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The South Tyrolean People’s Party: Between continuity and change

by Elisabeth Alber

Successful but in search of innovation 

This is how one could describe the state of health of the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP): an ethno-regionalist catch-all party representing the German- and Ladin-speaking population of Italy’s South Tyrol, and one that has contributed significantly to conflict resolution in that province. Indeed, the SVP’s brand of non-secessionist nationalism resulted in a far-reaching institutional arrangement that combines extensive territorial autonomy with elaborate power-sharing that safeguards the interests of German- and Ladin-speaking as well as Italian-speaking populations in the autonomous province of Bolzano/Bozen (South Tyrol). 
The SVP has dominated South Tyrol’s political landscape since its foundation in 1945. The symbiotic relation between the SVP’s electoral and policy success determined success in officeseeking and turned South Tyrol from an economic backwater to one of the best performing labor markets in Europe with one of the highest regional GDP per capita in Italy. Moreover, the SVP’s relations to Austria as a protecting power (kin-state) paved the way for turning South Tyrol into a key player in cross-border cooperation and in the EU Strategy for the Alpine Region
The road to success was rocky and the role of the SVP in negotiation rounds at various levels of government was decisive. Today, a few months ahead of the next provincial elections on 22 October 2023, the SVP is grappling with internal trench warfare. Although the party will emerge victorious from the elections, forming the provincial coalition government will be more difficult than ever. The reason for this is that South Tyrol’s system is changing from a dissociative to an associative model of conflict resolution, characterised by a gradual overcoming of ethnic separation. While the institutional frame has not changed, the society has. Some elements of the complex power-sharing system need adaptation. Finding the answers to the question of how the rules of coexistence can be adapted is a balancing act for the SVP. 

Historical evolution from external to internal self-determination 

Previously part of the Habsburg Empire, South Tyrol was forcibly annexed to Italy in 1920. Under the 1922–1943 fascist regime, the predominantly German- and Ladin-speaking population underwent a process of Italianisation. The 1946 Gruber-Degasperi Agreement between Italy and Austria sought to remedy this situation by guaranteeing German-speakers “complete equality of rights with the Italian-speaking inhabitants” and by stipulating that their “ethnic character and the cultural and economic development” was to be safeguarded by special arrangements. Decades of negotiations, led by the SVP, culminated in the Autonomy Statute of 1972. 
It was anything but a matter of course that on the day the Second World War ended, a German-speaking party would be approved in an area that was still disputed under constitutional law.  However, the approval was granted because the founders of the SVP had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance. At that early stage, the primary goal of the SVP was to assert the right to self-determination and return South Tyrol to Austria. The party’s goal changed over time, in line with the transformation of the SVP from a party of dignitaries to a modern mass party

In 1969, the package of measures that would establish the institutional arrangement that combines extensive territorial autonomy with elaborate power-sharing was passed by the Italian and Austrian parliaments. It was voted for by the SVP delegates. Neither the regional nor the provincial parliament had a say, and no direct consultation via referendum took place. The SVP delegates accepted the Package by a slim majority: supporters argued that internal self-determination was the only feasible way forward, opponents argued for reunification with Austria. 

Rules of coexistence

South Tyrol’s political system is set out in the Autonomy Statute of 1972 (ASt). The ASt provides a system of vertical power-sharing in relation to the central authorities of the Italian regional State and one of horizontal power-sharing at the provincial and regional levels of government. The provincial level of government refers to the autonomous province of Bolzano/Bozen (South Tyrol), while the regional one to the autonomous provinces of South Tyrol and Trentino that, taken together, form one out of five special regions in Italy. 
Four elements characterise horizontal power-sharing within South Tyrol. The first is the participation of all relevant language groups (German, Italian and Ladin speakers) in provincial government and in subordinated systems. The second ensures group rights in the fields of culture and education. The third guarantees proportional representation of each language group in the public sphere. The fourth element provides each language group with veto power with which to defend their vital interests. Horizontal power-sharing at regional level is in place because the ASt in 1972 transferred most of the competences from the regional to the provincial level of government.
South Tyrol’s status is an exception within Italy’s asymmetric system, as a province in all other parts of the Italian Republic is of a lower order of government than a region. This arrangement results in two political systems under one jointly governed ‘regional roof’ that is vested with the right to initiate amendments to the ASt: the majoritarian system with the direct election of the president in Trentino, and, in South Tyrol, corporate consociationalism (power-sharing) grounded in ethnic separation and proportional representation. 
Detailed norms, guarantees and legal remedies regulate the distribution of resources and (power) relations between the three language groups in South Tyrol (and all persons affiliating to one of these language groups): 69.41 per cent German-speakers, 26.06 per cent Italian-speakers and 4.53 per cent Ladin-speakers. This translates into bilingualism in politics, the administration, and the judiciary, and the right to education in one’s mother tongue. Special rules apply to the representation of Ladin speakers and the use of Ladin language.

From hegemony to minimal winning coalitions

Two key trends shape South Tyrol’s politics: the stable but gradually weakening electoral position of the SVP, and the fragmentation in the Italian-speaking party landscape.
First, the SVP has always led the negotiations on the composition of the provincial coalition government. Up to the provincial elections of 2013, no other German-speaking party has ever attracted more than 15 per cent of the vote. Only in 2013, two German-speaking liberal-patriotic centre-right parties gained significant support (9 out of 35 members of the provincial parliament). The success of these parties was attributable to the trend of dissatisfaction with politics, rather than a shift in identities or greater interest in secession.
Second, the number of Italian-speaking members in the provincial parliament has decreased over time. Hence, the principle of maximum involvement of all language groups in decision-making has shifted in favour of the German language group. This occurs because ethnic but not political proportional representation has been observed for many years in government to fulfil the coalition requirement enshrined in article 50 of the ASt (i.e. access of all language groups to power in government according to the numerical strength of the language groups represented in the provincial parliament). 
In 2013, however, the SVP lost its absolute majority and the Italian-speaking Democratic Party (PD) entered the provincial government for the purpose of procuring a political majority in the provincial parliament (not only to fulfil the required joint exercise of power). Previously, the Italian-speaking coalition partner was never decisive to reach the majority, but only to ensure additional channels for voicing South Tyrolean interests at national level. Since 1993, narrow political majorities in Italy’s national parliament have been the rule and the SVP as the dominant representation of South Tyrol in Rome has been relevant for obtaining those majorities. 
The provincial elections in 2018 marked another turning point. For the first time, an Italian far-right party, the Lega, entered the provincial government. At the same time, support for the German-speaking liberal-patriotic centre-right parties had more than halved and the civic list Team K, a party advocating good governance across language groups, became the second strongest party in the provincial parliament (6 out of 35 members). The SVP totalled its worst result ever with 41.9 per cent (15 seats compared to the 17 seats in 2013). 
The formation of a coalition was difficult for three reasons. First, the PD, traditionally the SVP’s coalition partner, lost electoral support while the Lega, not too keen on territorial autonomy in Italy, outstripped all the other Italian parties. Second, in neighbouring Trentino the Lega scored a landslide victory. Third, the Lega was governing at the national level in coalition with the Five Star Movement. The SVP finally entered a coalition with the Lega arguing that such a coalition represents the maximum involvement of the Italian-speaking electorate. Entering a coalition with the PD and the Greens, the only interethnic party, would have meant making concessions towards further integration by more flexibly interpreting some rules of coexistence (associative model of conflict resolution). 

The way forward

As this post shows, the SVP has been the main architect of South Tyrol’s autonomy. It has consistently maintained its autonomist stance, arguing in favour of internal self-determination within the context of strong cross-border cooperation. As of June 2023, the SVP counts 280 local chapters, its smallest organisational unit. The trend in membership numbers is downward: from 72,000 in 1996 to 25,000 today. This means that the SVP members make up less than 10 per cent of eligible voters in South Tyrol. The SVP, however, receives about 40 per cent of the votes in provincial elections. 
Talk-centric rather than voter-centric formats (so-called democratic innovations) of political participation might help to mend lost trust, within and outside the party organisation. Procedures that increase intra-party democracy are also needed to ensure the SVP’s capacity to successfully fulfil the intermediating role between the society and the State, within South Tyrol and outside, in relation to regional, central and supranational authorities. Because, in the long run, performative governance – the deployment of language, symbols, and gestures to foster an impression of good governance among citizens – does not suffice. 

Author bio

Elisabeth Alber is Research Group Leader ‘Participation and Innovations’ and Program Head ‘Eurac Federal Scholar in Residence’ at the Eurac Research Institute for Comparative Federalism, and Lecturer at the University of Innsbruck.