From the partitocrazia’s crisis to a new bipolar stability: causes, consequences, and contexts of First Republic’s end in Italy

The unfinished transition from the First to the Second Republic in Italy (1992-1994) was a crucial moment in the country’s history. The multipolar political regime (partitocrazia) that governed Italy since the early moments of the Republic in 1948 collapsed among corruption-related scandals, violations of the political party financing law, economic crisis, referendums, media emancipation, and protests. The First Republic was framed within a Cold War logic: with the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989 a world split into two blocks came to an end and Italy too was impacted by this epochal geopolitical change. Though there were no significant constitutional amendments to formally justify a complete transition, there are three main reasons explaining the transition from the First to the so-called Second Republic. Fist, the weakness of the political parties’ system and the international geopolitical context’s change. Secondly, Mani Pulite’s investigation and the innovations of the judiciary. Finally, the mediatic element and the emancipations with the entry of new characters into politics.

By Amedeo Gasparini*

1989 and its legacies today

2022 marks thirty years since the First Republic’s collapse in Italy. Conventionally, the end of the so-called political parties’ system dates to February 17th, 1992, when Mario Chiesa, a minor Milanese bureaucrat of the Socialist Party (PSI), was arrested while cashing in a bribe, opening the door to an avalanche of corruption scandals’ discovery that swept away the “partitocrazia” (“parties-cracy”) in Italy. However, symptoms of weakness in the political class predate the events that originated “Mani Pulite” (“Clean Hands”) investigation. Though what followed is not constitutionally definable as the Second Republic, considerable changes marked Italian politics from 1994 to the present day. The shift from a bipolar system based on the parties’ dominance to a bipolar system based on the leaders’ personality was a major change in a geopolitically and economically country weakened after 1989. The original causes of the First Republic’s collapse are to be found in Italy’s institutional structure back in 1948. Post-war Italy’s political polarisation consolidated in an awkward stability established after Yalta, according to which, only one part of the political spectrum – that is, the alliance of the moderate parties against the Communist Party (PCI) – would govern.

This balance was kept for almost half a century, and it was democratically legitimized by elections certifying the predominance and supremacy of the Christian Democrats (DC) until 1994. The political stalemate accompanying the economic boom of the 1950s, except for some brief moments in the 1980s, exacerbated the systemic development of a clientelist machine entangling politics and enterprises. This not only harmed the democratic political competition but also the Italian economy and the country’s competitiveness worldwide, not to mention public trust in the political class. Corruption, an old “vizio” (vice) in Italy, infected the national institutions and presented its bill at the end of the Cold War, with the exposure of a system based on bribes between the political class and the civil society. The main crimes alleged during Mani Pulite were a combination of both corruption and the violation of the political party financing law. This was also linked to a statist and clientelist system based on the irresponsible creation of more public debt, which affected the State’s finances. In the long term, this system became anti-economic and unsustainable. After 1989 Italy counted much less on the geopolitical chessboard, thus the conditions were optimal for the partitocrazia’s collapse.

Given the solidity of the bribery-led system and the wide silence surrounding it, the collapse of the political parties’ system was unimaginable until 1992. After the partitocrazia’s collapse due to the short-sightedness of the political class, new stability marking the years of the so-called Second Republic onwards was found from 1994. What remains of the 1992-1994 uncomplete transition? An unfinished passage from one political regime to another without constitutional adjustments or reforms. A judiciary uncritically acclaimed by some media and citizens and vilified by others. A discredited political class incapable of managing a post-1989 transition towards an authentic self-reform. A citizenry both victim and supporter of the corrupted mechanism that first enjoyed the country’s economic boom and then railed against its political class. An economy that was the fifth in the world and then slipped into persistent low growth. After 1992-1994, Italy showed to be unprepared vis-à-vis the challenges of the XXI century. Just after the end of the Cold War, during the 1992-1994 period a new Constitutional Assembly needed to be convened, as it occurred in World War II’s aftermath.

After all, Italy knew what it meant to be on the verge of three worlds: the US, NATO, and Western Europe; the USSR and the Warsaw Pact; and the Third World, with its Non-Aligned Movement. After 1994 Italy achieved new stability, but without addressing the root causes that lead to the collapse of the previous political regime. 1992-1994 could have been a big opportunity for Italy to reform. The political class needed to make discourse of responsibility, addressing corruption and hypocrisies around the political party financing law, promoting an authentic transition to the Second Republic, capable of coping with the new millennium’s challenges. Over the years, there has been much talk of a “political solution” to the issue of illegal party funding, but the fall of the First Republic cannot be reduced only to corruption scandals. The country was affected by deep fatigue since the 1980s. Politics must solve the problems of politics, but citizens must push for change. The debate on a new Republic’s construction that would adjust the distortions since 1948 had to be established under new premises and reforms – the Constitution in Italy itself remained largely unchanged.

Thus, it is incorrect to speak of “First” and “Second” Republic; it would be more accurate to speak of a first and a second phase of the Republic, the latter characterized by a new bipolar, based on leaders’ personalism, economic decline, and lack of political vision. If many Italians continue to embrace a comfortable statist-individualism, as well as the role of the victim and supporter of widespread corruption by tolerating it, this is also due to the 1992-1994 watershed moment and unfinished transition. If after an earthquake there is a rebirth, this was not the case for Italy, where after the Berlin Wall’s fall there has been a slow, creeping gallop towards globalization. The constant breaking of promises at the European level. A non-reformist and inefficient political class. An omnipotent and untouchable judiciary system. An increasingly disillusioned and resentful citizenry, with little desire to look back on its past and incapable of projecting a hopeful future ahead. The First Republic’s collapse does not coincide with the birth of a Second, it only marks the start of a foggy, uncompleted transition. What are the causes, thus the consequences, of this transition?

Three elements determined the downfall of the First Republic. The collapse of the partitocrazia that led Italy from 1948 to a united Europe is one of the main causes of the end of a system born and extinct within the Cold War. The weakness of the political parties’ system – short-sighted and self-referential – clashed with the emergence of a clientelist system that affected almost the entire national political class. Secondly, the Mani Pulite investigation contributed to the dismantling of a political class in crisis, sometimes with unorthodox investigative methods. The clean-up of the inquiry was dutiful, but controversial too; and it was coupled with some innovations of the judiciary, more active and with new tools of criminal procedure. A final element contributing to the collapse was media and popular emancipation. Street protests and the emergence of new political actors facilitated the end of the system that governed Italy for half a century. Understanding these causes and consequences is important to try not to miss the next opportunities to reform the country, the citizenship, and the institutions. And ready to move towards the Second Republic.

(I) Weakness of the political parties’ system and the geopolitical context Collapse

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 imposed a worldwide political rearrangement, and Italy too was affected by this epochal change. Once the Iron Curtain had been shattered, it was no longer necessary for the two blocs, American and Soviet, to directly influence the Western countries. The Christian Democrats and its allies (the Pentapartito, the coalition of five moderate parties including the DC, the Socialist Party, the Republican Party, the Liberal Party, and the Social Democratic Party) saw its international support from Washington fading away, just as the PCI in opposition was orphaned of Moscow’s propaganda and money. With the end of American support and the end of the Iron Curtain, there was a physiological weakening and relaxation of the Italian governing political class. With the Cold War over, there was no longer a need to tackle the PCI, the biggest communist party in Western Europe. Suddenly, the DC – composed by a Catholic electorate, middle-class and bourgeoisie, conservatives – had lost his big rival. The USSR’s end represented not just the end of a political confrontation, but also the exhaustion of the DC’s historical mission. That is the end of its role as moderate pro-West representative, as well as a dam to Soviet influence. The public funding of the parties was intended to be used for the political struggle against the opposition and to maintain political supremacy.

Other funding was provided both by national and international contributors and, illegally, by some entrepreneurs and the SOEs, the State-Owned Enterprises. As the Communist threat was over after 1989, with the First Gulf War the US ventured into new theatres, forgetting European issues. However, the absence of the enemy encompassed the opposition as well. The end of the USSR affected the Communist Party. The USSR began its collapse some years earlier with Mikhail Gorbachev’s arrival: this greatly affected the PCI both nationally and internationally. The 1989 collapse imposed the need to change: the post-Communists were welcomed into the European Parliament under the Socialist umbrella and evolved into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). A more traditional PCI component kept its communist features and opposed the formal abandonment of hammer and sickle by the leader Achille Occhetto. The impact of the Berlin Wall’s collapse was the first condition that weakened the whole Italian political parties’ system, both government and opposition, opening the frontiers to a new world, which made the illegal financing of parties more evident.


Due to the Cold War’s geopolitical stalemate, the Italian national political landscape remained unchanged for almost fifty years. This made the governing parties and the opposition used to the acting roles decided in Yalta, validated by the domestic political elections. The Christian Democrats and the center parties governed with a strong majority in Parliament, while the Communists sat in the opposition. Despite Italy changing government every eleven months on average, this scheme helped shape stability in Italy. The governing parties got used to the power they had wielded since 1948. Although there were forty-one executives till 1994, the Italian political system was stuck, and this helped the ruling class assume an attitude of untouchability and impunity; sheltered from the idea of inquiries and major court cases around corruption or the political party financing law’s violations. During the First Republic, several corruption cases were uncovered, but they were either dismissed or archived and had no big or systemic political significance. The idea of being untouchable, the hubris, the arrogance of the political class resulted in many excesses and corruption, financed public debt skyrocketed. A sense of impunity depleted the democratic institutions, and the relations between politics and illegal financing of the political activity undermined the electoral process’ transparency.

Some exponents of the governing parties gave themselves to a grotesque representation of untouchability over the years. Crazy expenses and bribes were made not to “fight Communism”, but to enrich personally or to sponsor the party. Particularly at the First Republic’s twilight, much of the political class was blinded with arrogance and a sense of impunity which allowed corruption to further dilate itself among the middle bureaucracy. Many citizens, both victims, and supporters of this system were willing to forgive the excesses of the political class – also because many were beneficiaries of the clientelist system and the distribution of the proceeds of what would soon be one of the biggest public debts. However, when bribes were also demanded in small activities and businesses, many citizens found this unacceptable. The political class did not realize that after 1989 getting illicit financing was no longer politically acceptable. The arrogance of many politicians prevented them from understanding the historical change that was taking place. The political class afflicted itself with euthanasia: a suicide dictated by the inability to understand that the world changed and thus the Italian traditional political systems and way of financing needed to change as well. As the Kingdom of France in 1793, 1993 in Italy was a year of terror for the political class.


The increasingly systematic bribe was perfected through an illegal relationship between a part of business and a part of the political class. Small and large companies had ties with politics, both locally and nationally. The official excuse justifying illegal financial flows was the necessary financing of democracy, but often it was a quid pro quo between actors. On the one hand, entrepreneurs bribed politicians to get public contracts or favors. On the other hand, politicians made pressure to obtain funding for themselves or the party in exchange for the elimination of market competition. It is difficult to say who started this illegal relationship. Sometimes it was the entrepreneur who spontaneously paid the politician. Sometimes it was the latter who put pressure on the entrepreneurial class. Over the years, this multilateral, anti-market, anti-merit, and criminal system annihilated competition in many economic sectors. For many, paying a bribery was the way to avoid having troubles with the Public Administration, which often sets Bourbonic bureaucratic obstacles.

This system, however, was not only within the upper echelons of politics but entailed many sectors in Italian society. With the judicial inquiries in the early 1990s, Milan was rebaptized “Tangentopoli” (“Bribesville”). The system of corruption extended from the top to the bottom of Italian society. However, in the early 1990s, many companies, particularly small enterprises, could not afford to pay the duty anymore. Although the illicit and corrupt system between business and the political parties’ system benefited both sides, many entrepreneurs grew tired of paying bribes to politicians due also to the economic crisis. On a geopolitical level, the early 1990s saw a Gulf War that led to a rise in oil prices, which cascaded on Western business. Paying a bribe had become untenable. The Lira was a week and under attack in the stock market: this tested the clientelist pact between entrepreneurs and politicians. This weariness would later translate into long queues in front of the Milanese Procura (Prosecutor Office) to denounce this fatigued system during the Mani Pulite investigation.


The lack of political turnover and alternation between parties was the reason for Italy’s attachment to the Western world, but also sclerosis and degeneration of the national political system. The arrogance of a system stabilized by bribes and violations of the political party financing law promoted a system that suited both the majority and the opposition. The PCI was less exposed to corruption opportunities, for the simple reason it was in the opposition and had limited political power. However, some of its members got involved in mostly local corruption scandals and resisted more than the other governing parties electorally. During the First Republic, politics in Italy was stable also due to the bribe-led system and the international legitimization. On the one hand, one bloc guaranteed institutional continuity within the Cold War’s polar logic. On the other, the systemic pressures on Italy weakened the country and made it vulnerable. For this reason, the government composition did not entail major political replacements or inclusions and systematized the corruption. The elections’ outcome (DC first and PCI second) remained a foregone conclusion for decades and this prevented the political class from reforming itself and correcting distortions.

And it prevented the opposition from finding alternative and reformist proposals to give a valid alternative to a country that was non-communist for two-thirds of its electorate. Thus, the whole political parties’ system felt untouchable, and no need to reform. The healthy and democratic turnover from the majority to the opposition was impossible due to Yalta’s logic. The impossibility of having a communist party at the government in a Western country (“conventio ad excludendum”) was exploited by the moderate ruling classes to take advantage and abuse their power position. The DC and its allies strengthened the partitocrazia within the institutions also because of the impossibility of political change. Hence the increase in opportunities for thievery often concealed behind the political justification to raise money to “save Italy from Communism”. The political system’s ossification was specular to the absence of a political replacement and alternation, while it consolidated a system that had taken the State as a hostage to buy the electorate’s consensus. Few had advantages in interrupting the clientelist system between a part of the political class and part of the business.


The President of the Republic in Italy has always been a guarantee of stability. Each Head of State had his way to interpret the role entrusted to him in compliance with the Constitution during troublesome moments of crisis, both economic and political. This was not the case for President Francesco Cossiga, who at the beginning of his mandate was rather silent and aligned with his party, the Christian Democrats. Cossiga was elected in 1985. A few weeks later, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the Kremlin, and the world started moving towards the slow dissolution of Cold War bipolarity. Cossiga carefully watched and understood the international events, but in the early stages of his mandate, he was not an interventionist president. However, he later underwent a metamorphosis, as he understood before anyone else what the Berlin Wall’s fall would mean for the political class and the country. Thus, in his controversial and straightforward way, he sponsored the necessity of reformism to keep pace with the geopolitical events that changed the world.

From the Quirinal Palace, he began to “picconare” (“picketing”) the political system, both the government and the opposition, but also the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura (High Council of the Judiciary), on the necessary reforms following the world order’s change. A man of the secret services, former Prime Minister, and the shadowy figure of the First Republic, his “picconate” intended to warn the political class about the consequences of the 1989 events and what this would mean for Italy. In 1991 he sent a message to the Parliament stressing the necessity to reform politics and parties, but all this fell on deaf ears. His vibrant attempts to underline political changes and his attacks on both the executive and judiciary system earned him rebukes from anyone. Although he belonged to the left-wing current in the DC, Cossiga came down hard on the opposition: there were very tense relations between him and the Communists. The unconventional picconate was deliberately ignored but weakened the partitocrazia.


With the Cold War’s end, the necessity of consolidating heterogeneous political souls within tent parties (DC and PCI) came to an end. As they reflected the necessity to align the national politics with the international settlement, the parties tended to stay united, and no party scissions were tolerated. With the end of the bipolar world, the Italian parties started to be less cohesive and showed early symptoms of collapse due to the heterogeneity of visions (left and right in the DC, left and far left in the PCI). Micro-parties once included in the current of the major political parties learned to live together in the First Republic, but after 1989 they left their tent parties. On the one hand, some wanted to turn back the clock of history and return to the glorious ideological past. On the other hand, some decided to leave their party and embrace the changing circumstances. These two schools helped to weaken both government and opposition.

DC and PCI did not fully understand the reasons for the defections in the early 1990s and did not know how to give convincing answers to new aspiring leaders. Two examples of the two schools were Rifondazione Comunista and La Rete, respectively. The birth of new parties was part of the decline in support for the traditional ones. Thus, some decided to fill that void by looking backward (Rifondazione), others forward (La Rete). The foundation of the new communist political entity after the global bankruptcy of Communism came about following a rift within the PCI leadership. A more “orthodox” component disagreed with the transition from PCI to PDS and formed a new party. On the other hand, the DC too saw the split of one of its young exponents. Leoluca Orlando’s La Rete wrested some votes from the party, but the real revolution was the 1991 referendum of Mario Segni which undermined the Christian Democrats’ solidity. However, the affirmation of La Rete and Segni’s referendums represented the need to respond to the crisis of the political parties’ system.


Despite the optimism and growth of the 1980s – which then resulted in excessive inflation and multiplication of public debt – the Italian economy began to face pitfalls in the early 1990s. Industrial production collapsed by four percent from 1992 to 1993. The foreign balance of payments had a deficit of ninety thousand billion Lire in 1990. The currency was very weak and exposed to speculative attacks. In 1992, the deficit was over ten percent of GDP, much higher than the parameters that were to be set in the Maastricht Treaty (and that Italy subscribed to), as was the debt-to-GDP ratio (well over sixty percent). The entrance in the common European currency a few years later was the result of political pressure and strategic move to englobe Italy in the European project, despite Italy entering the single currency in open violation of the rules. Italy’s inclusion in the Euro-system (the late 1990s) and the embryo of the future EU (early 1990s) encompassed the necessity of budgetary rigor, which the country weakened by the system of bribery and clientelism was not used to.

With the separation of the Treasury and the Bank of Italy in the 1980s, politicians have confiscated the possibility of printing money – which resulted in inflation’s surges and the country’s lack of credibility abroad. This was crucial, as it imposed the independence of monetary policy, no longer in the hands of politicians who largely used the public expenditure to buy political consensus. This reform, however, did not prevent the deterioration of public finances in the early 1990s and the impellent need for privatizations, which also led to general discontent. A major event that weakened Italy was also the 1992 speculation that forced the country to leave the European Monetary System, further deepening the political crisis after the early start of Mani Pulite. At that time, it was too late to reform a system that massively and inefficiently used public spending. The bill came due in the early 1990s, in a country about to be shaken by the exposure of Tangentopoli’s system.

(II) Mani Pulite investigations and the innovations in the judiciary


Mani Pulite’s investigations shook both the political landscape of Italy. It was the cause and the consequence of the end of a system of power. The investigation sparked in February 1992 from Chiesa’s arrest spread like wildfire over the whole political parties’ system. The Milanese judiciary starting the inquiring enjoyed strong support from the protest movements and discredit for parties and leaders. Many of these felt defenseless vis-à-vis judiciary activities in the early 1990s. During the First Republic, the judiciary played essential roles in the fight against terrorism and organized crime. However, the causes of corruption it persecuted, did not result in systemic political downfalls. On the contrary, during the early Mani Pulite years, it seemed that the Milanese Procura had become Italy’s regent, replacing both government and parliament. However, do not forget that the political class convicted in the 1990s was the result of a partitocrazia that destroyed itself due to its short-sightedness and greed for money and power – this helped the Procura investigate more easily. In the First Republic, the judiciary was as if asleep in the surveillance of the political system’s legality.

Not that the judiciary had to arbitrarily intervene, but the apparent sleepiness they seemed to be subjected to in the First Republic’s era is confirmed by the great interventionism in the 1990s. This destabilized a fatigued post-Cold War political system. After the start of the prosecutors’ pool in Milan, by imitation, many public prosecutors in Italy awoke and started to connect the dots between entrepreneurs and politicians. The activism of the judiciary in the 1990s was important in dismantling the partitocrazia’s regime. It would be inaccurate to say that the judiciary was entirely silent during the First Republic, but many were surprised by the simultaneous opening of investigations that contributed to the political system’s collapse in 1992. Socio-political conditions had changed. During the Cold War, the ruling political class could not be put on trial. As soon as the Tangentopoli system was exposed, the Milanese judiciary made inroads into an exhausted political class. A society with omnipotent politics and a weak judiciary is on a par with a society with weak politics and an omnipotent judiciary: it denotes a strong institutional imbalance that harms institutions and the State.


The willpower and stubbornness of Antonio Di Pietro – Mani Pulite’s frontman prosecutor who opened the first act of the investigation by arresting Chiesa – was a capital element for the 1992-1994 transition. Tonino demonstrated resistance, determination, and leadership in his investigations on the emerging political scandals. The caterpillar-like action of the prosecutor controversially encompassed induced confessions by politicians and entrepreneurs involved. Di Pietro had important intuitions for the unhinging of the corrupt system, which helped understand the large-scale involvement of all the national parties in the investigations. Di Pietro invented the concept of “dazione ambientale” (“environmental bribe”, systemic corruption) and “fascicolo virtuale” (“virtual dossier”, a database collecting pieces of investigations). While carrying out investigations leading to the partitocrazia’s downfall, Di Pietro established a synergy between the bodies of the State.

He created a “squadretta” (“team”) made up of the judicial, financial, and urban police, and the Carabinieri. This team allowed the bodies of the State to talk to each other and act in synergy when carrying out arrests and investigations. Di Pietro had been informally working on the discovery Tangentopoli system for some years, well before the Chiesa case. Finally, Tonino was spectacularly exalted by the crowds under the Palace of Justice in Milan during 1992-1993 period. He enjoyed courtesan media attention and praise, which prompted his popularity and will to carry on with the investigations. The popularity of the investigation and the zealous, adulatory, coral support that Tonino enjoyed helped to dismantle the partitocrazia and was also coupled with a harsh critique of involved politicians, notably some top members of the Pentapartito. Di Pietro’s deep commitment helped the investigation to develop more than anyone would have previously expected.


From the mid-1980s, with the opening of the USSR and the first hints of globalization, informatic began to play relevant roles within society and not just in defense and strategic fields. Using centralized information with databases proved to be a powerful way of organizing and dividing work. It improved the quality of anyone’s work while putting the informatic code into the daily activities of States activities. The development of IT was also applied to the judicial branch in Italy, which helped the cross-investigations. The use of the new systems and codes allowed connections and communications not only between prosecution offices, helping the action’s capillarity of the judiciary against the political-business system. Coupled with his brusque methods, Di Pietro himself had the intuit to strategically use IT. The 1991 “Duomo Connection” investigation gave the early signs of the use of informatics in the trials.

The binary code of informatics was consolidated in the Public Administration at the end of the 1990s. However, at the end of the 1980s another code, this time the new Code of Criminal Procedure, helped bring down the parties’ system, facilitating the prosecutors’ work. The 1988 Vassalli-Pisapia Code entailed important innovations, including the transition from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system. This was a revolution of the judiciary, as the previous code, the 1930 Rocco Code, came from the Fascist age. The change of rite brought about several revolutions that allowed the judiciary to work more effectively when prosecuting, strengthening the position of the public prosecutor, making this role more central and active. Without these two new codes – IT and the Vassalli-Pisapia – Mani Pulite would have not taken the dimensions it took.


The Milanese Procura’s detractors denounce the massive use of pre-trial detention as a tool to entice the defendants to confess the criminal networks and ties. In doing so, they explain, the prosecutors would have abused pre-trial detention to stimulate confessions from businessmen and politicians. Others defend the work of the prosecutors, arguing there was no abuse of the pre-trial detention, explaining that the operations were legally carried out, in observance of the three conditions of the pre-trial detention – reiteration, escape, or evidence pollution. Probably, a mix of the two versions is true. While pre-trial detention was justified in several cases, it was not necessary for some others. Correct use of pre-trial detention for serious crimes was sometimes accompanied by nonchalance. Frightened by Chiesa’s arrest and afraid to go to jail, businessmen rushed to the prosecutors to denounce the scandals they were part of. The network of confessions called others into the cause, and these latter were thus encouraged to confess their crimes and implicate others.

The extent to which these confessions were induced by Mani Pulite’s pool is hard to say. The prosecutors have been able to use the new Code of Criminal Procedure and computerized data cross-referencing to facilitate confessions. Certainly, the prospect of a stay in prison invited the suspects to spill the beans. There is a Manichean division between those who claim there was torture to induce people to speak out via the threat of pre-trial jail’s perspective and those who claim that the legal framework was respected by the prosecutors. However, it was via the confessions that the investigation spread like wildfire. Backed up by most of the media – which too often forgot the suspects’ habeas corpus – the investigations proceeded as dutifully as controversially, with occasional excesses. But no major international proceedings were launched on Mani Pulite investigations over alleged human rights violations. This, on the other hand, does not exclude episodic “easy handcuffs”, albeit in compliance with codes and laws.

(III) The mediatic aspect and the new emancipations


In the late 1980s and early 1990s manifestations broke out all over Europe. From Berlin to Moscow, people took the streets to follow geopolitical events. In Italy, protests were rooted in the productive North of the country, due to excessive tax burden and minor political power in Rome. The outbreak of protests due to the discovery of Tangentopoli and the support of the Milanese pool was coupled with the identity- and fiscal-led protests. The electoral increase of a new protest movement that wanted to delegitimize the partitocrazia, the Northern League, was decisive in driving many voters away from the moderate parties, but also in giving voice to new demands of fiscal and territorial autonomy. The North-South economic divide, the excessive tax pressure, the denunciation of “Roma ladrona” (“thieving Rome”) were among the League’s concerns. The Northern protest was embodied by Umberto Bossi, the League’s leader. The demands of a productive North, he explained, were not listened to in Rome. There, big SOEs predominated, while the voice of small and medium North-based enterprises was unheard.

The working classes too, previously monopolized by the PCI, lost faith in the Communists and started to vote for the League, which got eight percent in the April 1992 elections. In the deep North, the appeal to traditions and early globalization-fatigue played a role as well in fueling the protests. Fand with some reason, as from the second half of the 1980s, the North was politically unrepresented. This contributed to destabilize the national unity, as the DC’s leadership southernized (Ciriaco De Mita, Paolo Cirino Pomicino, Giuseppe Gargani, Vincenzo Scotti, Antonio Gava, Nicola Mancino, Gerardo Bianco, Antonio Maccanico). Few at the top of Roman politics understood the new urgencies rooted in a fatigued North, and this exacerbated the crisis of the traditional political parties’ system in this part of the country. The feeling of being forgotten by the central government was ridden by the League’s protests, further discrediting the traditional partitocrazia. Later, these protests entangled with the support of the Procura and Mani Pulite investigations.


The role of television during years Mani Pulite’s years was crucial in creating a public opinion that was no longer silent towards the political class. The role of the image of politicians in handcuffs and their depositions in the 1993 Cusani trial split the public debate. On the one hand, those who considered the whole political class guilty no matter what. On the other, those complaining about unfair political trials and alleged abuses of the pre-trial detention. Already in the 1980s, the media personalizations of Bettino Craxi and Umberto Bossi, the “Milano da bere” lifestyle, and Francesco Cossiga’s picconate, helped conduct the public towards new ways of digesting iconic images linked to political events and figures. The newspapers’ support for Mani Pulite was almost choral. Only a few decided to go against the tide and defend the old political system. On the other hand, it was impossible to hide the news on the arrests. Newspaper copies and tv audiences skyrocketed during Mani Pulite. Citizens, readers, and listeners no longer wanted just the written word, but also the image and the narration around the stories. Arnaldo Forlani’s frothing at the mouth in the Cusani trial, the doubts of the former minister Gianni De Michelis, and Craxi’s brilliant oratory are all images that have been well analyzed by the media and aimed at contributing to the de-sacralization of a political system.

Many reporters of the time were young, enthusiastic, and inexperienced, and often exceeded with the zeal to support Mani Pulite. The notice of investigation issued by the Procura was interpreted by the citizens as an irrevocable condemnation a priori of suspects. Hence, the crowd’s fury against the political class and the exaggerated and unbalanced support for the Milanese prosecutors. During the 1992-1994 period there has been the emancipation of media both newspapers and televisions from the parties’ longa manus. With the end of the stability generated by the end of consolidated geopolitical and national arrangements (Pentapartito vs. PCI), many media and journalists felt freer to report on judicial and political matters. In the First Republic’s last years, there was a generalized media emancipation. The confidence in dealing with judicial matters that led to the collapse of the political class was carried out by many journalists in the certainty of having most of the public on their side. Eventually, the trials’ dynamics were dramatically inflated by pre-mediatic convictions.


Orlando left the DC to create his party; Segni remained within the party but was a nuisance to many because of the referendums he promoted. The first one was on the electoral law, in 1991. This referendum asked the electorate to scrapple the number of preferences’ system and the electors voted massively in favor. Another referendum followed in 1993: the one on the political party financing law’s repealing was the most important of the turnout and most of the people voted in favor. The 1991 referendum was an unequivocally signal to the political class as it encompassed modernization on the mechanisms for electing political representation: from proportional to the majoritarian electoral mechanism. Some say this has been the only element of transition from the First to the Second Republic. Translated into the Mattarella Law, the majoritarian uninominal electoral model was adopted in August 1993 and pinned down the theoretical premises of a new bipolar system.

Already crippled by Mani Pulite investigations and lack of reformism, centrist parties were doomed to disappear. The referendums gave a strong popular impetus and helped to develop intolerance of the population towards the political class. Segni’s referendum battles just after the Cold War were highly successful and legitimized some changes leading to the so-called Second Republic – however, it was not a constitutional amendment, thus this definition is simplistic. The 1991 referendum laid the groundwork for the advent of a bipolar era based on the majoritarian system in contradistinction to the proportional one, typical from the First Republic. The 1993 referendum abolished the public financing of parties that had lasted for years; this was the result of the anti-political sentiment of Mani Pulite’s years. The referendums’ results represented the need to change the political system and the electoral mechanism. Having won the referendums, Segni decided to embark on the political path to give substance to the change most voters expressed. However, as he was not a mediatic figure, he was politically unsuccessful, and in the 1994 elections new figures emerged.

Il Cavaliere

Silvio Berlusconi’s entry into politics in January 1994 was the event that most of all links the end of an old post-Cold War world with the beginning of a new globalized one. The tycoon’s arrival on the desert political field accompanied a change in political communication and a distancing from the old partitocrazia. At the same time, Berlusconi presented himself as the defender of the moderate parties trying to recuperate their legacy after the Mani Pulite investigations. Berlusconi’s televisions actively supported the investigation in its early stages. Many Christian Democrats, socialists, liberals, and republicans were politically orphans of their traditional parties extinct during Mani Pulite and thus looked favorably on a successful businessman who proposed himself both as a new figure of the political panorama and a restaurateur of the pre-Mani Pulite era. Berlusconi’s arrival was the final element that concluded a post-Cold War season of change to open another. His descent into the political field is the closing of a cycle that began with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the political class, the prominence of the judiciary and the media, and the attempts of new actors to give a new voice to the changing society and instances in the late 1980s.

Berlusconi and Antiberlusconism dictated the political life in Italy in the twenty-five years that followed. The grand electoral marketing operation he deployed in 1994 was carefully planned and naturally absorbed the traditional political class. In 1994, the “Cavaliere” defeated the left-wing post-Communist PDS – the only party that survived Mani Pulite’s purge along with the League and the far-right Italian Social Movement. He allied with these two latter and won the last elections of the First Republic and the first of the Second Republic for many reasons. He raised the specter of Communism, no longer a threat to the West, but still a symbol of fear for many. He told he was inspired by the international champions of freedom, such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and their successful liberal conservatism. He spoke in a marketing agent-like, inclusive, and charismatic manner. He promoted his image as a new man in the vacuum left by the old parties. He simplified his political message to speak to previously unrepresented categories ranging from housewives to small businessmen. Berlusconi’s arrival helped to bury the partitocrazia, creating a new bipolar contemplating the center-right and center-left alternation. New stability in a new post-Cold War era and early globalization.

Wasted time and missed opportunities

The reasons for the First Republic’s collapse can be attributed to three macro-causes. The first is the weakness of the partitocrazia and the geopolitical context’s change. The Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 blew up the international arrangements. Due to its arrogance, hubris, and short-sightedness, the Italian political class ended up being indicted for corruption and violation of the political party financing law. The lack of change in government leadership and the Head of State’s demands for reform exacerbated the parties’ crisis. Defections of new micro-parties from the tent parties, as well as a State-run and debt-ridden economy, weakened the country. As for the second macro-cause, the Mani Pulite investigation wiped out almost the entire political class and had an easy time of it because of the systemic weaknesses mentioned above. To expand the prosecutions, the Milanese pool used pre-trial detention and the network of confessions. With the initiative of individual prosecutors, the choral awakening after many years of the judiciary, the arrival of informatic code, and the new Code of Criminal Procedure, the investigation easily took systemic dimensions.

The last cause has to do with the media, society, and the new emancipations. The protests in Northern Italy based on fiscal and identity grounds were mixed with popular support for the prosecutors during Mani Pulite, prompting public distrust towards the political class and the institutions. Media emancipation and excessive attention for certain suspects and their exposure to the media pillory was quite unprecedented in the Republican history. Finally, the referendums and the new electoral law, the transition from a proportional to a majoritarian system, and the arrival of new political actors gave the final blow to the dying First Republic. One cannot understand the 1992-1994 collapse without considering the geopolitical context. Italy passed from a multipolarity led by the traditional parties (the partitocrazia) to a de-ideologized bipolarity led by single leaders. The collapse of the political parties’ system did not occur in other countries of Europe, where on the contrary new parties were being flourished from 1989 onwards, especially beyond the former Iron Curtain.

The post-Cold War era did not suggest to the political class a serious reform of the parties financing law. This exacerbated the bribery opportunities of those politicians who gave themselves over to personal enrichment, mainly dictated by a sense of impunity. However, the issue of financing political activity persists. Corruption is rooted in Italy and the new political class that replaced the old one from 1994 onwards has not given credible answers to such problems. No serious and un-partisan examination of conscience of what happened during the Mani Pulite era or that led to the disappearance of a political class has been carried out in Italy. In the aftermath of the partitocrazia’s downfall, many citizens felt relieved of responsibility for the systemic bribe-led system. The First Republic’s collapse due to the three macro-elements outlined above represented the opportunity to examine the country’s flaws, addressing the deep problems in Italian society. This would have led to the authentic Second Republic together with constitutional changes that never took place.

While conducting dutifully investigations and trials against corrupt officials, politicians, and intermediaries, after the Cold War’s end, a new Constituent Assembly was to be convened to rewrite the rules of the game, to expose national hypocrisies, to give Italy greater dynamism and international competitiveness, to solve the issue of the party financing law, and to reform the democratic institutions towards a lighter state. Thirty years after Mani Pulite three decades of absence of significant political reforms have concluded. Unlike collectivist-autocracies, liberal-democracies require both citizens and politicians to take responsibility while acting in society. With the Cold War’s end, it would have been appropriate to carry out a major individual examination of conscience before the history of the country’s illness. Understanding one’s own time and geopolitical phenomena are the ruling class’ responsibility; watching over the political class is the citizens’ responsibility. Both must assume their responsibilities so as not to waste any future opportunities to reform the country.


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*Amedeo Gasparini, class 1997, freelance journalist and researcher, managing “Blackstar”, MA in “International Relations” (Univerzita Karlova, Prague); BSc in “Science of Communication” (Università della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano)

Photo: Bettino Craxi, all’anagrafe Benedetto Craxi, è stato un politico italiano, Presidente del Consiglio dei ministri dal 4 agosto 1983 al 18 aprile 1987 e Segretario del Partito Socialista Italiano dal 16 luglio 1976 all’11 febbraio 1993.