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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


Italy Transformed Politics, Society and Institutions at the End of the Great Recession, 1st Edition

The decade commencing with the great crash of 2008 was a watershed period for Italian politics, involving fundamental and dramatic changes, many of which had not been anticipated and which are charted in this book. This comprehensive volume covers the impact of the Eurozone crisis on the Italian economy and its relationship with the European Union, the dramatic changes in the political parties (and particularly the rise of a new political force, the Five Star Movement, which became the largest political party in 2013), the changing role of the Trade Unions in the lives of Italian citizens, the Italian migration crisis, electoral reforms and their impact on the Italian party system (where trends towards bipolarisation appear to be exhausted), the rise of new forms of social protest, changes to political culture and social capital and, finally, amidst the crisis, reforms to the welfare state.

Overall, the authors reveal a country, which many had assumed was in quiet transition towards a more stable democracy, that suffers an immense shock from the Eurozone crisis and bringing to the fore deep-rooted structural problems which have changed the dynamics of its politics, as confirmed in the outcome to the 2018 National Elections.

This book was originally published as a special issue of South European Society and Politics.

Politics, Society and Institutions at the End of the Great Recession, 1st Edition
Edited by Martin Bull, Gianfranco Pasquino
202 pages

Table of Contents

1. Introduction:Italian Politics in an Era of Recession: The End of Bipolarism? Martin J. Bull and Gianfranco Pasquino

2. In the Eye of the Storm: The Italian Economy and the Eurozone Crisis Martin J. Bull

3. The Italian Welfare State in the Crisis: Learning to Adjust? Stefano Sacchi

4. After and Beyond Amoral Familism: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Social Capital Italian-style Raimondo Catanzaro

5. Trade Unions and Employment Relations in Italy during the Economic Crisis Ida Regalia and Marino Regini

6. Electoral Reform as an Engine of Party System Change in Italy Marta Regalia

7. Protest in Italy in Times of Crisis: A Cross-Government Comparison Massimiliano Andretta

8. Italian Migration Policies in Times of Crisis: The Policy Gap Reconsidered Tiziana Caponio and Teresa M. Cappiali

9. The Disappearance of Political Cultures in Italy Gianfranco Pasquino

10. Voters without a Party: The ‘Long Decade’ of the Italian Centre-Right and its Uncertain Future Marco Tarchi

11. The Italian Five Star Movement during the Crisis: Towards Normalisation? Filippo Tronconi

12. The Italian Democratic Party from Merger to Personalism Sofia Ventura

Martin Bull is Professor of Politics at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester, UK and Director of the European Consortium of Political Research, Colchester, UK.
Gianfranco Pasquino is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Bologna, Italy.

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