Before last March 4 one could argue whether or not general elections in Italy stood as a new telling litmus test about the state of western democracies. General discontent–so widely spread in Italy–, economic stagnation and political dysfunction, as it happens almost all around the world, especially out of the spotlight of the so-called ‘global cities’, are making the liberal consensus collapse. In fact, on the wave of some previous important electoral results, ballot boxes came out with another hard punch in the face of the governing elites. The results ended to be the nth symptom of more profound changes that are sweeping through Europe’s creaking party systems.

Elections in Italy: winners and losers

The current electoral law, in force since last October–just six months before the elections–, is a mixture of a plurality voting and a proportional one and was meant to reward the most voted coalition. The centre-right coalition collected a relative majority of the votes, not enough to be the majority neither in the Chamber of Deputies nor in the Senate. As one of the most significant developments[1], within this coalition, Matteo Salvini and the national populist party Lega has managed to take the lead of the right wing political spectrum, after they replaced Silvio Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, which were.outpaced in the ballots by Salvini’s party. Lega is not a new party, but Salvini’s leadership has turned up the volume on cultural issues, emulating other national populists and leaving its own traditional federalist (or separatist) propaganda.

The startling result of the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (5SM) has been  another striking development. 5SM was founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo and now led by the 31 year-old Luigi Di Maio. Its sudden ascendancy at the center of Italian politics reflects another key trend: rising[2] and historically unprecedented volatility[3]. The 5SM, which has collected votes by one Italian in three, has been claiming to be the real political winner even if the electoral law, allowing the composition of electoral coalitions, did not give them any majority.

The extent to which this vote has marked a radical request for change is a turning point in Italian politics[4]. Movimento 5 Stelle, Lega, Fratelli d’Italia (a smaller party coalitioned with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Lega) recently travelled across the country and made people feel heard, channeling the general disappointment towards the political establishment, considered unable to provide real opportunities in every corner of the country.

Discontent damaged Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, that has never been the second party in a centre-right coalition. A completely reversed situation compared to the polls of the eve, when it was thought that Berlusconi would almost certainly be the king maker in any scenario. But discontent particularly damaged the center-left Partito Democratico, which has governed Italy since 2013 and had the worst showing in the party’s history[5]. This came on the watch of Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister, who has gone from a rising star to one of the most polarizing and despised politicians in the country[6]. Renzi was forced to resign once again as leader of the party, the only party that could offer serious leadership and a pro-European Union agenda.

Italy and European Union

These results may (or should, or will–it depends) have serious consequences for Europe. For the first time one of the three pillar countries of the European Union effectively has an euroskeptical majority in Parliament. Both Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega have called for rewriting treaties with Europe to give Italy more sovereignty[7]. Promises to take back control over the country’s policies resonated amongst the ordinary people, the traditional moderate electorate, not only amongst the radical voters. Just few days after the elections French President Emmanuel Macron met in Paris German Chancellor Angela Merkel. During the press conference Macron said: “The work awaiting us is important in a European context profoundly shaken by Brexit and the Italian elections which saw the extremes rise and allowed us to touch the consequences of a long economic crisis and the migratory challenges to which we were not able to respond”[8]. Macron went further, revealing in advance the intention to work on a roadmap on the Euro-zone, migrants, defense policy, trade, research, education, for refoundation of the European Union by June.

Governing

Just the same day Italians went to the ballots, Cdu/Csu and Spd ratified their agreement in order to form, once again, a coalition government in Germany more than one half of a year after the elections. Since the day the new Italian lawmakers officially took office Movimento 5 Stelle and the parties of the centre-right coalition elected together the speakers of both chambers of Parliament. Forza Italia Senator Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati became the first woman to be elected Senate president and Roberto Fico, standing figure of the Movimento 5 Stelle, was elected president of the Chamber of Deputies. But today the shape of Italy’s next government is still completely unclear[9]. President Sergio Mattarella started the traditional round of talks with every single political group to form a government but soon stumbled upon a series of mutual vetoes adverse to the availability to make compromises.

M5S and Lega seem mutually open to dialogue but both highlight a caveat. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia, has refused to work with the Movimento, while M5S’s leader Luigi Di Maio is similarly reticent about working with Forza Italia[10]. Both parties exercised their veto powers. Partito Democratico confirmed what expressed just few hours after the elections, i.e. its unavailability to make a political alliance with the other parties. Political deadlock seems today even lasting and the parties involved are further apart and more entrenched in their positions than when they started[11]. The effort made by Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati to form a coalition government between M5S and the centre-right parties failed. Then Roberto Fico received by President Mattarella a so-called exploratory mandate in order to assess the possibility to create a coalition government between the Movimento and Partito Democratico. In both cases two questions cannot be avoided: is a ‘government contract’ feasible? Will such a government be stable and durable?

 

Conclusions

Sergio Fabbrini, Director at the LUISS School of Government in Rome, invites[12] to search for the motives of this current stalemate in the failure of a specific political strategy or idea which believes changing politicians is enough to change policies and politics. Structural reforms[13] are considered necessary to overcome a unique political scenario like the one characterizing Italy today: proportional (electoral) system and tripolar party (system). The anti-elite propaganda, at fault, in Fabbrini’s opinion, for rejecting the recent efforts to reorganize Italian institutions, seems to be the same one which moved the majority of the Italians who recently gave their votes to movements and leaders that struck hard on traditional governing parties.

Seen in this perspective a reform of the institutions seems to be both necessary and not feasible at the same time. In fact, the idea that political forces or political leaders come to power shouting the keyword “change” without focusing on the institutional conundrum may be fake. It is about balancing the willing to fight political corruption, to oppose the abuse of power, to favor the replacement of parliamentary representations and the ambition to improve the quality of our democracy. It is about breaking the alliance between radicalism and conservatism, rightly understanding which are the causes and the effects of political dysfunction.

 


Notes

[1] M. Goodwin (2018), Italy Is the West’s Future, Foreign Policy, 14 March, http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/14/italy-is-the-wests-future/.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Volatility is an estimate of how many voters have voted a different party than the previous election. According to YouTrend the electorate has never been so “liquid”. See S. Borghese (2018), Politiche 2018: analisi del voto, YouTrend, http://www.youtrend.it/2018/03/07/politiche-2018-analisi-del-voto/.

[4] M. Movarelli (2018), Three points to make sense of the Italian elections outcome, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, 7 March, https://www.martenscentre.eu/blog/three-points-make-sense-italian-elections-outcome.

[5] In the past year, social democratic parties have slumped to single digits in France, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands, while social democrats in Germany polled their lowest vote share since 1933, and their counterparts in Austria fell to their lowest number of seats in the post-war era. Italy and leftist all around the world are alone in dealing with these troubles and the right turn registered in March should not be viewed in isolation.

[6] R. Donadio (2018), Two Ways to Read Italy’s Election Results. The people have spoken. But what are they saying?, The Atlantic, 5 March, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/italy-election-european-union/554900/.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Ansa (2018), Italy vote shook EU – Merkel-Macron, Ansa, 16 March, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/politics/2018/03/16/italy-vote-shook-eu-merkel-macron-2_e46ad9a6-63d4-48f5-b0fb-2edd23b4ca7a.html.

[9] W. Martin (2018), Italy’s election was a month ago and the country is still without a government — here’s a snapshot of the chaos, Business Insider, 7 April, http://www.businessinsider.com/italy-politics-one-month-after-general-election-2018-4?IR=T.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] G. Zampano (2018), Italian government: Mission still (almost) impossible. Talks collapse again and main parties appear even further apart, Politico.eu, 20 April, https://www.politico.eu/article/italian-government-mission-still-almost-impossible/.

[12] S. Fabbrini (2018), Perché le riforme devono iniziare dalle Istituzioni, Il Sole 24 Ore, 22 April, http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/notizie/2018-04-21/perche-riforme-devono-iniziare-istituzioni–212841.shtml?uuid=AEQU4gcE.

[13] Sergio Fabbrini supported both the reform of the Constitution and the electoral reform promoted by Renzi in office. The first one mainly aimed at diversifying the tasks attributed to the two branches of the Italian Parliament and the second one introduced an electoral law which established a second ballot between the two most voted parties during the first round. The reform of the Constitution, passed by the Parliament, was rejected by a popular referendum and the electoral reform was considered unconstitutional and then repealed by the Constitutional Court.