Introduction Empirical research on party membership is a tradition in Italy. This is mainly due to the historic role played by mass-based political parties – such as Christian Democracy (DC) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) – within Italian society, at least until the 1990s. DC and PCI corresponded to the ideal type of the mass party model described by Neumann (1951) or Duverger (1954). Given the pillarized features of Italian society during the 20th century, where political cleavages played a crucial role in shaping social and political behaviour, parties have been (and partially still are) also central social and political actors. In fact, during the so-called First Republic (1945-1992), voting behaviour was characterized by strong party loyalty, due to the ideological encapsulation of the electorate and the presence of strong political subcultures – Catholic, Communist, Socialist, laic (Liberal and Republican), Neo-fascist and, up to the early 1950s, Monarchic. Italy has been often described as an ideal-type of particracy (Panebianco 1995), characterized by (weak) civic culture, multiple political cleavages, a multi-party system, government instability, a high degree of party patronage, and party interference in all circuits of decision-making (De Winter et al. 1996). Until the end of the First Republic mass parties had a huge impact on the government and even society as a whole. ‘From the cradle to the grave’ was the logic managing the relationship between parties and their supporters. The party was present on the ground, active and involved in citizens’ lives. 1
However, since the 1960s, the Italian party system has been characterized by high levels of political fragmentation and instability (La Palombara 1989). This phase reached its peak and came to an end in the early 1990s, when the old power system of the traditional parties collapsed following a series of nation-wide corruption scandals and judicial investigations (Bardi and Morlino 1994; Bardi 2002). The new electoral laws, the emergence of new political actors such as the Northern League (LN) and Berlusconi’s party, and the strategic use of political communication have deeply affected the internal organization of political parties and their relationship with members. During the Second Republic – inaugurated with the 1994 parliamentary election – new, personalized, leader-centred parties emerged and adopted new organizational models. Parties nowadays are more centred on
the leaders than on traditional bureaucratic structures and the involvement of the grassroots in campaigning and other activities.