Italy’s odd turn to the right

The outcome of the Italian parliamentary elections, now less than two weeks away, seems a foregone conclusion. The centre-right coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing Brothers of Italy, will likely have a majority. What might happen after the centre-right takes power is more uncertain, says Giovanni Capoccia

A clear parliamentary majority

The polls’ verdict is clear. The centre-right alliance of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), Salvini’s Lega, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) and allies polls at around 45-46% of the vote. This is between 17 and 19% above the Partito Democratico (PD)-led centre-left. The 5-Star Movement (5SM) is credited with about 13%, and the centrist alliance Azione/Italia Viva with around 7%.

The centre-right’s lead is even starker in seat projections. The Italian Parliament is elected with a mixed electoral system. About one-third of the seats are assigned by first-past-the-post in single member districts (SMDs). The remaining seats are distributed by closed-list PR in relatively small districts. Parties with less than 3% of the vote do not obtain seats. The threshold for coalitions is 10%.

SMD candidates are connected to a party list or a coalition of lists. Electors have only one vote. They can tick either the name of a candidate in a SMD, or the coalition (or list) connected to her. Technicalities aside, that vote is counted for both competitions. In principle, this might create a psychological bias to vote ‘strategically’ in favour of larger parties/coalitions that stand more chances to win in first-past-the-post races.

Of the 147 SMD seats of the 400-strong Chamber of Deputies, the latest polls give 129 to the centre-right and 15 to the centre-left; the picture is similar for the 200-strong Senate

That, of course, also depends on local conditions. But the electoral system’s bias in favour of large coalitions in the SMD competitions is clear. Of the 147 SMD seats of the 400-strong Chamber of Deputies, the latest polls give 129 to the centre-right and 15 to the centre-left. Only 3 seats go to other candidates. Predictions for the Senate (200 members) are similar. Of 74 SMD seats, 62 are likely to go to the centre-right, 8 to the centre-left and 4 to other candidates.

Beyond September

Adding the numbers from these polls to those forecast for PR-allocated seats across Italy, the centre-right should obtain a majority of around 50 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and around 20 in the Senate. Even considering the polls’ usual margins of error and the about 10% of electors who are unsure who to vote for (many have decided not to vote at all: turnout is predicted to be low), this picture is unlikely to change significantly.

As a result, many of the political protagonists seem to have taken a centre-right victory as a foregone conclusion. They have shifted their attention to what will happen after the centre-right wins these elections. PD leader Enrico Letta has invited electors not to disperse their votes on 5SM and centrists. Voting strategically for the centre-left would allow them to win more seats in SMDs and, as he said, ‘prevent the right from obtaining 70% of the seats’. In fact, forecasts are lower (around 60%). They are nevertheless rather close to the supermajority of two-thirds of seats that would allow the centre-right to change the Constitution unilaterally.

Most explicit are the centrist leaders of Azione/Italia Viva, Matteo Renzi and Carlo Calenda. While not apparently doubting the victory of the centre-right, they insist that ‘a good result’ for them would be ‘allowing Mario Draghi to continue as PM’. (This is a rather unrealistic prospect at this stage). Renzi has also explicitly evoked a repetition of 2021, when he was instrumental in bringing down the government headed by Giuseppe Conte (5SM) and engineering the broader coalition that supported Draghi.

Will a Meloni government last five years?

More importantly, Meloni herself has expressed concerns about the medium-term stability of the centre-right coalition. The fissures are real. Despite their past sympathy for Putin, FdI has now taken a hard line against Russia. Salvini and Berlusconi have instead a softer position on sanctions, with Salvini explicitly calling for their removal. Salvini advocates a special budget of 30bn Euro of extra public spending to tackle the current ‘gas bill crisis’. Meloni opposes this, in her effort to acquire international credibility. Berlusconi’s FI will likely be keen to display a stronger pro-European profile against Meloni’s and Salvini’s anti-integration stance.

There are real concerns about the medium-term stability of the centre-right coalition, which Meloni herself has expressed

Lega’s and FI’s electoral anxieties exacerbate these tensions. Both parties are increasingly turning into junior partners of FdI. This is a role that they resent, after having recently been the dominant forces in the coalition. FdI polls at much higher percentages than the Lega in all areas of Italy, even in the latter’s old Northeastern strongholds. Here, Meloni’s party is credited with almost twice the Lega’s votes. FI, meanwhile, is increasingly threatened by the slow but steady rise of centrist Azione/Italia Viva. According to most polls, they have now reached, and in some polls surpass, Berlusconi’s party.

The likely return of parliamentary coalition politics

In other words, the forthcoming elections are likely to produce both a centre-right victory and a fragmented, possibly volatile, parliament. The immediate result of the elections will likely be a centre-right government with Meloni as PM. However, after an initial ‘honeymoon’, the internal divisions of the centre-right might destabilise the government and reopen the possibility of a centre-based, oversized national coalition like the one that supported Draghi. This is especially likely if the international and economic situation, already very difficult, were to experience a sudden worsening.

After an initial ‘honeymoon’, the internal divisions of the centre-right might destabilise the government and reopen the possibility of a centre-based, oversized national coalition like the one that supported Draghi

To prevent this risk, Meloni has proposed to join forces to the centre-left, in order to discuss a presidential reform in an ad hoc Committee. There, the two big coalitions would be hegemonic. For now Letta, in his effort to emphasise the danger that the centre-right represents for the Constitution, has excluded any discussion of presidentialism. More importantly, the Five Star Movement and Azione/Italia Viva have significant opposition to the consolidation of bipolarism. This, along with the tensions within the coalitions themselves, will make it difficult for Meloni and Letta to agree a pact of non-belligerence to draft new rules. Even though the outcome of the September elections now seems predictable, the contours of Italian politics over the next five years remain blurry.

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


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 preparing a co-edited volume on how illiberalism and backsliding can be countered in liberal democracies.

He tweets @gcapoccia1

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