Towards the end of the 80s and 90s, corruption had become endemic in Italian politics. The long-suffering population had become increasingly unhappy about what became known as 'Tangentopoli': a toxic mixture of the polititians' antics in Parliament, widespread corruption, massive government debt and the Mafia's stranglehold on public life. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a series of events triggered a comprehensive investigation and clean-up, called 'Clean Hands' (Mani Pulite). As a result, a series of referendums were held in 1993 which, amongst other things, approved changes to the voting system. In the subsequent election of 1994, 452 out of 630 deputies were replaced and 213 out of 315 senators lost their seats. These political upheavals led to the formation of the 2nd Republic.
The voters had become very disillusioned with the traditional political parties and consequently a political newcomer, Silvio Berlusconi, was swept to power as prime minister with a new party, the 'House of Freedoms' coalition. However, this coalition proved to be a fragile one and having lost the support of his partners in the Lega Nord, Berlusconi was forced to step down. Italy's constitution provided for a caretaker government, headed by prime minister, Lamberto Dini, which governed until new elections were held in 1996.
By this time the left-leaning parties has reorganised themselves and won the new election as a coalition called 'The Olive Tree', headed by Romano Prodi. in Italian terms, this government lasted a long time, 2 years, before being narrowly defeated in a vote of confidence in 1998. A new government was put together under the leadership of former communist Massimo D'Alema, but after performing badly in regional elections, he too resigned. Again, the government rearranged itself and this time the president appointed a former prime minister, Giuliano Amato, a social-democrat who had served in the 1st republic.
In 2001 new national elections were held and this time Silvio Berlusconi was returned to power with a new, centre-right coalition called 'Freedom House'. The was made up with Berlusconi's own pary own party, Forza Italia, the National Alliance, the Northern League, the Christian Democratic Center, and the Democrats' Center Union. This government lasted for an unusually long time, until the new elections of 2006 when Romano Prodi was narrowly returned to power. Although he resigned less than a year later, the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, asked him to stay on which he did until he lost a vote of confidence and new elections were called in January 2008.
These elections set the scene for the current political landscape. The main centre-left parties united under 'The Democratic Party' set up by Walter Veltroni, a previous mayor of Rome, and the centre-right parties under 'The People of Freedom Party', led by Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi won the election with what, in Italian terms, was a clear majority.
However, as the Euro crisis gathered momentum towards the end of 2011, and Berlusconi's ability to deliver the necessary reforms was called into doubt, several members of his party withdrew their support during a crucial vote in Parliament leading to his resignation as Prime Minister.
Under Italian consitutional law, the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, put together a new government of European Tecnocrats (i.e. unelected administrators) under the leadership of Mario Monti, an ex-European Commissioner. He hoped that they would have the necessary experience and credibility to calm the volatile financial markets.
The elected polititians, perhaps reluctant to accept the blame for making unpopular decisions, are supporting this development for the time being. However, should that support be withdrawn at any time over the next year, it would immediately lead to new elections.
Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew his support for the Monti government in December 2012, leading to new elections being called in February 2013. During the subsequent election campaign, although initially down in the polls, Berlusconi brought his considerable campaigning experience into play and raised his centre-right coalition's support to equal that of the centre-left.
At the same time, Pier Luigi Bersani, the secretary of the Democratic Party, was criticised for assuming his coalition's victory and did not achieve the support he expected.
Mario Monti, having been persuaded to run for election, received very little support from a population who had been cynical about his policies from the start. His partners in a centrist coalition were voted out of parliament.
The surprise of the election was the huge success of Beppe Grillo's 'Movimento 5 Stelle' (5 Star Movement). Essentially a protest party set up a few years earlier, Grillo has been hugely successful at using social media and web technology to deliver his message to the millions of disinfanchised young people in the country. He accurately targeted the large numbers of Italians frustrated with political corruption, failed policies and the inability of the existing governments to look after the interests of ordinary people and turned his protest movement into a powerful political force in its own right.
The results of the election gave Bersani and the centre-left coalition control of the lower house (due to the rule of awarding extra seats to the party who gains the most votes). The results in the Senate were evenly matched with Bersani gaining a few additional seats over Berlusconi. As the Italian political system requires legislation to be passed in the same form by both houses, this lack of a workable majority in the Senate leaves any centre-left government doomed to paralysis.
Grillo gained just over 25% of the vote, making his the largest individual party in parliament. With the PD and PDL so evenly matched, the '5 Star Movement' holds the balance of power but has so far refused to back any of the available options to form a workable government, prefering to return to the ballot box where they might well win an increased share of the vote.
The fact that 90% of the voters have rejected the policies of the previous technical government appointed by President Napolitano has left him with limited alternative options going forward, other than to allow the democratic process to take its course.
President Napolitano eventually persuaded all of the main parties to join in a Grand coalition to allow the business of government to continue. Beppe Grillo's 'Movimento 5 Stelle' chose to remain outside. Enrico Letta was appointed prime minister to oversee the unlikely alliance.
On 22nd February, 2014, Matteo Renzi was appointed Italy's third Prime Minister in a row to be elected without a general election. Having won the leadership of the Democratic Party (PD) in December 2013, he engineered the collapse of Enrico Letta's fragile government. With the Italian Supreme Court having ruled the existing electoral law to be unconstitutional, Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano was left with little choice but to cobble together yet another coalition while the electoral law was reformed.
Giorgio Napolitano resigned in January 2015, having served a record term of eight and a half years as president. He was succeeded by Sergio mattarella, the first Sicilian to be president.
Riding a wave of popularity, Matteo Renzi decided to stake his political future on extensive political reform. His supporters viewed his plans as the necessary modernisation of an antiquated system but his opponents viewed them as a blatant power grab. Having failed to win the necessary two thirds majority support for his reforms in parliament, Renzi called a referendum.
He lost by a clear margin. There is an old Italian proverb that perhaps he would have done well to heed: "Things will have to change around here in order for them to stay as they are!". Renzi resigned. Mattarella appointed the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, as Prime Minister to oversee changes to electoral law before calling a new general election.