In these complementary blogs, IIEA Future of EU27 Group Member and Former Head of the European Parliament Office in Dublin, Francis Jacobs, and IIEA EU Affairs Researcher, Darragh Moriarty, consider the outcome of the Italian General Election of 4 March 2018, analyse its implications and look ahead to what the results might mean for the formation of the next Italian government and the impact this will have on Italy’s role in the EU.
Assessing the Outcome of the Italian Elections
By Francis Jacobs
Following the 4 March 2018 elections, the historical patterns in Italian politics consisting of old left-right cleavages have been replaced by a surge of populist and anti-establishment sentiment. Avowedly populist parties have won over half of the vote and almost 25% of voters have supported far-right parties, a similar percentage to those who supported traditional centre-left parties. Moderates and centrists have been routed, and pro-European parties in general have all fared badly.
The salience of immigration as a key election issue clearly also had a major impact, not least in the increased support for the Lega, the party most associated with a tough line on immigration and Five Star Movement, who also campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform. Populism, it seems, however you care to define it, is now stronger in Italy than in any other EU country.
This blog will analyse the election results and critically asses their implications for Italian and European politics.
A new era for Italian party politics
Historically, there have been two main eras in post-war Italian politics. From the 1940s to the early 1990s Italy was governed by a series of coalition governments based around the Christian Democratic Party, with Western Europe’s largest Communist party as the main opposition. After the corruption scandals of the early 1990s, a more fluid and unstable system developed, with centre-right coalitions dominated by Silvio Berlusconi alternating with broad-based centre-left governments and the occasional government led by technocrats rather than politicians. The recent election result has witnessed the collapse of this trading of positions between the centre-left and centre-right with the emergence of so-called anti-establishment parties.
Profound changes to the electoral geography of Italy
The centre-right coalition between Matteo Salvini’s Lega, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia received the largest number of votes and seats, and now dominates almost all of the North as well as certain regions of central Italy. The coalition also came runner-up to the Five Star Movement in the south. The balance of power within the coalition has shifted decisively away from Mr Berlusconi’s more moderate Forza Italia towards the more right-wing nationalist, anti-European Lega party, which won 17% of the vote.
Another populist party, the Five Star Movement, led by Luigi de Maio, which ran on its own, received 32% of the vote, and ended up as by far the largest individual party. It now dominates the south of Italy and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left coalition, whose main party, the Democratic Party (PD) has provided the Italian government for the last five years, suffered a landmark defeat and ended up in a distant third place. It even lost most of its strongholds in the former “red belt,” of the Italian centre and north, especially in Tuscany and in Emilia-Romagna, which, since the 1940s, had always voted for the left. The centre-left coalition, however, was squeezed everywhere, coming second to the centre right and sometimes even third in the North. In almost all regions, the centre-left came third in Southern Italy.
As a result of these elections, the largest individual party by far is the Five Star Movement, which, according to its leader, Luigi di Maio, claims to be neither of the left or of the right but a “post-ideological party”, with 32% of the vote and 221 seats in the House.
The largest block of votes and of seats, however, has gone to the centre-right coalition with 37% of the vote and 260 seats in the House.
Of particular significance is that the Lega received more votes and seats than Forza Italia, gaining 17% of the vote compared to 14%. A third coalition partner, Fratelli d’Italia, obtained about 4% of the vote in both Houses and also got seats.
The centre-left coalition, which forms the basis of the outgoing government, has ended up as the biggest loser of these elections, with under 23% of the vote, 19% of which was achieved by the PD. The rest of the vote was made up by a handful of seats won by the SouthTyrol People’s Party and one first-past-the post Senate seat won by Emma Bonino of the federalist More Europe party.
The only other party to win any seats was the Free and Equal party, a left-wing breakaway from the PD, which ended up with only a little over 3% of the vote. None of the 17 other lists (including neo-Fascist parties like Casapound Italia) obtained any seats in either House, and only one of them received over 1% of the vote.
At present it is hard to predict whether all this will lead to lasting change in the Italian political system, and on what basis. The Five Star Movement and the Lega are the undoubted winners of these elections but neither party, the former on its own or the Lega as part of the centre-right coalition, have anywhere near the numbers to reach the 40% threshold necessary to form a government, they will have to reach out to other parties if they wish to have a majority. This will not be easy.
Turnout and Breakdown of Vote
Turnout in the elections was just under 73%, 2% lower than in the previous elections, Five Star may have mobilised some new voters, whereas there may have been fewer among disillusioned centre-left voters.
One caveat is that the above figures do not include the small number of seats at stake in the overseas constituency, in which Italians from all over the world can vote. The pattern of the vote in this overseas constituency was completely different than in Italy, with the centre-left coalition well in front, the centre-right coalition second and the 5 Star Movement well behind. The More Europe List of Emma Bonino also did much better than in mainland Italy.
The Italian Vote in Ireland
One curiosity, for example, was the vote among Italians in Ireland, where 3,500 of the 13,200 eligible voters turned out, and where the Five Star Movement did much better than in mainland Italy with over 38% of the votes for the Chamber. This phenomenon could be ascribed to the number of young Italians employed in Ireland’s IT sector.
The Democratic Party came a distant second at 20% and the More Europe list got over 16% and was third. The centre-right coalition obtained only 12% of votes, a third of its mainland Italian total and the left wing Free and Equals List almost got as many votes at 9%., almost three times its mainland Italian total.
How the results differed from opinion poll and other predictions
Opinion polls and pundits got some things right and others very wrong. They predicted a surge in support for populist parties but not nearly to the extent that actually occurred.
The Five Star Movement was clearly going to be the largest party, but its support had consistently been estimated at around 27-28% whereas it ended up five points higher at 32%, and its surge among younger voters and throughout the South, exceeded all predictions.
The 37% of the vote obtained by the centre-right coalition was very much in line with expectations, but the distribution of its vote was not. Polls and pundits had given Forza Italia a lead of 2% over its more right-wing coalition partner, the Lega. The latter ended up as easily the largest of the two with over 3% more votes.
The centre-left coalition was expected to do very badly but it performed considerably worse than anticipated. The outgoing PD government saw its vote cut down to below 19%.
The left-wing breakaway party, Free and Equals, did not benefit from the centre-left weakness, and also performed much worse than expected, just creeping over the 3% threshold.
Before the elections, a very high number of undecided voters had been registered in the polls but many of them must have come out for anti-system parties. The phenomenon of shy voters, those reluctant to tell pollsters that they were voting for the Lega or for the Five Star Movement, may also have been significant. A more detailed analysis of the vote will have to be made later, but there does also seem to have been a very high switch of former centre-left voters to the Five Star Movement.
Another question arising from the results is the fate of Silvio Berlusconi, now 81 years old and often written off but always bouncing back. He certainly ran an energetic campaign and positioned himself as the moderating glue in the centre-right coalition, and the guarantor against Eurosceptic populism. He (and the polls) thought that he would remain the dominant force in the coalition, but he is now unexpectedly in the shadow of Lega and how he reacts and the nature of his continuing influence is currently unclear.
In the words of journalist Georgio Ferrara, “There is no third republic, just the crumbling remains of the second”. Is this the end of an era and the beginning of a new period of uncertainty and of electoral volatility, or can the Italian political landscape re-compose itself as in the past?
The Ides of March: The Outlook for the Formation of the Next Italian Government
By Darragh Moriarty
The results of the Italian elections on 4 March 2018 represent a watershed moment in Italian politics and have led to major changes in the Italian political landscape. The success of anti-establishment, euro-critical and populist parties suggests a need for change at both national and EU level in order to continue to engage the Italian public, which is disenchanted with EU and national institutions.
The Next Steps
On 23 March 2018, newly elected Parliamentarians in the Chamber and Senate convened to elect the Presidents of each Chamber. With both Chambers having elected their respective Presidents, it is up to the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, to entrust either the largest bloc, the centre-right coalition, or the largest party, the Five Star Movement, to begin government formation negotiations. The current Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, offered his resignation President Mattarella but he was asked to remain in caretaker charge while government formation talks take place. A period of intense negotiation will follow the President’s decision, which could result in a number of possible scenarios, this blog will analyse four of them.
1. A Centre-right Government
Combined, the Lega, Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia received 37% of the vote. While they represent the largest bloc, they still do not have the numbers necessary to form a government. The party is 50 seats short of an overall majority in the Chamber of Deputies and 20 short in the Senate. One of the more surprising aspects of the outcome of the elections was that the Lega received more of the vote than Forza Italia. Following an agreement made by the party leaders pre-election, the larger party will put forward the candidate to be the next Italian Prime Minister.
However, according to Luigi Scazzieri, Research Fellow at the London-based Centre for European Reform, if the right of centre coalition were to come to power, it is not automatic that the Lega’s leader, Matteo Salvini, would become the next Prime Minister. In fact, considering the parliamentary arithmetic and the right’s need for more deputies to form a government and the limited options available, it is quite likely that a more moderate figure from within the Lega would need to emerge.
The emergence of a more moderate figure could have a major bearing on this government’s European agenda. The immigration crisis in Italy would continue to be prioritised and it would be likely that more bilateral agreements between Italy and countries of origin will be made. Such a government would also prioritise increased pressure at an EU level to bring about meaningful changes to the European Commission’s refugee relocation scheme. What role the current European Parliament President, Antonio Tajani, would play in such a government would need to be determined. It was expected that he would be put forward as the candidate for Prime Minister, had Forza Italia become the largest party in the centre-right bloc.
2. The Five Star Movement and the Partito Democratico
The largest single party following the election is the Five Star Movement, gaining 32% of the overall vote. Prior to the election, the party remained unaligned and pledged not to enter a pre-election coalition with either the centre left or centre right bloc. In the days leading up to the election, however, Five Star leader Luigi di Maio claimed that his party would consider government formation options with “all parties” post-election.
While many commentators have been quick to tar both Five Star and Lega with the same anti-European brush, this ignores the fact that Five Star has shifted its stance on some of its more Eurosceptic tendencies – such as leaving the Eurozone. The party’s recent attempt to join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe grouping in the European Parliament is seen as an example of it trying to demonstrate it has moderated its views. Furthermore, according to Mr Scazzieri, when the voting patterns of the Five Star MEPs are analysed, their views have mostly aligned with those of The United Left Alliance and not with their grouping partners of Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy.
The now resigned PD leader, Matteo Renzi, had declared that his party would not join a coalition with the Five Star Movement. While a number of his PD colleagues have supported that view, others, such as Michele Emiliano, Governor of Puglia argued that the PD has to be receptive to staying in government. Mr Renzi, however, has said that he will fight to prevent this coalition insisting the PD will not be used as a ’crutch’. Moreover, Mr Renzi and other leading figures, feel that it would be much better for the party not to be a junior party in a coalition, but to try to rebuild in opposition.
3. The Five Star Movement and the Lega
The formation of this coalition remains highly unlikely considering the distance between the two parties on a number of issues. Apart from their stances on illegal immigration, the parties remain diametrically opposed, especially in terms of economic policy where the Lega has traditionally sought to cut transfers from prosperous Northern Italy to the poorer South. On immigration, the Lega also has a much tougher stance than Five Star and some commentators claimed that Five Star’s position on this was borne out of a desire to pull some of the undecided voters in its direction. Furthermore, considering Lega’s prominent position as the largest party in the centre-righ bloc, it would be not in its interest to play a subordinate role in government to Five Star.
According to Mr Scazzieri, such a government would not have the negotiating experience or connections required to build consensus with European partners to influence decision-making at an EU level. While both parties represent anti-establishment parties, they have both shifted their views on Italy’s relationship with the EU. This coalition would not automatically be considered a spoiler for further EU integration, although it would send shockwaves. It would be more likely to be a ‘drag’ on further EU integration prioritising concessions on fiscal restraints as well as the immigration crisis. This government would also have an alternative view on EU sanctions of Russia.
4. A technocratic government of ‘national unity’
If all else fails and parties cannot come to an agreement on forming a coalition government, it is possible that President Mattarella could put together a ‘national unity’ government of technocrats. Such an arrangement last took place in 2011 when Mario Monti was appointed Prime Minister by then President Giorgio Napolitano. A national unity government would need to be agreed to by parliament and would essentially ‘ferry the country to fresh elections.’ Considering its weak mandate where every meaningful decision it takes could be restrained by parliament, this government would, in effect, be a bystander at a European level.
Possible implications for the European Union
The outcome of the election and the uncertainty surrounding the formation of the next Italian government has clearly not facilitated Italy-European Union relations, but how seriously they are affected will depend on several factors:
- the nature of any new government, and the balance within it between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics;
- whether Forza Italia can moderate the more anti-European views of Matteo Salvini and the Lega within the centre-right coalition;
- the extent to which pragmatism might win out even within Eurosceptic parties;
- the real nature of the views on Europe within the Five Star Movement, and whether their earlier anti-Euro stance (since somewhat downplayed by Luigi di Maio) represented their true convictions;
- the actions of any new government and the overall performance of the Italian economy; and
- the future evolution of the EU migration crisis, whether effective action is taken to mitigate it at EU level, and whether Italians feel that they are receiving more EU solidarity.
The Outcome and Outlook
At the first sitting of the new Parliament on 23 March 2018, negotiations took place between the Five Star Movement and the centre-right coalition to elect Presidents of the Chamber and of the Senate. The centre-right’s first nominee, Paolo Romano, was vetoed by Five Star but a compromise deal was later reached, with Five Star’s Roberto Fico becoming President of the Chamber. Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati of Forza Italia became the first ever woman to be elected President of the Senate.
Following these votes, political groups will be formally constituted and their own leaders elected. As discussed above, President Mattarella will then mandate one of the party leaders to try to put together a governing coalition capable of winning a confidence vote in both chambers. The nature of the negotiations to elect Presidents of each chamber has not, however, provided many clues as to how a new government might be formed. In the meantime, Paolo Gentiloni stays on to deal with current business of the government.
This blog follows the recent visit to the IIEA by Luigi Scazzieri, Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform, whose address can be viewed here.