The Italian Elections: A Major Change or More of the Same?

Italians will head to the electoral booths on Sunday, March 4, to vote in parliamentary elections. The elections come at the end of the five-year mandate of the current legislature despite the fact that no clear majority emerged after the last elections in February 2013. Despite the perception of political instability, the governing coalitions have managed to not only govern throughout this period, but they also steered Italy through the worst economic crisis in 70 years, a major banking crisis, unprecedented number of refugees and carried out major reforms. This is not to praise these governments but simply to point out that the fact that elections do not produce a clear majority may not necessarily be a source of instability or lack of decisive governing. 

The elections are being held with a new electoral law that was, arguably, designed to ensure that the insurgent Five Star Movement (M5S) would not be able to form a majority. It is a mixed system, with one third of the seats in each chamber assigned by first-past-the-post and the remaining two-thirds by proportional representation. With no single party receiving more than 30% of support in polls over the last few years, the electoral law was designed to force parties into electoral coalitions and also to prevent a single party from forming a majority government. The electoral system is the fourth different type used in less than thirty years, exposing both the lack of agreement on the basic rules of the game and a willingness to change them for partisan gain. 

The M5S has consistently polled close to 30% but its refusal to contemplate electoral coalitions will likely mean that it may not translate votes into seats so easily, as it is expected to do poorly in the first-past-the-post ballots. It has said that they should be asked to form a government if they are the single largest party after the election. But this is unlikely because it may emerge as the single largest party but one of the electoral coalitions on the centre-right or centre-left is likely to gain more votes. More importantly, it has repeatedly said that it would never govern with other parties, who have also said they would never enter into a government with the M5S. 

Both the centre-left and centre-right are in turmoil and engaged in forms of internal competition if not warfare. The centre-right coalition is composed of at least four different parties: Forza Italia (FI) led by a resurgent and rehabilitated Silvio Berlusconi, the Lega Nord, the far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and the centrist Noi con l’Italia (We are with Italy). FI and the Lega are engaged in a struggle to come out as the largest party in the coalition, a distinction that would give them presumably the right to name the head of the government if the centre-right were to emerge with either a majority or a strong plurality (either outcome is a strong possibility). The parties have spent a great deal of the campaign attacking each other. The only issue that holds them together is their anti-immigration stance and their willingness to play the politics of fear. 

Berlusconi has re-emerged as a central player in Italian politics even though he cannot run or hold office because of a criminal conviction. More importantly, it is clear that the fire and momentum of the campaign is not with the party led by an 82 year-old who has had health problems. Berlusconi is what holds his party together but the Lega Nord is seriously challenging Berlusconi and his party for primacy of the centre-right. 

The success of the centre-right owes as much to the disaster that is the centre-left as it does to any of its policy positions, including immigration. The largest party, the Democratic Party (PD), has been engaged in an internal warfare that broke out into the open after the referendum defeat on constitutional reform in December 2016. Matteo Renzi, once seen as a dynamic new voice in Italian politics has disappeared from the campaign and political debate, for all intents and purpose. He has spent the past five years fighting wars within his party and is now paying the price for it in the election campaign. Left-wing factions have broken away to form a new party called, Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal), polling anywhere between 5 and 7 per cent. It has refused to enter into a coalition with Renzi and the PD, so the centre-left goes into the election deeply divided. 

Italian electoral laws prohibit the publication of polls in the last two weeks of the campaign so the outcome is still very much a question of speculation. The last polls to be released suggested that the two most likely results were either a centre-right majority or a centre-right plurality but no majority. There is also the possibility that we will have two different results in the two chambers of Parliament, with a coalition getting a majority in the Chamber of Deputies but not the Senate. Although all of the major parties have said that they will not enter into a grand coalition, it does not mean that Italy will be heading quickly back to the polls. The president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, will become an important player if no clear majority emerges. All signs indicate that he would not favour an early return to the polls not the least because it is not clear how a new vote with the same electoral rules would provide a different result in a few months’ time. Under his pressure, the parties who are now claiming they would not enter into a kind of grand coalition might find themselves governing together. It is not impossible to imagine that Mattarella will ask the parties to govern until at least the European Parliament elections in 2019 or perhaps even until new electoral law can be drawn up, one that does make it easier for a majority to emerge. 

Will the elections cause a great deal of disruption to Italy’s position on and within the European Union and in relations with Russia? The M5S has been portrayed as an anti-EU party, especially since it sits with the Brexit supporting UKIP in the European Parliament. But it has backtracked on almost all of its EU positions in the campaign (when it has talked about them at all) in the face of polls that consistently show that Italians support the EU and the euro. If anything, their major complaint is that it has not gone far enough to integrate Europe. The Lega Nord and the Fratelli d’Italia have stuck to their anti-Europe position but this is simply another way to present anti-immigration and anti-Islam positions. There is not likely to be an Italexit movement in Italy regardless of the vote and Italy is likely to continue to maintain its European commitments. However, a centre-right government led by the Lega Nord would see Italy marginalised in the EU. 

Relations with Russia have always remained strong, even though they certainly were not as close in recent years as they were ten years ago under the Berlusconi governments. If the centre-right were to win, then we could expect that Italy would be even more vocal in lifting or lessening the EU sanctions. Berlusconi’s close ties to President Putin are well known and the Lega Nord, with its leader Matteo Salvini, have expressed strong support for Russia and the lifting of sanctions. A centre-left government or one that is a broader coalition would probably see the continuation of the current policy; that is, supporting the EU position but working hard to lift or ease them. 

Unless there is dramatic change in voters’ intentions, the likely result will be the M5S as the single largest albeit isolated party. The centre-right will likely emerge with the most seats in both houses and possibly a majority. If it does not have a majority, then there will be parties and factions breaking away in both the centre-left and the centre-right to cobble together a majority. The real and consequential issue is which party in the centre-right emerges as dominant and if the coalition can hold together to govern. If the Lega Nord emerges as the dominant party of centre-right, then stormy weather will be in the forecast. Not so much for what positions it will take on Europe or Russia. Its major issue is immigration and it is difficult to see what it can do to undermine on the question that has not already been done. The real danger is that it will legitimate many far-right movements that will feel emboldened and this is surely to provoke a reaction on the opposite side. It is not government instability or lack of decisiveness that should be a worry but social tensions that may emerge as social cleavages become more acute. 

In the face of such a highly charged possibility and with an electoral law designed to ensure stalemate, it would not be surprising if Italy continues on the same path since at least 2013: heterogeneous governing coalitions and unassuming governments that quietly go about their business.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.