Italians head to the polls with election on knife-edge

With two former prime ministers back in action and the Five Star Movement still attracting voters, Italians will likely be facing another coalition government after the March 4 vote. 

By: /
February 28, 2018
Italian election
A man looks at electoral posters in Pomigliano D'Arco, near Naples, Italy, February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Antonio Pinna, a 56-year-old Sardinian fisherman, smokes a cigarette by the quiet lagoon of Cabras, famed for its gourmet dried caviar called bottarga, known as the “gold” of the mullets.

Yet, as minds focus on national elections to be held on March 4, there appear to be few golden prospects in this secluded corner of Italy, despite the island’s heavenly landscape and, for many, a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Sardinia reflects many of the wider problems that have shaped this election — sky-high youth unemployment, an exodus of young people in search of work abroad, record low birth rates, growing numbers dependant on state pensions, and simmering tensions over an influx of migrants that have arrived on Sardinia’s shores. (The island has received fewer migrants than other southern coastal areas, however.)

“I haven’t voted for 20 years. Maybe this time I will,” Pinna says, as a young migrant hosted in a nearby hotel-turned-refugee-centre passes him by, holding his best bet on a better future — two freshly-bought lottery tickets.

It’s not the migrants in Sardinia that has Pinna considering changing his mind. Tempting the fisherman back to the ballot box this year is the Five Star Movement. The anti-establishment party shattered the mould of national politics in the 2013 elections, winning the popular vote (excluding voters abroad) and forcing the mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties into an uneasy coalition government, leaving the upstart movement as the main opposition in parliament.

Founded by renowned comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, the party’s leader is the relatively inexperienced 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, chosen by its base through an Internet vote in September. The party has also won several municipal elections, including in Turin and Rome.

Seen as the Italian face of the kind of populism that has been sweeping across Europe since the financial crisis erupted a decade ago, Di Maio has moderated some of the movement’s more strident demands, including its call for an exit from the euro. Other policy pledges include cutting taxes, reaching 100 percent renewable energy use, a “citizenship income,” and scrapping a law that makes vaccinations compulsory for children.

Since its inception, the Five Star Movement has been out to lure away voters from Italy’s two mainstream coalitions, preventing them from achieving majority wins. It has continually refused to enter into coalition governments with other parties at a national or regional level, and, in the lead up to this election, it has rejected rumours of a possible coalition with either of the two main centre-left and centre-right alliances. However, last week Di Maio said the party “would not leave the country in chaos” and would be open to discussing ways of forming a government to implement specific policies.

"Immigration has been a major issue in a campaign dominated by pledges to reduce taxes and create jobs."

In common with the rival right-wing Northern League, the Five Star Movement also pledges to stop what many see as a “migration business,” and to focus on easing Italy’s “burden” of uncontrolled immigration by advocating for greater refugee quotas from other European states and for better management of the EU’s financial and naval resources in response to the crisis.

Immigration has been a major issue in a campaign dominated by pledges to reduce taxes and create jobs. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have arrived in Italy by boat over the past few years, though 2017 saw a significant drop over 2016 with the arrival — by sea only — of around 119,000 migrants. Several thousand more have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year. On February 3, the nation was shocked by a drive-by shooting that injured six African migrants in the central town of Macerata, and the subsequent arrest of a young Italian man with neo-Fascist links.

From the UK’s Brexit referendum to the French and German elections, the issue of immigration has proved it can determine or at least fundamentally alter the outcome of a vote. Several of Italy’s parties have capitalized on moments focusing public attention on migrants, even at the risk of fanning flames. Even the centre-left said it would stop transferring funds to Europe’s poorer countries that refuse to take their “fair” share of migrants. 

Coalition politics

Yet it is the Five Star Movement’s strong anti-establishment rhetoric that, according to polls, puts it in a leading position with about 29 percent of the electorate. It is drawing away supporters from both mainstream parties led by former prime ministers — Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party and the centre-right Forza Italia, the party of 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who might be on track for a somewhat unexpected political comeback.

“The other parties are the same thing, they do nothing,” says the Sardinian fisherman, explaining his leaning towards the anti-establishment party. “I was richer 20 years ago.”

The outcome of the elections is far from certain however, not least because about 25 percent of voters are said to be undecided. Italy is also going to the polls for its two houses of parliament with a new electoral law — a mix of mostly proportional representation and some first-past-the-post. A party or coalition would require around 40 percent of the total vote to form a majority government, making a Five Star win nearly impossible.

Building coalitions with smaller right-wing parties has long been a strength of Berlusconi, who won the first of his three election victories in 1994 and was ousted as prime minister in 2011, as Italy was plunged into crisis by panicking debt markets. A conviction for tax fraud means he cannot serve again as prime minister, but his return as leader of Forza Italia has led to an electoral alliance with the Northern League (led by Matteo Salvini) and the nationalist Brothers of Italy (led by a woman, Giorgia Meloni).

"The outcome of the elections is far from certain, not least because about 25 percent of voters are said to be undecided."

Polls have Forza Italia now attracting around 15-16 percent of the vote, well down from its 2001 heyday of 29 percent. But with the allied Northern League less than a point behind, according to the latest polls by Luiss University’s Centro Italiano Studi Elettorali, Berlusconi has a chance of becoming the pivotal figure in a coalition that will decide who will be Italy’s next prime minister.

The rival centre-left Democratic Party has led a succession of coalition governments with various permutations of the centre-right, at first including Berlusconi, since the inconclusive elections of 2013. Renzi, a young reformist who won a brutal internal party battle to become prime minister in 2014 without being elected, resigned after losing a national referendum on reshaping the constitution in December 2016. Now, as party leader, he too is battling to return to the fore, although Paolo Gentiloni, his successor as centre-left prime minister, is ahead in terms of voter approval ratings — adding to the confusion.

Political uncertainty, financial stability

After a long and grim decline, the third largest Eurozone economy is slowly recovering, though GDP remains nearly six percent below pre-crisis levels. This apparent turnaround has failed to translate into votes for the Democrats. The party has split and some of its leading figures were embroiled in alleged financial wrongdoings and corruption.

Two possible outcomes of Sunday’s election seem most likely: majorities for the centre-right coalition in both chambers of parliament and then horse-trading over who becomes prime minister, or no outright winner at all. 

In the latter scenario, President Sergio Mattarella could emerge — as his predecessor did in in 2013 — as the key figure in trying to bring about a governing coalition rather than calling fresh elections. The option drawing the most speculation runs along the lines of Germany’s solution to a hung parliament — a new “grand coalition” of Forza Italia and the Democrats.

Not surprisingly, both parties rejected such a possibility, and it is far from sure the two rivals would be able to garner sufficient votes themselves. A link-up between the Northern League and the Five Star Movement cannot be ruled out either in terms of electoral arithmetic. Both are strong euro-sceptics, but an alliance involving such divergent views on political participation would be hard to forge, and would also be resisted by Europe’s political establishment.

Despite the prevailing uncertainty, financial markets have reacted calmly, so far. This comes as no surprise to Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of politics at Luiss University in Rome.

“Markets are not afraid of instability because they consider Italy as always unstable, with governments that last for 10 months. It is not instability that worries markets,” he told OpenCanada. “It’s populism, a referendum on Europe, the victory of the Five Star Movement or of the Northern League. But as these don’t seem on the horizon, markets can live with instability.”

Berlusconi has re-entered the political arena playing the role of the centrist tamer of populists who has proven in the past to keep his right-wing allies in check.

“This is his strategic function and this is why, though weakened, he remains an important actor in the political arena,” commented D’Alimonte, adding that the size of his party’s vote could be crucial in defining the power relationship with the Northern League and future policies.

But despite D’Alimonte’s sanguine outlook, the main challenge for whichever party or coalition manages to form a government after March 4 will revolve around balancing payments of public debt and achieving more economic growth, while overcoming the divisive nature of Italian politics, which threatens the long-term existence of any governing alliance.