by Mattia Tomay
“Stability” and “Italy” are words which have rarely gone hand-in-hand. With its 65 governments in 73 years, the country is often used as a textbook example of political instability. But the type of change which will ensue as a result of last Sunday’s parliamentary elections is undoubtedly atypical and divisive, even for the Bel Paese.
Despite the volatility of Italian executives, the history of the country’s governing majorities can roughly be divided into two internally continuous political eras. The first one, referred to as the Prima Repubblica (“First Republic”), spanned the period between the birth of the Republic in 1948 and 1994 and was characterized by the hegemony of the Catholic-inspired, center party Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democracy).
The so-called Seconda Repubblica (“Second Republic”) dawned when Silvio Berlusconi entered into politics. This epoch was characterized by more or less regular (though short-lived) alternations between center-left- and center-right-led coalitions. The Second Republic appeared to enter a transitional period in 2011 as a result of the ousting of then-Prime Minister Berlusconi. With the country slowly plunging into a tense economic and political crisis, former European Commissioner Mario Monti was entrusted with the responsibility of forming a technocratic government supported by the main parliamentary forces. But elections in 2013 seemed to bring the country back on course when it accorded the center-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD) a slight majority, allowing it to form a governing coalition with center and center-right minor parties.
Sunday’s staggering election results, however, might well have brought the Second Republic to its knees. In fact, the vote may give way to a new period in Italian political history.
Scrapping the Second Republic
It is difficult to say who – if anyone at all – won Italy’s elections. The country’s constitutional order (it is the President of the Republic who directs the process of forming a new government) and the new electoral law passed in 2017 (a complex mix of proportional and first-past-the-post voting) make it difficult to identify a winner. None of the 42 lists and two coalitions reached a clear majority. Both legislative chambers are therefore hung.
In spite of this, Sunday’s elections surely sent shock waves through Italy’s unique political landscape. Although there was no clear-cut winner, a quick comparison of Sunday’s vote and the 2014 European elections reveals one obvious loser: the PD. In 2014, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi clinched a landslide victory for his party by winning over 40% of the popular vote. Figures clearly show that the PD (in red in the maps below) lost nearly everywhere. Rare exceptions include a few leftist electoral strongholds in central Italy and the German-speaking province of Bolzano, where the Democrats joined forces with the autonomist Südtiroler Volkspartei (South Tyrolean People’s Party).
On Monday, the country woke up divided along a plain geographical split. On the one hand, the northern ballot was dominated by votes for the center-right coalition (in blue). The South, on the other hand, massively opted for the populist Five Star Movement (M5S, in yellow), a party founded less than a decade ago by comedian Beppe Grillo and currently led by 31-year-old Luigi di Maio. The former Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies (Italy’s lower house), Di Maio is often considered the more institutional and moderate face of the movement. Following a contested online primary election held in September 2017, Di Maio emerged as the new leader of M5S, and as the results show, he was able to transform the party into Italy’s largest – receiving almost 33% of the votes.
Among the center-right – a three-party coalition which scored 35% of the electorate – expectations of Berlusconi becoming the new kingmaker of the next executive were disappointed. Right-wing Lega (League) candidate Matteo Salvini managed to completely outshine the 81-year-old media magnate by gaining almost double the votes of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in the North. Salvini, an ally of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the European Parliament, even obtained decent results in the South. It’s a surprising outcome given the leader’s past statements on “stinking terroni” (a derogatory slur for southern Italians) and Lega’s traditional advocacy for northern independence.
Towards a Third Republic?
As cynical as it sounds, Sunday’s results might reflect nothing less than a democratic handover. After seven years of PD rule and little resistance from Berlusconi’s center-right, M5S and Lega have come to represent the sole fierce opposition to the ruling powers. But the significance of these elections lies in the way in which they could impact the whole power structure of Italy’s Second Republic.
The traditional party system is in ruins. By silencing Berlusconi’s center-right and Renzi’s center-left parties, the voice of the Italian electorate has enunciated the drastic change it has long yearned for, and which Renzi’s youthful leadership was unable to convey. It’s a change which Salvini and Di Maio both embody: young, anti-system, and with no previous experience in national government. Although Lega’s nationalism differs from the strong anti-establishment rhetoric of M5S, their platforms appeal to a very similar pool of voters. Both parties call for lower taxes and more government spending, while criticizing Brussels’ budget constraints and advocating for stricter immigration rules.
But the possibility of a coalition between the two parties still seems unlikely. Already Salvini has signaled his reluctance to form a government with other anti-establishment parties.
“I hear people speaking about weird alliances,” Salvini said Monday morning. “But Lega does not change ideas every fifteen minutes.”
Strategically speaking, this does not sound entirely foolish, considering the unfortunate fate of junior coalition partners elsewhere in Europe, like the Social Democrats in Germany. More likely, the two parties will soon emerge as the new hub of Italian political contest. Indeed, when Renzi resigns from his post as secretary of the PD – which he announced on Monday following calls from many angry PD supporters – the left will require time and deep reform to re-establish itself as a credible opposition force. As for Berlusconi, the disappointing results may have finally put an end to his infamous political career (though, knowing him, one could never be too sure…).
The good news is that Italy will not have to wait long to review the implications of this Sunday’s shock treatment, as the country and the rest of Europe will go back to the ballot box in next year’s European Parliament elections. Meanwhile, it is for Salvini and Di Maio to set the table for the new, upcoming cycle of Italian politics. But with a paralyzed parliament, their victory could soon prove to be a pyrrhic one. Too early to tell: President Sergio Mattarella has still not selected the figure who will conduct what are set to be long and difficult government talks.
On Sunday, Italians voted against political gridlock, corruption and questionable political compromise. Alas, for them – as it was the case for the appointments of Mario Monti, Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni – it might be yet another backdoor deal to appoint their next 66th executive. ♦
Mattia Tomay is a 22-year-old graduate student of international affairs at Sciences Po Paris. He graduated cum laude from the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) with a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in International Relations and International Organization. His interests include political analysis, the study of populism, and EU internal affairs.