By Giulia Monteleone
On the 4th of March, Italians made their way to the polling stations to choose their next government, knowing that the results would most likely confirm the polls’ predictions of a hung parliament.
A turnout of 73.66% is surprising, as the election took place in times of high disillusionment with the political establishment and slight economic growth. The runners of this general election were the following: the centre-left coalition led by Renzi’s Democratic Party; the centre-right coalition formed by Berlusconi’ s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy; and single runners such as Five Stars Movement (M5S) and Free and Equals. This article will analyse the winners and losers of the election.
The new electoral law
A new electoral law was passed last September – the so-called ‘Rosatellum” (after the MP Ettore Rosato who drafted it) – to replace its predecessor, the “Porcellum”, declared unconstitutional by the Italian Highest Court in early 2014. The new law consists of a parallel voting system, whereby 61% of the seats are allocated through a proportional method, and the remaining ones are assigned on a first-past-the-post basis. According to Professor Stefano Vassallo, the Rosatellum requires parties to win at least 38-39% of total votes in order to ensure a working majority. However, due to the fragmented nature of the Italian party system, the likelihood of any party achieving that result appeared quite dim. As such, parties running in coalitions appeared to be favoured over single runners. It is no coincidence, in fact, that the Rosatellum is also the product of a political agreement between the Democratic Party and its right-wing counterparts to offset the M5S. One of the Movement’s pillars, in fact, consists in the refusal to align with any other party. This is in line with their utter disdain toward political elites and their will to fundamentally break away from those ‘corrupt politicians who value the financial benefits entailed with their roles over the public good’.
The election results confirmed fears of a hung parliament. In the Lower House, 32.68% of votes went to the M5S, making it Italy’s first party. Yet the centre-right coalition obtained an overall share of 37%. Neither one won the 314 seats necessary to rule. The outcome was similar in the Senate. The centre-right (37.49%) did slightly better than the M5S (32.22%), yet neither reached the 161 seats threshold required to obtain a vote of confidence.
Amidst political uncertainty – so well-rooted in Italian politics – Italians will need to rely on the neutral figure of the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to facilitate talks amongst political forces so to give the country a government.
A split country
The elections have proven that Italy has fallen victim to populism and anti-immigrant feelings, like several other Western democracies. The results have also confirmed a country deeply divided between a developed North – the industrial powerhouse of the nation – and a traditionally underdeveloped South – victim of parochialism, cronyism and high unemployment rates. For decades, many Italians voted on the basis of the “lesser evil”. The prevailing impression being that of a lack of real political alternatives, with the same old faces filling sofas on television’s talk shows. De facto, a report by the research institute Demos & Pi showed how, in 2017, only 5% of the Italian population said to trust political parties.
Long deaf to grievances affecting a vast portion of the population, the mainstream political establishment – left a vacuum that the M5S and the far-right parties – such as “The League” (the former secessionist Northern League), and Brothers of Italy – could fill. An analysis of the Financial Times shows how Sunday’s vote appears to have been primarily driven by socio-economic factors, with provinces with “lower income per capita and higher unemployment rates” voting in block for the “grillini” (a popular moniker for M5S members).
The first exit polls prefigured the bashing success of the M5S, outdoing predictions. Now, strong of this success, its leader, Luigi Di Maio, aims to be the next Prime Minister. On Monday, he stated the Movement’s intention to start negotiations to form a coalition and he declared the beginning of a new political era, the “Third Republic”.
By overcoming Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the League managed to achieve an unforeseen result. This is even more considerable given that, in the last election, the League had merely obtained 4% of the votes. Salvini’s success – largely due to his anti-immigration stance and a rhetoric highly critical of Eurozone policies – has been hailed positively by Marine Le Pen, one of Salvini’s inspirational figures.
For the European Union, the victory of two highly euro-sceptic forces in a founding member is very worrisome, further holding back any prospect of a further political integration. A coalition government formed by these two parties cannot be ruled out. However, this option appears unlikely as of now, as both leaders desire to become the next head of government. Thus, they would hardly co-exist under the same government, also considering their diverging views on the economy and taxation (see flat tax and national citizenship income).
If anything, this election has confirmed the end of “Berlusconismo” in Italy. Berlusconi’s political career had already seen an end in 2011, when he was forced to resign in the midst of the sovereign debt crisis, leaving the country on the edge of bankruptcy.
It now sees its final death knell. From signing a new “contract with the Italians” on television (famously signed in 2001), to the mantra of cutting taxes and introducing a universal flat tax at 23% (effectively only cutting taxes for the richest), Berlusconi seemed like that persistent ex who wants to take a walk down memory lane.
Dulcis in fundo, the greatest single example of political suicide in Italian modern politics: the Democratic Party, and its soon-to-be former, leader Matteo Renzi. In the last European elections of May 2014, his party received a stunning victory, with 40% of the votes. At that time, Renzi was at the peak of his political career. Elected party leader in December 2013, in early 2014 he had managed to become Prime Minister. The Italian centre-left seemed to have finally found a leader which could counter its many centrifugal forces that seemed prone to infinite splits. However, Renzi’s 1000 days in power ended in resignation following a 60% “No” vote in the December 2016 constitutional referendum. Since then, Renzi – who had previously affirmed that he would take time off politics had he lost – remained victim of the same curse which cost him the victory in the referendum: the personalization of his party. After calling new party elections – and winning them again in May 2017 – the party underwent an internal split, which alienated many electors and eventually led to the formation of Free and Equals. After the mild 19% result, Renzi submitted a letter of resignation as party leader, however postponing it until a new government has been installed. In so doing, it appears evident that Renzi aims to monitor this period of intensified talks, to ensure that the Democratic Party will not join forces with either Di Maio or Salvini. With him immediately out of the picture, in fact, both options could have been possible.
Italy, once again, embarks upon a frictious period of political instability. The next crucial date will be March 23rd, when both Houses are supposed to convey for the first time and their presidents be elected (respectively, the second and third highest institutional roles in the country). On such day, perhaps an agreement will have been reached. Shouldn’t this be the case, other options may include a tentative minority government led by the M5S, an – unlikely – grand-coalition government or, as a measure of last resort, a new election.
Giulia is Editor and MA Representative with Strife. She is pursuing an MA in Conflict, Security and Development in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where she completed her BA in International Relations in 2017. She works as Graduate Research Assistant in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at KCL, researching on the Egyptian uprising and the Egyptian diaspora in the UK. She previously gained work experience in foreign affairs at governmental level and broadcasting at community media level.
Her academic interests focus on social movements and popular politics, Arab Uprisings, diaspora & migration studies. You can follow her on Twitter: @GiuliaMonteleon.
Images 1 & 2: http://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/politica/politica.shtml