Italy – return of the Right

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Eleven years ago this November, Silvio Berlusconi’s final term as Italy’s Prime Minister ended. Having quit following the loss of his parliamentary majority, Berlusconi’s departure date also marks the last time that Italy had a solely right-wing government.

For ten of the last eleven years, the various Italian governments have incorporated the centre-left in some form or another, and none of the PMs since Berlusconi have been associated with a right-wing party. Though not excluded from government entirely, the Italian right has largely found itself constrained – aside from a brief coalition with populists in 2018-19, right-wing parties have either sat on the sidelines or had to govern alongside their traditional centre-left rivals.

In Italy’s snap 2022 election, however, that looks set to change. And this time, it won’t be the conservative Berlusconi who leads the right into power – it’ll be the far-right. Yet in the face of a far-right surge, the Italian centre-left is bitterly divided and faces a historic defeat.

Background

First, let’s understand how we got here. Earlier this year, Italy’s government collapsed. It is a sign of Italy’s recent instabilities that this was actually quite normal – this is the third government that has collapsed since the 2018 election.

The outgoing administration (a national unity government led by former EU Central Bank head Mario Draghi) was struggling to grapple with mounting crises, from the nation’s energy crisis to the war in Ukraine. Despite this, Draghi was actually a very popular leader. Now a collection of parties and alliances will compete to succeed him.

Italy is infamous for political instability and frequent changes in leadership, having had 18 Prime Ministers since 1990 (the UK has had 7). This is not because of proportional representation; Italy has had four electoral systems since 1990, and most have utilised first-past-the-post (FPTP) or majority bonuses to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, to avoid splitting the left/right vote, parties tend to form very broad alliances to contest elections.

The table below shows general elections in Italy since 1992, along with the electoral system used. There were 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies 2022 – the number of seats has now been reduced to 400, meaning the results are not directly comparable. I have included an estimate for what the result would have been under the new electoral system.

The past few years have been particularly unstable, in part due to the rise of a ‘big tent’ populist movement called the Five Star Movement (M5S). In 2013, the M5S burst onto the national scene, winning 25% of the vote. By 2018, the M5S had entered a coalition government with the far-right ‘League’ party (Lega); this was dissolved in 2019, leading to a M5S-led coalition with the centre-left Democrats (PD). That government in turn collapsed in 2021, resulting in Draghi’s national unity administration. This, in turn, was dissolved in 2022 after the M5S quit the coalition.

Over that time, the M5S has substantially declined in popularity, from 32% (the largest individual party) in 2018 to just 10% today. Some of the party’s MPs split off to form new centrist parties; others have formed new populist movements. The M5S that remains is a shadow of its former self.

The 2022 snap election

All of which brings us to the 2022 election, and the various parties competing for power. There are ten major parties (ranging from right to left), but only four major political blocs. A guide to these parties and alliances is shown in the table below.

Thus, it is important to bear in mind the popularity of the alliances when looking at polls. The PD (polling around a quarter of the vote) is likely to top many polls, but the broad right-wing bloc overall has significantly more support across its various member parties.

The electoral system

Currently, Italy uses a hybrid electoral system known as the Rosatellum law. Just over a third of the seats are chosen through first-past-the-post (FPTP), which is why alliances are important: the various parties will unite behind one alliance candidate in a FPTP seat.

The rest of the seats are allocated proportionally (with a 3% threshold). This is why support for individual parties still matters, as even if they’re part of an alliance, a party could ultimately only win a handful of seats – solely from FPTP constituencies – if they happen to fall short of the threshold. And if they’re not part of an alliance, a party winning less than 3% will get no seats at all.

Note that is not a ‘balancing’ system like the electoral systems in Scotland, Germany and New Zealand (amongst others). The PR seats are elected independently of the FPTP seats, thus making it possible for an alliance to win the vast majority of FPTP seats and still win a proportionally representative share of list seats – likely giving them a majority in the Parliament overall.

What will the result be?

So, taking all this into account, what does the polling say? Well, the PD are neck and neck for first place in terms of political parties, but the right-wing alliance has a clear lead overall – they currently have more support than all other alliances and parties combined.

My seat estimate model indicates that this would produce an overwhelming landslide majority for the right in the Chamber of Deputies, with the far-right Brothers of Italy (FdL) party set to lead the government. It’s even possible that the FdL could have enough seats to form a two-party government with the far-right Lega party, without needing the support of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.

In the Senate, the story is the same: indeed, the right would come within striking distance of a two-thirds super-majority, winning 91% of FPTP constituencies.

Divisions on the Left

The projected landslide for the Italian right is due in large part to divisions on the centre-left. As outlined above, parties tend to form very broad alliances to avoid splitting the vote in FPTP seats – in 2006, for instance, the two major alliances received 99.5% of the votes and encompassed dozens of parties on both sides.

Yet in this election, the right has united whilst the left remains divided. The M5S has been excluded from the main centre-left alliance, with the PD ruling out a pact. At the same time, the centrist Action and Italia Viva parties chose to split away from the main centre-left bloc and run independently, citing the PD’s alliance with the socialist left as the reason.

The upshot of all this is that the M5S and centrists will still win PR seats, but in FPTP seats they’ll have little to no impact beyond drawing votes away from the centre-left. As a result, the right-wing bloc is expected to sweep the FPTP seats – winning 86% of lower house constituencies and 91% of upper house constituencies.

It’s sadly too late for the various parties of the centre and left to unite, but if they had, they’d be neck-and-neck (polling 45.5%) with the right (47.1%). My seat estimate model suggests this would be enough for a small centre-left majority in both houses of Parliament – and whilst this coalition would have been unstable and ideologically diverse, I think we would all prefer it to a far-right government.

These divisions have also stalled the Left’s momentum. After the election was called, support for the centre-left began to rise until the alliance hit 31% in polls – but their support has since begun to dip again and looks unlikely to recover.

Conclusion

After a decade of instability, hung parliaments, grand coalitions, unity administrations and crises, the 2022 snap election looks (at first glance) likely to produce a stable government with a clear direction and a clear mandate. But there’s no guarantee of this.

Firstly, no individual party will have a majority; even the FdL is likely to win only 33.7% of the seats in the lower house, leaving it far short of overall control. There will still be coalition negotiations, requiring parties with different agendas and priorities to compromise and co-operate.

Secondly, even if the two far-right parties (FdL / Lega) are able to team up and form a solely far-right administration, their political agenda is hardly conducive to stability. The FdL opposes gay marriage, wants a zero-tolerance approach to undocumented migrants, and backs constitutional reforms including a directly-elected President. The League, meanwhile, is economically neo-liberal (backing policies like a flat tax) and socially conservative (they want crucifixes to be displayed in all public spaces). Italian politics will certainly have a clear direction, but it won’t be a stable one.

Finally, even Italian governments with clear majorities on paper tend not to last very long. The first Berlusconi government (1996-98) had a majority of 102 when elected, but only lasted two years; the Lega / M5S coalition (2018-19) enjoyed a majority of 74 seats but fell apart after just twelve months. The need to encompass a wide range of parties, across two houses of Parliament, can be a difficult thing for any government to manage regardless of the numbers on paper.

Ultimately, though, the outcome of this election looks set to be a landslide majority for the broad right and an embarrassing defeat for the centre-left and left. The biggest losers, though, are likely to be the Five Star Movement – after a decade of ascendancy and seemingly inexorable growth, the M5S finds itself facing a defeat of monumental proportions. Given that this election is happening because the M5S left Draghi’s coalition, it’s difficult to avoid the irony.

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