Lessons to be learned from the recent Italian Elections

The recent elections appear to have finished the job begun in 1992 by the “Clean Hands” investigations of the Milan DA Office into the political corruption trials that wiped out the pro-western parties of the Italian political system, leaving only the pro-iron curtain parties standing, namely, the Partito Comunista Italiano. Although this party, almost sensing the judiciary’s attack on the “western-bloc” parties began morphing almost concurrently with Mani Pulite into what ultimately became known as the Partito Democratico, sometimes called progressisti or antifascisti or simply, la sinistra, the elections of March 4, 2018, sparked an electoral “big-bang” that seems to have put an end to the agony of the  ex-communists, eliminating the last standard bearer of the cold-war years that polluted Italian domestic politics.

Another loser is the so-called stato “unitario” or single jurisdiction. In fact if you look at the map of Italy, you will notice the northern and central regions to Rome with the exception of Tuscany are now almost solid blue, while southern Italy is practically all yellow, except for parts of Calabria and Sicily. The North with its big cities, rich agriculture and light & heavy industry has voted strongly for the “northern coalition” parties of the so-called “right” better described below. The South is solidly behind the new maverick Party of the M5S with their promise of more welfare for the poor, including a minimum guaranteed income for citizens! This dichotomy did not escape some newspapers that heralded the return of the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies”. Since unification in 1860, rather than organize their country to reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of Italians, the stato has played deaf and dumb to reality and imposed centralization over the rich and varied landscape that is Italy. These elections have underscored that diversity and suggest there are at least two Italy’s each with different political, economic and social needs.

The elections by now are history. The M5S have run away with the popular vote to become Italy’s n. 1 party. With 32% of the electoral votes (picked up mostly in Italy’s nine Regions of the South beset by double digit unemployment and an average income well below that of the EU), Luigi Di Maio’s Party leads all others in votes but lags behind the northern “coalition” headed by the other “populist” party known as the “League” of Matteo Salvini. This coalition together with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia Party and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Itala Party account for 37.54% of the “moderate” popular vote picked up almost exclusively in the eight Regions of the North, which also accounts for most of Italy’s GNP.

With the mainstream press groping for words to describe the sudden disappearance of the “red-belt” except for some areas of Tuscany, one of the few newspapers outside of the liberal orbit, “il Giornale”, simply titled ,“Sinistra, Game Over”. Oh, yes, the left, the heirs to the once biggest communist party outside of the USSR, the “PD”, Partito Democratico or Dems, are now a threatened (political) species, having walked away with less than 20% of the national vote!

Immediately, after Sunday’s elections, a smiling Luigi Di Maio, toasted to the success of the popular M5S and to the birth of the “Third Republic”! A third republic, however, that looks disturbingly like the First Republic, meaning the one lasting from 1947 to 1994 when the first Berlusconi government supposedly ushered in the “Second Republic”. The First Republic had been responsible for Italy’s chronic instability and its neigh yearly changes in governments. The Second became known for the exact opposite based on accepted departures from the constitutional norm that de facto modified the former parliamentary structure and institutions by course of dealing and without resorting to the cumbersome amendment process provided for in the Italian Constitution. During the Second Republic (from 1994 to 2006) Italians became accustomed to voting for a “Prime Minister” and his cabinet to govern concurrently for five years along with and for the duration of the Legislature. Now it’s back to square one again, thanks to a recent, new electoral law responsible for the current mess. Still, the people’s discontent for their leadership could not be silenced despite a return to the safety net of proportional representation and the low nominal threshold of 3% for winning seats in the country’s 1000 – man parliament. The problem is, what next?

Italy since WW I has been heavily influenced by parties claiming to be pro-labor: from the break away socialist activist and newspaper man, Benito Mussolini and his Fascists, to mainstream Socialists like Matteotti or Communists like Gramsci and Togliatti. The problem was such parties also had the reputation, with the possible exception of the Socialists, of not practicing what they preached. Indeed, in the real world, most resorted to unspeakable means to realize less than noble ends.

The political cards dealt by Italian voters would seem to suggest a government under the leadership of the M5S, which some have already likened to the “Christian Democrats” of the First Republic because of their non-ideological position (somewhere to the left of the northern coalition of moderate voters, which the left insists on branding as right-wing and xenophobic). To consolidate a majority in both houses the M5S with 228 seats in the House and 113 seats in the Senate would need to pick up an additional 88 seats in the House (to secure a majority of 316) and 45 seats in the Senate (to secure a majority of 158). The most likely candidates to ensure such margins would be the comatose PD or Dems. But that seems out of the question because the left has campaigned strongly against the “populists” and vowed not to betray their electorate.

The winning northern coalition is closer to having a majority in both houses and would only need to come up with 49 additional seats in the House and 22 additional seats in the Senate but in a hung parliament, even this could prove easier said than done. So what now?

In the Italian parliamentary system the job of empowering a political leader with the task of forming a new government belongs to the Head of State, President Mattarella. Traditionally, the President chooses someone from the single Party or coalition which has won the most seats. That means Luigi Di Maio of M5S or Matteo Salvini of the Lega. Luigi Di Maio, however,  has already staked out his claim over the premiership. This would suggest Mattarella first sound out Di Maio and the M5S. But he could also do the exact opposite and probably will as the PD has flatly rejected any deals with Di Maio and M5S. OK, but how long could it take to form a government?

Well, for one thing, don’t expect speed. Italians are slow to react. This is both a cultural as well as an institutional characteristic. While no one likes to loose, Italians simply cannot  fathom loosing, which may be why they love proportional representation and low thresholds for getting into Parliament. It may take all of three weeks (from Sunday the 4th) just to come up with the names of the two “Presidents” of the House and Senate. These people represent their respective assemblies and are chosen for their “impartiality”; they are also vested with the role and powers of a “guarantor”, ensuring parliamentary rules are applied and followed. So do not expect a government before April, if at all. The EU has given the Italians until May to complete and finalize their “Def” for 2018. This Documento di economia e finanza is a long synonym for, the Budget.

The fun will begin, however, in the event no one is able to form a government. In such a case the scenarios are many with none being clear cut or well chartered. The most probable, given EU jitters over Italy’s mammoth national debt is a Presidential Government, i.e. one decided  by Mattarella from what currently available in the recently elected Parliament.

If even Mattarella were to fail, “snap” elections could be called, subject to what said above as to speed. However, without going back to a first-past-the-post, winner take all system perhaps raising the threshold for entry into Parliament to as much as 10%, Italians cannot be sure their votes will succeed in granting any of the contenders the majority needed to form a government.

Done in Modena on 8 March 2018

by pparak