The Italian General Election: The Only Certainty is Uncertainty

IIEA1st March 201812min
This blog analyses the state of play in Italian politics in advance of the 4 March 2018 elections, looking at the breakdown of the left, and the development of pre-election coalitions. It also examines rise of the Five Star Movement, paying particular attention to its ability to draw support from the far-right and far-left. Finally, the blog looks ahead to the possible outcomes of the election.

The outcome of the Italian General Election, which will take place on Sunday 4 March 2018, is highly uncertain. No party or coalition is assured of a majority, and only the centre-right coalition has a realistic chance of achieving one on its own. Support for the EU among Italian citizens is at a historic low, fuelled by dissatisfaction with the immigration crisis, and the perceived lack of EU solidarity with Italy, as well as disenchantment with the economic situation and with Italian political and legal institutions.  All these factors have contributed to the Five Star Movement leading in the polls at around 28%,[i] while the far-right Lega is also polling at a relatively high 14.8%.[ii] Both of these parties have been able to temper their founding principles in search of a broader support base, with relative success.

Immigration has dominated the campaign in the run up to the election, coupled with the poor performance of the Italian economy and high levels of youth unemployment following years of austerity.

This blog analyses the state of play in Italian politics in advance of the 4 March 2018 elections, looking at the breakdown of the left, and the development of pre-election coalitions. It also examines rise of the Five Star Movement, paying particular attention to its ability to draw support from the far-right and far-left. Finally, the blog looks ahead to the possible outcomes of the election.

 

The current Government and centre-left coalition 

Paolo Gentiloni, of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), has been the Italian Prime Minister since 12 December 2016, when he succeeded Matteo Renzi, who resigned after the heavy defeat of his proposals in a Constitutional Referendum, which essentially sought to give fewer powers to the Senate, the upper house of the Italian Parliament.

Although Mr Gentiloni leads the current government, comprised of his party, representatives of other smaller parties and some independents, Mr Renzi was recently re-elected leader of the PD and will lead the party into the upcoming election.

The PD is a truly catch-all party and an eclectic mixture of former communists, socialists, socially-minded Christian democrats and liberals, but it has been weakened in recent times by defections on its left wing, who claim the party has become too centrist. Liberi e Uguali (LeU) is a new political party which formed in December 2017 following a split from the PD. It is standing on its own in the current elections, unlike the main right-of-centre parties. Although only polling around 6%, the party is clearly weakening the centre-left coalition.

The most important coalition partner in the current government has been the right-of-centre Alternativa Popolare (AP), led by Angelino Alfano, the current Italian Foreign Minister, who announced in 2017 that he would not be running in the upcoming election.  AP has since split, with its left wing aligning itself as part of the Civica Popolare list with the centre-left coalition and its right wing under the Noi con l’Italia (NcI) label with the centre-right coalition.

Another component of the centre-left coalition is the European federalist Più Europa party, led by former Italian Foreign Minister, MEP and European Commissioner, Emma Bonino.

The centre-right coalition

The centre-right coalition is comprised of the reformed Forza Italia, the Lega, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and the NcI. The below section will particularly focus on Forza Italia and the Lega as it is either one of these parties that is likely to emerge as the largest party in the centre-right coalition.

Forza Italia

Silvio Berlusconi has returned as President of the party, despite the fact that his ban from political office extends until 2019.[iii] His unlikely comeback at 81 years old has coincided with relative success for Forza Italia in recent local elections, and he has shown that he is still a force to be reckoned with. But the question of who will lead the party in government, should they get there, has become increasingly important, not least because of Mr Berlusconi’s ban from office.

For months, media speculation has centred on a potential return to domestic politics for Antonio Tajani, current President of the European Parliament.[iv] On 27 February 2018, just days before the election, it was confirmed by Mr Berlusconi that he would put forward Mr Tajani to be the next Prime Minister of Italy, should his coalition gain a majority. He added that it would not formally be announced until Mr Tajani has “given the go-ahead”. His return might go some way to moderating further the influence of the Eurosceptic tendencies of the Lega in a coalition of the centre-right.

The Lega

The Lega (originally the Lega Nord), led by Matteo Salvini, initially began as a defender of the interests of what it termed the hard-working and entrepreneurial Northern Italy against the wasteful, subsidy-swallowing South. It has called for stronger autonomy for Italy’s regions, and at one stage even advocated an independent Padania in the Po Plain of the North.

In recent years, however, the Lega has downplayed the theme of northern autonomy and become more of an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic party of the hard right. This has allowed the Lega to broaden its base and to draw support from working class voters across Italy as opposed to just Northern Italy. While this shift on immigration has moved the party further to the right, at local level, it still cooperates with more centrist parties and one of its more pragmatic leaders, Roberto Maroni, is the current President of the Lombard Region.

 

The Five Star Movement

The most unusual Italian political party, and the hardest to categorize, is the Five Star Movement (MS5), founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and a web strategist, the late Gianroberto Casaleggio.  Its anti-establishment platform, coupled with its ability to combine populist themes of both the left and right, is what makes the MS5 distinctive. It has also enabled the party to derive support from many Italian voters, especially younger voters and those in the south of Italy.

While advocating liberal policies, such as greater use of e-Democracy and direct democracy, cleaning up the corrupt Italian political system, promoting sustainability, anti-globalisation, and non-interventionist foreign policy, it also expresses hostility to the Euro and has, in the past, advocated a referendum on Italy’s Eurozone membership. Five Star has also shifted its position on immigration and has become increasingly critical of the EU’s management of the immigration crisis. Similar to the Lega, Five Star is in favour of removing all of an estimated 660,000 illegal immigrants from Italy.

Beppe Grillo is now standing back in favour of 31-year-old Luigi di Maio, who will lead the party into the upcoming election. As well as Mr di Maio, Five Star’s current prominent members include a number of other young politicians, including Virginia Raggi, Mayor of Rome; Chiara Appendino, Mayor of Turin; Alessandro di Battista, spokesperson for Lazio; and Davide Casaleggio, who is the son of the late co-founder of the party.

Ahead of the election, MS5 has remained unaligned. Mr di Maio has stated that, should his party emerge from the election as the largest party, it would enter negotiations with “all parties.”[v]

 

The Key Issues

Immigration

Immigration is a key subject and it has dominated the election campaign. As indicated earlier, the centre-right coalition and Five Star Movement are in favour of the mass removal of illegal immigrants. The Lega, in particular, is also in favour of introducing tough new border controls. The PD has outlined a more moderate position, in which it puts emphasis on negotiating bilateral deals with countries of origin. In terms of burden sharing in the EU, the PD have indicated that they would be in favour of cutting EU funds to Member States, such as Poland and Hungary, who have refused to accept relocation quotas which would alleviate pressure on the Italian immigration system.

The Economy

In an effort to appease disaffected voters who have grown frustrated with austerity, the economic programmes which have been put forward by the main coalitions are highly populist, in particular those of the centre-right coalition and the Five Star Movement.

The centre-right coalition want to introduce a flat tax rate – at 15% for the Lega and 23% for Forza Italia. The coalition also favours a massive investment programme to combat youth unemployment, and it intends to slash a whole series of other taxes and charges.

The Five Star Movement, meanwhile, is in favour of introducing a basic citizens’ income. For its part, the PD want to introduce a minimum hourly wage.

EU Reform

The centre-left coalition is highly supportive of reform measures put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron. In particular, the coalition is in favour of a Eurozone Finance Minister, the introduction of Eurobonds, the direct election of the Commission President and the introduction of a transnational European constituency for the European Parliament.

The centre-right coalition is deeply divided between its highly Eurosceptic Lega component, which has even hinted at leaving the EU if no reform is carried out, and its more ambiguous but generally pro-European Forza Italia component. As mentioned above, the return of Antonio Tajani from the European Parliament to domestic politics would have an impact here.

Five Star Movement have been very hostile to the Euro, but the party has shifted its position and is currently downplaying its calls for a referendum on Euro membership. Citing previous infringements by France and Germany, Five Star has said that it does not want to respect the economic constraints of the Stability and Growth Pact.

 

What do the polls say?

There are two main coalitions competing in the elections:

  • The centre-right coalition is comprised of Forza Italia, the Lega, Fratelli d’Italia and Noi con l’Italia.
  • The centre-left coalition is comprised of the Partito Democratico along with Più Europa, the Civica Popolare, and a number of other smaller parties.

Both Five Star Movement and Liberi e Uguali remain unaligned going into the election, and this may have a major effect on the formation of a government, particularly considering Five Star is leading in the polls with 28%.

The latest opinion polls show that the centre-right coalition is likely to receive between 36 and 39% of the vote and, if it is nearer or exceeds the upper figure, it will be close to a majority. Within this coalition, Forza Italia has a lead over the Lega of between 2-3 %. Which party emerges within this coalition as the largest party will determine who will be put forward as a candidate for Prime Minister, should this coalition gain a majority.

The centre-left coalition is expected to receive between 26 and 30% of the vote, with most polls showing it closer to the lower figure. The vast majority of its votes will go to the Partito Democratico and of the other parties only Più Europa, led by Emma Bonino, has a realistic chance of gaining seats.

Another striking feature of even the most recent polls is the exceptionally high number of undecided voters. Whether these will finally break in one direction or another or simply not participate will have a major impact on the final result.

The polling statistics thus leave the outcome of this election very unpredictable. The outcome is even more uncertain due to recent changes to the electoral system, which were only finalised in November 2017. Known as the Rosatellum, it is a mixed system, with 37% of the seats to be allocated in first-past-the post single member constituencies. 61% of the seats will be allocated on a purely proportional basis. The remaining 2% of seats will be allocated proportionately on the basis of postal votes from Italian citizens abroad. As well as this, there are more complicated formulae regarding different thresholds to be reached at a national and regional level.

 

Possible Outcomes

While the electoral system is cumbersome and complex, to win an absolute majority a coalition or a party would need to win 316 votes in the Chamber or 158 in the Senate.

In terms of seats, a recent simulation of the election carried out by YouTrend suggested that the centre-right coalition could reach 284 seats in the Chamber and 140 in the Senate, while the Five Star Movement would obtain 156 and 80 seats respectively. The centre-left coalition could receive 153 and 71 seats respectively and unaligned Liberi e Uguali could obtain 25 and 12 seats respectively.[vi] On these figures, no list or party would obtain an absolute majority, although the centre-right does have a chance of doing so. While uncertainty is again a feature, there are three possible options, which include:

  • Government by the centre-right coalition, the Prime Minister being provided by the party (in practice either Forza Italia or the Lega) with the highest number of seats within the coalition.
  • Government by the centre-left coalition, essentially a continuation of the current government, which looks extremely unlikely, even if there were to be post-election cooperation with Liberi e Uguali.
  • A grand coalition between two individual parties who are currently not together in a coalition. The most likely such option would be a government formed by Forza Italia and the Partito Democratico, but recent signals from Five Star indicate that it would be willing to enter coalition talks.

In conclusion, the outcome remains highly unpredictable and analysts will be watching closely with calculators at the ready when the votes start coming in on Sunday evening.

 

Author: Mr Francis Jacobs, a Member of the IIEA EU27 Expert Group and former Head of the European
Parliament Information Office in Ireland

 

[i] Reuters (25 February 2018). Italy’s poor south looks to 5-Star for hope at election. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-italy-election-south-5star/italys-poor-south-looks-to-5-star-for-hope-at-election-idUSKCN1G90TV

[ii] CNBC (23 February 2018). Italy election 2018: A simple guide to the votehttps://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/23/italy-election-2018-a-simple-guide-to-the-vote.html

[iii] BBC (9 May 2014). The many trials of Silvio Berlusconi explained. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-12403119

[iv] Politico, (16 October 2017). Antonio Tajani said to eye return to Italian politics. https://www.politico.eu/article/antonio-tajani-eyes-return-italian-politics-european-parliament/

[v] Bloomberg, (25 February 2018). Italy’s Five Star Leader May Seek ‘Grand Coalition’. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-25/five-star-leader-may-seek-grand-coalition-for-italy-government

[vi] Politico (15 January 2018). ‘Hand-to-hand’ combat in Italy’s election. https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-electoral-law-turns-campaign-into-hand-to-hand-battle/