Italy's rocky road to the new government

Italy's rocky road to the new government

03/2018  | Reading time: 12 minutes

On the first Sunday of March, the decision of the Italian people became unmistakably clear—and it was not what Brussels had hoped for. In fact, the people of what used to be the most Euro-enthusiastic nation rejected the moderate parties and entrusted the leadership of the country to anti-establishment, Euro-sceptical forces. The rise to power of populists that was avoided in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries, became reality in the Eurozone’s slowest-growing economy.

On the same day when German voters gave their consent to the creation of a third great coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, allowing Angela Merkel to begin her fourth term as chancellor of the EU’s biggest economy, 72.93% of Italians went to the ballot box to reshuffle their parliament. Before the election, many observers had concluded based on polling that in Italy a German-style grand coalition was the most likely scenario. They assumed that an understanding will be reached between Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), the popularity of which the latest polls estimated to be somewhere between 22% and 24%, and Forza Italia, the party led by the octogenarian Silvio Berlusconi, whose share of votes was supposed to be around 16-17%.

International actors have not paid such close attention to an election in the Mediterranean country since the end of the Cold War.  European institutions also became worried about the vote in the EU’s third largest economy, and some representatives even went so far as to take Berlusconi’s and Renzi’s side during a campaign that saw extremists and anti-establishment parties shape the political discourse, adding fuel to the flames of popular dissatisfaction and rising xenophobia. Even European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker’s statement at the end of February explicitly warned the EU’s member states and international markets about the risk of a “non-operational government in Italy,” in case of one of these forces was going to take control of the country.

On the first Sunday of March, the decision of the Italian people became unmistakably clear—and it was not what Brussels had hoped for. In fact, the people of what used to be the most Euro-enthusiastic nation rejected the moderate parties and entrusted the leadership of the country to anti-establishment, Euro-sceptical forces. The rise to power of Euro-sceptical and sovereignist populists that was avoided in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries, became reality in the Eurozone’s slowest-growing economy. 

The biggest loser of the electons was the Democratic Party, whose share of votes ended up being just below 19%, which is very far from the 25.4% they had gained in the previous election. Even though the centre-left, the current governing coalition, was not ecpected to win, it is striking to note how more than 2 million voters decided not to renew their support for the PD.

Matteo Renzi, leader of the Democratic Party and the centre-left coalition
Source: Shutterstock

Whereas this result might have been a real nightmare for Renzi, Berlusconi’s awakening was no less bitter. In fact, after 20 years of undisputed leadership both inside his party and the entire centre-right, the charismatic Berlusconi, barred until next year from public office following a fraud conviction, lost the leadership of the coalition composed of Forza Italia, the anti-establishment, sovereignist, and anti-immigration party Lega Nord (North League) led by Matteo Salvini, Giorgia Meloni’s far-right formation Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), and the small Christian democratic party Noi con l’Italia (We with Italy). For the first time, the mere 14% of votes in both chambers—so far, the party’s 21% in 2013’s elections was the worst result for Forza Italia—took from the Italian tycoon the satisfaction of being the leading force inside the coalition. In fact, after the Lega’s surprisingly positive performance, with a vote share close to 18% on the national level and with almost 6 million votes, Salvini emerged as the centre-right’s rightful leader and laid his claim for the position of Prime Minister.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, addresses the crowd
Source: Shutterstock

Despite being the most popular coalition with 37% of the vote, the centre-right was not able to reach the 40% threshold required to form a majority government. In fact, it is worth noting that the two-party era in Italy ended with the 2013 elections, while the appearance of a third big actor made it impossible for any party or coalition to obtain a clear victory under the current electoral system.

And it was exactly this “third wheel”—the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement)—that received by far the most votes at the national level. The way the electoral performance of this anti-establishment movement (founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and currently led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio) has improved since the last election’s otherwise highly positive outcome is impressive. That time the party received an extraordinary—and unforeseen—25.6% in the Chamber of Deputies and 23.8% in the Senate. But even these results were dwarfed by the recent boom. In fact, with around 11 million and 9.7 million votes, Luigi Di Maio’s party, running alone as a single party, got more than 32% in both chambers.

However, the rise of the M5S and the Lega will pose an difficult question. By what majority will the new government be formed?

Born out of a protest rally, Movimento 5 Stelle was able to gain support in those layers of the Italian society that had lost confidence in traditional parties.
Source: Shutterstock

Even though both parties are claiming to be the winner, none of them was able to reach the number of seats necessary to form an indisputable majority. M5S won a total of 221 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 112 in the Senate (88 and 44 seats were gained via the first-past-the-post system). This number is still far from the 316 seats needed in the lower house and the 158 seats needed in the upper house to have a majority. This will leave Di Maio & co. with the hard ideological decision whether to start consultations with other political actors. Even though Di Maio tried to soften his party’s stance towards Europe during the campaign, e.g. by abandoning the idea to leave the common currency by means of a referendum, the direction the M5S will choose is yet to be seen.

On the other hand, Matteo Salvini found himself as the frontrunner of the most popular coalition, and the opportunity to be the new Prime Minister is something that he does not want to allow to get away from him. However, the results suggest that the centre-right also needs to team up with others to form a governing alliance. All in all, the seats collected by the centre-right coalition—260 and 135 in the two chambers, respectively—are still far from the needed quota.

But what about Berlusconi and Renzi?

Assuming that no party or coalition can stand alone to form a majority without the support of other political actors, the role of Forza Italia’s 81-year-old leader, just as that of the leader of PD, could become essential. It would be a mistake to write off Berlusconi or Renzi politically, as they could still emerge as “kingmakers.” In fact, Forza Italia can take advantage of its 59 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and its 33 seats in the Senate, while the PD can also use its 117 and 59 seats. And this gives them undeniable bargaining power.

Mathematically, the M5S and the Lega have enough seats to govern together, but apart from the populist and anti-establishment rhetoric, the two parties do not share many other common points in their programs. Moreover, Salvini has already ruled out this scenario, because as a “winner” he would not find it attractive to be an underdog in a M5S-led government. At this point, the two available options left are either a M5S–PD coalition or a grand centre-right–PD coalition.

The 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi could once again become the centre of gravity for Italian politics
Source: Shutterstock

Of course, neither of these options is more than a mere hypothesis, and it will be essential to know the steps Renzi will take. In fact, the leader of the PD has always ruled out the possibility of governing together with the M5S. Moreover, he vowed to stay in opposition during the next legislature. In order to not let someone inside his party fall to temptation and grant Di Maio external support—which would not only prevent the centre-left from having a ministerial seat, but probably bring an end to the party politically—Renzi decided to “freeze” his resignation as the PD’s secretary.

Concerning the grand coalition scenario, we will need to see how effective Silvio Berlusconi will be at moderating Salvini’s attitudes in order to attract into the orbit of the centre-right the weakened Democratic Party—or at least, what will remain of it.

If none of these scenarios are realized, there will be probably a stalemate, whereupon the Italian President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, will face the option of appointing a short-term government, whose room for action would mainly be limited to approving the budget and creating a new cross-party electoral law to avoid another hung parliament. Brussels, as well as Paris and Berlin, have already expressed confidence in Mattarella and in his ability to manage Italian interests and commitments in the EU.

The next months will be crucial for Italian politics and its credibility on the international markets. But whatever the colour of the eventual governing power, Italians expect that it will emerge as the result of a wise and conscientious debate between the parties, and it will help to create a new and stable political order that will lead the country out of the swamp.


Opening pic source: Shutterstock

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