On Sunday, September 25th, 2022, Italy went to the polls for the first time in four years. They chose to elect a right-wing coalition led by the Fratelli D'Italia (FDI) / Brothers of Italy party. This was another repudiation of the technocratic, EU-friendly governments that had been in charge of Italy for the past two years and from 2011-18. The leader of FDI, Giorgia Meloni, is a charismatic woman from Rome with a strong focus on social and identity issues. She will challenge EU norms on a host of issues such as gay marriage, immigration, religion, and adoption policies.
We had previewed the Italian election over the summer and drew attention to the fact that the populists would likely win. The leader in the polls at that time was Giorgia Meloni, and we predicted her coalition would win and that she would carry the title of Prime Minister. This result was not surprising, but it will be very impactful as Italy continues to tack to the right and challenge the EU.
Italy had a left-wing and right-wing coalition dueling for votes, as well as the populist 5 Star Party in the mix. The right-wing coalition was led by Meloni's FDI party. But she had two allied parties: Lega, which was the number two vote-getter in 2018 and briefly part of the government. It is led by Matteo Salvini, who generated international press for his anti-immigration views. But the party had allied with Draghi's caretaker government, and many voters switched allegiance to Meloni. Finally, there was the omnipresent Silvio Berlusconi and his party Forza Italia. Berlusconi went from being a successful media executive to a politician in the early 1990s, becoming Prime Minister of Italy. He has somehow weathered an endless litany of scandals, felony convictions, coalition governments, unfinished terms as Prime Minister, and the ups and downs of his party to remain on the scene. No one quite knows how he does it, but he remains a force in Italian politics and backs Meloni.
On the left-wing side was the current Prime Minister's party, the PD. It leads the government currently, and the current Prime Minister is Mario Draghi, EU technocrat par excellence. He had resigned and decided to step aside, leaving Enrico Letta to control the party. It and its antecedents had represented the center-left in Italy for generations. This election shows that similar to many other countries in the West, the existing left and right parties are withering away or defunct.
In the votes for the Chamber of Deputies (equivalent roughly to the US House of Representatives or the UK's House of Commons), votes broke down as follows:
Fratelli D’Italia [Meloni]: 26.0%
Lega [Salvini]: 8.8%
Forza Italia [Berlusconi]: 8.1%
Total: 42.9%, 43.8% with another minor party
PD [Draghi]: 19.1%
The 5 Star party, which is pure populism and fields amateurs as candidates, scored 15.4%. This result, along with Meloni's showing, indicates the still high level of discontent with the political class.
We had highlighted the risks posed by the Italexit party, which wants a full-blown exit from the EU and from the euro. While they had polled at 3%, they only reached 1.9% of votes counted and failed to win enough votes to get a seat in Parliament.
The right won in nearly all parts of the country. The prior election saw 5 Stars sweep Southern Italy, but they were only able to win a handful of districts this time. Florence and Bologna, famous as strongholds of the left, were the only areas where the left won.
Here is where things get a little more complicated and need some explanation. The rational question for many readers is: "How come a woman who got 26% of the votes will become the Prime Minister?" and similarly, "How come a coalition with 43% of the vote is running the country?". Allow us to explain how the votes counted in Italy get to a final Parliament and leader.
First off, the seats in Parliament are not determined purely by "who got the most votes," district by district, like the US, Canada, or UK model. Nor are seats in Parliament divided by how many votes the party got nationally. It works on a hybrid model – you cast a vote for your local representative, and you cast votes for a party, which has a list of candidates.
Italy also has a minimum cutoff of 3% for parties to get represented in Parliament- you need to get 3% of national votes to be awarded any seats. Any coalition also needs to score 10% in total. In this election, 12% of votes went to parties that scored below 3%, so the votes for each party will be divided by 88% [votes for valid parties], not 100%, to determine eligibility.
In Italy, there are 400 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Only 147 of those are determined by individual district races. The remaining 245 are determined by proportional representation – that is, how well your party did in the national vote totals. An additional 8 seats are assigned to Italians abroad who are able to vote.
The Senate breaks down similarly, with 200 seats total. It has 74 single districts, 122 determined via national vote, and 4 reserved for Italians abroad.
In this election, the right-wing coalition picked up most of the single district seats and won about half of the nationally allocated seats. This gives them 237/400 seats, a very solid majority. Five Stars scored 52, and the left-wing coalition 85.
Now with solid majorities in both houses of Parliament, the deputies come together to vote on a Prime Minister.
A majority by a party or a coalition makes it pre-ordained that they will pick their party or coalition leader to be Prime Minister. Meloni and the other two right-wing parties signed a pact prior to the election that whichever party got the most votes would be entitled to Prime Minister. So with all the deputies obligated to vote for Meloni, she will be Prime Minister with no problem.
Where this gets complicated is when the accord between the parties breaks down, as no one party on their own has a majority. The deputies can vote to replace the Prime Minister by a "no confidence" vote. That means they no longer are sure of her leadership and want to select a new Prime Minister. This is all done from within the Parliament. No elections are needed. If a series of votes for Prime Minister produces no suitable compromise candidate, then the Parliament will resort to calling new elections to sort it all out - as happened in July of this year.
Italy, between 2018 and 2022, had no dominant party or coalition and so constantly rotated Prime Minister positions as the various parties broke up with each other and stitched together new alliances. This seems unlikely to happen for the first two or three years of Meloni's government, given their comfortable lead and broad agreement on an agenda. But this is Italy, so it's only a matter of time before the infighting erupts. Strange new alliances could emerge, like a Lega + 5 Star + FDI alliance or one with 5 Star and leftist parties on certain agendas.
If we had to describe Meloni's ideology, it's a very holistic one, similar to many "traditional" or "paleo" right-wingers. Think American Conservative or New Criterion types. She is for nations and the peoples of those nations. She thinks that the EU has far overreached in its pursuit of power and has become an organization of technocrats and financial elites who control individual nations. They do this for profit and have no problem with diluting their national identity or culture to further their interests and power.
Her refrain is to defend "God, Homeland, Family." She closes every speech by declaring that she is "A woman, an Italian, a Christian, and a mother, and you can't take those away from me." With those core principles on the table, her politics are remarkably consistent. Anything that challenges the integrity of the family, the stability and sovereignty of the country, and is against Italy's Christian values, is something she opposes. Restoring those values to the public square is her main objective. The policy goals all flow from those principles.
Exactly what will the government attempt to do in its initial steps? In August, the center-right coalition published a manifesto with its major goals, listing 15 of them [all translations by the author]. Some of these are on minor issues like sports, but several are major policy shifts for the country. We will highlight a few of the biggest:
This is probably Meloni's leading issue. Italy is an extremely family-centered society, and the leftist attacks on the family unit have finally generated a backlash. The government here wants a number of measures to help young families, from tax breaks on infant services to subsidies to help young couples buy a house. They have constantly mentioned the need to boost Italy's low fertility rate (currently at 1.3, but it has been below 2 since the late 1970s). They promise a 'progressive introduction' of policies to boost it, most likely modeled on Orban's reforms in Hungary.
Meloni has also promised in many ways to promote Italy's Christian heritage, religion in the public square, and to fight EU directives on matters like abortion and gay marriage.
The government's number one priority is to "Reduce the tax burden for families, small businesses and individual contractors." They propose a number of ways to cut taxes for families and small businesses, to extend a flat tax to a large swathe of Italian society, and to simplify the tax code. They also propose a number of measures to increase the purchasing power of families, like lowering the VAT tax on energy.
At the national level, they have proposed elsewhere a renegotiation of the EU Stability Pact. This agreement has largely governed Italy's finances since 2011, and they view it as a threat to the country's sovereignty. This would undoubtedly shake up relations with Brussels and the financial markets.
Lega and FDI have both made a huge issue out of illegal immigration in the past, and voters' continued dissatisfaction with the current system undoubtedly helped them win. They propose several measures: a block on refugee boats from Africa. The opening of a third-party location to process asylum claims. A full-scale overhaul of the often abused asylum system, both in Italy and within the EU. They also want a significantly beefed-up system of domestic security and more support for law enforcement to patrol dangerous areas.
The government has a strong mandate and a bold agenda. They should be able to execute large chunks of it in the beginning. The bigger question is, how long will it take to rework complex issues like immigration, or the tax system, into legislation that pleases enough people? The government could very well run into issues of coordination in fine-tuning these legislations but will emerge with victories.
But we must warn that the teetering economy and financial markets pose a risk to the nascent government. Italy has a very high level of debt, 150% of GDP, a level that has often posed risks for governments in the past. Its borrowing costs continue to rise, and the economy is likely again in recession. The combination of a difficult economy, high inflation, and rising borrowing costs could put a squeeze on Italy's government accounts. That would make it a very inopportune time for fights with the EU and reorganizing the country's tax system. We see broad support for Meloni and her agenda by the Italian populace, but a weak economy could threaten or distract her over the medium term.
At a broader level, this election shows that the conventional two-party model is completely obsolete in Italy. Post World War 2, Italian politics had always been a careful rotation between center-left and center-right parties. No one wanted to see a return of Mussolini-era fascism to the Parliament. Similarly, although they managed to score seats in Parliament, the Communist Party was never able to form a majority. But post-Global Financial Crisis, both the center-left and center-right wings have completely broken down and were replaced.
The 2018 election saw a rout for mainstream parties, and the two winners were populist 5 Stars and populist right-wing Lega. During the post-COVID turmoil, a technocratic center-left government temporarily took over, but it collapsed this summer too.
The 2022 election featured three of the top four parties as populist parties: FDI, Lega, and 5 Star. The center-left limps along, represented by the PD, but they are now a substantial minority in the Parliament and continue to lose votes to more leftist parties or the right. It's time to declare that system dead, replaced by populist parties across the board who reject technocratic economics and EU mandates. For now, the right has control, but let's see where this goes.
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