Author: Mark Gilbert

Posted on: World Politics Review | February 28th, 2018


Italians go to the polls this Sunday in a climate of uncertainty, amid fears, not unfounded, that their country’s political stability is at stake.

Three main political forces are contending for power: On the right, a shaky alliance of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and two far-right parties, the League and the Brothers of Italy; the maverick and populist Five Star Movement; and the governing, center-left Democratic Party. They are polling roughly in that order, followed by Free and Equal, a left-wing coalition of disgruntled Democratic Party veterans who broke away in 2017. But 30 percent of the electorate is still undecided. Many frustrated, disillusioned voters simply won’t go to the polls.

The uncertainty is compounded by the electoral system. Italy will vote under a new law that assigns two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of parliament by proportional representation and one-third of the seats through single-member constituencies. This partial return to a first-past-the-post system should favor the right in the north and parts of the south. As a result, the League, which has secured many candidates in its northern stronghold, will likely win a disproportionately high number of seats. What nobody knows is how much tactical voting will influence the outcome in the constituencies in central or southern Italy. Many voters will vote against parties they particularly dislike, rather than for a party they prefer, but nobody knows how widespread this will be.

It is also uncertain whether elections will lead to a new government, which needs 316 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies and 158 seats in the Senate to win a vote of confidence. Berlusconi, back again, looks set to be a major player, but his alliance will probably fall short of these numbers. Party discipline could be decisive in the new parliament, as members switch allegiances based on the political winds. The current parliament, in place since 2013, has seen record numbers of lawmakers change their party affiliation, and the next parliament promises no better.

Even if Berlusconi’s right-wing bloc could cobble together enough support to form a government, it isn’t clear if it could last more than a few months, or even who its prime minister would be. Berlusconi, a convicted criminal, is excluded from holding office until 2019. His coalition is an incoherent electoral cartel united by a program of expensive promises that, if implemented, would threaten fiscal stability. Italy has a public debt of over 130 percent of GDP. All three right-wing parties want to tax much less, proposing variations of a flat tax, and spend much more, even if this means spiraling deficit spending—and a clash with the EU. There is, perhaps, only one certainty: If there were a right-wing government with a workable majority, there would be panic in financial markets.

If the right-wing frontrunners do not command a majority, one alternative might be to vote again. But there is general agreement that this would change little in the absence of yet another electoral reform. In any case, the prospect of another lengthy electoral campaign fills everybody with horror. The best thing about this election is that the campaign has been short.

So there is a growing conviction that the next government will be one of “national unity”: an administration led perhaps by the current prime minister, well-regarded Paolo Gentiloni of the Democratic Party, or some other respected figure, with a strong component of technocrats and support from across the political spectrum. The problem is that any such government may actually be cause for national discord.

There are several reasons why. First, such a government would face disruptive parliamentary opposition from the Five Star Movement and the League, which together could command well over 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 100 or so seats in the Senate. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, is probably praying for a government of national unity. He could drop all pretenses of moderation and campaign theatrically against a quisling government imposed by Brussels, which all evidence suggests would pay electoral dividends. For over two decades, the League, until recently called the Northern League, was a right-wing populist party advocating greater autonomy for northern Italy that nevertheless acquired significant experience in regional government. Salvini’s transformation of the party into a “sovereignist” insurgency attacking Brussels, immigration and austerity has already tripled its vote share since 2013.

The predilection of the M5S, as the Five Star Movement is known, is less clear. It might be willing to give guarded external support to a unity government, but this is not likely. If it did, the party would lose its anti-establishment mantle to the League. Luigi Di Maio, the M5S’s youthful leader, is busying himself with campaigning and drawing up a list of would-be ministers, but this is all so much posturing. The M5S won’t win, even if it will probably be the largest single party in a fractured parliament.

The only way the M5S can influence government is by compromising, but compromise is the last thing many of its adherents want to do. Di Maio, who is the epitome of an ambitious politician, may be more flexible. The M5S, though, could even split after the elections, if the uncharacteristic silence during the campaign of its founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, is a sign that he is plotting something drastic.

Second, a government of national unity would be prone to internal convulsions. Since applying Brussels-imposed austerity would be its main task, it is a fair guess that such an administration would be precarious, given the aversion to austerity of likely coalition partners Forza Italia and Free and Equal, on the right and left. The Democratic Party, if it is badly defeated, could easily split again, with former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi probably trying to form a new centrist party, adding to tensions.

Last but not least, a unity government might boost the far right and left outside of parliament, sparking virulent opposition. The specter currently stalking Italian politics is a return to the 1970s, when fascists and young revolutionary leftists fought futile, sometimes fatal battles in the streets of Italy’s university towns. Today, neo-fascist groups and anarchists are spoiling for a fight. The far-right Casa Pound and Forza Nuova movements have engaged in a number of provocative actions of late, while far-left radicals are a violent presence in several major Italian cities.

The truth is that this election has come at the wrong time. Gentiloni’s government has actually been a success, but the vote has come before it could reap the electoral benefits. Gentiloni has built upon the reforms introduced by the previous Monti, Letta and Renzi governments and has restored economic growth. But it is too little, too late.

After the introduction of the euro, Italians experienced a decade of stagnation. Since November 2011, when Berlusconi was deposed to make way for a technocratic administration under Mario Monti, austerity has reigned. Italians have tired of this slog.

On Feb. 22, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, let slip that Italy risked having a “non-operational government” after the elections. His comment provoked fury in Italy, but he was merely stating a truth many Italians don’t want to hear. Italy will have a functioning government after March 4, since the Gentiloni government has not resigned and so, constitutionally, it will stay in office until a new government can somehow be assembled. But by “operational,” Juncker meant a government able to maintain Italy’s financial commitments to the EU and play an active role in support of European integration. By that standard, he was right to be alarmed.

Italy’s perennial political chaos disguises the fact that sometimes its democracy really does break down. It happened in the mid-1970s and again in the early 1990s. It might happen after Sunday.

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