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What happened in Italy's election?
It is still too early to make a full assessment of the results from last night’s general election in Italy, but what is clear is that the country emerges from this election as profoundly divided.
There is a clear fault line between the centre-North, which is going to the centre-right coalition and the South, who voted en mass for the Five Star Movement. What unites these ‘two Italies’ is a support for anti-establishment forces. Turnout is in decline (around 73 per cent, against 75 per cent of 2013), but still quite high compared to other European countries.
The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle – M5S) has emerged, as many anticipated, as the main single political force – gaining, according to the projected vote so far, around 31.5 and 32 percent in both chambers. This is well above expectations, and it is a monumental result for the Movement, which contested its first general election in 2013 achieving an already phenomenal 25 per cent of votes.
Yet M5S is still short of the majority needed to form a government (40 per cent) according to the new electoral law. The interesting point to note here is that for the first time the Movement is willing to go against its golden rule of intransigence against coalitions, and it has invited other political forces to seek a dialogue with them – although at their own terms and conditions. This could lead to a ‘coalition game’ that could be dangerous for the M5S.
So, what are M5S’s options? They could enter negotiations with Matteo Salvini’s Lega (14%) or with Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PArtito Democratic – PD), who achieved 19%. Either way, this could be damaging the M5S as it would force it to either develop an alliance with far-right forces such as the Lega (something that many of its supporters would not welcome) or to enter a pact with ‘the devil’, i.e. the party that embodies the establishment against which the M5S has fought since day one, the PD.
The centre-right is the coalition with the largest share of vote in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies (estimated at around 36 per cent). This was predictable – but what many commentators did not foresee was that the League led by Matteo Salvini would gain more support (above 18 per cent) than Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (nearly 14 per cent).
This is, again, a momentous result for the League – which went from 4 to 18 percent in 5 years. In its strongholds, such as Veneto in Italy’s north, the Lega is likely to gain up to 33 per cent – an unprecedented result.
In practical terms, this means that Berlusconi has been defeated and he won’t be the kingmaker of the next government. It also means that if the right wing coalition holds, Matteo Salvini would become the most likely candidate prime minister. What remains to be seen is what position Salvini will take. He’s faced with two choices: he could either stick to the right-wing coalition or break away and seek a dialogue with the M5S.
The clear loser of this election is centre-left. The PD led by former PM Matteo Renzi has been swept away. Renzi has managed to take the party from boom to bust in a matter of few years, and the PD is emerging from this election in ashes (estimated at around 19 per cent, and possibly the fourth political force in both chambers – the lowest result in the history of the party). Renzi’s day of reckoning seems to be looming, and if the PD was to enter coalition negotiations with the M5S it would almost certainly be under a new leader.
Overall, no single political force or coalition is currently in a position to form a government. Thus, the next hours (and possibly days) will be crucial. If we stick to the maths, there are only two coalitions that could form a government: M5S and PD or a M5S, Lega and Brothers of Italy.
Neither of these would lead to an easy-to-manage and stable government, and internal and external turbulences would be most likely to emerge. The President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella will soon have to chose who will form the next government – he could go for one of these two coalition options, or opt for a technocratic, transitional government of ‘national unity’ with a clear remit (e.g. review the electoral law).
Either way, we are at an important turning point in Italian politics: traditional parties on both sides of the political spectrum have been marginalised, and the new, anti-establishment forces are going, one way or another, to have a key role in the next government. Some commentators have already presented this as the birth of a ‘Third Republic’ under the banner of populism. Whether this accurate or too far fetched an argument will become clearer only in the next few days.
Arianna Giovannini is Senior Lecturer in Local Politics at DeMontford University and co-convenor of the PSA Specialist Group on Italian Politics.