Italian Election 2018: Preview and Analysis

(Bloomberg View) -- No one knows what will happen when Italy votes on Sunday. Polling is inconclusive, and the electoral rules are brand-new. In an attempt to make some sense of the mess of parties and coalitions competing for power, I reached out (over email) to Hans Noel, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University and author of “Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America,” a study of coalition-building and elections. He is spending the year as faculty-in-residence at Villa Le Balze in Florence. 

JONATHAN BERNSTEIN: Is Italy likely to come out of this election with any stable government at all?

HANS NOEL: As you know, I’m out of the prediction business, but no. Italy is very likely to come out of this election without a stable government at all. The problem is that there will be three factions with about a third of the vote. The center-right, a coalition that is itself divided roughly in half between Forza Italia and Lega, is likely to come in first, but they will need a coalition partner. The Five-Star Movement, which likely to be the single biggest party, but behind the center-right coalition, has generally said they don’t want to join with the other parties at all. It’s hard to see them align with anyone. The center-left coalition, led by the Partito Democratico, will be the smallest, but they are also the most centrist.

So one likely outcome is a coalition between the PD and Forza Italia (and some minor parties), perhaps led by the current PM, Gentiloni. That is, a continuation of the existing caretaker government. A grand coalition like that one probably won’t last long. FI and PD just have goals that are too different. Other grand coalitions would seem just as unstable. Any coalition with the M5S seems very hard to predict, since their platform keeps shifting.

JB: That would seem to make it difficult for anyone trying to guess what kinds of policies, especially economic policies, to expect going forward. If it is a grand coalition including the PD, does that mean a continuation of the status quo on Europe and other economic policy for as long as the coalition lasts?

HN: Definitely hard to predict. One stabilizing force is that even Forza Italia is more moderate on Europe than most of its coalition. So if PD and FI are in the coalition, they may put the brakes on any kind of reduced relationship with Europe, under whatever nickname we’d give it. The Lega and (probably) M5S would like to see less deference to Europe, as they see it. But unless it’s a coalition of those two (not out of the question), then someone will likely hold them back for the time being.

Some are suggesting that an unstable grand coalition will lead to new elections very soon. If another election is on the horizon, then major policy change will probably be on hold.

JB: What about the possibility that instead of a centrist coalition, the outcome could be a full return of Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps in a coalition with the far right? Is that plausible, and if so, what are the policy implications?

HN: This is definitely plausible.

Part of what makes forecasting tricky is that Italy has a new electoral system. The best estimates I have seen suggest that the center-right will come up just short of being able to form a coalition. But they will be the closet.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is running in a pre-electoral coalition with the far-right Lega (Also in the coalition is the centrist Noi Con Italia, Us With Italy, and the far-right Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy). Who leads this coalition depends a little on whether the Lega or FI come in first. But Berlusconi is himself barred from holding office. He’s campaigning as if he’s the candidate, but if they form a government, someone else needs to run it. The most likely choice, although far from assured, is Antonio Tajani. Tajani is the current president of the European Parliament, so he’s probably not going to lead the effort to dismantle Italy’s relationship with Europe. The Lega leader, Salvini, would like to do that, though, and he’d plausibly be a leader of such a coalition, or could make enough of a case to extract some policy or portfolio concessions.

On economic policy, you would be more likely to see less internal tension and thus support for free-market policies and lower taxes.

JB: Taking a step back: What’s the underlying cause of all this instability? Is it a reflection of underlying divisions within the Italian electorate? A consequence of flawed constitutional design? Or is something else going on? 

HN: It’s hard to say, but there are several possibilities. One is just the multidimensional nature of polarization in the Italian party system. I don’t think the Italian electorate is all the more divided than the U.S. electorate is. But with the ability for the system to reflect all the potential divides, we ended up with three major poles instead of two. The M5S is an anti-system party that is sort of a marriage of the Trump and Sanders supporters of 2016. They dislike the mainstream parties of the right and the left, and the feeling is mutual. But the left and right division itself remains significant. In a less proportional system, these divisions might be forced to form large governing coalitions.

Of course, parliamentary systems have long been able to deal with smaller parties. Coalition governments are common. And even when things get complicated, as they are in Germany right now, they can usually work out an arrangement. The real issue is how much disdain the mainstream parties have for the likely largest party, the insurgent M5S.

Italy also has a second factor, which is the constitutional requirements for a government. The government needs support from both chambers of parliament. The reform referendum from two years ago was supposed to help streamline things, but it failed.

But some of what is happening is unique to this new electoral system. The previous system had a first-place bonus that would have assured a majority for someone. But the current reform was implemented, presumably out of fear that M5S would win that bonus this time. Denying them a majority comes at the price of denying anyone a majority. So the irony is that this system, which might work just fine with a different constellation of parties, was implemented because of the outsider faction that makes things so complicated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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