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What you need to know about Italy's upcoming 2018 election

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What you need to know about Italy's upcoming 2018 election
A man casts his ballot during Italy's constitutional referendum last December. File photo: AFP
11:00 CET+01:00
Italy's parliament is likely to be dissolved between Christmas and New Year, with an election expected in early March. Here's what you need to know ahead of the campaign.

1. The timeline

The date has not yet been formally announced, but according to Italy's two biggest dailies, Repubblica and Corriere, March 4th is the expected date and has been agreed on by the country's main parties. Reuters cited a parliamentary source as saying that March 11th was another possible date and that a final decision was due shortly.

Those are both Sundays, as is usual in Italy, to allow the largest proportion of eligible voters to cast their ballots.

The date for next year's Italian general election has been set: reports
Italian President Sergio Mattarella, the man whose job it will be to call the next election. Photo: Jussi Nukari / Lehtikuva / AFP

And this timing means that parliament will be dissolved at some point between Christmas and New Year, most likely on December 28th after current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni holds an end-of-year conference. Gentiloni will, however, stay on as PM until a new government is formed.

Under Italian law, the election must be held before May 20th, but most of the country's parties have been pushing to hold them as soon as possible.

READ ALSO: Ten key things to know about Italy's political system

2. An untested electoral law

There's a good reason elections haven't been held already, and it also explains why this election is particularly unpredictable. It's all to do with Italy's new electoral law.

Paolo Gentiloni was described as a 'caretaker' prime minister when he took over the top job last year, but this week he completed a year in the job. He replaced party colleague Matteo Renzi, who resigned after staking his job on a set of constitutional reforms which were rejected in a humiliating national referendum.

This wasn't just a problem for Renzi, but for the country's political system.

The comeback kid: Matteo Renzi hot favourite to lead his party again
Renzi is pictured during a press conference. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The suggested reforms would have ironed out differences in the electoral systems for Italy's upper and lower houses of parliament. But the proposals faced criticism from several quarters as being too drastic, and some saw the vote as an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the political establishment as a whole, and so when they were rejected, Italy was left with no workable electoral law.

After months of debate, a new election law named 'Rosatellum' was finally passed in late October, despite fierce opposition from the Five Star Movement (M5S). One crucial feature of the new law is that it favours parties which build alliances, something the M5S has ruled out doing. The party has accused the new law of being "rigged" against it.

Because this law is brand new for Italy, predictions are even tougher than usual -- and it could lead to some surprises.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy's Democratic Party

3. How do the polls look?

With several months to go, the M5S looks on track to be the most popular party.

In the graph below, which tracks opinion polls from 2013 to autumn 2017, the Democratic Party is marked in red, the M5S in yellow, Berlusconi's Forza Italia in light blue, and the Northern League in green. The other colours represent Italy's smaller parties, which could prove decisive when it comes to forming coalitions or a government.

Graph: FrBailo/Wikimedia Commons

As well as opinion polls, regional and local elections in recent months have served as a barometer of public mood.

A centre-right, Berlusconi-backed candidate scooped just under 40 percent of the vote in Sicily's regional elections in November, while the Democratic Party candidate polled just 18.6 percent. But turnout was low, with fewer than half of the eligible voters casting their ballots.

And when ten million Italians had the chance to go to the polls in regional elections across the country in June, the centre-right were again the biggest winners, while the Democratic Party lost control of several longtime left-wing strongholds. But the M5S also failed to do as well as predicted, and again turnout was low, suggesting that protest voters may have chosen to stay home rather than back the anti-establishment party.

READ MORE: Five things we learned from Italy's telltale local elections

4. The overall outcome is anyone's guess

Because of the way the electoral law favours coalitions, and the fact that no party looks set to receive 40 percent of votes outright, it's extremely tough to predict who will be ruling Italy this time next year.

Economic analyst Lorenzo Codogno said it was almost a "certainty [that] no one is going to win an outright majority in parliament".

While the M5S is currently leading the polls, its refusal to join a coalition with any of the traditional parties means it is almost impossible that it would be able to form a government. Meanwhile, the ruling centre-left is seriously divided.

Centre-right leads in Sicily regional vote: exit polls

A centre-right victory would be a huge boost for ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi, pictured at a rally. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The one coalition which could reach an outright victory alone -- requiring 40 percent of the total vote -- is the centre-right, led by four-time PM Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is currently barred from public office as a result of a conviction for tax fraud which saw him kicked out of parliament in 2013, but he is hoping to have the ban lifted.

There's another option, and Codogno says: "A Grand Coalition, especially with injections of technocrat/institutional people, would probably be well received by financial markets."

READ ALSO: There's an election in Italy next year, and the M5S has some familiar problems

5. Risks and factors to look out for

With the M5S in the lead and the party's reputation as an anti-EU party, it's likely that global media will debate the possibility of an 'Italexit' or Italy quitting the euro. It's possible that the M5S could form a government with the Northern League or another party, however Codogno described this possibility, and that of Italexit or the introduction of a paralllel currency, as being "very slim".

What's more, the M5S has increasingly softened its stance on the EU and euro, with the party's new leader recently stressing: "We want to stay in the EU."

Italy's Five Star Movement gets ready to choose its candidate for PM

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

The biggest risk facing Italy is further instability, or in other words, no government being formed and another election held later next year.

Employers' organization Confindustria said on Wednesday that instability could threaten Italy's economic recovery and warned political parties not to use "demagogic measures", saying the election was "very important".

READ ALSO: Italian government debt is a 'cause for concern': EU

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