Former government heads in Italy pictured during a television discussion

Italy pushes for early elections that would make matters worse

  • Italian leaders from left to right are again seeking salvation in early elections and new electoral rules
  • The Democratic Party, Forza Italia and Five Star movement have different priorities but converging aims
  • A deal is far from certain, but if it happens, Italy’s political and economic problems will get worse

After much ado, it suddenly looks like Italians will not go to the polls in September 2017 for an early national election. The unexpected fate of British Prime Minister Theresa May who counted on a landslide victory in a snap election and ended up with a hung parliament instead, has served as a cautionary tale for Matteo Renzi, the leader of the Democratic Party and a former prime minister (2014-2016).

Mr. Renzi, who pushed for an early ballot from the moment he lost a constitutional referendum and his premiership in December 2016, had been close to reaching his goal after striking a deal with his key opponents, Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia. The threesome converged on a new electoral system, broadly inspired by the German one, in exchange for M5S’s and Forza Italia’s approval for Mr. Renzi’s early election plan. The deal has now been put on the back burner, extending the existence of Italy’s current caretaker government.

Still, recent local elections that saw the traditional left and right parties score far better than the populist M5S may breathe new life into the idea of early elections, especially with Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi.

Obsessive idea

The situation is messy but, contrary to what is customary in Italy, also quite serious. A bad electoral law could prove dangerous for the country, propelling it either into a state of permanent political turmoil or into the arms of populist rule.

Ever since this sorry outcome, Mr. Renzi has fancied calling an early election

Mr. Renzi, who aspired to the role of the boy wonder of European politics long before Emmanuel Macron, slipped on the banana peel of last December’s constitutional referendum. The constitutional reform he had pursued as prime minister purported to aim at streamlining Italy’s governance, but it did not entail a consequential restructuring of the country’s dysfunctional political system. Nonetheless, Mr. Renzi presented the scheme as a much-awaited change and staked his own political future on the voters’ approval. When the measure failed, he promptly resigned. For the sake of political stability, a government supported by the same parliamentary majority soon replaced his own, with Paolo Gentiloni, the former minister of foreign affairs, now in charge.

Ever since this sorry outcome, Mr. Renzi has fancied calling an early election to rally his constituency and try to win 40 percent of the vote, that elusive threshold that under Italy’s current electoral system would at least guarantee him a comfortable parliamentary majority. It would not be enough for Mr. Renzi to push through constitutional changes, something he has remained enthusiastic about even after his changing fortunes at the polls. After protracted talks, Mr. Berlusconi gave Mr. Renzi the green light for an early vote, in exchange for an electoral law he liked. Surprisingly, Mr. Grillo’s movement joined in the alliance.

The three men have different priorities but convergent aims.

Survival and self-preservation

For Mr. Grillo, it is about solidifying his position now that the polls show the Five Star Movement is the front-runner. Even though its local governments accomplished little in the cities they control (such as in Rome), M5S continues to ride a tide. True, none of its mayoral candidates made it into the second round of local elections in the big cities, but this may be an exception confirming the rule. The cornucopia of local lists, the importance of strong links between the candidates and the districts, and the fact that voters tend to prefer down-to-earth administrators to loud agitators in mayoral elections – all contributed to the movement’s setback. But this is not likely to matter on the national level.

The widespread dissatisfaction with the Italian political class, perceived as self-referential and corrupt, has been feeding the M5S’s growth. The movement is sharply critical of the European Union and what it calls its “austerity” policies. Its political program resembles an extreme left platform, with a touch of skepticism about the benefits of economic growth. In day-by-day political practice, however, Five Star tends to side with Italy’s established interest groups, from powerful trade unions all the way to taxi drivers. Somehow, its vociferous denunciations of the Italian powers that be do not seem to apply to organized labor and public servants – two groups that are part and parcel of this establishment.

Mr. Berlusconi, in turn, wants an electoral system that would guarantee his political survival. Unless the European Court of Human Rights lifts a legal ban imposed on him, Mr. Berlusconi by law can no longer run for office. He remains, however, the controlling shareholder of Forza Italia, the party he founded in 1994. No alternative leadership has emerged in that party, but Forza Italia’s popularity has waned: from its heyday in 2008, when an alliance it led won 47 percent of the vote in general elections, the party is now down to a paltry 10-12 percent. This is why Mr. Berlusconi displays uneasiness about his former political allies, especially the Northern League. The latter, under the new leadership of Matteo Salvini, has evolved into a LePenist outfit, polling in the 15 percent range.

Priority: control

If the recent local elections signaled anything, it was that the center-right in Italy remains surprisingly viable after five years of political lethargy. Fielding a coalition, it could prove electorally competitive if it finds some new faces to front the campaign and avoids a sense of deja vu.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s radical Northern League party
Matteo Salvini has turned the right-wing, anti-EU Northern League into a LePenist outfit that may attract up to 15 percent of the vote in Italy’s next general elections (source: dpa)

Holding such a coalition together, however, would require active diplomacy on Mr. Berlusconi’s part. Yet he seems reluctant to reach out to former allies. Instead, he started to flirt with the idea of becoming the junior partner in a left-right, non-populist government led by Mr. Renzi. With this strategic aim in mind, the Forza Italia leader also wanted total control of the party’s slate of candidates – a goal that he shared with Mr. Renzi. Minimizing internal dissent and tightening their grip on the party apparatus remain priorities for both men.

Reinforcing his leadership in the Democratic Party (DP) is perhaps the main reason why Mr. Renzi has consistently called for new elections since December 2016. The party itself has plenty to lose from an early election since it continues to dominate the government and Prime Minister Gentiloni comes from its ranks. Moreover, the previous electoral law – later deemed unconstitutional by the Italian Supreme Court – allowed the DP to cash in an impressive majority premium. Whatever the outcome of the next elections, chances are that the DP representation will shrink. However, the party’s current parliamentary lineup does not suit Mr. Renzi, since many current deputies were chosen by his predecessors and cannot be regarded as reliable followers. What the party leader seems to be looking for is a smaller but more loyal group of legislators.

Bad ideas

The electoral system hammered out in negotiations between Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi partially mimics Germany’s. Based on a purely proportional system, it features a 5 percent threshold for a party to enter parliament. In the original German model, each voter casts two votes: one for an individual candidate, and another for a regional party list used to proportionally distribute parliamentary seats. In the Italian version, there would be just one vote for a regional list. All amendments to the electoral law work to strengthen the power of political parties.

They want a purely proportional system to control their party lists

The scheme collapsed when the Five Star Movement suddenly turned against the deal it had struck with Messrs. Renzi and Berlusconi. The apparent snag was the region of South Tyrol, which continues to have a different electoral system.

If Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi were rational, self-interested actors of the sort found in textbooks, the lesson they would draw from the last local elections is that populists are only beatable when voters have a chance to choose between them and solid, flesh-and-blood candidates. Mr. Grillo’s cadres are on average less accomplished and less presentable than the professionals, university professors or small businessmen that the left and the right parties routinely put forth as candidates for public office. But if Mr. Grillo succeeds in turning the elections into a contest between himself, a self-styled Savonarola chastising a corrupt political establishment, and the usual party leaders identified with that establishment, the outcome could be quite different.

The interests of Messrs. Renzi and Berlusconi are narrowly defined. They want a purely proportional system to control their party lists. Despite Mr. Berlusconi having won two elections under a quasi-first-past-the-post electoral system (in 1994 and 2001), both men display a strong, instinctive dislike for even the slightest semblance of political competition within their respective organizations.

Three scenarios

This is what makes a purely proportional system the most probable result of their negotiations. Such an electoral setup, though, is likely to produce two possible scenarios, both quite bad for the country.

Judging by the polls, it is not impossible that the next elections could result in a “populist majority.” With M5S expected to poll over 30 percent, and the Northern League likely to get around 15 percent – both parties are probably underestimated by pollsters – they might actually be able to put together a governing majority.

Five Star and the Northern League, however, are ideologically far apart: one is an idiosyncratic new movement whose leadership appeals to the left, while the other is a party that openly follows in the footsteps of France’s Marine Le Pen. Both share a highly critical attitude toward the European Union and the common currency, but Italexit is not an easy scenario to imagine. A government of inexperienced newcomers would stand a poor chance of implementing a radical exit policy in the face of an open opposition from the bureaucracy. Exiting the euro would require both a constitutional reform (by law, Italy cannot hold referenda on international treaties) and unanimous acceptance from other eurozone members. Clearing such hurdles would require visionary leadership at home and diplomatic mastery in the European theater. Neither Mr. Grillo nor Mr. Salvini are Talleyrands of our time.

The proportional representation system entails perpetual political bargaining

The other feasible script is that no viable government emerges from the elections. This could happen if the M5S and the Northern League lack the numbers, or the political will, to form a government together. At the time of writing, it is quite difficult to see how Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi could command enough votes to form a ruling coalition, which is the third scenario.

Perpetual negotiations

The 5 percent threshold, designed to keep smaller parties out of the game, makes it more difficult to sell a right-left coalition as a necessary, albeit regrettable solution for the country. Both Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi are aware that if they ever get the chance to govern again, it will have to be in a partnership. Keeping this fact from the public will not be easy, though. The more their respective electorates catch on, the more prone they would be to choose the nuttier option of Mr. Salvini (on the right) or Giuliano Pisapia, who has been busy trying to put together a new hardline party on the left.

In any case, the proportional representation system entails perpetual political bargaining of the sort practiced in Italy from 1948 to 1992. That was a period of constant haggling among political parties, which generally resulted in higher spending and, ultimately, the crushing public debt that still oppresses Italian taxpayers. None of the current leaders look fit for the country’s top job; they behave more like street fighters than chess players.

At the same time, Italy’s current economic and geopolitical predicament requires urgent reforms to make the political system more efficient. Keeping the peace by continued profligate spending is problematic for the eurozone, and unsustainable for Italy’s overstretched public finances. Yet for the past quarter century, ever since Mr. Berlusconi entered politics, the country has been admonished to enact “structural reforms.” These proved remarkably difficult even when elections were producing clear majorities. In today’s context, they are simply unthinkable.

Both Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi won elections as champions of reform. Now, they seem determined to bury whatever hope is left for salvaging their country.

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