EU in July 2003 after Greece ended its six month rotation. The start of Italy's leadership, however, was marred by comments from Prime Minister Berlusconi, who compared Martin Shultz, a German member of the European Parliament, to a Nazi after he accused Berlusconi of transferring his conflict of interest problems in Italy to Europe.

Parliament passed a law in June that grants Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and four top members of his government immunity from prosecution while they remain in office. Berlusconi's trial had begun in March but halted with the passing of the bill, which was rushed through parliament to spare the prime minister the embarrassment of being tried while serving his six-month term as the president of the European Union. The new law sparked a government crisis when one of the parties in the ruling coalition, the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), threatened to leave if prosecutors in Milan were not allowed to continue an investigation into tax fraud and false accounting by Mediaset, Berlusconi's media company. The UDC argued that the law protected Berlusconi from prosecution but not investigation. Cesare Previti, a former lawyer of Berlusconi's, was handed a prison sentence during the year for bribery and corruption.

Several thousand police officers, soldiers, and civilians from Italy were sent by the government to help with the reconstruction of Iraq after the war ended. In November, the country suffered its largest military loss since World War II when a suicide bomb killed 19 Italians, many of them carabinieri, in Nasiriya, Iraq.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Italians can change their government democratically. The role of the president, who is chosen by parliament and representatives of the regions, is largely ceremonial. The president chooses the prime minister, who is often, but not always, a member of the largest party in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The constitution also provides for 20 subnational administrative districts. Currently, 75 percent of the 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are elected in single-member districts while the other 25 percent are elected by proportional representation, with a 4 percent threshold. A new electoral law circumscribes the chances of smaller parties to attain seats on their own, forcing them to align themselves with other parties in large coalitions on the left and right. In 2000, parliament approved a constitutional change that gives the estimated four million Italians abroad the right to vote, effective with the next national elections.

Corruption remains an issue in politics despite the fall of the postwar political parties. Transparency International ranks Italy 35 out of 133 countries in its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index, one of the lowest rankings of all Western European countries.

Freedom of speech and the press is constitutionally guaranteed. However, in its 2003 report, Reporters Sans Frontieres ranks Italy among the lowest of all Western countries in terms of press freedom. At issue is the prime minister, who continues to combine his role as head of government with that of being the head of Mediaset, the largest privately owned media group in the country. Berlusconi's ownership of three commercial TV channels, as well as his indirect control over the state-run RAI network, enables him to control 90 percent of the country's media; Italy consequently has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. Efforts to pass a comprehensive conflict-of-interest bill since the first Berlusconi government in 1994 have made little progress. Internet access is restricted by a 2001 law that allows the government to block foreign Internet sites that contravene national laws.

In September, Berlusconi filed a 15-million-euro libel suit against Piero Fassino, the leader of the opposition, for alleging that the prime minister is behind a smear campaign against the left. Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the prime minister's brother, has been investigating allegations that senior members of the Ulivo government in 1997 received kickbacks in a transaction between Telecom Italia and Telekom Srbija. In June 2002, a wide spectrum of members of parliament criticized the judiciary for authorizing wiretaps of journalists, which, in one case, lasted for over four and a half months. The police that year also raided the homes and offices of journalists working for the dailies La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera, and La Stampa in response to press leaks. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized Berlusconi in the spring of 2002, when RAI dropped two programs that were critical of him.

Freedom of religion is respected and guaranteed by the constitution. There is no state religion although Catholicism is the dominant religion and the Catholic Church is granted some privileges by the state. A revised Concordat in 1984, for example, gave the Church the right to select teachers paid by the state to teach an optional religion class in public schools. However, there have also been conflicts over religion and the privileged status of the Catholic Church. In October, an Italian court ordered that a crucifix be removed from a school after an Egyptian immigrant, whose two sons attend the school, filed a suit claming that the religious symbol contradicted Italy's secular status. A 1927 law says that public schools must display the crucifix. Academic freedom is respected.

Italians are free to organize into social and political associations, and more than 40 percent of the workforce is unionized. Some of the largest antiwar demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq took place in Italy.

The independence of the judiciary is undermined by long trial delays and the influence of organized crime. In addition, the current government has been vocally critical of the judiciary. In reference to the corruption charges against him, Berlusconi called the country's magistrates a "cancer that must be cured," a comment that drew strong criticism from the International Commission of Jurists. Berlusconi has made similar comments in the past and has maintained his position since his election that the judiciary is politically motivated to cause his government to fall.

The Roma (Gypsy) community faces unequal treatment from judicial authorities, which are more likely to use pretrial detention and harsher sentences on them than with others. The Lega Nord party continues to inject intolerance into national politics by organizing anti-Islamic campaigns, protesting, for example, the building of mosques.

Women benefit from liberal maternity leave provisions and government efforts to ensure parity in the workforce. However, violence against women continues to be a problem, according the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002. There are no quotas for women in either house of parliament, although some parties do maintain them. Around 10 percent of the 630 members of the Chambers of Deputies are women. Italy is a transit point and country of destination for trafficked persons. Women are trafficked from Africa and Eastern Europe for sexual exploitation and children from China for sweatshop labor.

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