By Andrea Manera
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Recent Italian political trends are the fundamental expression of the slow decline of the Democratic Party (PD) coupled with the rise of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Ever since its onset, M5S has been able to attract the discontents of incumbent governments and the “political system” given its anti-politicians stance. In order to understand electoral trends, it is therefore of fundamental importance to analyze the events that saw the rise and fall of the Renzi government.
(To help you navigate the Italian political landscape and its numerous parties, you’ll find a glossary at the end of this article, with historical background, ideological alignment and electoral strength of each party).
Renzi’s rise to power
After a number of years in the opposition and the support for Mario Monti’s government, PD managed to obtain a large majority in the lower chamber (“Camera”) in February 2013 legislative elections. This happened in spite of its poor electoral showings (29.55% v. 29.11% for Berlusconi’s PDL, the runner-up) and thanks to the electoral law then in place, which granted a large premium to the first party in the lower chamber. However, the party was not able to obtain a majority in the upper chamber (“Senato”) because the latter has a regional-based majority premium. PD was thus forced into a great coalition with Berlusconi’s PDL (“People of freedom”), Scelta Civica (“Civic Choice”, Mario Monti’s supporting party) and others, after the refusal of M5S to negotiate with PD’s candidate for prime minister, Pierluigi Bersani. The same Bersani later stepped down, after not being able to negotiate with his own party on the President of the Republic’s election 1.
After Bersani’s resignation, PD formed a new government, with Enrico Letta as Prime Minister. This government lasted from April 2013 to February 2014, when PD’s direction, led by then-secretary Matteo Renzi, expressed the need for a change in government. Renzi had been elected secretary the previous December, promising to deeply renew the Democratic Party, and focus its agenda on Italian recovery. In the meantime (September 2013), Letta’s leaderhip had been weakened by strong disagreements on VAT increases, which had led to the end of Berlusconi’s PDL. Two political entities had emerged: 1/ NCD (“New centre-right”), led by Angelino Alfano and made up of PDL’s pro-government members, and which renewed its support to Letta; 2/ FI (“Forza Italia”), which continued to be led by Berlusconi and joined the opposition. M5S remained once again in the opposition.
All these cracks convinced Renzi and his factions in the party to basically push Letta (who was from his own party) out of government. In February, Renzi’s government was fully operational.
Renzi’s ambitions and the various opposition forces
Renzi’s government proved initially very popular, thanks to the prime minister’s promises of renewal and charisma. Notwithstanding the considerable rise in abstentionism, the renovated PD managed to obtain its highest-ever share of the votes at the European elections in May 2014 (40.8%, up 14% from the previous European elections, with M5S totaling 21.16%, FI 16.81% and LN 6.15%). This was interpreted as a signal of strong confidence in the government and pushed Renzi on an ambitious road of reforms from December 2014 to mid-2016, which met the opposition of unionized workers (Jobs act), teachers (school reform 2) and finally part of his own party and constitutional experts (attempted constitutional reform).
It is important to note that the former two were fundamental tenets of the “traditional” left and crucial sections of the electorate of the communist party and later PD. Moreover, the defense of the constitution has been one of the dominant themes of the Italian left ever since the beginning of the republic, and especially so during the Berlusconi years, where judicial issues where a crucial part of the political debate 3. These factors can partly explain the erosion of consent in Renzi, with stagnant unemployment and growth disappointing the electorate who initially supported him 4.
Dissent was also fueled at the local level by an important scandal which came to light in Rome (“Mafia Capitale”), showing substantial mafia infiltration in the Roman administration. The scandal involved both the former PDL and PD, further affecting the popularity of the ruling party, and led to the nomination of a special committee to “purify” the Roman PD in December 2014. As you can see in graph 1, this led to a vertical fall in the preferences attributed to PD (about 5% lost). The discontent with Renzi’s reform and his growing unpopularity were given a first outlet with the administrative elections of June 2015. These involved a number of major cities, among which prominently featured Rome 5and Turin 6. Both these cities were conquered by the rising M5S, dispossessing the incumbent PD.
Arx Tarpeia Capitoli proxima
This moment signaled a further turn in vote intentions, as shown in graph 1 (second solid black line). After that point, vote intention for M5S kept rising, with an acceleration after the announcement of the date of the constitutional referendum (second dashed line). The proposed constitutional reform was meant to strengthen the executive by essentially disempowering the upper chamber (“Senato”) and focusing its competences to regional issues only. This provision was meant to be coupled with a two-round election system, which would give the majority in the lower chamber (“Camera”) to the winner of a run-off round between the first- and second-highest voted party.
Opposition to the constitutional referendum gathered all of Renzi’s opponents, from M5S to the far right. The left of PD, hostile to the labor reform outlined in the “Jobs Act” and increasingly marginalized by the personalistic style of Renzi, also joined the ranks in actively campaigning against the constitutional reform.
The inevitable then happened, and Renzi lost the referendum by a striking 20-point margin, with 59% of Italians rejecting the reform on December 4, 2016. This result was also certainly driven by the promise by Renzi that if he lost this electoral test, he would step down, which effectively galvanized and united the oppositions. With the government’s unpopularity at its peak, the takeover from M5S took place in vote intentions (see graph 1).
Following on his promises, Renzi stepped down from PM and later in February from secretary of PD. This opened PD’s congress to choose a new leader. The tight schedule for presenting and electing candidates was used as a pretext by the PD left to enact a secession and the creation of a new entity (MDP, “Articolo 1-Movimento Democratici e Progressisti”), which nevertheless kept supporting the newly formed PD-led Gentiloni government 7. The internal debate was strongly detrimental to PD, which kept falling in vote intentions (this can be also attributed to part of its electorate transitioning to the newly formed MDP). The congress concluded with the re-election of Matteo Renzi as secretary.
Let’s close this brief history of recent Italian politics with the 2017 administrative elections, whose second round is set to happen on June 25. The results (unexpectedly? 8) saw a resurgence of the traditional left-right dichotomy, with M5S excluded from the second round in all major cities. This will be an important test for the right, which might take advantage of M5S setback and Renzi’s weakness to become a major player in next year’s elections.
What’s next? Potential coalitions and speculations about February 2018 general elections
After failed reform attempts, the electoral system is still proportional. Currently, the system includes a minimum 3% to enter parliament, although raising it to 5% is being debated (strongly detrimental to PD’s main ally AP, which would get excluded in that scenario). Considering the status quo, we can foresee four potential coalitions:
- Centre-Centre-Left (current government): PD+MDP+AP;
- Centre-Right: FI+AP+LN+FdI;
- Great Coalition: PD+MDP+AP+FI;
- M5S-far-right: M5S+LN+FdI;
Currently, as shown in Graph 2, the first two coalitions would not obtain a majority of voters, stopping at around 35%. The only chances for a government majority could come from a great coalition between the incumbent PD-MDP-AP majority and FI, or an alliance between M5S, LN and FdI focused on immigration policies.
Both these scenarios are politically delicate. The former is seen as the most likely by political commentators, as it has also been implemented with Letta’s government. The latter would be a total revolution in Italian politics, as M5S constantly distanced itself from any political party and, when offered the occasion, always rejected to form alliances or support PD and partake in the government. However, if M5S came out first in next February consultations, it would be charged with trying to form a government and unexpected scenarios could materialize.
Andrea Manera is an Italian Economics PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with a focus on Macroeconomics and Finance.
The four main players (with approximate voting intentions)
~28% PD, “Democratic Party” (center-left): founded in 2007 by the heirs of the Italian communist party DS (“left-wing democrats”) and the left of the former Christian Democracy (called Margherita, aka “the daisy”), and minor parties supporting the then-center-left government led by Romano Prodi. The two souls of the party effectively coexisted up to the latest party congress, where tensions between the incumbent secretary Matteo Renzi and the left of the party led to a secession of the latter. While originally supporting a more workers- and union-oriented economic policy, the party transitioned slowly away from its traditional leftist roots, moving towards a more liberal platform in the economic arena and severing its previous ties with the CGIL, the largest union in the country. The party is the main actor in the incumbent Gentiloni government, Matteo Renzi’s successor.
~30% M5S, “Five Star Movement” (no side): founded in 2012 by comedian Beppe Grillo on an ecologist platform and aiming at direct democracy (to be implemented through its internet blog). The movement opposes representative democracy, can be seen as “anti-political” and is strongly vocal against corruption. While progressive on some stances, the movement is close to the far-right “Northern League” when it comes to nationality, immigration, relations with the EU and the Euro.
~12.5% LN, “Northern League” (far-right): born in 1991 as a party against Roman corruption and on a platform for independence of Northern Italy. It was deeply restyled by the incumbent secretary Matteo Salvini, elected in December 2013 9, who abandoned the old secessionist rhetoric to move to the themes of the European far-right on themes like immigration, nationality and the Euro.
~12.5% FI, “Forza Italia” (centre-right): the heir to Berlusconi’s PDL, renamed to recall the original party that won the 1994 elections. Now, even with LN in voting intention, and with a declining parliamentary membership, it struggles to try and form a right-wing coalition to oppose PD and M5S.
Other (minor) players
~3% AP, “Popular Alternative” (centre-centre-right): heir to Monti’s “Scelta Civica”, Alfano’s NCD (“New Centre-Right”), and UDC, it is constituted of MPs who left PDL and former centre supporters of Renzi’s government. It provided crucial votes for Renzi’s and later Gentiloni’s government.
~4.5% FdI-AN, “Brothers of Italy” (far-right): heirs to the far-right tradition of the Italian Social Movement, itself a neofascist movement founded in 1946.
~4% MDP, “Democrats and Progressives Movement”: former PD left, which abandoned the party in spring 2017.
- The vote for the president of the Republic is done by parliament (Camera and Senato jointly) and is secret. However, the total count of the vote suggested that 100 members of the Democratic Party refused to vote for the candidates suggested by Pierluigi Bersani. Their identity remained a subject of speculations, but many attributed them to the two factions of D’Alema and Renzi. ↩
- Passed into law in its final form only by the Gentiloni government (February 2017). ↩
- Berlusconi had a very high number of judicial issues, which he always stated were politically motivated. In one famous instance he approached US President Obama to tell him that Italy was a “judge dictatorship”. The opposition to his government, by contrast, sided with the judiciary, often invoking the intervention of the constitutional court on laws proposed by Berlusconi. ↩
- Renzi famously launched the slogan “L’Italia riparte” (Italy is back in motion). Poor economic performance was thus a problematic test for the government. ↩
- Scandals unrelated to “Mafia Capitale” forced the incumbent PD mayor, later acquitted of all charges, to resign and call early elections. The scandals had a strong effect on voting, together with the “mafia Capitale” investigations. ↩
- Turin was also a city with historically strong ties to the left, due to the presence of workers at FIAT establishments. The inaugural speech for the foundation of PD was actually held in Turin, as a testimony to the importance of this city for the Italian left heritage. ↩
- Gentiloni was previously Minister of Foreign Affairs in Renzi’s government. ↩
- Many of the cities that voted had been governed for many years by the left or right without significant scandals on their part. The only major scandal surrounding these elections affected M5S in Genoa. The winner of the movement’s primaries for mayor was deposed by Grillo on grounds of supposed irregularities, which were later sanctioned as illegitimate claims in court, causing a major outburst of critiques inside and around M5S. ↩
- At the same time Renzi was named secretary of PD. ↩