Italian politics

Italian elections: all you need to know and why the winner is Silvio Berlusconi

Three weeks ahead of the elections, polls help us to understand which scenarios are likely - and which not. Berlusconi is likely - who would have thought?

Please take note that this post does not state political preferences. It’s a short review of the current polling situation. This will be the beginning of a series of posts in the upcoming days in which I will briefly discuss the programs of Italy’s major political forces. (I hope to find enough time for it.) Check back in if you’re interested in more.

I also invite you to have a quick look at my post on the new electoral system. Put short: It will be freakin’ difficult to form a government. In order to gain the absolute majority of seats in parliament, one party has to have at least 40% of the proportional seats (if it also has 70% of the first-past-the-post seats), or at least 55% of the first-past-the-post seats (if it also has 50% of the proportional seats). If no list alliance that forms before the election is likely to get as many votes by itself, the consequence will ultimately be a post-election coalition of list alliances.

And that’s exactly the point why Silvio Berlusconi will be the winner of these elections, no matter what. There are two exceptions to this statement. First: the polling numbers are completely off reality. That has happened in Italy in the past. In 2014, the PD got about 40% of the votes and the Five Star Movement (Cinque Stelle) only about 20% of the votes – while polls had predicted about 30% for either. This error is not very likely this time. Survey methods have improved and this campaign is a tripolar fight, not a bipolar fight as in 2014. Still, keep in mind that about 40% of voters have not made their decision yet. Second: the currently governing Partito Democratico (PD) would enter a post-election coaliton with Cinque Stelle. That ain’t gonna happen. Well, you shall never say no. If there’s a full post-election turn-over of the leading staff within the PD, and no trace of Renzi anymore whatsoever, then maybe. But let’s safely assume: that ain’t gonna happen.

Italy’s major political forces

I think it’s best to start with a very brief overview of who Italians can vote for in just three weeks from now. In Italy, there is often little consistency across elections, because parties find new fancy names for their pre-election alliances. Here we go, sorted by size according to the latest poll and including everyone who stands a chance to get into parliament – except the regional parties of Val d’Aosta, Südtirol, and Trentino, because those four seats will usually enter the PD coalition.

Movimento Cinque Stello (Five Star Movement)

For a long time considered Italy’s prime populist and Euroskeptic party, things are slowly changing within the movement. Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the movement, just parted ways with them. Sorta. At least he now runs his blog independently of the blog of the party. He’s still part of the movement, but in order to improve their chances of victory, they are going towards more moderate positions. For instance, they don’t want to leave the Euro anymore, and they acknowledged the compulsory nature of the 3% deficit rule. They are a weird blend of conservative opinions (e.g. towards immigration), esoteric opinions (e.g. towards vaccination) and progressive opinions (e.g. towards sex).

Partito Democratico (Democratic Party)

This is the party that is leading the current government. It’s a traditional social-democrat party that in some way or the other has often been part of Italian governments. Nowadays, there’s not much left ideology left in the party, especially since the leading figures of the PD’s left wing spun off. (There’s not much ideology of any type left in that party.) The situation is specific: their first candidate for the position of prime minister is not their incumbent prime minister (Gentiloni), but former prime minister Matteo Renzi. He’s not exactly popular. In polls, 19% of Italians express that they’d like to have Luigi di Maio (from Cinque Stelle) as the next premier, and 17% prefer Gentiloni. Renzi follows on third place with 8%. (Note: not a single candidate gets even as much support as his party. Not even by a wide margin.)

Forza Italia (Forward Italy)

Silviu Berlusconi is not allowed to be a candidate, but he is allowed to campaign on behalf of his party. (Who actually is the candidate is not clear until now. Berlusconi is the face of the campaign – his political enemies call him out for voter fraud.) So that’s what he does, casually insisting that he’d be premier if only he was allowed to be a candidate. He might be right on that. But anyways: while originally a populist party, it nowadays appears that Forza Italia is one of the more moderate voices in Italy’s political arena. Without having changed much, but it got more crazy around them. But don’t be fooled. It’s a conservative party. Their voters tend to have conservative opinions on societal affairs, and they dream of Italy’s leading role in Europe. They are entering the race with the intention to form a coalition with the ultra-right-wing Lega Nord, which might look very similar to the ÖVP/FPÖ government in Austria.

Lega Nord (League)

Officially, they now appear as Lega. On paper, they want to promote their ideas nationwide and also gain support in Sicily. It seems to work. It’s highly ironic, because it’s still led by the same people who originally founded Lega Nord to propagate autonomy and independence of Northern Italy (read: to not have to pay for the South anymore). Which they also still do, by the way. They started this campaign with Salvini as a serious contender for prime minister, particularly as it looked like they could be the largest party in the right-wing camp. Salvini appears to be the Italian version of Nigel Farage, Heinz Strache, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, or whoever xenophobic populist comes to your mind. Personally, I think he lacks the intellectual capacity to develop an ideology, and he’s just the coincidental face of a me-too movement in Italy’s right wing.

I keep it shorter for the following parties, as none of them exceeds 10%.

Liberi e Uguali (Liberal and Equal)

When Renzi insisted to be PD’s candidate for premiership, some of his fellows spun off into a new left-wing party. Note that all the preceding lists are effectively center, center-right, or right. Liberi e Uguali captures the remaining voter base of dedicated left ideology in Italy. On top of that, it’s profoundly opposed to Renzi. Their position is a bit unclear when it comes to coalitions. One day they refuse any thought towards a coalition with Cinque Stelle, one day they say it depends on the program. Truth is: if there is any, they’ll take the chance that brings them into power.

Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)

Ironically, the brothers are currently led by a woman (Giorgia Meloni). They used to be part of Forza Italia, but found them too moderate and therefore spun off into their own movement. They campaign against anything foreign. If they would not exist, their voters would likely support the Lega. Paradoxically, therefore, they themselves give the right wing a more moderate leadership (by Forza Italia) than they proclaim.

Noi con l’Italia (Us with Italy)

You figure that Italy’s political parties often select names that basically say nothing. Italian wolves like sheep’s clothing. It’s a new group that has positions that considerably overlap with those of Forza Italia. But, you know, why not have another party? Noi con l’Italia absorbed many pre-existing (center)-right-wing fringe parties. Herein I see their added value for the right wing: together, they can still claim to be different from Forza Italia (read: satisfy their egos), yet they push these fringe parties above the threshold to gain some additional parliamentary seats.

Più Europa (More Europe)

Yes, an actual liberal, progressive and pro-European party exists in Italy. It even has a slim chance to get into parliament. Their prominent figure is Emma Bonino, who is a prominent figure in Italy and has held high executive positions in the European Commission and various Italian governments. She also campaigned to become president of Italy, but lost. In 1999, she brought the Radicals to short-lived electoral fame. The Radicals are still her home, but re-branded with a topical slogan. They are natural partners in a government that involves the PD. Recently, they had somewhat of a disagreement, and yet they might need to enter a pre-election alliance to actually get into parliament.

…how they do in the polls…

Finally, numbers. The trends between polls are similar. The major differences relate to how much Forza Italia is larger than Lega. In the Tecne poll from two days ago that I’m referencing below, the difference is about six points. It’s only about two points in the latest poll from Index Research. You can access polls from all six polling institutes on this handy website. I go with Tecne simply because it was the most recent poll when I started writing this post. Below are two panels that show the support for all parties and also the cumulative support for the various blocks that aim to lead the new government.


For simplicity, consider that the new government needs to reach at least 40%. Not a single party is even close to that. Italy’s next government will have to be a coalition. And there, things look quite great for the center-right (centro-destra).


They are closing in on 40%. And this value is not likely an exaggerated single data point. Below is a panel that shows the evolution of these numbers over time. Quick hint: altri says ‘others’, and CSX stands for centro-sinistra (center-left), while CDX correspondingly stands for centro-destra (center-right).


Take-away: Cinque Stelle is likely to become the biggest party. Forza Italia might still threaten the second place of PD, but at this point, I’d say this is rather unlikely if not Berlusconi ultimately does overcome the rule that prevents him from becoming prime minister. Lately, there was a small shift in support from Cinque Stelle to the PD, but also that gaps appears too big to close – unless Renzi steps down before the elections and reshuffles the entire card deck. More importantly, it’s still neck-on-neck between the two if the votes for PD-loyal partners are added to their total.

Forza Italia and Lega Nord grew together for much of the time, but since the autonomy referendum in Lombardy and Veneto, and the media exposure of the Austrian electoral campaign, the Lega is losing support among voters. Immigration is no hot topic at the moment, and neither is the fight between regions and the central government. Still, the center-right alliance is growing in size, as former Lega voters mostly moved to other parties on the right wing.

Liberi e Uguali had a strong start and looked destined to reach 10% at some point, but they lost momentum at the end of the year as they could not agree on who would lead their alliance. The votes that they originally took from Cinque Stelle went back to Cinque Stelle or went further to Emma Bonino’s Più Europa. Generally, movement within ideological camps is much more dynamic than movement across camps, but movement across camps is therefore likely more sustainable.

…and what that implies for the next government

Well, the best chances of winning the election has the center-right alliance. There’s not much missing to 40% of the votes. That’s only part of what they need to achieve. They also need to get enough seats from the first-past-the-post part of the election. In total, they need to achieve 316 to have the absolute majority in the parliament. At the moment, the most optimistic prediction has them at 299.


And that’s not the only thing. In the most recent days, rifts appeared between Lega Nord and Forza Italia. There was some debate about how Italy’s parties position themselves towards the fiscal union and austerity, and Salvini claimed back the very anti-European position his party. At that point, it’s honestly a bit difficult to see how that would work with Forza Italia, who might actually have a stronger overlap with the positions of the PD.

Basically, I see four more or less realistic scenarios. The first two are more likely. The latter two could be a surprising outcome that we should not exclude. But it’s most likely going to be one of the first two.

(1) The center-right gets the majority and forms the new government as is. Forza Italia will need to make some concessions to the Lega. It will likely be a trade between immigration and European fiscal policies, and I expect Forza Italia to decide to be tough on immigration. After all, that’s the global zeitgeist. Renzi might survive yet again and try his luck another time, but the left might splinter even more. Berlusconi will be the man to lead this government from the background.

(2) The center-right might get a very slim majority or might miss the majority by a small bit. In other words: a hung parliament. In that case, it depends on Renzi what happens next. You never know with him. I hope that he would ultimately step down and leave the premiership again to Gentiloni, who would then lead a coalition of PD and Forza Italia (plus minor partners to get enough support). Gentiloni might just have ruled out a government with the center-right bloc, but… take the Lega out of the game and I think his opinion might change. However, at this point, I would not even exclude that Forza Italia continues to gain momentum on the expense of its right-wing partners – to the degree that Forza Italia claims more seats than the PD (read: the PD, not the alliance under PD leadership). That could imply a Forza Italia prime minister. Who ever that will be.

(3) Cinque Stelle and Liberi e Uguali together reach 40%. At the moment, they have combined 33-35%, so it’s not entirely out of question. This is the only rather realistic scenario in which Cinque Stelle will appoint the next prime minister. It’s still less likely than an outcome in which Italy’s largest party will only get to lead the opposition again.

(4) The Democratic Party recovers enough to get to 40% without involving Forza Italia. That cannot happen without Liberi e Uguali, who are strongly opposed to Renzi, and it might need to involve minor partners of the center-right alliance. Hence, also in this rather PD-friendly scenario, it’s the same as what I mentioned before: It all depends on Renzi. If Renzi insists on himself, a second round of snap elections is more likely than this coalition.

So, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (and therefore Berlusconi himself) is the most important party in this election. The strength of this party will determine which scenario we will experience. In the most likely scenarios, it will be part of the government and could very well lead it. It’s really not a very groundbreaking and risky prediction to conclude that Berlusconi has already won the elections before they are held. The actual role he will have… that’s only what the elections will determine.

But I can imagine what he thinks it will be.

Berlusconi visita il comitato elettorale per Bertolaso Sindaco


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