Elections in Italy: Sliding Slowly, Eyes Wide Open, into Durable Decline

Foto: ANDREA DELBO/​Shutterstock

During the election campaign, appealing to people’s anger and demo­nizing the opponents is the most common strategy. Political programs hardly matter. The political landscape is highly frag­mented. In election polls, right wing populists are expected to be the winner. There is no liberal, pro-european force in sight that could modernize Italy. The country is threa­thened to slide down into a slow but ongoing decline.

On the 4th of March the election for the next mandate of the Italian Parlia­ment will take place, and once more the political scenario in Italy appears to be chaotic and poor at the same time. Is it because they know that Italian citizens are so tired of politics that certain political parties do not even feel the need any more to provide in their programmes proposals that can be measured in terms of feasi­bility? Espe­cially with regard to their impact on the public debt, a minimum of realism would have been helpful.

Yet, even without or very little numbers, it is evident that many proposals of the different political groups are not feasible at all. So, what is the basis then of the political debate? Just gut feelings? That’s what it looks like: in Italy candi­dates often organise their public inter­ven­tions with the primary intention to demonize the other contenders. Convincing the voters on their own programmes takes second place. It is thus not surprising that appealing to people’s anger is the most common strategy. Note that Italy is not alone, similar strate­gies could be observed at other recent elections across Europe.

Despite the general lack of contents, the rules and main actors in these elections are worth a look.

The Italian Parlia­ment is composed of two bodies so voters must put a cross on two ballot papers, one for the Chamber of Deputies (630 elective members), and one for the Senate of the Republic (315 elective members — 5 senators for life are not elected), given that in 2016 Renzi’s attempt to reform the Senate did not succeed.

That sounds rela­tively straight­for­ward, but the new electoral law approved in October 2017 is of remark­able complexity. A mixed system applies: 61% of the MPs will be elected according to propor­tional repre­sen­ta­tion. 37% of them (as well as all senators) through a first-past-the-post system. The same goes for the remaining 2% reserved for Italians living abroad.

The impor­tance of Italian expa­tri­ates should by no means be under­es­ti­mated: they are close to 5 million people, which is almost equiv­a­lent to the number of immi­grants (5,3 million), a fact that makes the current surge of racism/​xenophobia and anti-immi­gra­tion feelings in this country even sadder to watch.

Given the frag­mented political landscape in Italy and the histor­ical inca­pacity of govern­ments to get enough support in the Parlia­ment, the idea of the system is to avoid the disper­sion of votes among minority parties that a pure propor­tional system would bring. Never­the­less, the political parties are so far from obtaining a strong majority, that they are forced to build fragile coali­tions, which cannot possibly last long after the vote and make the political scenery even more confusing, because persons with very dissim­ilar ideas run together.

Basically, parties have two options: in the different voting districts they can decide to stand alone – in this case they must obtain at least 3% of votes to win seats – or to consti­tute a (pre-announced) coalition, in which case the threshold is 10%. One of the novelties is that the new system abolishes the bonus of “automatic majority” for the party/​coalition with more than 40% of the vote.

Following the current election polls, the right-wing coalition is the expected winner. This coalition brings together: a) Forza Italia (“Let’s go Italy”), the party of Berlus­coni, named, as every European football fan knows, after a rallying cry for the “Squadra Azzura”, with Berlus­coni actively campaigning although banned from public office for being convicted of tax fraud; b) Lega Nord (“Northern League”), the xeno­phobic and previ­ously sepa­ratist party of the richer regions in the North, which, for want of votes in the southern regions, recently re-branded their seces­sionist agenda in terms of “feder­alism”; c) the post-fascist, nation­alist and conser­v­a­tive party Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”, named after the opening line of the national anthem as every European football fan knows), a spin-off from Berlusconi’s party when he got into judicial problems (only that now they are back together). The two latter coalition members are close to the French “Front national” and by defi­n­i­tion have a strongly Euro-sceptical attitude.

The second contender in terms of vote pref­er­ences would be the Movimento 5 stelle (“Five Star Movement”), an anti-estab­lish­ment and also anti-EU movement. Now that the Mayor of Rome is a member of the movement, they are them­selves involved in misman­age­ment and scandals in the capital. Moreover, several contro­ver­sial state­ments of its members are a source of concern for a possible author­i­tarian, perfectly illiberal drift, such as their request to ban from the profes­sion jour­nal­ists that wrote against them and that were “listed”.

Finally, there is the left, which is defi­nitely not in good shape. Besides Renzi’s Partito Demo­c­ra­tico (Demo­c­ratic Party), it includes Liberi e uguali (“Free and Equal”), a party estab­lished in 2016 by left-wing dissi­dents after the political defeat of Renzi’s Consti­tu­tion reform proposal in the refer­endum. They aimed at attracting citizens that were disap­pointed by Renzi and his govern­ment, but this party is neither fresh nor new: it is composed by old politi­cians, and by contributing to the frag­men­ta­tion of the left, it actually increases the chances of the right or the Five Star Movement to win.

In this context, the surge of a liberal, centrist and strongly pro-EU movement such as “En Marche !” in France would be desirable, but is not likely. The new movement +Europa (“More Europe”, pronounced “pew-europa”) led by Emma Bonino was estab­lished too late (November 2017) and does not seem to have enough strength.

So this is where we stand. Are the opinion polls trust­worthy? A high number of voters has not yet taken any decision, and there is the risk of a very high level of absten­tion. Since it is not allowed to publish opinion polls in the last two weeks of campaign, the result may completely change from the picture above mentioned. Whatever the result, it is unlikely that Italy will be able to get a govern­ment supported by a large majority and thus capable to last, in line with the histor­ical trend (more than 60 govern­ments since 1946, when the Republic was established).

Everybody realises that govern­mental insta­bility remains a big obstacle to the reboot of the Italian economy and, perhaps even more impor­tantly, society. Yet it seems impos­sible to shake up the system. Sliding slowly, inevitably, into durable decline, eyes wide open, but without a Macron in sight – is that the Italian destiny of the next decade?



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