Rome – An economic powerhouse plagued by unstable politics, European football champions unable to qualify for the World Cup – Italy is a country of contradictions.
Here are five things to know about the European Union member state ahead of Sunday’s general elections:
Governments come and go
There have been 67 governments led by 29 different leaders since Italy was declared a republic in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II.
The most recent is Mario Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief parachuted in to lead a coalition government in February 2021 as Italy grappled with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has served the longest as prime minister, with 3 291 days in power over four different governments between 1994 and 2011.
The shortest term was Fernando Tambroni, who hung on for just 115 days in 1960.
Alcide De Gasperi holds the record in terms of governments led – eight between 1945 and 1953.
Giant with feet of clay
Italy is the third-largest economy and the second-largest industrial power in the EU’s single currency area, the eurozone.
But it is the only European country where wages fell between 1990 and 2020, according to the OECD, mainly due to weak growth and productivity.
There is also no national minimum wage.
The employment rate for women stands at just 55.4 percent, compared with an average of 69 percent in the eurozone (74.6 percent in Germany and 70 percent in France).
There is still a vast gap between the rich north, with its wealth of small- and medium-sized family-run businesses, and the south, blighted by poverty and high unemployment.
Italy’s unemployment rate, at 7.9 percent, remains well above that of the eurozone average, which stood at 6.6 percent in July.
The country is also saddled with a colossal debt of more than 2.7 trillion euros — that is around 150 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the highest ratio in the eurozone after Greece.
‘Japan of Europe’
Nicknamed the “Japan of Europe”, Italy is the oldest country in the EU, with an average age of 47.6 years old, according to the bloc’s Eurostat agency.
With a falling birth rate (1.25 children per woman in 2021) combined with a rising life expectancy (82.4 years), the peninsula could see its population fall from 60 to 47.6 million by 2070, a loss of 20 percent.
The country is also facing a brain drain, with young people leaving to work abroad.
These factors jeopardise both the country’s financing of its pension system and its health coverage, according to national statistic institute ISTAT.
NATO ally and friend to Russia
Italy, which has been part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since its creation in 1949, hosts several NATO military bases, including in Naples, Sigonella in Sicily and Aviano in the north.
It has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February, under the leadership of Draghi. But Rome has traditionally nurtured friendly relations with Moscow.
Ex-prime minister Berlusconi treated Russian President Vladimir Putin as a friend, while his ally Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigration League party, has previously worn T-shirts featuring Putin’s face and has criticised sanctions against Moscow.
But Giorgia Meloni, their coalition partner and leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party – which is leading in the polls – supports both sanctioning Russia and sending arms to Kyiv.
European champions denied World Cup
After a humiliating 0-1 loss to North Macedonia in March, Italy’s national football team — Euro champions last year — will miss the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
Serie A was the best league in the world until the early 2000s, but is attracting fewer and fewer stars.
Failing to make the cut was even more painful because Italy sat out the last World Cup in 2018, following a defeat against Sweden that would be remembered as “the Apocalypse”.