March 2018

By Susanna Montrone

This article is a contribution from our UK network partner firm Four Communications based in London.

It seems the new normal in global politics is scepticism of the establishment. This has been demonstrated yet again this weekend as the majority of Italians chose to vote for anti-European parties, in a resounding rejection of both EU control and the ruling moderate Democratic Party, led by Matteo Renzi. While the final results are still to be determined, it’s clear no one party has the majority needed to form a government on its own, which means Italy is in for weeks or even months of protracted negotiations.

The Negotiations

The key players in these talks will be the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which won the largest primary vote at over 32 percent and the similarly Eurosceptic far right Northern League, which received nearly 18 percent of the vote. The Northern League, together with its other right wing coalition partners, Forza Italia led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Brothers of Italy, led by former Berlusconi Minister Giorgia Meloni, together hold approximately 37 percent of the vote. It is this coalition which is considered the most likely to try to form government.

However, based on initial results, the right wing coalition is expected to receive only a maximum of 268 seats in parliament, far below the 316 threshold needed for a parliamentary majority. While the Five Star Movement is expected to emerge as the largest single party in the lower house with up to 235 estimated seats, they too won’t have the numbers to form a government on their own, and have thus repeatedly ruled out forming a coalition. Meanwhile, the left moderate Democratic Party failed to win more than a fifth of the votes, which has effectively relegated their moderate politics and pro-EU stance to relative insignificance.

What it Means

These results and the consequent political instability ahead portend significant implications for the European Union. Italy and its financial problems are already seen to be a burden by other EU members, particularly France and Germany. Left out of the inner circle despite being a founding member of the EU, this contempt has trickled down to the general Italian population, which now appears to view the EU with increasing dissatisfaction and the sense that Italy has been left to handle its problems on its own. It is this sentiment which anti-establishment parties such as the Five Star Movement and Northern League have effectively capitalised on.

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, whose party dominated in the south of the country, won the support of new young voters in poorer regions angry with institutional corruption which is seen as hindering economic growth and job opportunities. Concerns also exist about the wave of unchecked migration into Italy, with 600,000 people estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean since 2013. Then there is Berlusconi, whose chequered legal history prevents him from holding public office until 2019. He campaigned on a platform of willingness to work with the EU leadership, and chose current President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, as his nominee for Prime Minister. As a consequence of disappointing results for Forza Italia, he now faces the prospect of being downgraded to the position of minor partner in his own coalition.

Italy’s overwhelming choice to support Eurosceptic parties signals a strong rejection of the EU establishment. Following the release of initial results, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reaffirmed his confidence in current Italian President Sergio Mattarella to facilitate the forming of a stable government. Privately, Juncker is said to have warned of the need to brace for the worst scenario, which is no operational government.

What’s Next

So what can be expected in the coming weeks and months ahead? Amongst the myriad of scenarios suggested by analysts is that the Five Star Movement might back down on its promise of independence and broker a deal with either the Northern League or Democratic Party. Others argue not to underestimate Berlusconi. While some say the disappointing result for his party spells the end for him and his ambitions, the four-time Italian Prime Minister and maverick octogenarian has been successfully dealing in the art of politics since his rapid rise to power in 1994.

The roadblock to Berlusconi’s path to power is Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League. Under a gentleman’s agreement, whoever emerges as the winner between the two will be able to pick the coalition’s nominee for Prime Minister. Salvini has since confirmed this, saying if his party wins just one more vote than Berlusconi’s, then it will be his choice. Add to this the quirk of the Italian constitution, which allows President Mattarella the power to give the mandate to any party, regardless of who has won the most votes, and you have yourself an interesting test of wills.

To form government, the right wing coalition will also need the support of approximately 40 additional parliamentarians and 20 senators. There is a viable scenario where this could happen. An informal defection of Democratic Party parliamentarians could provide the right wing coalition with confidence and supply, falling just short of a formal coalition agreement. These votes could come squarely from the Renzi faction of the Democratic Party.

Renzi and Berlusconi are said to have a strong yet adversarial relationship, and ultimately a shared goal: the return of Italy to establishment control. Even with Renzi’s resignation, Renzi influence remains. Once the numbers are settled, it is entirely possible that the Berlusconi and Renzi factions could combine forces to secure Berlusconi his pick of Antonio Tajani as Prime Minister. This could be even more fortified by Democratic Party parliamentarians elected to represent overseas constituencies in the U.S., South America, and Australia, who tend to be more conservative in their approach.

But before this can happen, Italy would need to be brought to the brink of crisis; only then would this solution be palatable to the populist public. Ultimately high-risk manoeuvring of this kind is something Berlusconi is well-skilled in.

For those who think members of the Democratic Party would never countenance such an alliance, it is important to remember a line made immortal by former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti – “Il potere logora chi non ce l’ha.” Power wears out those who don’t have it.