Italy will return to the polls next week for what promises to be another controversial general election, with immigration and the state of the economy having been afforded a prominent place in the electoral campaign.
To get an idea of how polarising and divisive the current debate is in the country, just consider the response of right wing parties to the attack that took place in Macerata at the beginning of February.
After a gunman with extreme right wing views opened fire on six black migrants, the blame was put firmly and squarely at the left’s door for allegedly failing to ‘control migration’. Thus the Lega Nord’s (Northern League, LN) leader Matteo Salvini remarked that ‘uncontrolled migration generates chaos, rage and social conflict’. The reaction of his allies, including Silvio Berlusconi, was very similar.
The debate has considerably heated up as far as the Italian economy is concerned, too, with a similar process of scapegoating taking place, whereby Italy’s economic problems have conveniently been blamed almost entirely on the Euro and the inflexibility of the EU. Of course, Italy is not at all unique in doing this – as migration and the EU have been the focus of campaigns all around Europe in recent years, but condoning almost lethal attacks against innocent bystanders takes the debate to a completely different level.
This scenario is further complicated by the complexities of the new electoral law (a mix of first-past-the-post and proportional representation), which, in practice, makes it very difficult to deliver a clear outcome and, in turn, to predict what kind of coalition will lead the country. Rather than speculating on the possible results, in this blog we focus on the main political actors competing in this election, in order to understand ‘how we got to where we are now’ and ‘where parties/candidates are at’.
Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD).
The recent history of the PD, the pivotal party on the left, centres on the rise and fall of its actual leader, Matteo Renzi. As he took charge of the party in 2013, Renzi embodied a new generation of politicians who wanted to ‘scrap’, as he famously claimed, both the old political class that was running his party and running the country. Having replaced Enrico Letta as the head of the PD-led government, Renzi did extremely well in the European election held in the spring of 2014 and, keen to show he meant business, embarked on a series of reforms (such as employment legislation and welfare) in the months that followed.
However, having lost a referendum on complicated constitutional matters in 2016, after turning it into a vote on himself by promising to resign in case of defeat, his image was irremediably tarnished. This plunged the PD into a crisis and, in 2017, the party suffered a split with some of the party’s left-wing politicians leaving to form a new party. According to polls that have been remarkably consistent for years, the PD will almost certainly lack the numbers to create a centre-left coalition after the election. The party’s lack of focus during the campaign and inability to concentrate on few and clear themes have not helped either.
Forza Italia (FI)
Forza Italia means Silvio Berlusconi, the media entrepreneur who created it in 1994, merged it with another party in 2008 to create the People of Freedom party, and revived it again in 2013. Following the premature end of his fourth government in 2011 and a conviction for tax fraud in 2013, Berlusconi kept a low profile for some years but never ‘went away’, as many international media mistakenly argued, as he remained firmly in charge of his party. At around 16-17%, FI’s support is currently a fraction of the People of Freedom’s 37% in 2008, but Berlusconi’s advantage is the pivotal part played by FI.
It is, in fact, very likely that FI’s MPs will be needed for the creation of the next government, whether the party forms a right wing coalition alongside the LN and others, or whether it enters a coalition government with the PD due to the vote delivering a hung Parliament.
Either way, Berlusconi should be able to emerge as the kingmaker (right now, he would not be able to serve as Prime Minister because of the aforementioned conviction disqualifying him from public office, but he has appealed). Unlike the PD, Berlusconi has campaigned relentlessly on a small number of themes that target his constituency of middle class and retired voters, housewives, and the unemployed.
Hence, his forays into using very harsh language on migration notwithstanding, he has put up the image of the “reassuring elder statesman” and campaigned on a platform of tax cuts, more jobs and pension increases. The fact that the FI’s leader did not deliver on very similar promises in the past (he oversaw an increase of the tax burden as PM for eight years between 2001 and 2011) does not seem to matter too much. Support for his party is steadily growing in the polls – also due to the weaknesses, divisions and confused campaigning of the left.
Despite being the oldest party in the Italian political system, the Lega is going into the general election with a completely new identity. The change in leadership, following a fraud scandal that led to the resignation of the party’s founding father Umberto Bossi, saw the ascent of Matteo Salvini in 2013. This has, in practice, coincided with an unprecedented shift in the ideology and agenda of what, until then, had been a ‘regionalist populist party’.
Under Bossi, the LN represented the ‘hard-working people of Northern Italy’ against the corrupted political elites in Rome and southern Italians. Thus, it challenged the vertical organisation of power within the Italian state, campaigning for northern territorial autonomy.
Crucially, Salvini has transformed the LN into a ‘national Lega’, which can now be best described as a nativist-populist right-wing party. Under Salvini, the ‘fight for the North’ has gradually disappeared from the party’s agenda. This has culminated in the dropping of the term ‘North’ from the party’s electoral symbol, but also the creation of a parallel organisation (‘Lega for Salvini Premier’) which aims to represent the whole country. Issues such as immigration, security, law and order are now at the core of the LN’s political message, while the EU/Brussels has taken the place of ‘Rome’ as the elites that need defeating.
Polls suggest that the Lega should fare well on 4 March (by gaining around 13% of the vote, up from about 4% in the previous general election). The actual result will be key to determine: i) whether the LN as we knew it will disappear completely (if it fared very well the ‘northern factions’ of the party might – albeit grudgingly – get behind the ranks of Salvini’s new party) or if it will split into two parties (Salvini’s ‘national league’ and a ‘northern league’ led by the old regionalist guard); ii) the extent to which Berlusconi will be willing to remain in the current right wing coalition with Salvini, or look elsewhere for partners (i.e. the PD).
Movimento 5 Stelle (M5s, Five Star Movement)
M5s entered the Italian political scene in 2009 as an anti-establishment force, striking a chord among an electorate weighted down by the economic crisis and disillusioned by the traditional political class. In 2013 the party contested its first general election, achieving a phenomenal success by snatching the largest share of votes (25%). However, following that election the M5s did not get into power: while its support was wide, it was far from being sufficient to allow it to form a majority government.
Fearing it would lose support by making an agreement with the PD which it saw as part of the old political ‘caste’, the M5s refused to enter a coalition with it, so that the Democrats ended up governing with Berlusconi’s FI. However, this did not stop the M5s from gaining other important successes, e.g. winning the mayoral elections in Rome and Turin in 2016.
And yet, since then, the ‘novelty effect’ on which the movement built much of its electoral success has started to vanish. In addition, the turbulent performance of the M5s in government (both in Rome and Turin) has led some to question its credibility. Furthermore, Beppe Grillo (the ‘owner’ of the M5s symbol) has recently stepped aside, ushering in the unexperienced Luigi Di Maio as the new ‘leader’ and candidate for PM.
Thus, the movement is currently confronted with the difficult task of addressing its ideological, strategic and organisational ambiguities. Polls suggest that it could emerge again as the most popular party in the country, by gaining around 28% of the vote. However, given the current electoral law, it is almost impossible that the M5s will be able to govern alone.
Again, the future of Grillo’s party hangs on the thread of the actual election results. Only then it will become clear whether the M5s will stick to its ‘golden rule’ of intransigence, by refusing to enter any coalition with other parties, or if Di Maio will usher in a new phase of institutionalisation, opening the way to negotiations with other actors (such as, perhaps, Salvini’s LN, as some commentators have argued).
Where do we go from here?
As we write, we are left with very few certainties about this election – especially considering the opinion polls. Indeed, a good 35% of voters are still undecided and could still swing the result. The first certainty is that, as our discussion highlighted, the Italian political system still struggles to renew itself. Secondly, although the final election results cannot be predicted, electoral polls have hardly changed for several months, so it is clearly very unlikely that any single party will be able to govern alone.
Hence, whatever government eventually emerges in the aftermath of the vote, as former foes are forced to govern together, will probably not be stable nor long lasting. This could have major repercussions for the country – with the potential to aggravate, rather than provide an effective solution to – the economic and social crises it is already facing.
Of course, if, as many predict, the election will lead to the creation of some ‘grand coalition’ that forces its members to scrap the promises they had made during the campaign to be able to get along for a while with their former opponents, we would probably see the already wide gap between citizens and politics grow even further. Again, this could impact on the political and social stability of the country, and further feed the populist wave that has impacted so greatly on Italy, as well as many other liberal democracies across Europe in recent decades.
This article was previously published on the Sheffield University SPERI blog (see here) and Political Studies Association (PSA) Italian Politics Specialist Group blog. It is the first in a series of SPERI-PSA Italian Specialist Group blogs on the 2018 Italian election and is reproduced here with the kind permisison of the authors, who are also co-conveners of the PSA Italian Politics Specialist Group. Future blogs on the Italian elections will also be available on the SPERI blog here.