The Italian election: Berlusconi seeks a Lazarus return

The Italian election: Berlusconi seeks a Lazarus return

Rome will veer right but policy will likely hold its course after fierce coalition negotiations.


Italians vote on March 4 in a general election with the outcome uncertain.


– The centre-right is set to be the big vote-winners, but it’s unclear whether they will be able to form a government on their own
– The centre-left will likely lose ground as the populist Five Star Movement makes gains
– With most parties running on hard anti-immigration platforms, the new government will almost certainly seek to block illegal migration and crack down harder on migrants already in the country
– Despite populists making gains, the government should remain broadly supportive of the EU

Italians head to the polls on March 4 for a general election after the previous government — a coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties led by the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) — managed to finish its five-year mandate. While the centre-right is on course to be the biggest coalition, the result is likely to fill parliament with a fractured group of parties. Though much is uncertain, the new government will likely take a more hardline stance against asylum-seekers but cause little disruption within the EU.


The election campaign has been dominated by three groups: the centre-left coalition led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s governing PD, the centre-right coalition which unites ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) with Matteo Salvini’s right-wing Lega (formerly the Northern League), and the populist and ideologically vague Five Star Movement led by Luigi Di Maio.

Despite his legacy of scandal and his inability to hold office due to a fraud conviction, Berlusconi has become the frontrunner as leader of the centre-right — he is seen as a voice of moderation in contrast to Lega (though they are his partners) and M5S. His message has focused on providing stability and promising a flat tax — initially set at 23 %, eventually falling to 20% — to simplify Italians’ economic ills. Lega has gone further with a 15% figure, resulting in criticism that the money isn’t there to finance the policy.

The PD is likely to see a drop in its vote share from 41% at the 2014 European elections to about 22.5%. The party is being dragged down by the sluggishness of the economic recovery — unemployment is stuck around 11% and annual GDP growth below 1% — the migrant crisis, and Renzi’s unpopularity; one survey pegs his disapproval rating at 66%. Renzi entered the premiership termed “the demolition man” who would break apart the Italian political establishment but lost that lustre through working with the centre-right and laws like the Jobs Act. That legislation, while expanding employment, made it easier to fire younger workers, losing Renzi support from the young and left-wingers.

M5S will almost certainly get the most votes of any one party by mopping up disaffected voters with its anti-corruption, anti-establishment platform, especially in Italy’s impoverished south and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The combination of the party’s message of populist protest and opposition to Renzi’s economic policies has won over young voters especially, who suffer from an over 30% unemployment rate. But one-third of seats are allocated by first-past-the-post voting (the other two-thirds are allocated proportionally). The vast majority of those seats will be won by the centre-right and centre-left, with M5S picking up only a handful of seats in its southern and island strongholds due to poor candidate recruitment.

The centre-right is the only electoral coalition that has any shot of going into government on its own, which would see the government dominated by FI and Lega; whichever one places ahead would direct the coalition, likely Berlusconi’s party. If they don’t manage to win enough seats to rule as a bloc, FI could ditch Lega and pursue a grand coalition with the centre-left, though the numbers may not be there for that either. More unlikely, but not impossible, is a populist alliance of Lega and M5S.


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The outcome of the election will almost certainly see Italy take a more hardline stance on migration. Over 600,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived in the country primarily via Libya in the last four years. Though the number of new entrants fell by a third of the 2016 total to about 119,000 last year, tensions are at a fever pitch, especially following dual incidents in Macerata. First, an 18-year-old girl was murdered, allegedly by a Nigerian migrant, then a far-right extremist and Lega member opened fire on migrants, wounding six.

Both Salvini and Berlusconi have pledged to deport all of the migrants, which many analysts have pointed out to be logistically impossible. Salvini has further pledged to put pressure on the countries of origins to take migrants back. M5S leader Di Maio has blamed Berlusconi and Renzi for the “social bomb” of migrants and has promised to hold talks with Libyans to stem the flow of people. If the PD makes it into government, it will likely accede to a tougher stance on migration.


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Photo: European People’s Party / Flickr

Fears of Euroscepticism being a major factor in the Italian election have turned out to be exaggerated. M5S once campaigned for a referendum on Italy’s euro membership but has dropped that policy from their platform. Lega leader Salvini has made critical comments against the EU and Angela Merkel but has not put forward any serious proposals to antagonise Brussels. A populist M5S-Lega alliance could see the prospects of serious anti-EU policy — like the euro referendum — revived, but much more likely is that eurosceptics will throw barbs at Brussels but not pose a serious threat. However, the likely shift right on migration could lead to disputes with Europe.

The other two parties have openly embraced Europe, if lukewarmly. The PD has mimicked Emmanuel Macron’s pro-EU stances, and is allied with a small new centre-left party named “More Europe”. Renzi is even flirting with the idea of leaving the Socialist group in the European Parliament post-election and forging an alliance with Macron’s En Marche. For his part, Berlusconi has campaigned openly as a European and has announced European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his party’s prime ministerial candidate (Italy does not require the prime minister be a member of parliament). Tajani has been a member of the parliament or the European Commission since 1994, giving him experience dealing with EU leaders. As president, he’s known for an eagerness to broker compromise and advocated a stronger recognition of Italy’s role in Europe, though he has been criticised for his self-removal from major political debates. Still, given his endorsement of a man with long experience in Europe and on good terms with many EU leaders, Berlusconi may just be Brussels’ best bet.


The policies of Italy’s next government will likely not be decided on election day, but in the coalition negotiations that follow. With so much uncertainty as to the result, only some broad outlines of policy can be known. On migration, the new government will seek to more strictly police Italy’s waters and try to deport asylum-seekers already in the country. On the economy, policies like the flat tax may be implemented that please some voters but do little to address the structural ailing of the economy. Italy is likely to seek to make few waves in Brussels and maintain the status quo, especially if Tajani becomes prime minister. Outside of these policies, parliament is likely to be divided between its many blocs, and many votes will see a struggle for the government to reach a majority. Even if the centre-right wins, tensions between FI and Lega will no doubt arise. Expect Italy’s divisions to continue well after the last vote is cast.