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Italy: No Country for Trivial Elections #September21 Bologna Institute for Policy Research

Monday 21 September at 6.30 pm

You would think that a small number of regional elections could pass unnoticed in the greater scheme of things – particularly during a global pandemic! – but not in Italy. The country not only faces a test in the relationship between the two awkwardly matched coalition partners, but each of the governing parties individually faces its own turning point. The Five Star Movement is giving up its two-term mandate; the Democratic Party risks losing one or more of its traditional strongholds; and Italia Viva could shrink into irrelevance (if it is not there already). Each of these developments brings a new element of risk into the coalition dynamics at a time when the country (and the euro area) can ill-afford a government crisis. Add to that the constitutional referendum to reduce the number of parliamentarians – with implications for both the electoral system and the functioning of the Italian parliament – and you have a potentially volatile mixture of concerns. Italy’s bond markets may be calm under the influence of the European Central Bank, but that does not mean they are secure. The storm may be coming and this election could bring it closer. If you want to understand the results as they unfold, please join our expert panel.

Italy: No Country for Trivial Elections

Donatella Campus
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Bologna
Justin O. Frosini
Adjunct Professor of Constitutional Law, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe; Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development; Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, Luigi Bocconi University
Erik Jones – Chair
Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Gianfranco Pasquino
Senior Associate Fellow, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe; Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Bologna


The Italian political crisis: a new government or snap elections?

Governmental instability in Italy has never meant democratic instability. Governments have come and gone, on average every 15-17 months within a democratic framework rarely challenged except in a minority of cases. The Italian Constitution has always been successful in guiding old and new actors to play by the rules. Even the most recent and most unusual government made by the anti-establishment Five Stars and the largely populist League remained within clear boundaries. With regard to the duration of the term of office, Conte’s government has performed satisfactorily by Italian standards and occupies the 20th position (out of 65 governments) since 1946.

What is most certainly wrong with the Italian political system depends on two elements: on the one hand, the party system and its components and, on the other hand, Italian society. Following the fully deserved collapse between 1992 and 1994 and the disappearance of all Italian parties, new parties at different points in time have not reconstituted a decent framework for party competition. Fragmented, not especially endowed with civic virtues, somewhat corrupted, always inclined to look for privileges, still imbued with amoral familism, Italian society has, of course, been unwilling and unable to engage in a major effort to (re)construct decent party “vehicles”. Personalist parties have made their appearance, transformed themselves, died, merged without being able to offer something acceptable to the voters. The volatility rate, that is the percentage of Italian voters changing their vote, between 1994 and 2018 has been as high as 40%. It was 27% in 2018. Throughout this period Berlusconi’s Forza Italia went from almost 40% to about 8%. In 2018 the Democratic Party (PD) led by Matteo Renzi plummeted to its worst result ever: 18.7%.

The winners of the 2018 elections, the Five Stars Movement (32,6%) and the League (17,3%) (quadrupling its 2013 votes), succeeded to form a minimum winning coalition in spite of some major political and platform differences. The exchange of agreed-upon policies seemed to work with limited conflicts and tensions until the European elections when Matteo Salvini’s League doubled the amount of votes received by the Five Stars Movement and his flamboyant leadership pushed into a marginal position Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the Five Stars Movement. At that point, Matteo Salvini decided that it was time to translate its European loot into Italian votes as well and put an end to Conte’s government.

The decision regarding if and when to dissolve the Parliament and to hold new elections constitutionally belongs to the President of the Republic who must first ascertain whether the incumbent Parliament is unable to give birth to and sustain another government. The ongoing negotiations between the Five Stars Movement and the Democratic Party are meant to find out if they are able to create not just a numerical coalition, but a viable and performing government. If not, snap elections will follow. The negotiations between the Five Star Movement and the PD, marked by reciprocal distrust, are difficult because none of the protagonists is in full control of the rank-and-file. The Five Stars Movement is a composite aggregation of anti-establishment feelings and quasi populist inclinations, divided between those who want to stick to their original principles remaining pure and those who want to translate those principles into policies. More mundanely, the PD is divided between those supporting the new secretary, Nicola Zingaretti, and those following the former secretary, Matteo Renzi, who is responsible for the election to Parliament of a large majority of them.

While the PD has no other way to go, the Five Stars Movement may revert to a coalition with the Lega. Left out in the cold and by now almost desperate, Matteo Salvini has repeatedly declared his willingness to accept all the programmatic priorities of the Five Stars, among them a sharp reduction in the number of the member of the Parliament, and has even offered the role of Prime Minister to Luigi Di Maio. New elections still loom large on the complex Italian political landscape while all the polls are predicting a victory of the center-right. In the meantime, nobody seems to care about the choice of the Italian nominee to become European Commissioner. Time and again Italy proves to be just a passive member of the European Union.

August 26, 2019 DCUBrexitInstitute.eu 

“Why the italian young people seems so passive?” Le mie risposte alle domande di una “french journalist student”

Qui trovate le mie risposte scritte domenica 24 febbraio alle domande di una “french journalist student”, Inès De Rousiers, come si è definita lei. Giovedì pomeriggio mi ha scritto quanto segue:
“On ne vous a pas cité dans l’article. Nous avons trouvé des intervenants plus polis et plus compétents”.
E’ un documento di un certo interesse, compresi i suoi errori di inglese. Buona lettura.


– Why the italian young people seems so passive?

“Who is authorized to talk in name of the Italian people? There is no Bastille to take and no king to guillotiner. There is a government whose parliamentary majority is 52 per cent and surveys saying that about 60% support what the government is doing.”

-It’s hard for them to find job, to have their own home…It’s like their prefere to go abroad than try to change things in Italy. Is it because their is no « culture of political event, demonstration » like in France?

“Many go abroad to find jobs. Many look for jobs in Italy. Many have a role in professional, cultural, religious associations and other non governmental organizations. The Italian welfare state works and senseless violence is not going to change anything. The casseurs n’habitent pas en Italie.”

-Is it because they think they can’t change things ? (Maybe because there is much more old people than youth people in Italy)

“Things can change what there are proposals and proponents. The opposition is very weak and the Democratic Party is dormant. Your question about old vs young people is meaningless.”

-And regarding the one called « Bamboccioni »…They live with their parents because of economical difficulties for the most of them. I’m surprised that they don’t protest against the economical situation even though they seem to be aware that their futur in Italy may be compromised. Why is that?

“Could you quote your sources? Young Italians live with their parents because the parents provide a shelter and family care. The future in Italy is not compromised and, generally speaking, is not necessarily bleak. All the statistics say that a very large majority of Italians are satisfied with their personal life and believe that there will be some improvement in the future.”



How to form the next government in Italy

Gianfranco Pasquino, Marco Valbruzzi

It is by no means an easy task to construct a majority coalition government which is representative of the March 4th electoral results.In terms of percentages and votes, there are two indisputable winners: the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S) is by far the most voted party; the centre-right coalition has gained more votes and more seats than any competitor. Within the Italian centre-right, the Lega has almost quadrupled its votes. There are also two ascertained losers: the Democratic Party sunk to its lowest percentage ever, while Belusconi’s Forza Italia lost more than four million votes. Numerically, there are four potential coalitions, ranked according to the number of seats they have in the two Houses: M5S plus centre-right; centre-right plus Democratic Party; M5S plus Democratic Party; M5S plus Lega (see Fig. 1). Politically, however, crisscross vetoes seem to have ruled out two of those coalitions already.

Fig. 1. Potential majority coalitions in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate

In fact, since the Five Star Movement does not want Berlusconi to participate in a coalition, and Salvini has so far proved unwilling to abandon the centre-right, two of the possible coalitions involving the M5S have been ruled out. Furthermore, the Democratic Party has rejected the offer by the M5S to reach an agreement on the next government. The centre-right, finally, has not indicated any willingness to make a proposal to the Democratic Party, though in a way the door has been left open for some support coming from Renzi’s parliamentarians. In Berlusconi’s and Meloni’s views, the President of the Republic ought to appoint an exponent of the centre-right to the position of Prime Minister, arguably Matteo Salvini whose Lega has won more votes than Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia. Then it will be up to Salvini to find the parliamentary votes necessary to reach an absolute majority. This proposal is neither absurd nor far-fetched, but it goes against the preferences of all the former Presidents of the Republic, that is, not to play games when appointing the Prime Minister. Indeed, previous Presidents – most recently and notably, Giorgio Napolitano – have explicitly asked potential Prime Ministers to ensure that they could reasonably count on more than a razor-thin parliamentary majority, let alone a minority.

Either way, it is important to stress that the logic of parliamentarism does not imply that the cabinet must be formed exclusively by those parties that have won more votes at election time. As Table 1 shows, it is partly true and partly false that winning parties automatically get into the governmental coalition. This statement is an oversimplification with little or no empirical underpinning, usually expressed by Italian right-wing politicians and commentators who just try to argue their case. Many other factors, such as the ideological compatibility between potential allies and their more or less consistent strategies, will have to be taken into consideration – as the Große Koalition, formed in Germany barely two months ago, tellingly shows.

Table 1. Electoral performances of political parties in the 2017 and 2016 legislative elections in Western Europe

What is also going on in Italian politics is the lingering discussion about constitutional issues. The centre-right claims that it is high time to reverse the trend of “unelected governments”, as if Italians – or, for that matter, the voters in any parliamentary democracy – could directly elect their government, thus ignoring the fact that voters can only elect the parliament where governments are formed, transformed, replaced. The Democrats, piloted by their former secretary Matteo Renzi, insist that the present situation is the inevitable consequence of the defeat of their constitutional reforms in the December 4th, 2016 referendum, and of the Constitutional Court’s sentence that declared some features of their electoral law (dubbed Italicum) unconstitutional. In reality, Renzi’s constitutional reforms did not contain any measures that would strengthen the government and there is no way to assess the likely impact of the Italicum on the parties and the party system. More than twenty years of uninformed and manipulated discussions of what a parliamentary democracy is, as well as the continued search for partisan electoral laws, are creating a destructive confusion among parliamentarians, political commentators (in Italy and abroad) and public opinion at large.

The idea recently launched by Matteo Renzi, that only those willing to put forward and approve major constitutional reforms as well as a new electoral law should be allowed to create the next government, in order to overcome the political impasse, seems to be yet another improvised ballon d’essai with no substance.

Pubblicato il 3 maggio 2018 su larivistaIlMulino

After Italy’s vote: The case for a deal between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement

Italy’s election produced a fragmented result and there has been intense speculation over the potential government that could emerge from negotiations. Andrea Lorenzo Capussela and Gianfranco Pasquino argue that in a tri-polar parliament dominated by populists of different descriptions, a cabinet centred on some form of understanding between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement would be the least bad option from the perspective of both Italy’s and Europe’s interests. At the very least, the logic of parliamentary democracy requires the two parties to engage in serious talks.

Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, Credit: David Macchi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The Italian election produced three surprises. The centre-right coalition came first, as predicted, but within it voters largely preferred the anti-establishment rhetoric of Lega – the radical-right party formerly known as the Northern League, which recently shed its original secessionism to embrace sovereignism – to the more ambiguous liberal-populism of Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia. They punished the ruling Democratic Party (PD) more harshly than expected, and rewarded the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) more generously than expected.

Like the PD, Berlusconi’s party scored the worst result of its history. Except in 2011-13, when both supported a non-partisan executive, those two parties or their predecessors – the alliance that merged into the PD in 2007 – have either led the government or the opposition ever since 1994. Although much divided them and their policies, they jointly presided over the country’s singular and remarkable decline, which began then. Suffice it to say that during the 2000s average per-capita real growth was the lowest in the world, and average real disposable income is now at about the same level as it was in 1995: in Italy’s closest Eurozone peers – France, Germany, and Spain – it is about 25% higher. Their joint defeat suggests that an opportunity might have opened for the country to gradually shift toward a fairer and more efficient equilibrium.

Before turning to the implications for the formation of the next government, however, a brief look at the composition and policy orientation of the three poles that dominate parliament, shown in the table below, might be useful. For two of these poles are fairly loose coalitions, and the solidity of the third cannot be taken for granted, especially when one considers that during the 2013-18 parliament, 36.7 per cent of MPs switched sides, often more than once (347 out of 945 elected MPs officially switched sides, and 566 switches were recorded).

Table: Selected results from the 2018 Italian election

Note: The seats shown in the table are preliminary figures. Two seats are as yet unassigned in either chamber; in the Senate, the count covers elected seats only. † In a slightly different composition between the two elections. ‡ With a different name and composition between the two elections. Source: Official data

Besides Lega and Berlusconi’s party, the centre-right coalition comprises a post-fascist grouping (‘Brothers of Italy’ in the table) and a smaller cartel of patronage networks. It is held together by history (they governed together in 1994, 2001-6, and 2008-11), by an equally long tradition of tolerance for illegality and clientelism and impatience for pluralism and constitutional democracy, by varying degrees of opposition to immigration, nationalism, and Euroscepticism, which only Berlusconi’s party muted during the campaign, and by a fairly extreme flat-tax proposal (the suggested rates are 15 or 23 per cent). But Lega’s virulent anti-establishment rhetoric, which undoubtedly contributed to the quadrupling of its votes, distances it markedly from its partners.

The Five Star Movement deliberately ran alone. But its lack of either a recognisable political culture or a reliable method for selecting candidates, its weak internal democracy, and its short history suggest that exits are possible (it lost 32.7 per cent of its parliamentarians in 2013-18). Although it too seems impatient with pluralism, its anti-political views do not extend to a rejection of constitutional democracy and the checks and balances system. On the contrary, its overall stance is couched primarily in terms of transparency and public integrity, and its support for judicial and political accountability survived the first large scandals in which the party was implicated. To this foundational message the M5S recently added the proposal of a form of universal basic income, it softened its Euroscepticism, and seems to have shelved its opposition to the common currency.

The centre-left coalition is far less balanced than its ideological alternative. None of the PD’s three allies reached the 3 per cent threshold, and within them only two figures carry some influence: Emma Bonino, who led a grouping of pro-European libertarians, and the former leader of a centrist party that was allied to Berlusconi until the 2010s. The coalition ran on the record of the 2013-18 PD-led cabinets, promising greater efforts on unemployment, poverty, and equality of opportunity. It advocated further European integration, ever a pillar of the PD’s stance, but gave this issue modest prominence. More importantly, several choices of candidates, especially in the South, appeared to indicate that the weight of clientelism has grown within that party.

Arithmetic and policy compatibility suggest that the next government could be built upon three alternative majorities, whether formal (coalition cabinets) or informal (parliamentary support for minority executives): the M5S and the PD, with or without the latter’s allies or, in their stead, a small leftist grouping (‘Free and Equal’ in the table); centre-right and centre-left; and M5S and Lega. A non-partisan government supported by most parties is a fourth option, which would probably be pursued if those three fail, as an alternative to snap elections. But such a cabinet would presumably have the mandate merely of steering the country while parliament designs a better electoral law: one, for instance, which allowed citizens to select their representatives.

The background against which these alternatives must be set is well known. Domestically, the growth acceleration of 2017 is likely to slow down, and the exceptionally favourable external macroeconomic environment of the past few years will gradually revert to normality. In Europe, the renewed Franco-German alliance does seem set to give impetus to EU and Eurozone reform, but faces both risks and obstacles – such as, for example, an unhelpful US administration, a hostile Russia, and dangerous relations between the two. It will also have to address the (legitimate) demands and reservations of an informal grouping of mainly Northern and North-Eastern smaller member states. Italy must choose a strategy and can indeed influence the outcome of this debate, which could shape the future of the continent for a decade or more.

Let us assume, for simplicity, that the centre-right’s interests are on the whole less aligned to the needs of Italy’s material and democratic development than those of the other parties, as recent history arguably suggests, and that greater European integration is desirable, at least if greater doses of democracy and accountability will infuse the common institutions. On these assumptions, admittedly subjective, it can readily be shown that only the first alternative (a deal between the M5S and the PD) could potentially advance both Italy’s and Europe’s needs.

With inverted roles, a left-right coalition would resemble the 2013-18 ones, which included either Berlusconi’s party or, de facto, segments of it. They achieved little on either front. A right-led coalition would likely do worse. Meanwhile, Lega’s flat tax (15 per cent) and the Five Star Movement’s universal basic income proposals are mutually incompatible. An alliance between them could thus lead the populists within the M5S to follow Lega’s example in the search for scapegoats: immigrants, Brussels, the euro, and others. Italy and probably also the EU are highly unlikely to survive unscathed.

Conversely, the M5S and the PD could find common ground on a genuinely universalistic, sustainable, and pro-growth reform of social insurance, on the fight against corruption and tax evasion, and, possibly, also on public administration reform and a pro-growth public expenditure review. Over five years, a meaningful degree of implementation of almost any plausible programme built along these lines would make Italy a distinctly better country.

The pre-conditions for such a compact are that the M5S pledges support for greater European integration, upon a sufficiently clear platform, and that the PD distances itself from collusion with the economic elites, clientelism, and the other unethical practices that increasingly permeated it. Cooperation could improve both sides of the deal, in other words. The main risks are friction, deadlock, and break-up. They are serious, of course, but could be reduced by following the German example: a detailed and transparent coalition agreement, made after comprehensive negotiations and public intra-party discussion and deliberation. The PD and even more the M5S have a lot to learn for such a demanding process to work, but nothing prevents them from giving it a try.

Having narrowly won the 2013 election, the PD offered a roughly similar alliance to the M5S but was mockingly rebuffed. Stung by defeat and by that precedent, the PD has so far, perhaps tactically, rejected the Five Star Movement’s informal overtures. The reasons offered boil down to these: cooperation with the M5S is not what voters want and would damage the party. It could harm the existing party, arguably, but might make it a better one. Above all, both Italy’s and Europe’s interests and the very logic of parliamentary democracy require the two sides to engage in serious talks. Talks held according to established practice (the largest party should lay down the platform), with reasonable safeguards (an adequate mixture of transparency, on strategic choices, and confidentiality, on tactical ones), and an open horizon (leading to either a formal coalition or external support for a minority government, and potentially encompassing also other parties or figures).

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

March 22nd, 2018


About the authors

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela led the economic and fiscal affairs office of Kosovo’s supervisor, the International Civilian Office, and is the author of State-Building in Kosovo: Democracy, Corruption, and the EU in the Balkans (I.B. Tauris, 2015), and of The Political Economy of Italy’s Decline (Oxford University Press, 2018). He tweets @AndreaCapussela

Gianfranco Pasquino – University of Bologna
Gianfranco Pasquino is Emeritus Professor of political science at the University of Bologna and member of the Accademia dei Lincei. He has published a number of books on Italian politics and is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics. He tweets @GP_ArieteRosso