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Trasformismo refers to 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 before the rise of Benito Mussolini and Fascism.
The process was initiated by Agostino Depretis, the Italian Prime Minister in 1883 who was a member of the Left. He moved to the right and reshuffled his government to include Marco Minghetti's Liberal-Conservatives. This was a move Depretis had been considering for a while before 1883. The aim was to ensure a stable government that would avoid weakening the institutions by extreme shifts to the left or right. Depretis felt that a secure government could ensure calm in Italy.
At this time, middle class politicians were more concerned with making deals with each other and less about political philosophies and principles. Large coalitions were formed, with members being bribed to join them. The Liberals, the main political group, was tied together by informal gentleman's agreements, but these were always in matters of enriching themselves. Indeed, actual governing did not seem to be happening at all, but since only two million men had franchises most of these wealthy landowners did not have to concern themselves with such things as improving the lives of the people they were supposedly representing democratically.
One of the most successful politicians was Giovanni Giolitti, who succeeded in becoming Prime Minister on five different occasions over twenty years. 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. However, trasformismo fed into the debates that the Italian parliamentary system was weak and actually failing and it ultimately became associated with corruption. It was perceived as the sacrifice of principles and policies for short term gain. The system of trasformismo was little loved and seemed to be creating a huge gap between legal (parliamentary and political) Italy and real Italy where the politicians became increasingly isolated. This system brought almost no advantages, illiteracy remained the same in 1912 as before the unification era and backward economic policies, combined with poor sanitary conditions, continued to prevent the country's rural areas from improving.
Trasformismo in Canada
Drawing upon Antonio Gramsci's observations of Italian politics and history, Canadian historian Ian McKay has suggested that trasformismo has also played an important role in Canadian politics. The MacDonald–Cartier coalition, the basis of the Conservative Party which dominated Canadian federal politics for most of the latter half of the 19th century and the Liberal Party which had dominated Canadian politics for the 20th century, are portrayed as examples of a Canadian variant of trasformismo.
In the 1930s, Professor Frank H. Underhill of the University of Toronto also argued that Canada's two major political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, had operated in similar ways, advancing the same policies appealing to the same variety of sectional/regional and class interests. In doing so, Canada had perfected the two-party system and had marginalized liberalism and radicalism. Underhill argued the result was a pervasive poverty in Canadian political culture. Not coincidentally, Underhill was centrally involved in the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a farmer-labour coalition born during the Great Depression which became Canada's first successful federal third party, the social-democratic New Democratic Party.