Options for Italy, revisited

We now have near-final numbers from Sunday’s Italian election, but they don’t really change the picture from yesterday.

With 99.96% of polling places reporting, the centre-right coalition leads with 37.0% and 260 seats. The Five Star Movement is not far behind, with 32.7% and 221 seats; the centre-left coalition is a long way back, with 22.9% and 112 seats. The leftish Free & Equal managed just 3.4% and 14 seats.

To those must be added the single seat for Val d’Aosta, won by the Five Stars, and the 12 overseas seats. The latter haven’t been declared, but going by the raw numbers they look like four centre-left, three centre-right, three Five Stars and two independents. There are also ten seats still undecided.

Within the centre-right coalition, the (Northern) League has 73 of the proportional seats, Forza Italia 59 and Brothers of Italy 19. I can’t find a breakdown of their 109 single-member seats, but it’s fair to assume they’ll fall in roughly the same proportion.

So in total, the Five Stars will have about 225-230 seats, the hard right (League + Brothers) 160-165, the centre-left (including Free & Equal) 130-135 and the Berlusconi right close to 105. All of them a long way short of 316, the number needed for a majority.

The Senate is the same story: out of 320 seats, there’ll be 115-120 for the Five Stars, maybe 80 to the hard right, 60 for Forza Italia and a similar number for the centre-left, plus a couple of independents.

Last week, under the heading “Options for Italy”, I offered – on the basis of what the final opinion polls were saying – three options for a majority:

(a) Centre-left + Five Star

(b) Berlusconi + hard right + Five Star

(c) Berlusconi + centre-left

But the results have modified that; the Five Star Movement did better than expected relative to the centre-left, and the hard right did better relative to the rest of the centre-right coalition. As a result, (c) would now fall well short, while (b) is more than enough: the Five Stars will have a majority with either half of the right on its own.

In other words, the mathematical possibilities now are:

(i) Centre-left + Five Star

(ii) Hard right + Five Star

(iii) Berlusconi + Five Star

(iv) Hard right + centre-left

It’s Italy, so one should not lightly toss around the term “unthinkable”. But the last two combinations really do seem beyond the realm of what’s reasonably imaginable. Let’s perhaps not forget them entirely, but at the very least they can be relegated to a lower order of possibility. The interest is in (i) and (ii).

Option (ii) is what most observers are frightened of, and understandably so. But there are significant barriers to its realisation, particularly the ego of the Trump-like leader of the League, Matteo Salvini. It’s very hard to see him playing second fiddle to anyone – but it’s also very hard to see why the Five Stars would accept a supporting role if they have a chance at power for themselves.

The centre-left’s task, indeed its responsibility, is to provide them with that chance: to bring about option (i) and keep out the hard right. The first step has already been taken with the resignation of Matteo Renzi as Democratic Party leader. According to the BBC, he said that the party “would not join a coalition with ‘anti-system forces’ and would go into opposition instead,” but his successors may have other ideas.

The plus signs in the above options need not involve actual coalitions. Indeed they might not involve formal agreement at all, only an understanding that a minority government will be tolerated on certain conditions. But some sort of understanding there will have to be, to get someone to the position where they can win a vote of confidence.

For the Five Star Movement, this is the moment of truth. As I said yesterday, it has “to decide whether to side with civilisation or with barbarism.” But in contrast to Beppe Grillo’s antics of five years ago, Five Star Leader Luigi Di Maio seems willing to negotiate seriously to form a government.

Mattia Diletti, a politics professor quoted by the Guardian, put it well: “It’s a magic moment for Five Star. They can do anything they want.”

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