In December of 2019, the Italian government dissolved the municipal government of the Calabrian town of Africo, replacing it with a national governmentk commission that would run the city for the next 12 to 24 months. This drastic action, decried by (former) Africo city councilor Nicola Paris as “interrupting democracy,” was authorized by a special Italian law, adopted in 1991, that permits the national government to dissolve a local government if that local government has been infiltrated by the mafia. Since 1991, 341 such dissolution decrees have been issued (though 21 were cancelled by administrative courts), with 22 issued in 2019-2020 alone. Sixty-six communities have seen their local government dissolved more than once. (Africo’s city council, for example, has now been dissolved three times.) And the practice is spreading geographically. Between 1991 and 2011, the vast majority of city council dissolutions were in the three regions under the “traditional” sphere of mafia control (Campania, Calabria, and Sicily), with only three dissolutions outside of those regions. But since 2011, the Italian government has dissolved city councils in 21 municipalities outside of that traditional sphere.
The dissolution of city councils is a serious measure, and is strictly regulated. The process begins when concrete evidence emerges of links between town councilors and organized criminal elements that could bias political decision-making or affect public security. This evidence is submitted to the Prefecture, an administrative body responsible for implementing state functions at the local level. The Prefecture appoints a three-person Committee of Inquiry. After an investigation, which usually takes roughly 3-6 months, the Committee presents its findings to the Prefect, who presents them to the Minister of Interior within 45 days. The Minister of Interior, after deliberating with the Council of Ministers, then decides whether to issue a proposal of dissolution; a dissolution is only finalized when the President of the Republic issues a decree of resolution. The issuance of such a decree is judicially reviewable by the administrative courts (and, as noted above, 21 dissolution orders have been judicially nullified). When a municipal government is dissolved, the mayor, councilors, and members of the executive committee are removed from office, and a group of three individuals, known as the Extraordinary Commission, takes over all council activities for a period of up to two years. At the end of this time, new local elections are held.
Even with all of this process, dissolution of a local government is an extreme measure, but in Italy, where deeply-entrenched organized criminal groups are able to secure their control thorough corruption of local governments, such an extreme response is warranted. Indeed, other countries struggling with similar problems might consider adopting a similar mechanism.
The great advantage of giving the central government the power to dissolve those municipal governments that have been thoroughly corrupted by organized crime—and a prerequisite for the appropriateness of such a mechanism—is that central government agencies (and other administrative bodies like the prefectures) are overall much less vulnerable to mafia corruption and infiltration than are local governments. Such a mechanism is especially valuable when the mafia groups are so strong in the local jurisdiction, and corruption of the local government so extensive, that even honest local officials would have little or no recourse for exposing corruption through local channels (not least because of the mafia groups’ violent threats against those who might consider trying to expose their infiltration). The severity of dissolution as a remedial response also has an important symbolic value, in that it shows that the central government takes the problem of criminal infiltration in local government seriously, and supports those who are willing to report such corruption to the central authorities.
An additional advantage of Italy’s dissolution system is that it can provide citizens in the affected municipalities with a more thorough accounting of how mafia groups have corrupted and captured their local politicians. While informed citizens in such municipalities likely were already aware, in a general sense, of mafia activity, they may not know the details of who was involved and to what extent. The published government reports that accompany an investigation and dissolution order give citizens an opportunity to understand how their elected officials were corrupted and the ways in which their municipality should be protected in the future. After the restoration of local democratic elections, voters can use this information when deciding which politicians and parties to support in future elections. The public reports also force political parties to acknowledge when their members have been found corrupt, and puts pressure on the parties to distance themselves from these individuals. Bans on corrupt officials standing for election (enhanced by important reforms passed in 2018) further strengthen this effort by directly removing corrupt actors from the electoral pool.
All that said, one should not overstate the extent to which the dissolution of a municipal government can purge that municipality of mafia influence. Indeed, the fact that many municipal governments have been dissolved multiple times (particularly in Calabria, Campania, and Sicily) shows that dissolution does not necessarily prevent future infiltrations. In at-risk areas, dissolution must be coupled with other measures, such as ongoing monitoring of political candidates and sustained prosecution of the criminal entities themselves, if they are to offer any hope of long-term success.
Additionally, there are reasonable concerns about evenhandedness in the application of the dissolution mechanism. One possible danger is partisan political bias. For example, central executive agencies controlled by one party might deploy dissolution as a means of targeting municipalities run by their political opponents. In Italy, though, this concern appears more hypothetical than real. Italy’s dissolution mechanism is subject to the extensive procedural safeguards described above, and it appears that this tool has, for the most part, been applied without political bias. (That said, this risk might be a more significant concern in the future, or in other countries that adopt a similar system.) While partisan political bias in the application of municipal dissolution does not appear to have been a significant problem in Italy, there’s more evidence of a different kind of bias: While smaller municipalities have been dissolved quite frequently (and some, like Africo and Arzano, have been dissolved multiple times), the largest cities in Italy seem mostly immune from this treatment (with one important exception), even after major scandals involving mafia infiltration of the city government. The perception that dissolution of city councils is a measure reserved for small municipalities suggests that the central government views some city governments as “too big to fail.” But the infiltration of large municipalities is of particularly great concern, since corrupt practices in these locations affect more people. Accordingly, the dissolution measure should be used, when appropriate, against large cities as well as small towns.
Ultimately, Italy’s experience with municipal council dissolution offers an important example of a potentially useful tool to combat organized criminal corruption. While there are reasons to be cautious before enthusiastically embracing this mechanism or recommending its widespread adoption outside of Italy, dissolution certainly should be considered as an option in those societies facing ongoing problems of criminal corruption of local governments.