Election preview: Italy

Italy goes to the polls tonight to elect both houses of parliament, which have, somewhat surprisingly, run their full term since the election of February 2013. As part of the reform of electoral laws, the practice of running voting over a day and a half has been abandoned, so polls will close at 9am tomorrow (Monday), eastern Australian time, or 11pm Sunday in Italy.

Each year there seems to be a distinctive political story in Europe: in 2015 it was the refugee crisis, in 2016 it was the rise of populism, last year it was the crisis of social democracy. It’s too early to say what the leitmotif of 2018 will be, but Italy brings elements of all three preceding years to the forefront.

The last, perhaps, most obviously, although the “crisis” shifts its form depending on just how you look at it. In 2013 the Democratic Party, then as now the main centre-left force, won 25.4% of the vote; the coalition that it led won 29.6%. This year, polls suggest those numbers will be somewhere around 22-23% and 27-28%.

That doesn’t look like a large drop. In fact it’s actually better than it looks, because this year there is another left-wing party, Free & Equal, outside the coalition; it is polling at about 5-6%. Adding it in, the total centre-left vote will almost certainly be higher than in 2013. So where’s the crisis?

One answer is that the centre-left’s result last time looked a great deal better because its coalition won a plurality, very narrowly ahead of its centre-right rivals, and the electoral system of the time gave it a large bonus as a result, bringing it to 345 (54.8%) of the 630 seats in the lower house. It still failed to form government in its own right because it lacked a Senate majority (more about that later), but it still looked like an election “winner” – making its subsequent failure in negotiations all the more galling.

The winner’s bonus has now been abolished, and it wouldn’t help the centre-left anyway, because this time it is nowhere near a plurality. That’s the second explanation of the “crisis”: last time centre-left and centre-right were almost at parity, only about 125,000 votes apart. Between them was a centrist coalition, led by then-prime minister Mario Monti, which garnered 10.6%. That has now disappeared, and most of its vote has gone to the centre-right.

There are still centrists; indeed, their support has been critical to the survival of the government in recent years. But they no longer have their own independent vehicle. Instead they are divided between the two main coalitions: Popular Civic List on the centre-left and Us With Italy on the centre-right.

So the “crisis of social democracy,” as far as Italy is concerned, could equally be described as a crisis of centrism. The Democratic Party itself was designed as a centre-to-centre-left party, something that could bridge the gap between former Communists and former Christian Democrats. At the moment it is performing that task relatively poorly. But it’s failure is more serious because of what’s happening elsewhere on the political spectrum, where the real story is.

Even counting in Monti’s centrists, the mainstream coalitions in 2013 only had 69.3% of the vote between them. Some of the rest went to small fringe or independent groups that failed to win seats, but a solid block – 25.6% and 108 seats – went to the Five Star Movement, a populist, anti-corruption, anti-establishment force led by comedian Beppe Grillo.

This was the big obstacle to getting any coherent result out of the last election. Grillo refused to negotiate seriously with the centre-left, and since his party held the balance of power in the Senate, there was ultimately no alternative to a grand coalition between centre-left and centre-right.

Now led by Luigi Di Maio, the Five Stars have retained their character as troublemakers, but added a strongly anti-immigrant line and a modest degree of Euroscepticism. In doing so, they have recovered ground from their slump in 2014-15, and are now polling again at 2013 levels or a little higher.

But the Five Stars’ dislike of immigrants is nothing compared to that of the Northern League (now branding itself as just “the League”) and its Trumpist leader, Matteo Salvini. The fear of many observers is that Salvini could be the bridge that lures the Five Stars into a majority right-wing government.

In contrast to its glory days during the 2015 refugee crisis, however, the League is no longer the leading component of the centre-right coalition. That honor once again goes to Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia. Not for the first time – and who would dare say it will be the last? – the shape of Italy’s next government is likely to be determined by which way Berlusconi chooses to jump.

So while the weight of pundit angst focuses on the centre-left, it seems to me that the big story is the dilemma faced by the centre-right and its unworthy octogenarian representative in Italy: to throw in its lot with the forces of cosmopolitanism or of xenophobia. And the repercussions of that choice could easily be the big story of 2018, and beyond.

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