Giovanni Di Cosimo
University of Macerata
The Italian political system has profoundly changed in the transition from the so-called first Republic to the second. In the early 1990s, the traditional parties – which included Christian Democracy and the Communist party – disappeared, and new parties were set up, in particular Forza Italia, the political movement founded by Silvio Berlusconi in 1994. In more recent years, the scene has further changed. In 2009 the Five Star Movement was born, which won the elections in March 2018 and now governs the country together with the Lega.
All these transformations took place along two paths, the personal party and the digital party, which eventually overlap.
The Personal Party
The emergence of the personal party (or leader party) marks a profound transformation in political parties. This term is evidence of the fact that over time the role of party leader has become increasingly influential, to the extent that the party expresses his/her will rather than any collective volition deriving from debate within the party.
It could be said that political parties, which were once places for citizen participation in politics and the collegiate elaboration of ideas and programs, have become electoral machines at the service of their leaders; they have shifted from being collective entities in continual contact with society to the instruments of the will of a single individual. Despite many contradictions and limits implicit in their largely ideological set-up, the twentieth century mass parties were the key collective players on the political stage. These have been substituted by personal parties, the first of which was Forza Italia. Since then this model has become extremely widespread.
At a certain point, the party leaders actually exercised the power to choose the Members of Parliament. As a result of the ‘closed list’ system laid down in the 2005 electoral law, the choice of MPs depended on the decision of the leader rather than on a contest between the various party members. This, however, was later rejected by the Constitutional Court.
The result of this is a drastic impoverishment in the exchange of views within the party and consequently of public debate.
The Digital Party
A second transformation in Italian political parties coincides with the emergence of the digital party (or internet party) and points to the fact that the use of digital technologies and more specifically the internet has led to a substantial qualitative change.
The use of social media means that it is possible to be in direct and constant contact with groups of supporters and thus increasingly promote their loyalty. At the same time, the direct contact between the leader and ‘his/her people’ sidelines the intermediary party layers, thus pandering to the plebiscitary dynamic which currently typifies the political system.
This transformation also leads to the deterioration of public debate which is reduced to a clash between opposing groups of followers who, by interacting online, reciprocally reinforce their own convictions.
Secondly, the use of the internet alters party organization. This is particularly evident when digital platforms are used for the selection of election candidates as occurred in September 2017 when The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) adopted the innovative Rousseau platform for choosing its political leader.
In theory, it is an organizational measure that allows for the increase in the power base of ordinary activists. However, it should be born in mind that the choice of this type of platform excludes part of the population who, as things stand, are not able to access the internet. It does not take into account the considerable digital divide that exists in terms of age and levels of education. Furthermore, there is no shortage of tricky issues associated with the fact that the running of the platform by just a few people implies very close control of the organization itself as regards highly sensitive tasks like the selection of managers and election candidates. In 2017, the Italian Data Protection Authority raised serious concerns regarding the privacy of the voting process, since the platform links the phone number of the party member with every vote cast, which means that the platform managers are able to check how their members vote. Lastly, it should be noted that the platform adopts ‘closed source’ software that does not permit external checks on voting irregularities.
The Rousseau platform is also used for consultations between party members on political questions of particular importance. In May 2018, with a consultation of this type, party members sealed the agreement with the League (Lega) which led to the formation of the current Conte government. On paper, this e-democracy method of organization stimulates the conscious involvement of party members and therefore boosts the quality of political participation. On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the decisions to be ratified are taken by the party leader, usually in the absence of genuine internal debate and on the assumption of acting for the good of the people who are seen as if they were a compact entity with a single will (in actual fact, this concept is shared by other party leaders).
Therefore, setting aside the potentiality of this tool, which can extend citizens’ political participation, questions arise regarding the running of the platform. In particular, the fact that its control is in the hands of just a few people highlights the links between the two forms of party, the personal and digital, in the sense that the party leader exploits the potential offered by the internet to further re-enforce his/her hold on the party.
This raises a crucial question regarding the internal democracy of the parties.
The parties currently use the internet for several important functions, in particular communication via social media which in the party leaders’ eyes offers the advantage of disintermediation both regarding journalists that can be troublesome and the intermediary party layers. One party (The Five Star Movement), utilizing IT systems, has also applied internal regulations to the management of some important aspects such as the nomination of candidates, consultations with party members and the choice of the leader.
However, none of this has led to greater transparency and has not guaranteed effective internal democracy. On the contrary, the rise of the digital party has contributed to re-enforcing the figure of the leader along the lines of the prevailing model of the personal party.
In different forms this is true both in the case of the systematic use of the internet, adopted by the parties mainly for communication purposes, and in the case where the internal regulations establish that important activities, such as the selection of managers and election candidates as well as the consultations with the party members, are carried out using a digital platform. The first case leads to personalization effects that are not very different from those of television, which has been a long- time favorite with Italian politicians for indoctrination and propaganda purposes; the second, if possible, produces even more pronounced structural effects.
The additional and paradoxical outcome is the progressive shrinking of the spaces for democratic participation available to citizens.
Giovanni Di Cosimo is Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Macerata, Italy
Suggested Citation: Giovanni Di Cosimo, ‘The Transformation of Italian Parties’ IACL-AIDC Blog (7 December 2018) https://blog-iacl-aidc.org/blog/2018/12/6/the-transformations-of-italian-parties