There’s a lot at stake in Italy’s March 4 general elections. With four previous prime ministers selected through parliamentary deals, more than 60 percent of Italians are not satisfied with how democracy works in their country. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Italians marched, with violent clashes between fascists and antifascists in several cities.
Will former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi emerge as this election’s kingmaker? It’s an open question whether Italians will give his center-right alliance, polling at 37.5 percent, enough support to govern outright — or whether this election, like the last one in 2013, will require another deal to break the political stalemate.
Unemployment and immigrants are top concerns
Public opinion polls cite unemployment and immigration as the top voter concerns. GDP growth has lagged below 2 percent since 2006, and unemployment has been more than 10 percent since 2012. Many Italians blame the euro and the European Union — and see European budgetary rules as stalling the domestic investment needed to spur economic recovery.
Italy remains at the forefront of the Mediterranean migration crisis, with the second-highest number of asylum seekers, after Germany. Many Italians feel they have been “left alone” to cope with more than 100,000 migrants arriving by sea each year. France, Switzerland and Austria have closed their borders, leaving Italy to foot an estimated 1 billion euro annual tab to accommodate these migrants. Italy is now home to four times as many foreigners as lived in the country in 1998, the largest such jump in Europe.
When the pre-election polling ended Feb. 18, no party had a clear line to outright victory. Up to one-third of potential voters — Italian women in particular — were undecided. The lineup of parties and possible coalitions covers the full political spectrum. Eight parties are each expected to receive more than 2 percent of the vote. The largest will determine who leads the country:
The Democratic Party (PD) has been governing the country since 2013, and former prime minister Matteo Renzi is campaigning on continuity. Voters rejected a constitutional referendum he supported in December 2016, and Renzi subsequently resigned. The center-left PD is currently polling at 22.7 percent. By taking a stance against Euroskepticism and Italy’s more radical elements, Renzi is positioning the PD as the best choice to keep Italy firmly in the European Union.
The Five Star Movement (M5S), brainchild of comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, is leading in the pre-election polls with 27 percent. This anti-establishment party grew quickly to claim 26 percent of the final tally in 2013, more than any other party. M5S became popular among younger voters for its “direct democracy”: Online consultations between government representatives and party supporters are a distinctive feature of M5S.
Grillo pushed for a referendum on the euro and a “different” Europe, but the new M5S leadership of 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio stepped back on these points. But M5S continues to take a hard line on immigrants, urging changes to the E.U.’s Dublin rules of resettlement and a quota system of migrant distribution.
A less controversial figure than Grillo, Di Maio has cozied up to the church and campaigned on slashing red tape and corruption, cutting corporate taxes and providing a guaranteed minimum 780 euro monthly income for Italy’s poorest citizens. Victories in 2016 Rome and Turin mayoral elections have given the party some governing experience.
Forza Italia (FI), Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right party, wants to expel 600,000 immigrants and offer greater border policing. Berlusconi himself cannot hold public office unless a ban stemming from a 2013 tax fraud charge is lifted, but he denounced migrants as a “social time bomb, because they are ready to commit crimes.” Buoyed by victory in the 2017 Sicilian regional elections, FI appears more populist and nationalist than in previous campaigns. Economically, Berlusconi is not opposed to a parallel currency system to the euro and supports a flat tax. When polling ended Feb. 18, FI was at 16 percent.
The Northern League (LN), led by Matteo Salvini, was polling fourth at 14 percent. LN is allied with anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties elsewhere in Europe, and gained popularity when public discontent with the E.U.’s handling of the migration crisis reached 83 percent in Italy. LN proposes tariffs for job protection — and questions the euro and E.U. budget limits. An anti-immigrant shooting spree earlier in February by a former LN candidate may dampen support for the party’s anti-immigrant platform, though.
Will there be political stalemate (again)?
Italy’s undecided voters could factor heavily — but there’s an added complexity in forecasting this election. The country’s new electoral law combines a first-past-the-post system, whereby the most popular candidate wins the seat, with a proportional representation system, with seats distributed based on the percentage of total votes for the party or coalition.
The goal of this new system was to encourage coalitions before the elections, but the general expectation is that Italy will now see a three-way stalemate between Berlusconi’s center-right, a progressive PD-led alliance and M5S.
FI could be a junior coalition partner to the PD and support a centrist coalition — like it did in 2013. Short of a victory for either the left or the right, this “grand coalition” and the PD’s continuity would reassure the markets — and the European Union.
An alternative alliance could emerge among the two populist forces, though M5S has eschewed alliances in the past. M5S and LN together would likely claim 41 percent of the vote. A populist, Euroskeptic government in the euro zone’s third-largest economy is a concern for the European Union, as well as the broader international political and economic communities.
It’s possible there could be a victory for Berlusconi and the right-wing coalition. Nostalgia for stable, experienced leadership rests on the fact that Berlusconi is the only prime minister to serve a full five-year term since the 1980s. His coalition is projected to win 60 percent of the first-past-the-post seats, thanks to LN strongholds in the north and FI strength in the south — and 40 percent of the proportional vote could be enough for an overall majority.
Pollsters have noted that Italian voters often understate their voting intentions for the center-right. For Berlusconi, leader of Italy’s center-right since 1994, this election could be lucky number 7.
Matthew E. Bergman is a lecturer at University of California at San Diego. His research and teaching expertise lies in comparative politics and political economy, focusing on Europe.