The Italian General Election of 2018 was held on March 4th, leading to a new distribution of seats within the Italian Parliament. We met with Stefano Braghiroli, a political scientist and lecturer of the year 2017 at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, and asked for his opinion on the election. The interview was conducted by Vahur Hollo.
Following the Italian election, Ian Bremmer, editor-at-large of Time Magazine said, “It’s a bad year for globalism”. Italian newspaper La Stampa wrote: “Italy is ungovernable”. Joseph Janning, Head of the European Council on Foreign Relations is quoted as saying: “The age of the tall European leader is over”. So, what is your personal reaction to the results of the Italian election?
I think that it is good that we started with the broader quote because the elections in Italy fit into this picture. From an analytical point, I clearly very much agree with the La Stampa statement. I mean, at least at the moment it seems that there are two key factors.
First that the governability is not there, clearly. What we have is a “hung parliament”, and more hung and complicated than the British one when they had their elections. Meaning that we have three poles of which two are winner poles and one is more like a loser.
Basically, we have 3 main coalitions that dominate the parliament and at the moment it looks like none of the coalitions want to talk to the other two. This means that none of them have a majority to form a government, and the fact that they don’t talk to each other does not even show the possibility of a minority government supported by some external forces. So, there is ungovernability.
The broader thing which I am reminded of is this reaction to perceived negative sides of globalism. In a way, I would still put these results in line with the likes of the Trump election, Brexit, the success of the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland], the result of Marine Le Pen and so on.
There are two big winners. The first winners are the far-right parties, for example, the clearly far-right League, whose positions are very much in line with Marine Le Pen in France. There is a very strong connection between these two parties. The other winner is the Five Star Movement. While the Five Star Movement is not far-right, it is populist. Italy is the perfect laboratory of populism in Europe, as it is the European country with the highest relevance of populism. If you put together the forces of the far-right and the populists, you have about 53 or 54% of all the votes received in this election. This is a major result.
In terms of outcome, a hung parliament can end up in one of two ways. Either overcoming the hanging – in which case a coalition is found, [but] at best this would be an imperfect prediction at this very moment. This is because Italian politics is very complicated, but at the moment, which looks more likely, if we go for an option for a coalition [it] is between the Far-Right and the Centre-Right and the Five Star Movement which in terms of populism would be the most ballistic option of the two.
The other option is that some part of the Centre-Left goes into government with the populist FSM, which at the moment, I would say, is slightly less likely. Or additionally, there’s the option of having another election. But in this case, if you don’t change the electoral law so that you get different outcomes, the results would likely be quite similar: changing 1-2% changes nothing in the bigger picture.
Speaking of hangings. Hangings usually don’t end up very well for some parties. Since we covered the winners, who were the losers?
There is clearly one big loser. In a broad sense, it’s the Italian Left. If you want to give it a name, it’s specifically the Democratic Party which ruled as part of the governing coalition during the last 5 years. It is the biggest loss that the [Italian] Left has experienced since 1994. It might mean the end of the Left as we know it today in Italy. Many expected that the Democratic Party itself might implode, so in that sense, the Democratic Party is the face of the Left’s loss. Even more specifically, the leadership of the Democratic Party lost, embodied by former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Italy also premiered a new election system this year. This made it more difficult for any one party to win the majority. How did this change shape the Italian political landscape?
When this law was approved, everyone knew that it was at best imperfect. To be diplomatic, no-one was excited about this law, it was just the minimum common denominator that could be found. And everyone was aware that this law would not have granted governability. So, in a way, everyone was aware of the outcome, but no-one wanted to do anything more.
Without an electoral law, given the fact that the previous electoral law was declared unconstitutional by the constitutional court, we would have had a perfect proportional law which in this case would have created an even worse scenario. The law which was declared unconstitutional by the previous government was a law which would have granted the coalition who won an election with 40% of the votes a clear majority in the chamber. But for this reason and for the reason that the constitutional amendment attached to the law was sunk by the general populace in a referendum, it was declared unconstitutional.
In a way, everyone was responsible for it, the ones who voted for it. How did it change the party system? On one hand, it had one advantage – it reduced the fragmentation of the party system by a bit, meaning that it favoured coalitions. Smaller parties were induced to get into coalitions with bigger ones. That is what happened in the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left. Of course, we have many smaller parties who tried their luck, but only one succeeded, which had [formerly] left the Democratic Party – [called] Free and Equal. It managed to get a handful of members into parliament.
The problem with the Italian parties is the fragmentation of the party system, an electoral law like the one attached to the amended constitutional law would have clearly reduced the atomisation of the party system, but a good electoral system, as you should know, should consider two factors: governability and representation of different ideas.
This ties into the discussion of the differences between the Italian North and the South, which are brought up every time Italian politics are mentioned. Partisan divides are very common these days, and perhaps most prominent these days in the United States. How do these two countries compare in how different the regions are from one another?
Again, I would not say that they are the most comparable examples. But clearly there is a global south, which seems to reflect the dynamics. Point being: if you take the US South and the Italian South, an economic factor plays a role. Southern Italy is less economically developed than Northern Italy, it has less economic performance, the indexes of transparency and corruption are in a generally worse state in the South, industrial productivity is lower in the South, so economics is definitely one factor.
If you look at economic development on an individual level, the indicators are again not favourable you can see that there is a high level of unemployment, a higher difference in income distribution. In terms of economic weight, South Italy produces about a fifth of Italy’s GDP, and that is comparatively small.
Social capital is traditionally lower in the South. At the same time, there are issues of crime. Political participation is quite low – there is a difference of 15 to 20% of turnout between the South and the North. In terms of values postmodern vs. modern, the South is much more traditional, which is reflected in the votes.
In the First Republic (1948-1992) – referring to the years before the 90-s, for example – the Christian Democrats used to win traditionally in the South, whereas in the North or in regions of Central Italy, either the Socialist parties or the Communist party had strongholds and electoral representation. While the parties changed with the Second Republic [1992-…], this divide remained, and even today there is a quite clear South-North divide. The Five Star Movement with their populist economics was extremely successful in the South, whereas the League/Northern League was more active in the North. For the League, immigration is a big topic, the North is more sensitive to this rhetoric, as the immigrants obviously move to the most developed part. For parties with a more traditional worldview, the South is a better constituency of voters.
Clearly, immigration was a prominent topic in the election debates, but is there anything that non-Italian observers might have overlooked that also played a role in these elections? Some people mention debt as an example.
There’s a Europe factor and an economic factor. When Italy was hit by the economic crisis, it was one of the main countries hit. The public plays a role, but the country as a whole had bad economic indicators. It did not end up in a state as bad as Portugal, Spain, Ireland, or Greece, but it was and is still considered economically one of the “sick men of Europe”.
Point being, the previous government paid a lot. It did a number of structural reforms. Did these reforms change the scenario completely? No. Is Italy now an amazingly beautifully performing country? No. But structural reforms are done, so big issues when it comes to the public sector, duplication, initiatives were taken in order to reduce the burden, also in terms of the labour market and so on. On one hand, these reforms carry social costs. And of course, the government paid [suffered] because of that. At the same time, Italy was under this impression that Italy was supposed to do all its homework without Europe assisting Italy when it got into trouble.
The impression was that Europe abandoned Italy. For example, this relates to immigration, not in Italy, but to a broader picture. But when you hear in Italy that Poland or Hungary say, “We are not going to take a single refugee”. On the other hand, Italy is supporting, not out of conviction, but out of a sense of European solidarity, the EU sanctions against Russia. Often you hear from all the parties that we have to lose millions of euros every year due to Russia sanctions, whereas Poland refuses to show similar solidarity in the refugee crisis. “If they don’t want to help us, why should we help them?” is the line of thinking. Clearly, Russia does not pose a comparable threat to Italy as it would to Poland, but there is a perception of a lack of solidarity…
Which is not necessarily inaccurate…
Not necessarily inaccurate, I would say. Since nothing moves at the EU level, this is capitalized upon by the Far-Right and the Populists.
I love this next question. A Politico article on the 24th of February had the headline “Italy’s elections biggest winner is Europe”.
That article noted that all of Italy’s major political parties had softened their stance on EU related issues before the general election. Renzi has been quoted as supporting a “United States of Europe”, and the leader of the formerly very vocally Eurosceptic Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio has recently said (in February) that his party is a “pro-Europe party”. So, the question is, how long does this pro-Europe shift last?
First of all, I think this article is a bit overly optimistic, at least from a European perspective. Because it is very difficult to find people who say that they hate Europe. Not even Nigel Farage would tell you “I hate Europe”. His position is that he hates Brussels. This is to an extent just a part of a narrative. Eurosceptics are for the Europe of people, a Europe of Nations, but not for the Europe of the elites or Brussels. There are always “other Europes” to support.
Apart from that, especially as far as the Five Star Movement is concerned, what they wanted to do – despite their quite evident unease with Europe and the structures of European integration – was to emerge as a reliable partner or governing force. They had to moderate their language, but not necessarily their position. In the past, they proposed the referendum on the Euro, then that project was put aside, then they tried to join the ALDE faction in the European Parliament, not with much success. This is part of their game. For sure it is a functional attitude for them, and certainly not a decidedly Pro-European stance. How long will it last? As long as they are able to maintain both narratives. Blaming Europe at home and giving support to Europe in Brussels. When there is a clash between these narratives, they will go for home.
As a follow-up question, is anyone in Italy still promoting a referendum on the Euro?
Officially, no. There might be minor far-right parties that did not get into the parliament or far left parties who did not make it in, but even the [Northern] League supports reform rather than abolition at the moment. Officially, no-one wants to leave the Euro. And these positions are very pragmatic for these parties. I believe that none of the party leaderships actually want a referendum on the Euro because then they would have to manage the results. They all know, even if they aren’t financial experts, that once the Euro is voted out, there will be far more questions than answers. At the same time, they will not play too much with the option of the referendum. By mentioning a referendum from time to time, you gain a bit politically, but can put out the fire later, so to speak. If you push it too much, however, you can repeat the mistake of Cameron and it actually happens one day, blowing up.
From the perspective of someone living in Estonia, what sorts of similarities do you see between the politics of Italy and Estonia, and what is the main difference?
That is a big question actually… The most difficult question. It helps that I follow politics in Estonia, and I find them quite interesting. Maybe I start with the differences, it would be easier. In general, I would say… well, two differences. Politics in Estonia tends to be calmer and more rational, there is much less space for irrationality. There is much less space for screaming. There is more space for responsibility. Of course, parties play with numbers, and so on, but in general it is very difficult to find crazy electoral promises. Then again, you have some totems that are very difficult to touch. From an Italian perspective, they can almost appear weird.
I’ll give you an example, there is the myth of public debt. Estonia is well known, and that is a very nice thing, to have the lowest public debt in the EU, around 7%, maybe now it is around 8%. While I believe it makes a lot of sense to keep the public debt under control, the second-lowest public debt in the EU belongs to Denmark, around 35-40%. I understand that some parties see the debt being low as a key objective, it should not necessarily be a totem that you can’t play with to, for example, increase social expenditure. That would not automatically turn you into a possible Greece. There is a sea of difference between Denmark and Greece. And it is not easy to end up like that. The counterargument to that a lower public debt provides more safety. Sorry to say, but if there is a global crisis, Estonia can have a public debt of 7%, but when things go nuts, they go nuts. That’s the first thing.
When it comes to similarities, especially now we can see a rise of populism, rise of less rational voting behaviour or the rise of radical populist parties. This is also happening in Estonia. Also, while I hesitate to use the term, making the politically incorrect acceptable is something that happens here too.
I personally believe that in Italy, immigration, dealing with multiculturalism and the sheer number of refugees are real issues, albeit they can be met with either coherent and rational answers or incoherent and irrational answers. These topics condition the political debate in both countries.
The difference, I believe, compared to Estonia, is that we are dealing with virtual immigration. Because I don’t see that today in Estonia despite the quotas, we are close to approaching the number 200 And who knows how many of those registered are actually in Estonia anymore.
The similarity is the fear of the unknown, and it is understandable that political entrepreneurs might want to capitalize on this condition, but the virtual debate talks about an existential threat to the county. It is nothing new, and very powerful, and in Germany there is a similar situation, where the AfD gets more votes in areas with less immigration, less refugees and less multiculturalism. It makes social sense, since if you are not used to diversity, you are more reluctant to experience it. It is easier for you to accept what political parties or political opportunists say without much criticism.
Final question: if one would observe Italy in the coming months or years, what should one look out for?
Well, one should, politically speaking, I assume, and not just because I teach a course on that, keep an eye on the relationship between Italy and the EU. Because Italy has been a traditionally pro-European country. Granted, they were often critically pro-European, and there was not much debate, but polls showed steady support. In the last 10 years, everything has changed. Italy is now one of the most Eurosceptic countries. The problem, when it comes to the EU, is that Italy is not a small country, it is not a superpower, but still in the top three countries by size. If it becomes more similar to the Visegrád countries, it could be very problematic for the EU. Again, the party situation has changed so much that it might change the whole EU structure and might make it more difficult for Europe to get out of its crisis.
References and footnotes
 Bremmer, Ian. 2018 “Ian Bremmer,” March 7, Facebook url: https://www.facebook.com/ianbremmer/posts/823774841128895 (visited 09.03.2018).
 La Stampa. 2018. “Vince di Maio, Italia ingovernabile” March 5, http://www.lastampa.it/2018/03/05/speciali/newsletter/direttore/vince-germania-serie-torna-ferma-supera-forza-italia-umiliato-grande-coalizione-italia-ingovernabile-premi-lutto-italiano-spaventa-leuropa-mentre-oscar-KLFKQksDseiEaXOWynBJrI/pagina.html (visited 09.03.2018).
 Witte, Griff; Birnbaum, Michael, 2018 “Italy’s election results highlight struggle to govern in Europe as populist forces rise” The Washington Post, March 5 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/italian-vote-highlights-growing-struggle-to-govern-in-europe-as-populist-forces-rise/2018/03/05/73cc6820-1bd2-11e8-98f5-ceecfa8741b6_story.html?utm_term=.664ec4e33a1b (visited 09.03.2018).
 Banks, Martin; Squires, Nick, 2014 “Italy to push for ‘United States of Europe’ when it holds the EU presidency,” The Telegraph, 22. Juuni; url: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/10918134/Italy-to-push-for-United-States-of-Europe-when-it-holds-the-EU-presidency.html (visited 09.03.2018).
 Gautheret, Jérôme, 2018 “Luigi Di Maio : « Le Mouvement 5 étoiles est pro-européen »” Le Monde 15 veebruar, url: http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2018/02/15/luigi-di-maio-le-mouvement-5-etoiles-est-pro-europeen_5257383_3214.html (visited 09.03.2018).
 9,4% in 2016 according to Eurostat.
 Actually, to Luxembourg with about 20% according to Eurostat.