Italy election: how the populist Five Star Movement is wrecking government hopes for the mainstream

Italy's Five Star Movement has shaken up the Italian political scene, making it unlikely that either of Italy's two traditional political blocs will be able to form a government. Politics professor Martin Bull explains how this has happened, and what it means for Italy and for Europe.

Italy election: how the populist Five Star Movement is wrecking government hopes for the mainstream
Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Italian anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), gives a speech during a Five Stars rally. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Italy faces an election on March 4th – and, after a long decade of austerity and economic difficulties, a strong possibility of further political paralysis. Neither the centre-left, the centre-right, or the populists are likely to command a majority in parliament. Establishing a functioning government won’t be easy, and its make-up will depend on which parties are prepared to put aside their differences and form an alliance.

The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) exploded onto the electoral scene in the 2013 general election, arresting the see-saw alternation between centre-left and centre-right majority governments that had been tentatively established in the 1990s. The vote produced a hung parliament, forcing the two traditional parties to work together in a centrist “grand coalition” to keep M5S out of office.

Now, M5S, despite recent allegations of corruption, is even stronger. It’s likely to emerge from this election as the largest party. But it looks unlikely to secure enough of a majority to govern alone and it continues to refuse to form coalitions with other parties.

Statistics from the February 16th Demos opinion poll, organised by party and political spectrum. Author provided

A collapse in support of the two pivotal parties of the centre-left and centre-right means that neither look likely to be able to form a government either. The Democratic Party under former prime minister Matteo Renzi has sunk from 25% of the vote in 2013 (and an astounding 40.8% of the vote in the 2014 European elections) to 21.9% in polls today. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, on the centre right, has collapsed from 21.5% in 2013 to 16.3% today. Both parties are suffering from splits and fragmentation, which have weakened the coalitions they lead.

A new system

Faced with this decline, it’s not surprising that, in 2017, Renzi and Berlusconi brought the combined parliamentary strength of their parties together to pass an electoral reform that seemed designed to offset M5S’s electoral popularity by limiting its seat gains.

The new electoral system (the rosatellum – after Ettore Rosato, the Democratic leader in the Chamber of Deputies who first proposed the new law) is a “mixed” system (part “first-past-the-post” and part proportional). It favours those parties willing to ally together behind single candidates to prevent splitting their vote. It also gives an advantage to those parties that are territorially concentrated, such as the Democratic Party (in the central regions) and the Northern League (in the north). M5S, which opposed the electoral reform, has no natural coalition allies and does not yet have a strong presence at local or regional levels.

This electoral engineering will nevertheless come at a cost. It increases the likelihood that none of the parties or coalitions will reach the 40% threshold of the vote that is likely to be necessary to secure a parliamentary majority. This has resulted in a feverish election campaign, dominated – not by debates about policies – but by speculation over possible post-election coalitions. Even an anti-establishment M5S-Northern League alliance is being touted as a possibility.

Is Italy's Five Star Movement still an 'anti-establishment' party?Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

All of this matters not just to Italy but to Europe. A decade after the eurozone crisis began, the Italian economy is still in recovery. Its sheer size and significance to the eurozone remains a concern to the European Union, which has demanded greater fiscal discipline and reforms to encourage growth and improve productivity. That needs effective government – and one supportive of the EU.

Yet, there is a rising tide of eurosceptism in Italy, fuelled by M5S and years of perceived EU-imposed austerity. Forza Italia, the Northern League and M5S have all toyed with the idea of withdrawing Italy from the euro, meaning only the Democratic Party has unequivocal pro-euro credentials. Yet, even under prime ministers from that party (Matteo Renzi, Paolo Gentiloni), the Italy-EU relationship has become testy and fractious. Governments have become less willing to be the “good European” if it is seen to involve imposing more austerity on an unwilling population.

Overall, the state of play makes for a potent mix. The 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections produced a “perfect storm” and Italy ended up, for some time, without a prime minister, government or president. This time, fortunately, the president is not up for election – and it will be his responsibility to appoint a prime minister capable of governing with a parliamentary majority. The road ahead is however still fraught with uncertainty.

The ConversationThe new electoral system increases the importance of post-election manoeuvring by the parties, and will determine whether a repeat grand coalition government is needed (and possible) to keep out the extremes, or whether Italy will take a step into the unknown with some kind of anti-EU populist governing alliance. Europe will be watching closely.

Martin J. Bull, Professor of Politics, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

The chummy relationship between former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin goes back decades. The invasion of Ukraine has put it under pressure.

Berlusconi's bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

After a tycoon bromance, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to break up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine war — like many in his country, where ties with Moscow run deep.

The billionaire former premier’s unwillingness to speak ill of Putin is echoed by other leading Italian politicians, while in the media, there are concerns that pro-Russian sentiment has warped into propaganda.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi is committed to NATO and the EU, strongly backing sanctions against Moscow, and at his urging a majority of Italy’s MPs approved sending weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

But much of Draghi’s coalition government — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) — has long pursued a “special relationship” with Moscow.

Italy used to have the largest Communist party in the West, and many businesses invested in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while Russians in turn sought opportunities here.

Barely a month before the February 24 invasion, Putin spent two hours addressing top Italian executives at a virtual meeting.

Beds, hats, parties

Berlusconi, 85, has been out of office for more than a decade but remains influential both in politics and through his media interests, as founder of the Mediaset empire.

He was an ardent admirer of the Russian leader, and a close chum — they stayed in each other’s holiday homes, skied together and were snapped sporting giant fur hats.

“They were two autocrats who mutually reinforced their image: power, physical prowess, bravado, glitz,” historian and Berlusconi author Antonio Gibelli told AFP.

Putin gave Berlusconi a four-poster bed, in which the Italian had sex with an escort in 2008, according to her tell-all book. He in turn gave Putin, 69, a duvet cover featuring a life-sized image of the two men.

In the months before the Ukraine war, Berlusconi continued to promote his close ties, including a “long and friendly” New Year’s Eve phone call.

It was not until April, two months after Russia’s invasion, that he publicly criticised the conflict, saying he was “disappointed and saddened” by Putin.

He has struggled to stay on message since then.

Speaking off the cuff in Naples last week, he said he thought “Europe should… try to persuade Ukraine to accept Putin’s demands”, before backtracking and issuing a statement in Kyiv’s support.

“Breaking the twinning with Putin costs Berlusconi dearly: he has to give up a part of his image,” Gibelli said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the anti-immigration League, Salvini, who has proudly posed in Putin T-shirts in the past, has argued against sending weapons to aid Ukraine.

The League did condemn Russia’s military aggression, “no ifs and no buts”, on February 24 when Russia invaded.

But an investigation by the L’Espresso magazine earlier this week found that, in the over 600 messages posted by Salvini on social media since Russia invaded, he had not once mentioned Putin by name.

He did so for the first time on Thursday, saying “dialogue” with Putin was good, and encouraging a diplomatic end to the war.

‘Biased media’

Many pro-Russian figures are given significant airtime in the media, which itself is highly politicised.

“Italy is a G7 country with an incredibly biased media landscape,” Francesco Galietti, founder of risk consultancy Policy Sonar, told AFP.

TV talk shows are hugely popular in Italy, and “one of the main formats of information” for much of the public, notes Roberta Carlini, a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute.

But she warns they often “obscure facts”.

Italy’s state broadcaster RAI is being investigated by a parliamentary security committee for alleged “disinformation”, amid complaints over the frequent presence of Russian guests on talks shows.

Commercial giant Mediaset is also in hot water after airing an interview with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which highly polemical claims went unchallenged.

It defended the interview, saying good journalism meant listening to “even the most controversial and divisive” opinions.

“RAI is a reflection of the political landscape, with its many pro-Russian parties. And Mediaset… well, Berlusconi is an old pal of Putin’s, so what do you expect?” Galietti said.

He also points to a decades-long culture in Italy of allowing conspiracy theories — particularly on the interference of US spies in Italian politics — to circulate in the media unchallenged.

“You end up with a situation where Russia Today (RT) is considered as authoritative as the BBC,” he said.