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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