On 25 September 2022 Italy goes to the polls in an election that is characterized by many “first times.” It is the first time ever that the country votes just after the summer, i.e. in the middle of the process leading to the budget law and with an electoral campaign held in the middle of August, with most people on the beach. Second, Italy being, for the first time, the country receiving most of the EU’s Next Generation EU budget (around 191 billion euros granted by common bonds), the “how to spend it” is of concern not only to the Italians and Brussels, but to the Union as a whole.
It is the first time Italians will choose 600, and not anymore 915, elected representatives, thanks to the constitutional reform that the anti-elite 5 Star Movement championed and secured in a popular referendum in 2020.
Fourth, and most importantly, it is the first time all forecasts hint to an electoral result where the far right is going to be the first party in the country. Not only Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia is likely to score better than the Democratic Party, it is also likely to score more than its main right-wing allies taken together, the League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. One month away from the vote, in the absence of major scandals or other unpredictable events, chances that the result can change are lean. The centre-right coalition polls 48 percent while the Centre-Left – which includes the Italian greens running with the Left - scores below 30.
For the first time, less than 7 in 10 voters are expected to go to the polls. Among young people aged 18 to 24, only 41 percent consider politics “crucial” and 87 percent fear that “with this ruling class, things they will never change.”
Meloni is likely to become first far-right President of the Council of Ministers of the Republican era. Incidentally, she is also going to be the first woman to evert take the job.
This implies that Italy is likely to set a “first time” for the funding member states of the EU altogether, in so far as none has ever had a far-right Prime Minister yet.
If we look at the recent political history of the country, however, this record could set a trend for other countries too, as it did with Berlusconi, first showbusiness and telecom entrepreneur to take over power in Europe, and the Five Star Movement, first anti-elite populist party to score first in a national election and lead in two consecutive government coalitions (Conte I and Conte II). The election, thus, is being followed closely everywhere in Europe and beyond.
Meloni leads a party that many consider to be the offspring of a post-fascist tradition and rely on openly fascist grassroots movements, like Forza Nuova. It may not be by chance that in late August, even President Biden, used the terminology “semi-fascism” to warn about the resurgence of an extreme right that would be taking over the Republican party in the US too.
A democratic electoral system?
An unstable regime
If the likely results of the upcoming election in Italy are upsetting to many across the world, few know all the good reasons to worry. As concerning as the likely victory of the right, is the combination of electoral laws, constitutional reform, and statutory requirements that makes participation in the election impossible for any party or movement wishing to join the competition anew. Barriers are such that, if better known, would probably place Italy outside the circle of what we call advanced democracies.
First, frequent electoral reforms have characterized the last thirty years in Italy, with the Parliament adopting four laws very different from one another and the Constitutional Court intervening to strike down parts of them. This has caused confusion and an electoral instability seldom experienced in other parts of Europe.
Nowadays, most Italian electors do not know the voting system and have little idea of who are their incumbent representatives. The hybrid system in force since 2017, combines proportional representation (PR) and a majoritarian quota and allows parties to propose the same candidate in up to five different PR constituencies. The result is that the party decides which district is going to be represented by a person elected in more than one constituency, and constituents are not necessarily aware of the decision.
In addition to generating confusion, this system also allows parties to curtail legislation on electoral gender quotas. Legislated quotas for elections or double preference systems have been in force in Italy for the past ten years at the local level and, since 2014, for the European Parliament election. Since the latest change in the electoral law for the national Parliament (2017), parties have had to compose lists so that at least 40 percent of the candidates are of the under-represented (binary) gender. But by giving women majoritarian constituencies that are difficult to win or playing with the order of list in PR districts, parties can still favour male candidates. Thus, despite the new obligation, the 2018 election did not bring the expected increase in women’s representation, which is stuck at 34 percent. No Italian party, except for Fratelli d’Italia, has ever had a woman party leader and women have been less than 7 in one hundred men holding ministerial roles in the past 74 years.
In addition to an already complicated system, in September 2020 Italians voted largely in favour of a constitutional referendum reducing the number of Parliament members. Up until now, for every 100,000 individuals, Italians had close to one MP. As of this year, instead, Italy is going to have just 0.7 members in the Chamber of Deputies per 100,000 inhabitants, ranking among the last in the EU in terms of number of representatives per citizen. Therefore, the portion of votes necessary to elect one representative has grown further, making success harder for smaller or newer political forces.
Even more astonishing are all the formal barriers to compete in the general election that make participation of new parties almost hopeless. Present statutory requirements have it that any political movement wishing to run must validate their complete lists of candidates collecting over 74 thousand signatures - 37 thousand in case of snap elections. The signatures need to be certified in presence by a notary public or an authorized official. However, parties that are already in the national/European Parliament or have run in a former election even as minor coalition partner and without electing anyone can run without any requirement, thanks to “exemptions.”
In practice, new movements can only compete if they either have the resources to collect enough signatures - but public funding and reimbursements for political parties have been abolished in 2013 - or can make an alliance and a common list with an “exemption-holder.” As a way of comparison, Francesca Romana D’Antuono, the co-president of the young pan-European political party Volt, reports that, in Germany, Volt could compete in the election given the access requirement is set at 2000 non-certified signatures. Furthermore, parties that collect 0,5 percent of votes can access public funding and re-pay their expenses. In the Netherlands, 600 support statements are enough and funding is granted even when a party comes close to achieving just one elected representative.
For the upcoming Italian election, Volt, which elsewhere runs alone, had to either renounce running or join forces with an exemption-holder.
Others, led by the popular radical politician Marco Cappato, decided to set up an ad-hoc electoral list, Referendum e Democrazia, and collect thousands digital signatures just to raise awareness of the democratic deficit caused by the statutory requirements and take them before the courts.
What to expect: electoral coalitions, people, and goals
At present, the combination of electoral rules, statutory requirements, and the decrease in the number of MPs have been determining for the formation of electoral coalitions and lists to an unprecedent extent.
On the right, four pre-existing parties compose the electoral coalition that is most likely to win the election: Fratelli d’Italia, La Lega, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the smaller, centrist, Noi Moderati.
On the left, the Democratic Party has sought to form an alliance as wide as possible. Until the July 2022 government crisis, initiated by the Five Star Movement, Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party was seeking an alliance with the Five Stars to gain more competitiveness for the centre-left. The plan failed when the Five Star leader and former Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, opened the floor for the right to determine the government crisis, and Letta – a strong supporter of Mario Draghi, renounced to the alliance. The Democratic Party is now running with the support of much smaller parties, like Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left), the Italian Greens, +Europa and Impegno Civico.
An attempt to widen Letta’s coalition towards the centre, to include the liberal-democratic party Azione of MEP and former minister Carlo Calenda, failed abruptly in August. A heated clash in between the two leaders brought to the creation of a new alliance in the centre, where Azione, newly funded in 2020, resolved to run together with Renzi’s Italia Viva, an exemption-holder, rather than start collecting signatures to run alone. This alliance, now dubbed Terzo Polo – the third pole – has indeed a coherent common liberal agenda and is likely to make the 5 percent threshold necessary to elect representatives in the PR districts. However, the competition between Terzo Polo and the alliance led by the Democratic Party in majoritarian districts may well result in the right winning more seats than it would, had Azione and the left played together.
Last, the Five Star Movement is experiencing a sharply declining trend, from the 33 percent of the last general election in 2018, to the current ten-ish. The party has also suffered from the adieu of the popular Foreign Minister and former leader Luigi di Maio, which joined forces with a smaller centrist party to get an exemption and run with the Democrats, all supporting the so-called “Draghi agenda” for reforms.
Beyond the alliances, the candidates … and the programmes?
Whereas the political “landscape” has changed, little innovation is to be expected in the party leaderships, especially in the centre and the left. The decrease in the number of seats available has as a consequence that career politicians need to make sure they run in safe constituencies ever more than before. This happens at the expense of younger party members and women, some of whom have been openly complaining on social media about their exclusion. Others, like some former Forza Italia leaders, have transitioned to the new centrist formations in search of safer seats. Matteo Renzi, whose popularity fell abruptly in the past years, has left any prominent role in the campaign while holding strong on safe constituencies for himself and his party leaders.
For most of the campaign, political reporting focused on the changes in the alliances, the moves of the leaders and the polls, rather than programmes.
Only the programme of Giorgia Meloni seems to have changed noticeably. The leader of the right stood firmly alone in the opposition when all the others decided to support Mario Draghi’s government, and yet Draghi and herself frequently pointed out that they were keeping a respectful dialogue alive. Meloni’s quest for the premiership was paralleled with her taking reassuring positions in a number of different policy areas.
First, on foreign policy, Meloni was clear from the outset that she would not question Italy’s pro-Ukraine positioning, EU sanctions, and allegiance to NATO. Differently from her allies, she was smart enough to avoid any direct relation with Putin in the recent years and could reclaim this during the campaign. She reiterated her support for a Europe of the Nations, and was careful enough to avoid any statement on exiting the Union, or the euro.
Second, with an eye to the financial markets and her European counterparts, she also distanced herself from those who insist on deviating from budget discipline to face raising energy prices and general inflation. She also softened her stance on re-opening a complete negotiation with the Commission on Italy’s National Plan for Recovery and Resilience, hinting to the fact that it is “perfectible.” Yet, the compatibility of the main fiscal reform she proposes – several tax cuts across a variety of sector, on the one hand, – and budget discipline, on the other hand, is yet to be explained.
She has moderated her traditionally aggressive tone in political debates, avoided being seen and photographed in crowds of extreme-right supporters and even reshaped her image adopting a more smiling attitude. A sort of “respectability and institutionalisation” endeavour for which Marine Le Pen has been a source of inspiration.
What is left of the traditional claims of the extreme right is an extensive focus on so-called “symbolic policies,” e.g. policies for the (traditional) family, natality, immigration control, support of the Christian, Judaic, and classic roots of European culture, institutional reforms to transform Italy in a (semi-)Presidential system, and the “transfer powers to Roma Capitale.”
The word gender is absent from the programme and policies for women limited to themes where they do not challenge any conservative values. And yet, Giorgia Meloni herself – as many other extreme right-wing women politicians in Europe, embodies a deviation from those values. An unmarried, single mother, she has been vocal about growing up without a father and her intense relation with a younger man.
Does Europe need as many “first times”?
Mario Draghi’s Italy has represented, in the past year, a stronghold for Europe as a whole. His leadership has been providing a stable guide in a moment of crisis for the entire continent, one where the need to re-build the economy after COVID, the war in Ukraine, and the shortage of energy and raising prices could engender chaos. This has been even more so since Macron’s France has faced an unstable political situation, where the government does not a majority in Parliament, and Germany has been among the countries most exposed to the energy crisis. On his way out, in late August, Draghi expressed optimism saying he was convinced that “the next government, whatever its political color, will be able to overcome those difficulties that seem insurmountable today - as we overcame them last year. Italy will make it, this time too. “
For Italy to make it, it would probably have been easier if less “first times” had happened in such turbulent times. And, for sure, an Italy at its first experiences is not what Europe is in need of at this moment in time.
This article was first published in French on fr.boell.org.
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PresidenteDraghi’s speech at the Meeting of Rimini, 24 August 2022 https://www.governo.it/en/node/20424