For at least the last three years, pundits (including myself) have been expecting an early Italian election at almost any time. It seemed almost impossible that such a tangled parliament could last a full term. But it has, and Italy will go to the polls in a month’s time, on 4 March, a week after the fifth anniversary of the last election.
Once again it will be among the most interesting elections of the year. Whereas last year in Germany, for example, we could predict the shape of the new parliament quite accurately a month out, Italy is much more uncertain, for three reasons: a new electoral system, a fragmented party system and a volatile electorate.
The story of Italian electoral reform has been long and convoluted (here’s an early report on it), but what has finally emerged is a system not very different to what was in place before 2006. The majority of seats in the lower house – 386 out of 630 – will be elected by nationwide proportional representation (a largest remainder method, which is favorable to minor parties). The rest will represent constituencies: 232 from single-member districts in Italy, with first-past-the-post voting, and the remaining twelve in four districts representing overseas Italians.
In other words, it’s an “additional member” system. There’s no guarantee of overall proportionality, but the proportional share is large enough to be confident that the outcome won’t be very different from a genuine proportional system – particularly given Italy’s political diversity, which should prevent any one party sweeping up a big majority of the single-member districts.
Importantly, the winner’s bonus that guaranteed a majority for the coalition that won the most votes (which was declared unconstitutional in 2013 but survived in modified form in the 2015 revision) has been abolished.
So if seats fall in a roughly proportional fashion, what will the new Chamber of Deputies look like? According to the most recent polls (collected by Wikipedia), six parties have serious levels of support (more than a couple of percentage points). Three of them are grouped in a loose centre-right coalition (although that “centre” is a bit misleading – I’ll come back to that): Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the rabidly anti-immigrant Northern League, and the post-fascist Brothers of Italy.
Those three, plus a small centrist group aligned with them, have somewhere between 35% and 40% of the vote in total. Their three rivals are the populist but non-ideological Five Star Movement, the centre-left Democratic Party (which also has some centrist allies), and the further-left Free and Equal. The first two of those are each running at a bit over a quarter of the vote, and Free and Equal has most of what’s left (about 6-7%).
Five years ago, when the Five Star Movement first made its mark, it was possible to imagine it reaching agreement with the centre-left, although in the event no such deal was done. If that possibility has passed (and it’s Italy, so one can never really be sure), then the centre-right group would seem to be in the box seat: able to choose to partner either with the centre-left or the populists.
But there’s no assurance that its different components would go the same way. Berlusconi, for all his crookedness, is fundamentally a moderate, and his instinct would probably be to reach out to the centre-left. But Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, is a full-blown Trumpist who clearly envisages a Eruosceptic and anti-immigrant alliance with the Five Star Movement.
And this is where voter volatility comes in. While the total support for the centre-right hasn’t changed much in months, its composition has shifted dramatically. Until late last year the Northern League was mostly in the ascendant, but Forza Italia has now opened up a break on it. Italians seem to be edging back towards the centre; even the centre-left, whose support had been in free-fall for months, looks to have stabilised a bit.
Berlusconi’s criminal convictions prevent him returning to the prime ministership, but through intermediaries – Antonio Tajani, Speaker of the European Parliament, is the name most mentioned – he evidently aims to resume his traditional role of corralling the votes of the far right behind a centre-right government. The question is whether he can still do it.
The Northern League has shifted far to the right since its last turn in government, although if it performs badly then it’s possible Salvini’s internal opponents will force a change of course. The Five Stars, on the other hand, are open to any anti-establishment ally: having flirted with Free and Equal they are now moving closer to the League. Co-operation with Berlusconi, however, seems to be off the table.
It’s going to be an interesting month – plus however much longer it takes the new parliament to produce some sort of government. Stay tuned.
(It’s a few months old now, but don’t miss Tim Colebatch’s evocative preview.)