Italy’s recent elections: an explanation (Part 1/2).

, by Cesare Ceccato

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Italy's recent elections: an explanation (Part 1/2).
Quirinale.it, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

An analysis of the Italian political elections on Sunday, September 25. From Mario Draghi’s resignation to Giorgia Meloni’s triumph and the political future of the Bel Paese, via a heated campaign and the Rosatellum voting system.

On Sunday, September 25, general political elections were held in Italy for the renewal of the two chambers of the Parliament: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic. These were early elections due to the dissolution of the Chambers by Sergio Mattarella, President of the Republic, following the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi. The centre-right coalition won, led by Giorgia Meloni’s party Fratelli d’Italia, heir to the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement and belonging to the Group of European Conservatives and Reformists.

How did it get there?

Mario Draghi - entrusted with the task of forming a broad-based government in February last year to respond to the crisis gripping Italy, Europe, and the world - since the very first day of his mandate had declared that he would leave the fourth highest Italian chair if only one party decided to leave the majority. This happened with the abandon ship of the Movimento 5 Stelle, which, due to opposing views on the war in Ukraine and Italy’s energy efficiency, had undergone a split just a few days earlier between the supporters of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who remained in the party, and the Foreign Minister of Draghi’s government Luigi Di Maio, who merged into the new formation Impegno Civico. The chaos at Palazzo Chigi quickly led to the centre-right forces winning the majority, Lega and Forza Italia, to become jealous of higher positions in the executive that would succeed Draghi. Therefore, to also deny confidence in the former ECB president, making full peace - at least on paper - with the other party in the coalition, Fratelli d’Italia, which remained in the opposition right from the start.

With no possible majority left, a unique election campaign has begun for Italy. The first campaign in Republican history to take place during summer and one of the shortest ever. From the beginning, the inadequacy of some parties to cope with such a period was apparent, above all the Partito Democratico.

During the last legislature, the PD spent three of four and a half years in the Government, and it changed three party secretaries (Renzi, Zingaretti and Letta) and its allies several times; although in a good position according to the polls, which saw its percentage rising compared to the results of the 2018 elections, it was evident how alone it would not be able to win. Secretary Enrico Letta, therefore, dedicated the first month of the campaign to the search of the best allies to defeat the centre-right. Considering the weight of the adversaries, the search soon turned to any possible ally, a double-edged sword given the substantial ideological differences between the parties in the field, and one that soon blew the nerves of what - electorally speaking - turned out to be the most important ally: Azione, a party led by the certainly undiplomatic Carlo Calenda. The PD took under its wing the alliance between Sinistra Italiana and Verdi, Emma Bonino’s +Europa and the already mentioned Luigi Di Maio’s Impegno Civico. Nevertheless, it was rejected by Movimento 5 Stelle, which, although coming out of a legislature in which it made agreements both on the right and left, ran without allies for the third consecutive election in its history. Meanwhile, Azione found an understanding with Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva, and gave life to the Third Pole, a list representing the Renew Europe Eurogroup.

The centre-left coalition marked the months leading up to the election on the polarization between itself and the centre-right, implying how the challenge for the majority was not extended to all parties but somewhat limited to the two largest coalitions, radically opposed on many fronts. From an open or a closed attitude towards Europe to welcoming or restricting policies on migrants, from progressive or flat taxation to progressive or conservative right issues. A fighting but not fully convincing attitude, that insisted more on the alliance values instead of political strategies or future draft laws, challenged by Italian people for several reasons: the actual presence of the PD in the last majorities that did not carry out certain promises, the differences in programmes between the allied parties Sinistra Italiana/Verdi and +Europa on urgent issues such as the answer to the climate crisis, the appeal of the Movimento 5 Stelle and the Third Pole, and the disillusionment that certain commitments made while seeking a vote are nothing more than words in the wind that can be abandoned as soon as one crosses the entrance of Montecitorio or Palazzo Madama.

In response, the Movimento 5 Stelle clung on the image of the pandemic premier, Giuseppe Conte, and to the missions accomplished during his presidency, such as the approval of citizenship income and the cut in the number of MPs. With a programme full of measures to support the unemployed and low-income families, Conte’s party presided during the election campaign mainly in southern Italy, an area where unfortunately a high percentage of the people to whom Movimento 5 Stelle’s measures refer live. A strategy - which for obvious reasons was different from the one of 2013 and 2018 - was anti-politics rooting, a more mature strategy we could say, but one that forgets the North, which can only be convinced through the proposals on health and the environment.

Moving on to the Third Pole (and going beyond the difficult character of Carlo Calenda and Matteo Renzi, which has led them to clash several times in the past years and has been easy prey for mockery) with the centre renamed hegocentre, the slogan has been “Italy in earnest”. Education and public health in the first place, to solve the damage done by the Italian executives of the new millennium, including Renzi’s Government. The big news on the ballot paper relied heavily on social media, in an attempt to convince younger people, new to voting, and took Mario Draghi as a model to follow, relaunching some of the policies envisaged as achievable in the months leading up to the natural end of legislature. However, given Draghi’s independence, it is not known whether his vote went to the Third Pole.

As regards to the centre-right, the coalition composed by Fratelli d’Italia, Lega, Forza Italia and Noi Moderati, the symbol under which the parties Noi con l’Italia, Italia al Centro and Coraggio Italia showed up, turned out to be the only one truly ready for the pre-election period. It showed from the very beginning to be compact and with a certain ideological affinity, so much that they referred to a single framework agreement, leaving party distinctions of marginal importance at any rallies or TV appearances. Although never explicitly dictated within the alliance, the leadership of Giorgia Meloni was evident, and she received personal approval, as well as the approval of the party she represents, which topped the polls for months. Meloni’s consensus has depended mostly on the lack of empty exits during the legislature and the consistency with which her party has carried on a firm opposition, two virtues of which Salvini’s Lega cannot brag about. It was therefore the leader of Fratelli d’Italia who put on her face to the only debate held before the elections against Letta and in front of foreign television channels, while Salvini, Berlusconi and Lupi, probably aware that their parties could not compete for prevailing in the alliance, seemed more like a support element. There were a few tense moments between the standard-bearers, especially at the beginning of the campaign, but it was factual how in the end there was a definition of roles, acceptable at least as long as one is not in the Government. Battle horses: flat tax, family policies (the so-called ’natural’ one) and Europe, yes, but of national States.

It is fair to point out that additional parties, which campaigned just as hard and intensely in the hope of overcoming the barrier, met the standards to present themselves at these elections. Among the most supported, Unione Popolare, probably the most convincing party experiment to the left of the Dem coalition in more than a decade, led by former Naples mayor Luigi De Magistris, and there also was Italia Sovrana e Popolare, including Marco Rizzo’s Communist Party and Antonio Ingroia’s Rivoluzione Civile, there was Gianluigi Paragone’s Italexit, whose name is enough to represent its goal, and finally there was Sara Cunial’s Vita, a no-vax, no-lockdown, no-green pass party.

How was the vote taken?

Two absolute news in these Italian parliamentary elections: the number of MPs to be elected, which was cut in June from 630 to 400 in the Chamber of Deputies and from 315 to 200 in the Senate, and the possibility for every citizen over the age of 18 to vote for both chambers, whilst until now the vote for the Senate was limited to those over the age of 25. The electoral law, signed by Ettore Rosato, and named Rosatellum after him, is not new.

A mixed majority and proportional system that, in order to align the two aspects necessary in a democracy in which coexist, more than parties, representativeness and governability, allocates one third of the seats in Parliament to the candidates representing the winning coalition in each constituency, one per constituency, and the remaining two thirds to candidates to candidates on the parties’ blocked lists, in proportion to the percentage of votes obtained nationally, with a barrier threshold - hence to be reached to occupy seats in Parliament - set at 3% of the consensus.

Constitutionally correct, unlike the previous Calderoli law and the Italicum, never applied, it does not remain free of criticism, starting with the impossibility of a perfect representation marked by the said reduction of MPs of the territories. A change was proposed several times during the last legislature but, for one reason or another, it never happened. Who knows whether in the one that is about to begin it will actually take place.

What was the result?

As expected, the ballots handed Italy a victory for the centre-right, which can count on an absolute majority in both the the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Fratelli d’Italia annihilated the competition, receiving alone almost as many votes as the entire centre-left coalition, and if Lega disappointed people’s expectations, getting only 8.8% of consensus, Forza Italia surprised instead, against polls predictions, with 8.2% of votes, which was determining for the majority.

Partito Democratico will be the first opposing force, with a 19% that feels very tight to Letta, who has been called upon by the Dem base to recover from the crisis that began with the last elections. A great disappointment for the centre-left party, which is already planning a congress in order to analyse the defeat and elect a new secretary. Keeping company with the PD in Parliament will be the alliance between Sinistra Italiana and Verdi, and only limited to three seats gained in the majoritarian +Europa and Impegno Civico, which failed to pass the barrier threshold, the former even, by a hair’s breadth, 0.05%. A further mockery for the two excluded coalition parties was the non-election in the majority of their respective leaders, Emma Bonino and Luigi Di Maio.

Movimento 5 Stelle not only survives, but, building up strength from the votes obtained in Southern and insular Italy, it asserts itself with a 15.5% as secondary opposing force. As a result, the Third Pole results to be, according to data, the fourth. Just a few votes behind Forza Italia and Lega, an excellent result for a beginning symbol, but far from what the secretaries of the two constituent parties hoped for: double digits. With the exception of the parties representing the Regions with special statutes and the meridionalists of Sud chiama Nord who won the majority in the Messina constituency in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, no other force exceeded the threshold.

Moving on to the sad, if not tragic, side of the elections of September 25: they have registered the lowest affluence in Republican history. Only 63.91% of those eligible to vote expressed their preference, more than 9% less than the previous elections. According to data collected by YouTrend, the abstainers include one third of the Movimento 5 Stelle voters of 2018, those who had seen the novelty of the never-been in government as the last resort for Italian politics and who, four years on, were extremely dissatisfied with the results. However, among the abstained we must mention those who could not vote: Italians abroad, to whom the Ministry has sent late, or not sent at all, the ballot papers, in spite of the iter to vote being completed, and students and workers off-site, who still don’t have a law allowing them to vote where they live.

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