Liberal Union (Italy)

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Liberal Union
Unione Liberale
Leader Giovanni Giolitti
Other leaders Sidney Sonnino,
Antonio Salandra,
Vittorio Emanuele Orlando,
Luigi Facta
Founded 1913 (1913)
Dissolved 1922 (1922)
Merger of Historical Left
Historical Right
Succeeded by Italian Liberal Party
Headquarters Rome
Ideology Centrism[1]
Classical liberalism
Conservative liberalism
Liberal conservatism[3]
Political position Centre to Centre-right

The Liberal Union (Italian: Unione Liberale),[4] simply and collectively called Liberals (Italian: Liberali), was a political alliance formed in the first years of the 20th century by the Italian Prime Minister and leader of the Historical Left, Giovanni Giolitti.

The alliance was formed when the Left and the Right merged in a single centrist and Liberal coalition which largely dominated the Italian Parliament.


The origins of liberalism in Italy are in the Historical Right, a parliamentary group formed by Camillo Benso di Cavour in the Parliament of the Kingdom of Sardinia following the 1848 revolution. The group was moderately conservative and supported centralised government, restricted suffrage, regressive taxation, and free trade. They dominated politics following Italian unification in 1861 but never formed a party, basing their power on census suffrage and first-past-the-post voting system.

The Right was opposed by the more progressive Historical Left, which overthrew Marco Minghetti's government during the so-called "Parliamentary Revolution" of 1876, which brought Agostino Depretis to become Prime Minister. However, Depretis immediately began to look for support among Rightists MPs, who readily changed their positions, in a context of widespread corruption. This phenomenon, known in Italian as Trasformismo (roughly translatable in English as "transformism"—in a satirical newspaper, the PM was depicted as a chameleon), effectively removed political differences in Parliament, which was dominated by an undistinguished liberal bloc with a landslide majority until after World War I. Two parliamentary factions alternated in government, one led by Sidney Sonnino and the other, by far the largest of the two, by Giovanni Giolitti. At that time the Liberals governed in alliance with the Radicals, the Democrats and, eventually, the Reform Socialists.[5] This alliance governed against two smaller opposition: The Clericals, composed by some Vatican-oriented politicians, The Extreme, formed by the socialist faction which represented a real left in a present-day concept.[5]

Giovanni Giolitti, historical leader of the Liberals.

Giolitti was a master in the political art of Trasformismo, the method of making a flexible, centrist coalition of government which isolated the extremes of the left and the right in Italian politics after the unification. Under his influence, the Liberals did not develop as a structured party. They were instead a series of informal personal groupings with no formal links to political constituencies.[6] The period between the start of the 20th century and the start of World War I, when he was Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior from 1901 to 1914 with only brief interruptions, is often called the Giolittian Era.[7][8]

A left-wing liberal,[7] with strong ethical concerns,[9] Giolitti's periods in office were notable for the passage of a wide range of progressive social reforms which improved the living standards of ordinary Italians, together with the enactment of several policies of government intervention.[8][10] Besides putting in place several tariffs, subsidies, and government projects, Giolitti also nationalized the private telephone and railroad operators. Liberal proponents of free trade criticized the "Giolittian System", although Giolitti himself saw the development of the national economy as essential in the production of wealth.[11]

In the 1913 general election, the Liberals were voted by more than two millions people, with 47.6% of votes and gaining 270 out 508 seats; becoming by far the first party of the country.[12]

In 1915, under the premiership of Antonio Salandra, a member of the right-wing faction of the Liberas, Italy declared war to Austria-Hungary and Germany, entering in the First World War. This decision was against the thought of Liberal leader Giolitti, who was a strong supporter of neutrality. In 1917 a member of the party's left-wing, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, became Prime Minister and during his government, Italy defeated Austria and this earned for Orlando the title "Premier of Victory."

At the end of World War I, universal suffrage and proportional representation were introduced. These reforms caused big problems to the Liberals, which found themselves unable to stop the rise of two mass parties, the Italian Socialist Party and the Italian People's Party, which had taken the control of many local authorities in Northern Italy even before the war. The Italian particularity was that even though the Catholic party opposed the Socialists in accordance with European standards, it was also in contrast with the Liberals and, generally, the Right, under the consequences of the capture of Rome and the struggles between the Holy See and the Italian state which the Liberals had ruled for more than fifty years.

The general election in 1919 saw success for the Socialist Party led by Filippo Turati, which gained the 32.3% of the vote; Giolitti's Liberals came only fifth, with 8.6% of the vote and 41 seats, behind the Italian People's Party of Don Luigi Sturzo, with 20.5%.[12]

The Parliament was thus divided into three different blocks with huge instability, while the Socialists and the rising Fascists instigators of political violence on opposite sides. In this chaotic situation, the Liberals founded the Italian Liberal Party (PLI) in 1922, which immediately joined an alliance led by Fascists and formed with them a joint list for the 1924 general election, transforming the Fascists from a small political force into an absolute-majority party. The PLI was banned by Benito Mussolini in 1925, while many old Liberal politicians were given prestigious, but not influential, political posts, such as seats in the Senate, which was stripped of any real power by Fascist reforms.

Electoral results[edit]

Chamber of Deputies
Election year # of
overall votes
% of
overall vote
# of
overall seats won
+/– Leader
1913 2,387,947 (#1) 47.6
270 / 508
Giovanni Giolitti
1919 490,384 (#5) 8.6
41 / 508
Decrease 229
Giovanni Giolitti

See also[edit]


  1. ^ La stagione del centrismo
  2. ^ Massimo Viceconte (3 June 2010). "Alcuni aspetti della politica di Giolitti: tra liberalismo e democrazia".
  3. ^ "L'Italia dalla crisi di fine secolo all'età giolittiana". Istituto Luigi Sturzo. p. 2.
  4. ^ Gori, Annarita (2014). Tra patria e campanile. Ritualità civili e culture politiche a Firenze in età giolittiana. Franco Angeli Edizioni.
  5. ^ a b Italian Liberal Party Archived 2006-11-21 at the Wayback Machine., Britannica Concise
  6. ^ Amoore, The Global Resistance Reader, p. 39
  7. ^ a b Barański & West, The Cambridge companion to modern Italian culture, p. 44
  8. ^ a b Killinger, The history of Italy, p. 127–28
  9. ^ Coppa 1970
  10. ^ Sarti, Italy: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present, pp. 46–48
  11. ^ Coppa 1971
  12. ^ a b Nohlen, D & Stöver, P (2010) Elections in Europe: A data handbook, p1047 ISBN 978-3-8329-5609-7