Don’t hold your breath

On March 4th, Italian voters will elect their representatives in Parliament, a little more than one year after Renzi’s government resigned following the rejection of a constitutional reform proposed by his Democratic Party. Once again, Italian voters are confused. Political chaos is nothing new in Italy, a country which had more than 50 governments since 1945. But this year, the situation is worrisome.

The electoral law

Many elements have contributed to confusing voters. First of all, the new electoral law. Italian politicians have set up a complex mechanism which could turn out to be tricky for citizens who didn’t properly examine the system. The Rosatellum is a hybrid system with both proportional and majoritarian features: 61% of the seats will be allocated through the proportional system, 37% will be allocated according to the first-past-the-post mechanism and 2% will be attributed according to the votes expressed by Italians residing abroad. This law was introduced after the previous ones, Porcellum and Italicum, which were both declared unconstitutional by the Italian Constitutional Court. Considering that parties must reach a 3% threshold to gain access to the Parliament, in a fragmented political landscape such as the Italian one, this electoral system clearly encourages the establishment of coalitions.

What the polls show

A second element which confuses and demotivates the electorate is the set of options among which they can choose. A voter finds him or herself to pick among the same old parties, some of which are grouped in a scary coalition. According to the law, no polls can be published when the elections are two weeks (or less) away.

The last data published put the 5 Star Movement on top of the list. Strongly populist, the party has defined itself as an anti-establishment group, fighting corruption and supporting direct democracy. Traditionally Eurosceptic, the 5 Star Movement has for years expressed the intention to hold a referendum on Italy’s exit from the eurozone. Now that elections are about to happen, the party leaders have softened their tone and put this intention on hold. The second place belongs to the center-right coalition formed by Forza Italia, led by Berlusconi, Brothers of Italy, a descendant of the fascist Social Movement, and Lega Nord, a Eurosceptic and anti-immigration party. The third place is held by Renzi’s Democratic Party, which has suffered internal turmoil and political failure in the previous mandate. At the bottom, we can find Free and Equal, a recently established party, which is mostly composed of former members of the Democratic Party and has a considerably smaller electoral basis when compared to its competitors. Other smaller parties are participating, but none of them are likely to reach the required threshold.

No prediction must be taken too seriously as history shows that Italian voters often make up their mind on election day. According to the latest reports, the number of Italians who don’t know yet for whom they will vote is high (between 30 and 40% of the electorate according to Noto and Piepoli, renowned Italian pollsters). On top of this, according to the polls, none of the above will gain enough votes to govern independently.

Many options, but no one to vote for

In the last ten years, Italy has been in the hands of three caretaker governments. Unelected officials often brought a general feeling of illegitimacy and dissatisfaction in the country, which distanced citizens from the political life. In addition, the political contenders definitely don’t help increasing trust in governing institutions. Berlusconi (although ineligible due to fraud allegations he’s been found guilty of), is playing a significant role in the electoral campaign since he remains the face of the moderate right-wing forces in the country. The fact that one of the most popular characters in the electoral debate is an 81-year-old man, convicted for fraud (and charged with many other accusations), who has already led the government three times and is not even eligible to rule, shows there is something wrong with the political system itself.

But many of the parties in Italy present deep contradictions. As it shows the case of Lega Nord, which was originally a secessionist party, highly critical towards the South of the country, and has now expanded its electorate, gaining consensus in the southern regions by pointing the finger at migrants. Much more could be said about each of the competing parties, all using a populist rhetoric, picking up on citizens’ fears amplified by the severe economic conditions, and insulting other parties rather than promoting their own.

Italians might be known for deciding who they will vote for at the last moment, but how can they be blamed if these are the options they have to choose from and this is the system they have to vote through?

What’s at stake for Brussels?

European leaders are concerned about the outcome considering the Italian economic situation, its attitude towards migration, and towards the EU. In particular, the Italian economy, the 4th largest in the EU, is also among the slowest in growth and highest in public debt. The new government would need to implement economic reforms which would improve the situation. On top of this, the establishment of an unstable government could trigger financial instability, which would affect the Union as a whole.

Second, migration policy will be among the top priorities to be discussed by Member States. Having an anti-immigrant party such as Lega Nord or Brothers of Italy would definitely make negotiations more difficult, especially considering that Italy is among the countries with the highest number of immigrants in the EU. Even more critical for Brussels would be the inclusion of Eurosceptic forces, which would weaken the Union’s stability even further. There are political forces which the Union would welcome more favorably, such as the Democratic Party, but none of the contenders is expected to be able to independently win a majority of seats in parliament. As a result, months could pass before representatives set up an operative government. On Thursday, Juncker said to be very concerned about the outcome of the Italian elections and expressed the hope that the country will be able to set up a functioning government.

While the European Union is worried about the outcome, Italy should be worried about the failures of its political class. The tones used in the electoral campaign, the questionable integrity of certain candidates, the complicated electoral law and the high percentage of indecisive voters question the effectiveness of democracy in the country. But, whatever the outcome is, don’t hold your breath, Italy won’t provide stability or economic certainty for its citizens any time soon.


Author: Ljuba Ferrario

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