EconomyEuropeForeign PolicyItalyOpinion

Why Italy’s Upcoming Election Matters to Europe

Italians head to the polls on the first weekend in March under a recently reformed and more complex electoral law that has made predicting the government’s new leader more challenging than ever

On Sunday (4 March), Italy and its people will face one of the country’s greatest journeys into the political unknown.
A new electoral system now requires 40% of votes to come from one coalition or party in order to hold a majority in parliament. Piled on top of this new electoral framework are fresh political forces, Italy’s common shifting of alliances, and a large proportion of voters still undecided. It is largely predicted that the combination of these variables will lead to a hung parliament (the result of no party nor any coalition reaching the desired voting percentage), rendering it impossible for the future Italian government to pass any reforms.
This high-stakes election has left the other members of the European Union diffidently awaiting the results of the final vote in a 12-month electoral cycle that has been defining for the EU. In addition to Italy, the Eurozone’s third largest economy, the world also witnessed big elections in the top two largest Eurozone economies, France and Germany, as well as in Austria, the Netherlands, Cyprus, and more. 
Matters are complicated given the presence and support for parties with Eurosceptic leanings, such as the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which leads the opinion polls.  Additionally, there is The League, which is part of the right-wing coalition that is predicted to hold the largest share of seats, and maintains an anti-immigration rhetoric that has dominated the campaigning of several of the major players.
The polling comes just as the Italian economy has been showing signs of recovery, with the 1.5% growth in GDP during 2017 expected to be repeated this year. It is the country’s fastest economic growth rate in seven years, with the current ruling centre-left government, the Democratic Party (DP), arguing that its changes to the tax and labour market rules have made the difference. 
While 2017 was indeed a turnaround year for Italy, the DP’s opponents have been able to point out that growth remains the weakest in the Eurozone, unemployment stands at 10.8%, and overall economic output is still nearly 6% lower than before the financial crisis hit in 2008. 
However, Italy is still home to the second largest industrial sector in Europe and is a founding member of the EU, making this political event relevant for the entire bloc. James Newell, professor of politics at University of Salford, told South EU Summit:  “If Brexit takes place, which it seems it will, then that, of course, means that Italy’s weight within Europe goes up accordingly.”
When it comes to continuing a stellar 12-months of growth with the DP under Italy’s current Prime Minister, Newel explains “the problem is that, although the current Prime Minister, Paulo Gentiloni, actually comes out on top when it comes to major leader poll ratings, he doesn’t actually lead the Democratic Party and so he cannot translate that popularity into support for his party.”
Despite being well liked by domestic and international figures, Prime Minister Gentiloni was never voted into his current position. Instead, he was named PM after his predecessor, Matteo Renzi, stepped down following a failed referendum on an electoral reform in 2016. The DP’s campaign to stay in power is being led by Renzi, who claimed 30% of the votes in 2013 when he first stepped into the role of Prime Minister.

As Italian’s head to the polls on Sunday, 4 March, to vote for their 65th government in just 70 years, they will see familiar names on the ballot like Matteo Renzi, who served as Italian prime minister from 2013-2016 with the current ruling Democratic Party, as well as Matteo Salvini (pictured), who leads The League, which is part of the right-wing coalition that is predicted to hold the largest share of seats. Copyright: cosimoattanasio/

Currently, the Democratic Party and its allies are at 27%, one point behind Five Star Movement, and 10 adrift of a right-wing coalition, in the final opinion polls.
That coalition that is leading the pack could restore to a position of power the most familiar face in Italian post-war politics – Silvio Berlusconi. The often controversial billionaire media tycoon and four-time Prime Minister is presently banned from holding public office because of his 2013 conviction for tax fraud. A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the 81-year-old’s appeal against the ban is expected within months.
However, even if he loses his case, he remains leader of the centre-right Forza Italia, which, if the party’s coalition can claim the most votes, would place him in a strong position of power within a hung parliament when negotiations begin on forming the new government. 
Not that Berlusconi’s party, at 16% in the latest polls, is likely to win the most votes. If opinion polls are to be believed, that honour will go to Five Star, the populist party created by comedian Beppe Grillo having proven that it is no joke in the eyes of the Italian electorate as it fights its second general election and first under new prime ministerial candidate Luigi Di Maio.
However, Five Star has until now shunned the idea of entering formal coalitions, which pushed Berlusconi’s party to form the main pre-election grouping on the right with The League and Brothers of Italia in order to reach the 40% aggregate. This clustering of parties could bring significant advantages to the biggest wolf in the pack, as the new electoral system states that parties receiving less than a 3% share of the vote are transferred to the stronger party within any coalition. This has left the opposing Democratic Party, which itself was unable to come to an agreement with its leftist Free and Equal coalition partners, lower in the polls. 
With 30% of voters yet to make up their minds, and some polls even suggesting 40% of under-25s might abstain (a high number for Italy), uncertainty reigns about the outcome of this particularly important election. On the plus, this means the election is still anyone’s game. 
“This time round, the elements of uncertainty are far greater than they have ever been in the past,” said Newell. “We are now back to the pre-1990 situation where votes were cast and then the government was decided only after the votes were counted and the party leaders got together and negotiate some formula.”
Under Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition arrangement, the party with the highest vote would choose the prime minister, which raises the possibility of The League’s Eurosceptic Matteo Salvini calling the shots. The League, which has dropped “Northern” from its title to appeal more to voters south of Rome, was given public backing this week by CasaPound, an avowedly fascist movement.
However, with Forza Italia having edged ahead of The League in the polls, Berlusconi appears more likely to have the upper hand and could even decide to seek different bedfellows once the vote is concluded. A Five Star-led government, which has proclaimed itself neither of the left or right, would appear to present the biggest challenge to the EU, although the Eurosceptic group recently dropped its threat to pull out of the Eurozone just before the election.
This is precisely why this political event is not just relevant for Italians and for southern Europe, but for the Union as a whole. With Italy stepping into an even larger role within the bloc post-Brexit, it will be crucial for the Union that the country’s government maintains a pro-EU stance. Italy’s rich history has, in the past, been the source of social movements that have shook the continent. Both the current Italian government and its regional counterparts are hoping for a positive outcome from an unforeseeable election, and a party that will continue to lead the country forward instead of back into history.
Democratic Party (centre-left)
Leader: Matteo Renzi
Coalition with: Più Europa (“More Europe”, a pro-European party), Lista Insieme and Civica Popolare.
Policies include: continue with recent labour market reforms and a programme recapitalising Italy’s banks. Abolish TV licence that pays for Rai, Italy’s equivalent of the BBC. Strongly pro-EU.
Forza Italia (centre-right)
Leader: Silvio Berlusconi 
Coalition with: The League, Brothers of Italia and Us with Italy.
Policies include: Low-tax flat rate where everyone pays a single tax encompassing everything from income tax to sales taxes to car tax. Strongly anti-immigration.
Five Star Movement (populist)
Leader: Luigi Di Maio
No coalition
Policies include: Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and pro-green, publicly owned water, sustainable (eco-friendly) transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. Pledged to repeal as many as 400 laws in its first year in power, simplifying the country’s tax system and removing unnecessary bureaucracy, repeal of law that makes it illegal for parents to not vaccinate their children.
The League (right-wing)
Leader: Matteo Salvini
Coalition with: Forza Italia, Brothers of Italia and Us with Italy.
Policies include: Strongly anti-immigration, pledging to effectively close Italy’s borders, as well as wanting to repatriate 100,000 immigrants per year. Strongly anti-EU, including a withdrawal from the Eurozone, crack down on crime and improved relations with Russia.
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Clive Lindsay

Clive is an economics, marketing and journalism graduate and former news editor who has worked in newspapers, online news platforms and broadcasting. He currently lives in his native Scotland with his wife, Agata, cats and rabbits.

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