Italy: The Political Landscape After the Electoral Earthquake

The Italian elections on 4 March saw major gains by the populist outsider parties, the Five Star Movement and the League. This was paralleled by significant losses for the mainstream parties of the centre-left and centre-right, the Democratic Party and Forza Italia. None of the parties, however, have an overall parliamentary majority. The difficult process of coalition building and government formation has now begun.


The Five Star Movement – Making a Breakthrough: The Five Star Movement gained 32.22% of the vote. This made Five Star the largest parliamentary party. It showed a significant increased in support compared to mid/late 2017 when it was polling around 25-28%, and was neck-and-neck with the centre-left Democratic Party. This breakthrough by the Five Star Movement was achieved in spite a patchy record in terms of administrative competence in towns and cities, including Rome, controlled by Five Star and repeated instances of internal dissension within the party. The newly introduced Italian electoral system, which favoured coalitions and parties with strong local structures, should also have acted against Five Star. Five Star was able during the campaign to mobilise and consolidate its core anti-establishment support base. At the same time its new, young leader, Luigi Di Maio, who had replaced Beppe Grillo, the party’s founder, prior to the election, was able to appeal to supporters  of the mainstream parties who were unconvinced by the leadership of Matteo Renzi or the octogenarian Silvio Berlusconi. The regional distribution of the Five Star vote was concentrated in southern areas of Italy where a significant section of the popular saw themselves as having been bypassed by Italy’s recent economic recovery. The Five Star result also showed that it had a strong appeal to younger voters.


Five Star’s electoral breakthrough has, however, presented it with challenges as well as opportunities. Five Star was founded in 2009 as an outsider movement with a focus on environmentalism, cyber-utopianism and anti-corruption. It has always made a defining virtue of its unwillingness to form coalitions with the established political parties. During the election campaign Luigi Di Maio appeared to soften Five Star’s stance on forming coalitions with other political parties. He at one stage to suggested that Five Star would be ready to support a broad based multi-party coalition, but later sought to retract that statement. The high vote share gained by Five Star has further increased the pressure on them to move away from the established rejectionist position with regard to coalitions.


The Democratic Party Decline and Fall on the Centre-Left: The Democratic Party secured 18.9% of the vote in the elections. This represented a significant decline in the DP vote which had been running at around 25% in mid-2017. Paolo Gentiloni from the Democratic Party had been appointed as Prime Minister in December 2016 after the failed constitutional referendum led to the resignation of Matteo Renzi. The record of Gentiloni’s government in the year after he came into office was widely considered to have been a success with the administration presiding over a recovery in the Italian economy. Opinion polling in late 2017 showed Paulo Gentiloni to be Italy’s most popular politician, behind only Sergio Mattarella, the country’s president. The Democratic Party were not, however, led into the election by Gentiloni. Matteo Renzi was re-elected as leader of the Democratic Party in March 2017 and subsequently became the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 elections. In the 2018 election, however, Matteo Renzi was no longer the dynamic reformer who had come into office in 2014. Instead he was a candidate trying to make a comeback but remaining tainted by his failure in 2016. The Democratic Party suffered in 2018 from a general desire amongst the electorate for change, but their campaign was also handicapped by the fact that it was headed by a flawed candidate. The elections saw the area in which the Democratic Party was the largest party reduced to a strip of land across central Italy. After the elections Matteo Renzi announced that he would, once again, be resigning as leader of the Democratic Party. Renzi, however, also announced that he did not intend to step down until after the coalition negotiations had been concluded, This would allow Matteo Renzi to determine the role played by the DP, in government or opposition, over the course of the next parliament.


The League – Establishing Hegemony on the Right: The League led by Matteo Salvini gained 17.69% of the vote. This represented a 13.59% increase on their vote in the last parliamentary elections in 2013. The Northern League was founded in 1991 under the leadership of Umberto Bossi and brought together a number of northern regionalist parties including the Lega Veneta, which had been established in 1979, and the Liga Lombarda established in 1984. The Northern League sought to build its electoral support by contrasting the economically productive north of the country with the bureaucratic state and the, allegedly, parasitic south of Italy. The Northern League pursued an agenda of regional autonomy for the north, and sometimes even advocated the secession of the north to form a state called Padania. In 2013 Matteo Salvini replaced Umberto Bossi, who had been involved in a scandal over misappropriation of party funds, as leader of the Northern League. Matteo Salvini was born in 1973, and had joined the Northern League at the age of seventeen. As a young activist he had been a convinced Padanian nationalist. After his election as leader of the Northern League, however, Salvini gradually shifted the party from a regional/autonomist to a national populist agenda. He used rhetoric which was anti-immigrant and critical of the EU. He developed links with other European national populist leaders including Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Opposition to immigration played a key role in the League’s 2018 election campaign. On 3 February Luca Traini, a League activist and former council candidate, went on a shooting spree in the town of Macerata in which six immigrants were wounded. Matteo Salvini distanced himself and the League from the shooting, but continued to deploy hard line ant-immigrant rhetoric throughout the rest of the campaign. Significantly Salvini as party leader ceased the rhetorical attacks on the Italian south which had previously characterised the Northern League. Salvini also dropped the ‘Northern’ from the party’s name which came to be referred to simply as ‘the League.’ Salvini spent a significant amount of time prior to the 2018 election campaigning in southern Italy. An element of the League’s northern activist base remained sceptical with regard to Salvini’s ‘southern strategy.’ They were, however, prepared to go along with it as long as it promised to deliver electoral success and national influence. The election results showed a major expansion of the League’s voter base, and positioned it as a key player in post-election coalition negotiations. The results also, however, demonstrated that the League’s main strongholds remained in the north, while Five Star had turned the south into its political bastion.           


Forza Italia – The Comeback Which Failed: Forza italia led by veteran politician Silvio Berlusconi gained 13.94%  of the vote. This meant that support for Forza Italia had fallen by 7.66% of the vote compared to the previous election in 2013, and the party had been relegated to fourth place behind the League. The 2018 election campaign had widely been reported as marking Silvio Berlusconi’s political comeback at the head of a coalition which included Forza Italia, the League, and the smaller Brothers of Italy. This analysis appeared to be supported by local election results in June 2017 and the regional elections in Sicily in November 2017 both of which had been won by a right=wing coalition which Berlusconi had played a leading role in co-ordinating. The failure of Berlusconi and Forza Italia in the 2018 elections may be accounted for by a number of factors. The eighty one year old Berlusconi may simply have been seen as being too old by many voters. This would particularly have been the case when Berlusconi was contrasted with his youthful coalition partner and rival on the right Matteo Salvini. It was indicative of the weakness of Forza italia and the centre-right that they had not been able to find a younger leadership figure to replace Berlusconi. Berlusconi was also tainted as a political leader by his conviction for tax fraud, which would have prevented him from serving as Prime Minister, and other scandals. Although Berlusconi initially saw himself as leader of the right-bloc his campaign largely followed the anti-immigrate line set out by Matteo Salvini. Voters who bought into this agenda may have thought that it was better to vote for Salvini who took this line out of conviction rather than Berlusconi who did so out of expediency. These factors operated within an overall framework of a ‘change election’ where new outsider parties were favoured by the voters over established parties. Berlusconi who had begun his career as an insurgent outsider had been pushed off the centre stage by new challengers. Forza Italia remains a significant factor in Italian politics, but it has been much diminished by the result of the elections.


The Smaller Parties of Right and Left: Two smaller parties also cleared the electoral threshold and secured seats in parliament. These were the Brothers of Italy on the right and Free and Equal on the left. The Brothers of Italy (FdI) won 4.35% of the vote, an increase of 2.35% on its 2013 election result. The FdI was founded in December 2012. It is descended from the post-fascist Italian Social Movement, 1946-1995, and the National Alliance, 1995-2009. Its current leader is Giorgia Meloni, the forty one year old co-founder of FdI, and former Italian Minister for Youth. During the 2018 election Meloni focussed the FdI campaign on southern Italy, her home region and the party’s traditional centre of strength. The party’s messages combined an emphasis on ‘Italians First’, a toned down version of Salvini’s anti-immigrant stance, social conservatism, and support for ordinary people against big business. Although the FdI vote remains limited, in spite of its election gains it may nevertheless play an important role in the forthcoming coalition negotiations. The leftist Free and Equal coalition, consisting of dissident breakaway groupings from the DP, led by Piatro Grasso polled poorly gaining only 3.38% of the vote.


What Will the New Government look Like? There are a number of possible options for the new post-election Italian of government. None of these will, however, be easy to realise or maintain. The Democratic Party was one of the main losers in the election. It could, however, remain in government by forming a coalition with the Five Star Movement. This would have the virtue in the eyes of some within the PD of keeping the League out of power, and allowing the continuation within Italy of a government which might broadly be seen as being of the political left. While this option is supported by a significant element with the PD it is opposed by Matteo Renzi and his supporters. They argue that following the PD’s defeat in the election it needs to go into opposition from where it will be able to recuperate both politically and organisationally. An alliance with the Five Star Movement they believe would further delegitimize the PD in the eyes of its voters. A somewhat less likely scenario would see the PD forming a coalition with the League and its centre-right allies. In this coalition the PD would be able to ameliorate the euro-sceptic tendencies of its right-wing coalition allies. The objections to such a coalition would, however, be similar to those raised to working with Five Star, but made all the greater due to the left/right ideological differences. The main alternative to such an alignment would be the formation of a populist coalition involving the Five Star Movement and the League. Such a coalition would be potentially politically unstable, but it would mean that the populist parties would have to take responsibility for the policies they would implement as part of the government.  This populist League-Five Star coalition would also broadly reflect the electoral will of the Italian voters by incorporating the League which had won in the north and Five Star which had won in the south.


The new Italian parliament will meet for the first time on 23 March when the presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate will be elected. Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, will then be able to nominate a Prime Minister, and give him the task of forming a new government. If the Prime Ministerial nominee is not able to do this then new elections will be called. It is, however, unclear whether any new elections would produce results which any more decisive than those which have recently taken place.



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