Italy goes to the polls on Sunday in a much-anticipated but apparently very predictable national election. Pundits seem almost unanimously of the view that the outcome will be a right-of-centre majority government, and that Georgia Meloni, leader of the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy, will (somewhat ironically) become the country’s first female prime minister.
Italy is the odd one out among western Europe’s party systems. During the Cold War period it sustained a strong Communist Party, which was kept out of office only by the rallying of most of the other parties behind the Christian Democrats. The Communists split with the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving the Christian Democrats exposed as corrupt and anachronistic; they dissolved in 1994, and the whole party system splintered.
The impulse to a two-party system reasserted itself in the early years of this century with the consolidation of the centre-right behind media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, in opposition to a centre-left that embraced both former Communists and former Christian Democrats. But that failed to survive the global financial crisis; both sides split repeatedly, and Berlusconi’s notorious corruption produced a strong populist anti-corruption party, the Five-Star Movement.
At the last election, in March 2018, the Five-Stars topped the poll with 32.7% of the vote. The centre-left Democratic Party had 18.8% (plus a few points more for other left groups); the right had more than either in total, but it was split three ways: Matteo Salvini’s far-right League (formerly the Northern League) on 17.4%, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia on 14.0% and Brothers of Italy on 4.4%.
Clearly no government could be formed without the Five-Stars. First they teamed up with the League; that lasted until August 2019, when Salvini tried to force a new election. Instead, the centre-left came to the support of the Five-Stars, and they governed together until January 2021, when internal tensions again led to failure. A national unity government was then formed under technocrat Mario Draghi, including all of the major parties except Brothers of Italy.
The Draghi government collapsed in the middle of this year following disputes over economics and the Ukraine war, resulting in this election, six months early.
The right is running as a single alliance, including Brothers of Italy, the League, Forza Italia and a small centrist party, We Moderates. Between them, they are polling in the mid- to high 40s, more than half of that with the post-Fascists. The three main forces against them are the Democratic Party (low 20s), the Five-Stars (low teens) and the centrist coalition Action/Italia Viva (mid- to high single figures). A number of splinter groups will soak up the remaining five to ten per cent.
On those figures, although you wouldn’t realise it from the media coverage, it’s not impossible that the right’s opponents could win a majority. But even if they do, the prospects of centre-left, centre and populists working together to produce a viable government – as they have repeatedly failed to do over the last decade – are not good.
The electoral system also works in the right’s favor, because its vote is more unified. The 400 lower house members (reduced from 630 in a 2020 referendum) comprise 147 from single-member districts (first-past-the-post) and 253 proportional, with a 3% threshold. The proportional seats offset the single-member ones to some extent, but the net effect is still to favor larger parties and more cohesive coalitions.
So it’s much more likely that the right will emerge on top, and that the centenary of Mussolini’s “march on Rome” in five weeks’ time will be celebrated with a post-Fascist prime minister. It should go without saying that this is cause for concern; the question is just how much concern is justified.
There’s no doubt that parties can change, and that authoritarian antecedents can sometimes be outgrown. Several of the Communist Parties of central and eastern Europe have successfully transitioned to mainstream social democratic parties. There are no such obvious precedents on the right, but Meloni could be the one to make the attempt: with Forza Italia still a personal vehicle for Berlusconi, who will turn 86 next week, there is an obvious vacuum waiting to be filled on the centre-right.
Two years ago I remarked that “It seems unlikely that Italy in the longer term will be able to support two far-right parties,” and that remains the case. When Salvini led his party into the Draghi government it seemed like a sign that he was tacking towards the centre, but it didn’t work out that way. And of course no-one at that time anticipated the invasion of Ukraine.
If (as seems sadly probable) the war continues for some time yet, it may help to redefine the party system, and not just in Italy. The problem is that stances on the war cut across the conventional left-right divide: Salvini, Berlusconi and the Five-Stars are all at least to some extent pro-Russian; the post-Fascists, centre and centre-left are pro-Ukraine. Any plausible government looks like being internally divided on the issue.
If Meloni is seriously trying to show that she belongs in the mainstream, strong support for the Atlantic alliance is an obvious path to take. But in doing so she may produce further party turmoil.
PS: For further background, don’t miss Jason Horowitz’s piece in the New York Times on Meloni’s fascination with Lord of the Rings.