Italy’s political institutions during the period of the ‘First Republic’ have often been considered rather inefficient: this is because they were characterised by heterogeneous coalitions racked by internal strife, unstable cabinets, a cumbersome legislative process and a mass of legislation, consisting mainly of small-scale measures incapable of generating any incisive process of reform even when the country was up against an alarming level of growth in public debt, as was the case in the 1980s. The Italian political system at that time has been rightly described as ‘a highly bargained pluralist democracy with power dispersed across a wide range of arenas’ (Hine 1993: 3). It featured a multiplicity of party-political and institutional veto players, variously distributed across both the centre and the outer fringes of the political arena, both in government and in parliament. Indeed, it was rather difficult to say whether government possessed a ‘core’, and if it

did, where this core lay: whether at Palazzo Chigi, the Prime Minister’s headquarters, or in Piazza del Gesu, headquarters of the Christian Democratic Party (DC); whether within the cabinet, or in the Council of Parliamentary Group Leaders, or in fact in the ‘summits’ held by the leaders of those parties constituting the governmental majority. There are numerous, widely known reasons for this extreme form of

‘consensual politics’ and dispersal of power. The polarised and fragmented party system (Sartori 1976), featuring two diametrically opposed ‘antisystem’ groupings consisting of a much stronger left-wing opposition party (the then Italian Communist Party, PCI), and a smaller, neo-Fascist party (MSI – Italian Social Movement) to the right of government, gave the DC a pivotal role and guaranteed it a perennial position of power. At the same time, its decreasing electoral strength and its lack of internal cohesion, compared with the substantial organisational force of the PCI and that same party’s ability to mobilise vast numbers of supporters, eventually led the DC to adopt pseudo-consociational arrangements with the PCI at the parliamentary level, especially during the 1970s, and to form governing coalitions with a growing number of minor allies. As a consequence, during the final decade of the ‘First Republic’, the government majority consisted of a total of five different parties, all of which were necessary if any kind of majority was to be preserved: two ‘lay’ parties – the Italian Republican Party (PRI) and the Italian Liberal Party (PLI); two socialist parties – the Italian Social Democratic Party (PSDI) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI); and the Catholic DC, which itself was split into a number of different factions. It is also widely acknowledged that this fragmentation of the party-

political system was favoured by a strictly proportional electoral system, while the dispersal of the decision-making process among a variety of arenas was the result of a ‘consensual’ constitutional design. The Italian Constitution grants limited powers to the Prime Minister, while lacking those elements of ‘rationalisation’ that in other European parliamentary democracies strengthen the government’s position vis-a`-vis its parliamentary majority (Bergman et al. 2003: 194). Furthermore, the Constitution provides that two parliamentary chambers with perfectly identical powers vote on motions of confidence in government and may make laws. Subsequent modifications of parliamentary rules and other regulations such as those governing party funding, which occurred in particular during the 1970s, further institutionalised the ‘bargained pluralism syndrome’. As a result of this situation, the leaders of Italy’s governing parties, in the

course of the Republic’s first 50 years, gradually lost their ability to influence public policy guidelines. At the same time, they were able legally to influence appointments to executive management positions in state-controlled industry, as well as, legally or otherwise, the assignment of a substantial number of jobs in a state-controlled sector that was still of vast proportions at the end of the 1980s. While, on the one hand, the Italian system of

government was anything but one of ‘party government’ in the context of the so-called Westminster model, the core institutions, on the other hand, were dominated by the dialectic between the parties, and the parties themselves were strong centres of power insofar as they directly or indirectly controlled the state apparatus (Vassallo 1994). The establishment of a bipolar system saw the demise of a number of

practices adopted during the First Republic, mainly because the new format of elections and the new electoral systems have always attributed the absolute majority of seats in one or both chambers to coalitions formed prior to the elections. Each coalition has also been headed by a leader who is that coalition’s chosen candidate for the premiership. Thus, elections have become decisive, and as a consequence certain features that are characteristic of majoritarian democracies have emerged both within parliament and in the workings of the cabinet. This article analyses the changes in the functioning of the core institutions

(legislature, cabinet and bureaucracy) that have emerged under the new party system since the mid-1990s, and in particular during the second Berlusconi Government. Briefly speaking, the Prime Minister’s position within the cabinet has been strengthened, an adversarial dynamic has emerged within parliament, and government has acquired greater agendasetting powers. The Berlusconi Government (2001-06) benefited from various innovations in institutional arrangements and practices implemented by the centre-left coalition during the previous legislative term. Some of those innovations concern parliamentary regulations and governmentparliament relations, others concern the internal organisation of the executive branch and political control over the senior civil service. However, the permanent fragmentation of each of the main political coalitions into a series of disparate parties, together with the absence of constitutional arrangements able to stabilise governments, have, at the same time, perpetuated certain features of the previous political order.