A new electoral tsunami has hit Italy in the 2018 general election, after the already-astonishing results of the previous general election. As highly expected by many pundits, the election held on the 4th March has ended up in a hung Parliament, with no coalition or party reaching an overall majority. But nobody had predicted that the overall majority of votes and seats would have been gained by populist and anti-establishment parties. Indeed, the Five Star Movement has become the most voted party, with about one-third of the votes and the Northern League (re-branded “The League”) reaching an unprecedented 17% of the vote share and taking the lead in the centre-right camp for the first time. Conversely, the incumbent centre-left coalition has fallen to less than 23% of the votes, with the main actor, the Democratic Party, falling to less than 19% of the vote share. All in all, the outcome of the 2018 Italian general election has reinforced the tripolar party system emerged after the previous 2013 election. What remains to be explained is the path that has led to such a breakthrough.
A new electoral system
After a turbulent legislature, with three different Democratic Party-led governments and the failure of the constitutional referendum called by Matteo Renzi, the Italian Parliament passed a new electoral law. It introduced a new mixed electoral system, with 37% of seats assigned in single-member districts (SMD) (first-past-the-post) and the remaining 63% allocated via PR (Hare quota). The laws provided different thresholds to obtain seats in the PR arena: the 10% of valid votes for parties’ coalitions or the 3% of valid votes for parties, either alone or in a coalition. Moreover, within each coalition, votes for a list below 1% of valid votes would have been wasted, as they would have been excluded from the total share of votes of the coalition.
The electoral supply
This complicated system of seat allocation and electoral thresholds has fostered the return of a coalition-based electoral supply. Indeed, the centre-right has run with a four-list coalition. Once again, Silvio Berlusconi was able to gather around his party, Forza Italia, the extreme-right wing allies of The League and Brothers of Italy and the centrist Noi con L’Italia. On the other side, Matteo Renzi, despite the catastrophic defeat in the 2016 Constitutional referendum and the birth of the Gentiloni government, won the 2017 PD primary election, but also suffered from a split within the Democratic party. The left wing, led by the former secretary of the PD, Pier Luigi Bersani, exited the party and later formed a new political formation, called Liberi e Uguali. Nevertheless, Matteo Renzi eventually managed to form a coalition with three minor lists, the pro-Europe and pro-civil-rights +Europa, the post-Christian-Democratic Civica Popolare, and Insieme, a small electoral cartel supported by the former Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi. Last, but clearly not least, the Five Star Movement ran alone, as usual, but under the new leadership of the 31-year-old Luigi di Maio, after the founder of the party, Beppe Grillo, had made a step back. Many other minor lists completed the picture of this varied political offer, ranging from the extreme left Potere al Popolo to the neo-fascist CasaPound.
Winners and losers
The first interesting data emerged on the 4th March has been the surprising hold of the turnout: more specifically, almost the 73% of Italian voters cast a ballot, just two percentage points less than in the 2013 general election. In Italy, turnout in general elections has been declining since 1979, and despite this is the lowest rate of participation in post-WWII Italian general elections, a much higher decrease was expected.
Turning our attention to the electoral results, the centre-right coalition has come first, with 37% of the votes, but has fallen short of a majority of seats in the Lower House by about 50 seats (while writing this contribution, the voting count has not ended yet). On the other side of the political spectrum, the centre-left coalition has only arrived third, by obtaining less than 23% of the vote share. Instead, not only has the Five Star Movement been the most voted party, but has also succeeded to become the second most voted electoral pole.
These results have substantially confirmed the tripolar configuration of the Italian party system. Nonetheless, after the historic low of 2013, the level of bipolarism – the main pattern of competition from 1994 until 2013 – has risen again: 70% of the votes have been cast for the two main electoral poles, but what has changed is the identity of these two competitors, with the Five Star Movement replacing, for the first time, the centre-left as the main opponent of the centre-right.
The election has been a disaster for the left: the incumbent Democratic Party has fallen to its lowest result ever, and the whole left bloc, also including the PD-split Liberi e Uguali and the leftist Potere al Popolo, has obtained the worst vote share in the history of Italian Republic. Indeed, only about 27% of voters have cast a ballot for left or the centre-left parties, and, for the first time, the (centre-)left bloc has received less than 10 million votes. Just to make a comparison, after the 2006 Italian general election, such number was equal to more than 18 million votes. From a comparative perspective, among the Western European left blocs, the Italian one is the second smallest one, just above France.
Turning to one of two clear winners of this general election, the Five Star Movement has also managed to obtain a sort of record. In 2013, its 25.6% of vote share emerged as the best electoral debut for a new Western European party from 1945 until the 2010s (excluding each country’s first democratic election). While all the other cases of a successful electoral debut (such as the Italian Forza Italia in 1994, the Spanish Podemos in 2015, the Portuguese PRD in 1985, the Dutch Pim Fortuyn List in 2002, and the Danish Progress Party in 1973) suffered from an electoral setback in the subsequent election, not only has the Five Star Movement managed not to lose votes, but it has also increased its vote share by almost 7 percentage points.
The other winner of this election has been certainly The League. Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party has abandoned its separatist claims and shifted towards a nationwide populist appeal against immigrants and Europe, thus becoming more similar to other Western European right-wing parties emphasising demarcation issues. The League has skyrocketed from the 4% reached in 2013 to more than 17% and has become the main force of the conservative camp at the expense of Forza Italia. This latter has instead performed much worse than what expected, by only obtaining 14% of the vote share, the worst result for Berlusconi’s party since its inception.
A new electoral geography in a volatile environment
This Italian general election will also be remembered for an unprecedented reshape of the traditional electoral geography of the country. First, Southern Italy is now a Five Star Movement’ stronghold. Just consider that, in 2013, the party formerly led by Beppe Grillo emerged as the most nationalised party, with an extraordinary territorial homogeneity from the Alps to Sicily. Today, more than one-half of the votes for the party comes from Southern regions, where it gets 44% of the vote share against the 32% of the centre-right and the 18% of the centre-left. But the most surprising outcome concerns the so-called Red Zone (Zona Rossa), namely the part of the country including Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, where the left bloc has always been predominant at least since the end of WWII. On the 4th March, the PD-led coalition has been overcome by the centre-right. Only in Matteo Renzi’s region, Tuscany, has the centre-left succeeded to maintain the first place.
Along with these changes, the 2018 Italian general election has confirmed the presence of high levels of electoral instability. More specifically, the index of electoral volatility – provisional, as the voting count is still ongoing – will be around 30, making this election the third most volatile one in the Italian post-WWII period, just after 1994 and 2013. So, after the 2013 electoral earthquake, Italian politics has maintained a sort of “stability of instability”, but while, in 2013, this was mainly done by the emergence of successful new parties, like the Five Star Movement, in 2018, the electoral instability has been mainly driven by a significant reshuffle of the support for existing parties.
What comes next?
Given these results, and especially the absence of a party or a coalition having reached the absolute majority of seats in Parliament, a crucial moment has just started for Sergio Mattarella, the President of the Republic, who will soon begin talks with all political forces before provisionally designating a Primo Ministro incaricato, namely, a person in charge of forming a government that shall have the confidence of the Italian Parliament. Two roads are ahead of the President of the Republic: the first is to provisionally designate a person having the support of the centre-right coalition (who, according to pre-electoral bargains among centre-right parties, should be Matteo Salvini, leader of The Lega), which could nonetheless be not enough to secure a successful confidence vote; the second is to provisionally designate Luigi di Maio, the leader of the most voted party, the Five Star Movement. This latter road appears a bit more reasonable given that, in more than 70 years of the Italian Republic, the most voted party has never been left out of the government. But this time any choice will be more complicated, given the Five Star Movement has refused pre-electoral agreements with other parties and it is not clear whether it will accept to form a coalition government with other partners. To secure a parliamentary majority for this possible government, there are only two potential partners: The Lega or the PD, and it hard to imagine that one of them will accept to be the junior partner of a future coalition government.
To put it mildly, all these hypotheses might be nothing more than political fiction. If these roads become unfeasible, the option leading to an early election might become more realistic, and Italy might be shortly faced with another allegedly decisive election.
Photo source: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/naked-activist-disrupts-berlusconi-vote-italy-article-1.3854391