Italy is one of the great success stories of the post–World War II era. Indeed, a massive transformation of the country’s economy and society has taken place over the past 60 years. By the end of the twentieth century, a nation that in 1958 was the least developed of the six founding members of the European Community had achieved an economic miracle based on a distinctive brand of entrepreneurial development. It had become one of the world’s leading industrial countries. Its reputation for fashion, food, and flair was second to none. It is today a member of the elite Group of Eight industrialized nations.
Yet, even as the outside world’s image of Italy has improved over the years, a number of fundamental problems have remained persistent features of the national landscape. Italians have always been inclined to self-criticism and self-doubt. But increasingly outsiders, too, have experienced exasperation at the country’s shortcomings, real and imagined. The fall of Romano Prodi’s 20-month-old government in January, after the prime minister lost a vote of confidence in the Senate, was only the latest example of political dysfunction. Today, Italy faces a range of acute and pressing challenges. Many Italians fear that these pose a threat to their country’s prosperity and wellbeing. The citizens also question their political leadership’s capacity to address the challenges, which stem largely from ongoing political, economic, and demographic trends.