Italian general election: the far right sweeps to power under Giorgia Meloni

The Italian general election produced a clear majority for the right-wing coalition headed by the Brothers of Italy, following a significant shift of votes within the coalition. The parties of the centre-left failed to forge an electoral alliance. Italy's political landscape remains volatile, says Giovanni Capoccia

The Italian general election produced the result that was widely predicted. A united right-wing coalition won a comfortable majority in both Chambers against a divided opposition. The right will form the next government, and the 45-year-old leader of Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy), Giorgia Meloni, will replace Mario Draghi as Prime Minister. She will be the first ever woman to hold that office in Italy.

Victory for the right on a reduced turnout

The historic centre-right coalition won about 44% of the votes. This coalition, now dominated by the hard right, consists of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, complemented by the small centrist alliance Noi Moderati (We Moderates).

Its main rival, the centre-left coalition including the Partito Democratico (19%), a joint electoral list between Verdi (Greens) and Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left, 3.5%), the liberals of +Europa (More Europe, 2.8%), stopped at 26%. The 5-Star Movement (M5s) secured 15.5% and the centrist Azione / Italia Viva 7.8%. The elections were marked by the lowest-ever turnout in Italian history: 63.9%.

Italy's electoral system elects about a third of MPs in single-member districts with the first-past-the-post formula and two-thirds with proportional representation in small districts. In this election, the system turned these percentages into a clear majority for the right. The right-wing coalition now has 237 seats (59.2%) in the Chamber of Deputies and 115 seats (57.5%) in the Senate. The centre-left won only 83 and 44 seats respectively, M5s 52 and 28, the centrists 21 and 9.

Italian general election 2022: Chamber of Deputies and Senate results

Election results for the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Senate

PdPartito Democratico / Democratic Party
Verdi + SinistraGreens + Italian Left
+EuropaMore Europe
Impegno civicoCivic Commitment
M5sMovimento 5 Stelle / 5-Star Movement
Azione + IvAzione + Italia Viva / Action + Italy Alive
FdIFratelli d'Italia / Brothers of Italy
LegaLeague (formerly Lega Nord)
FiForza Italia
Noi moderatiWe Moderates
Source: Corriere della Sera, 27 September 2022

The right’s internal earthquake

With 26% of the votes, Fratelli d'Italia is now the country’s largest party. This will almost certainly lead to Meloni’s appointment as Prime Minister. Her two main allies, Lega and Forza Italia, suffered a clear defeat. This was predictable for Forza Italia, which has been in decline for some time now. However, Lega experienced an unexpected debacle. Winning less than 9% of the vote, its 2018 percentage share almost halved.

The electoral defeat of Lega looks even worse if one considers the party’s remarkable rise in the polls to above 30% in 2018–2019, and its 34.3% share in the 2019 European Parliament elections. The perty's recent reversal of fortune might provoke an internal challenge to Salvini’s leadership.

Meloni’s challenge

Many have emphasised the differences between Meloni and her allies over sanctions against Russia. The issue may indeed acquire distinct relevance for the internal equilibrium of the coalition next January, when EU sanctions come up for renewal. Meloni's open commitment to NATO has helped reassure allies. But her party’s post-fascist roots, and her siding with Orbán in his fight with the European Commission, might also destabilise her government. Moreover, the rapid shift of the internal equilibrium within the right might also lead to coalition tensions.

The rise of Fratelli d'Italia has largely been at the expense of its allies, and Meloni's stances on Russia and Orbán may destabilise her government

Indeed, as the analysis of vote transfers shows, the steady rise of Fratelli d'Italia from 4.4% in 2018 to 26% today is mainly due to the party’s ability to attract voters from its two allies. On the Lega front, it is likely that Salvini (or his successor), once the defeat is absorbed, will try to regain votes – at least in historic Lega strongholds such as Veneto and Lombardy. In those regions, Fratelli d'Italia attracted twice as many votes as Lega in this election.

Prior to the election, Forza Italia suffered high-profile defections to the centrists. More might be in store. The right-wing coalition is by no means doomed, but Meloni will likely have to act preventively to reassure her allies.

The left: winners and losers

On the centre-left, the winner is former Prime Minister and M5s leader Giuseppe Conte. Polls indicated his party was likely to win only around 10–11%, and appeared to be on a downward trend. Many even regarded M5s as being in terminal decline. Yet the 5-Star Movement trumped expectations. Despite suffering a split, it brought down Draghi’s government and attracted 15.5% of the vote.

Guiseppe Conte's 5-Star Movement, positioned on the left during this campaign, won more votes than projected. Conte's grip on the party has also been reinforced

Conte’s gamble to leave the Draghi-supporting coalition paid off. The defection of the ‘pro-government’ wing led by Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio ended up reinforcing Conte’s grip on the party. Indeed, the current M5s is largely his brainchild. Over the past year, Conte restructured the party, had a new statute approved, and emancipated the party from the private company that owned the platform for internal voting and the personal data of party members.

During the campaign, Conte positioned M5s clearly on the left. He also reasserted some internal rules that brought the party closer to its ideological roots. These included the two-mandate limit, meaning that M5s politicians cannot serve more than two terms in any representative assembly.

The crisis of the Partito Democratico

Di Maio, along with Partito Democratico secretary Enrico Letta, are the losers on the left. Di Maio has not been elected to Parliament and might leave politics. Only five years ago, he was the leader of a 32.7%-strong M5s, the country’s largest party at the time. This in itself is testimony to the highly volatile state of Italian politics.

Following his party’s disappointing result, Letta announced he would convene a party convention replacing him as leader. Letta is taking responsibility for the party’s ineffective alliance strategy, which led neither to a larger ‘anti-right’ coalition, nor to a political coalition ‘continuing Draghi's agenda’.

Fragile political reality

With the existing electoral system, any chance of defeating the right hinges upon a broad centre-left alliance, which certainly should include M5s. But the centrist Azione / Italia Viva alliance, which at 7.8% is a relevant player, is adamant in its refusal to join any such alliance.

The apparently clear-cut electoral result hides a more fragile political reality

Hence, the apparently clear-cut electoral result hides a more fragile political reality. In normal times, the possible instability of a coalition government and the search for identity of a defeated opposition would be standard fare. Given the economic and international crisis, however, these might prove a destabilising influence in an already volatile political landscape.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Giovanni Capoccia
Giovanni Capoccia
Professor of Comparative Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

Giovanni's research interests include democracy and political extremism, democratic backsliding, and European politics.

He is currently completing a monograph on legal and judicial restrictions to the extreme right in Western democracies since 1945.

He tweets @gcapoccia1

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