The intricacies of coalition-making in the 2018 Italian election

Italy’s parties are engaging in complex official and unofficial coalition building. The outcome will determine who will form and lead Italy’s next government

The forthcoming Italian political elections, due to take place on 4 March 2018, are both unpredictable and likely to have major repercussions both within the country and in Europe as a whole. This is due in great part to the new electoral law approved in 2017, which introduced a hybrid system of allocating seats, mainly based on proportional representation, making it virtually impossible for any of the current competing parties and alliances to gain a majority. It is also due to the fact that among the contendents are deeply Eurosceptic parties like the League (formerly the Lega Nord) and the 5 Star Movement.

According to most experts, a party or coalition needs to achieve at least 40% of the votes to have a chance to form a government. Successive polls have indicated that the centre-right coalition, made up of four ‘legs’, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, is the only competitor with a (slight) chance of reaching that threshold. The 5 Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, continues to enjoy much electoral support but is not likely to obtain more than 30% of the votes. As for the Democratic Party (PD), led by Matteo Renzi and currently in government under the premiership of Paolo Gentiloni, it seems to be losing ground and may well end up in third place. This is due at least in part to a haemorrhage of its voters to the leftist alliance, Liberi e Uguali (LEU), which the PD has attempted to remedy by allying with small centrist parties.

If the centre-right coalition fails to gain a majority, a likely situation of impasse will emerge from the ballot box. In this context, we are witnessing two different types of political behaviour in Italy. On the one hand, there is the official electoral campaign, which sees four different actors competing against each other, each ostensibly ruling out possible coalitions apart from the already established ones. On the other hand, at an unofficial level, the behaviour of the various contendents seems to point to alternative alliances being taken into consideration and even facilitated, as various commentators have pointed out.

One aspect of this behaviour concerns the adoption by most party leaders of the model of the ‘personal party’, first developed by Berlusconi when he launched Forza Italia in 1994. Thus Mauro Calise has argued that Renzi, Berlusconi, Salvini and Di Maio have all ensured that mainly loyal candidates are included in their lists, hence minimising the likelihood of internal defections should they opt to construct a governing alliance with parties they fought against during the electoral campaign. Another sign of this type of unofficial political activity appeared to be the decision by both the PD and Forza Italia to refrain from putting up strong candidates against each other in the central and southern constituencies. As Ugo Magri pointed out: ‘The aim is not to hurt each other too much, the hidden agenda being already orientated towards a “post-election” context’.

Some commentators have pointed out that the PD and its coalition allies have welcomed at least 20 former supporters of Berlusconi, who might play a key role in fostering an alliance between the centre-right and the centre-left coalitions in Parliament.

This unofficial type of activity has found resonance in (and in turn been fuelled by) the national and international media, thus increasing the already high degree of uncertainty surrounding these elections and fuelling speculation as to the kind of coalition government that will be formed after polling day. Any permutation seems possible, including a possible alliance between the 5 Star Movement and the League, as well as the much-touted alliance between Forza Italia and the PD, despite repeated denials by the leaders themselves.

The main question revolves around the centre-right coalition. Should it win outright, this coalition promises to be even more quarrelsome than its previous incarnations, particularly since the League has veered sharply to the right while Berlusconi has seemingly adopted a more moderate and centrist position. The only exception appears to be the issue of immigration, as the two leaders have consistently echoed each other, even more so after the recent terrorist attack against migrants in Macerata.

Marcello Pera, Forza Italia Senator and former President of the Senate, has gone as far as to argue that Berlusconi, Salvini and Meloni ‘don’t have any shared programmes, ideas, perspectives. They don’t agree on Europe, immigration, taxes or pensions’. In his view, while Berlusconi is working hard to ensure Forza Italia becomes the largest party within the centre-right coalition, he is in fact hoping not to end up having to govern with his current partners but aiming instead at an alternative coalition (with the PD and centrists).  Indeed according to Claudio Tito in an article for La Repubblica published on 28 January 2018 and entitled ‘Le larghe intese a Bruxelles’, Berlusconi had reassured Italy’s EU partners that he would not govern with Salvini. The latter immediately labelled this article as ‘fake news’.

As for the 5 Star Movement, there have been allegations that Di Maio was seriously considering an alliance with the League, as the one that could realistically command a majority in parliament. While denying this speculation, Di Maio has stated that he would be open to an agreement with other parties based on a number of key policies, thus putting an end to the Movement’s isolationist stance.  However, a leading expert on the League, Piergiorgio Corbetta, has dismissed such allegations on the basis that the two parties have little in common.

The frenzy of speculation is destined to grow, as polling day gets nearer. Commentators seem to agree in predicting post-electoral scenarios in which opposing factions might join forces and set up unconvincing coalitions. Leadership remains a key, unresolved issue. For different reasons, none of the leaders of the main parties seems to represent a suitable candidate for presiding over a post-electoral coalition of any nature.

Within the centre right no decision has been taken concerning the future premiership, although the leaders have agreed that the party with the most votes will designate the prime minister. Based on current opinion polls, Forza Italia should emerge as the largest party within this coalition. However, as is widely known, the Severino law does not allow Berlusconi to run for office until 2019, due to a fiscal fraud conviction in 2013. By contrast, Salvini has run a highly personalised campaign revolving around his future premiership role. Within the PD-led alliance, too, it remains unclear who might be put forward as premier. While Gentiloni, the current prime minister, commands much support among the public, Renzi is evidently not willing to forgo the possibility of reclaiming this role for himself.

Such issues may well be magnified in case of broader coalitions. However, it may be possible to find a convergence around the current prime minister. After variously ambiguous remarks concerning leadership, in fact, on 9 February Berlusconi finally stated that in the event of inconclusive results he would welcome a provisional government run by Gentiloni. While Gentiloni himself has rejected the idea of a coalition government with the centre-right, he has pragmatically underlined that the latter is currently composed of ‘a conservative wing and two anti-Europe and populist wings’. The current prime minister seems to evoke once again a possible break-up of the centre-right coalition, with Forza Italia repudiating its ‘awkward’ allies and joining a coalition led by himself.

As regards a possible post-electoral coalition between the 5 Star Movement and the League, it goes without saying that here too leadership remains an open question. As previously argued, the League’s campaign has focused almost entirely upon Salvini’s personal leadership and claim to the premiership. In December 2017, in fact, the party launched a new electoral symbol with the slogan ‘Salvini Premier’, which has since informed all its publicity. Should Salvini join forces with the 5 Star Movement in a coalition government run by Di Maio, this might jeopardise his hold over the party. Di Maio’s leadership, in turn, might come under fire if he opted for an alliance with the League.

Italian politics is well known for the ‘eternal return’ of transformism, which has shaped parliamentary majorities for more than a century, including the recent legislatures. Between March 2013 and December 2017, in fact,  207 deputies and 140 senators defected from one party or group to another at least once (and often more than once), a trend that has also involved a number of  5 Star Movement parliamentarians. In light of the uncertain post-electoral scenario, it remains to be seen whether transformist behaviour will impact upon all parties and whether it will determine the next government.

This article is the second in a new SPERI Comment series with the PSA Italian Politics Specialist Group on the 2018 Italian election. Read all of the articles in the series so far here.