Italy – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Italy was a founding member of the EU, and joined the Eurozone on its foundation in 2001.

Italian politics is perhaps the most convoluted in all in of Europe.

Italy is one of the newest nation-states in Western Europe, with the country ruled by a series of city-states, Kingdoms and the Papal States (under the direct rule of the Pope) prior to 1871 when Italian unification was finally completed.

Italian unification was, in many senses, an incomplete project. Italy demonstrates wide regional variations in terms of culture, history and language. For instance, over 2 million people in the region of Veneto speak the Venetian language, which is related to Italian, but a separate language. At the time of unification only 2.5% of Italians spoke what we now think of as Italian. ‘Standard’ Italian is in fact simply a Tuscany dialect of the language and different regions of Italy all have separate Italian dialects. This is true of any nation-state building project to some extent, and the creation of any state requires some creation of a unified identity. As the contemporary Italian statesman Massimo d’Azeglio said “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.”

While this is also true, of, say, Germany (which also unified in 1871) Germany succeeded in creating a unified identity fairly rapidly. At the time of unification there was a wide divergence in economy between industrialised Northern and feudalistic Southern Italy. An attempt to impose Northern legal and economic rules on the South only served to further weaken the Southern Italian economy, which did not have the same kind of advanced industrial economy.

The Italian state did not penetrate very far in the South, the Italian South was ruled by a series of powerful oligarchs instead. This lay the basis for the advancement of the mafia (who had begun to exist in around the 16th century), which evolved from state failure. The mafia would take over territory upon which they would informally administer justice, provide services and social security, reward and punish, and facilitate trade. The mafia is also a form of employment. The mafia thus exists as an alternative state.

To this day, extreme inequalities exist between North and South, with serious tensions over it. This helps to compound a weak sense of Italian nationhood. Weakly held identification with the Italian state also means that people lack loyalty to it, creating the grounding for mass-corruption.

Organised crime is believed to represent 7-8% of Italy’s GDP. Corruption is believed to cost Italy around 3% of GDP.

While Italy (after much indecision) eventually joined the winning side in WWI, the country gained very little compared to what it lost, leading to social unrest and conflict linked to rising socialist and anarchist movements. This quickly led to the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement, and Italy was the birthplace of Fascism and where it first reached power in 1923.

The banned Italian Communist Party (PCI), many of whose members had fought in the Spanish Civil War, became the largest and best organised component of the resistance during WWII, and after the end of the War it had a huge amount of credibility.

Communism had been strong but not dominant on the left in the pre-war era, but after the war the PCI became the largest Communist party in Western Europe, and Italy’s dominant party of the left. At its peak it had 2.3 million members. Italy had a long line of Communist intellectuals, such as Antonio Gramsci, which gave the party prestige. Communism was also seen as the ‘saviour’ of Italy and there was a huge amount of respect for Stalin in some quarters. The party had a widespread base composed of the working classes in Northern Italy, the sharecroppers of central Italy (where the party was often the majority) and the landless peasants of the South. The PCI was rare for a major left-wing party in that it had a major support base in rural areas.

The PCI did not just represent an alternative party, but brought with it almost a counter-cultural existence. The party’s legions of writers, artists, and filmmakers created their own unique forms of culture.

The PCI was boosted by municipal communism, through which it ran great numbers of local municipal governments, most famously Bologna. It was very strong in Central Italy, where it governed much of the area around Tuscany. PCI municipal governments were often viewed as some of the best run in all of Italy.

The party tended to be wary of armed revolution, and promoted democratic ways of doing things, often acting against small communist terrorist groups like the Red Brigades. Nonetheless it received huge amounts of funding from the Soviet Union. At first, at least, the party was extremely Stalinist, though it would go through phases of distancing itself from the USSR. Notably, in 1968, the party condemned the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring (it did not condemn the similar uprising in Hungary in 1956). During the 1970s and 1980s the party became the forefront of the ‘Eurocommunism’ movement in which the party embraced more liberal and democratic stances. They embraced feminism and were one of the first parties in Europe to promote gay rights. However, the party never truly broke from the USSR.

The strength of Italian Communism was a source of great concern both domestically and abroad. Italy was seen as a frontline in the Cold War. Europe’s fourth largest country switching to Communism would have represented a great blow to the West, as well as the loss of strategic interests in the Med.

Christian Democracy (DC), a broad-based Christian Democratic party of the centre was formed. The party hoped to unite all Catholics in opposition to the PCI. The DC became Italy’s dominant party. It received funding from the US, and was highly anti-Communist. In the first post-war election, in 1948, official DC propaganda stated that in Communist countries “children are owned by the state”, that “people eat their own children”, and that “children sent their parents to jail”. The party used the slogan that “In the polling booth God sees you – Stalin doesn’t”.

The party was assisted by the CIA, who beamed short-wave radio transmissions with anti-Communist propaganda into Italy. The CIA also collaborated with the Mafia, seen as anti-Communist force.

At its peak, in 1976, the PCI won 34.4% of the vote, though it was still barely beaten by the DC.

Italy had an extremely proportional electoral system at this point and DC was unable to form governments alone. The PCI, and other minor leftist parties, could not be invited into government. Nor could the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a neo-fascist party with a small but stable base of support of around 5%. An attempt in the early 60s at forming a minority DC government on the backing of the MSI led to mass street protests, particularly from the left.

As such the DC had a small number of partners it could rely on for coalition. Eventually this alliance came to be informally known as the pentapartito, the five parties. Headed by the DC, this alliance also included the Italian Socialist Party, the Italian Democratic Socialist Party, the Italian Liberal Party and the Italian Republican Party.

These alliances were extraordinarily unstable as small parties, knowing that the DC had few alternatives, would tend to bring the government down as a form of blackmail, yet Italian governments were consistently made up of the same parties. Hence Italy achieved a sort of stable instability, with governments constantly falling and being remade, but always led by the same party (DC) with one or more of a small selection of coalition partners. Italian governments, on average, lasted less than a year in office.

Yet, because parties like DC were constantly in government, the grounds were set for serious amounts of corruption, as MPs knew they would constantly have access to the levers of patronage.

As the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s, Communism ceased to be a threat and the party began to moderate, and reject Communist ideology. Most of the party became the Democratic Party of the Left in 1991.

With this, the logic upholding the system fell apart, and the true scale of Italian governing corruption was revealed in the Mani Pulite (‘clean hands’) trials. At one point more than half the Italian parliament was under investigation. 400 municipal councils had to be dissolved due to the scale of municipal corruption. As many as 5,000 suspects have been cited. The estimated cost of bribes paid annually by companies bidding for large government contracts in the 1980s was $4 billion.

The entire Italian party system fell apart. In the wake of the trials it appeared that the dominant parties would be the former Communists, and the National Alliance (a moderated MSI). A new electoral law was instituted, designed to create a more bipolar party system.

Into this gap came Silvio Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men and owner of Italy’s largest media group, Mediaset. Launching his party Forza Italia (Forward Italy), in December 1993, he went on to win the 1994 general election, just four months later, heading a coalition of right-of-centre parties.

Berlusconi is an extremely divisive figure and the entire party system essentially came to be based around him. On the one hand, composed of a centre-right House of Freedoms coalition of parties loyal to him and a coalition of centre-left parties opposed to him. Yet within both blocs existed people who came, ideologically, from the opposite side (Forza Italia, had, for instance, a reasonably sized faction of ex-members of the Italian Socialist Party).

Berlusconi is a charismatic figure. Unlike most Italian politicians (who tend to be very boring intellectual types) he talks in the language of the man on the street. He is a political chameleon, capable of changing his rhetoric to suit the times and a master strategist. Even after two decades at the top of Italy’s political system he is still able to effectively deploy anti-establishment rhetoric with effect. He benefits from a left which is unstable, prone to infighting, and, very often, just plain dull, and a sense of moral equivalency in that while he is clearly corrupt, most Italians think that practically everyone in politics is corrupt.

However, Berlusconi has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals, sex scandals, and accusations of tax fraud. There are controversies over Berlusconi’s control over the media, especially as Italian public broadcasting is very much controlled by the government. Italy ranks 49th in the world in the Press Freedom Index, the lowest in Western Europe, and a 2009 report by Freedom House ranked Italy as only “partly free” on press freedom, with only Turkey sharing this category in what Freedom House classified as ‘Western Europe’.

Unstable governance has largely continued in Italy, with small parties and factional struggles bringing down governments. For instance, in 2008, the ruling Centre-Left government was brought down after the withdrawal of the small Popular-UDEUR party, which had won only 1.4% of the vote in the 2006 election. However, Berlusconi did manage to become the first Italian PM since WWII to serve a full parliamentary term between 2001 and 2006.

While Italy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, and again in the 1960s, as recently as 2005 Italy was being described by the Economist as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The country has suffered from weak governments incapable of reforming Italy’s economy, or dealing with widespread corruption. State spending has often outstripped tax receipts. In the 1990s, the then centre-left government introduced a special ‘Euro tax’ in order to keep the deficit down long enough to join the single currency.

Italy was badly affected by the financial crash, and its economy shrank by 6.8%. Italy did not run an especially big fiscal deficit post-crash but had the second biggest debt-to-GDP ratio in the entire EU after Greece at 116% of GDP. However, the debt is safer than in other states as most is owned by Italians themselves, who have a high level of saving and low levels of household debt. Italy’s debt, however, was still deemed a risk both due to weak growth, the risk of ‘contagion’ from elsewhere in Europe and due to weak, unstable, governance. The sheer size of Italy’s economy is also a concern. As Europe’s fourth largest country, if Italy were to see the worst happen the country would be almost impossible to bail-out.

Italy’s economic troubles coincided with an increasingly turbulent time for Silvio Berlusconi, the then PM, whose sexual and financial scandals and political approach were increasingly destabilising the government. Due to the risk of government collapse, Berlusconi’s scandals have actually been shown to have an effect on Italian bond yields.

As a result, Berlusconi lost his rather sizeable parliamentary majority and in November 2011 a technocratic cabinet of political independents was created, led by former EU Commissioner Mario Monti. The Monti Cabinet was surprisingly popular at first, but its austerity programme became less so as time wore on. The next election, in 2013, led to an inconclusive result due to the strength of the new, extremely populist Five Star Movement (M5S). M5S refused to form a coalition with either side, and hence a grand coalition was created, led by the centre-left PM Enrico Letta. Letta’s government was later replaced after the centre-left Democratic Party’s new leader, Matteo Renzi, announced his desire to replace Letta.

Renzi is continuing with austerity, but his programme is also dependent upon a wide-ranging programme of constitutional reform. In order to do this he has signed a controversial deal with Berlusconi, who, while now an ex-MP due to his legal troubles, remains the leader of Forza Italia which is now in opposition.

Italian politics is highly volatile and parties are well known to combust into and out of existence in very short spaces of time, though the personalities involved are often the same.

Italy is generally a very pro-European country. It is often suggested that Italians view the EU as a much more functional layer of government than their native ones, but there are other reasons for Italian pro-Europeanism, such as the legacy of the post-war recovery. Nonetheless, as in other European countries, there is a growing Euroscepticism around opposition to the Euro in particular.

Electoral System

Italy will elect 73 MEPs, up one from the Lisbon Treaty redistribution, and the same as the UK, whom it has only a slightly smaller population than.

Italy elects its MEPs from open-lists. Italy is separated into five constituencies: North-West, North-East, Central, Southern and Islands (which covers Sardinia and Sicily).

Voters may vote for a party, and then have up to three preference votes to cast for candidates on their chosen party’s list. Votes are counted nationally and the number of seats a party gets is assigned nationally broadly on the basis of proportionality with their vote.

The party’s seats are then divided between the five constituencies on the basis of how many votes they won in each region. Then the best performing candidates are elected in each region.

The Islands constituency has been singled out for criticism as, generally, all the MEPs elected from it wind up coming from Sicily as Sardinia’s small population struggle to elect representatives of their own.

The 2009 election saw the introduction of a 4% threshold which parties must pass in order to win seats. This has led to the creation of joint lists between smaller parties, whereby multiple parties run candidates on one slate of candidates.

Lists of linguistic minorities (there is a large German-speaking community in South Tyrol, and a large French-speaking community in the Aosta Valley in Northern Italy) are able to form coalitions with larger parties (but run separately) to pool their votes together and win seats, thereby avoiding the threshold.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
People of Freedom (PdL) (now Forza Italia) European People’s Party 35.3% 29
Democratic Party (PD) Socialists and Democrats 26.1% 21
Lega Nord (LN) Europe of Freedom and Democracy 10.2% 9
Italy of Values (IdV) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 8.0% 7
Union of the Centre (UdC) European People’s Party 6.5% 5
South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP) European People’s Party 0.5% 1

Other parties notable in this election:

Brothers of Italy – National Alliance (FdI)

European Choice (SE)

Five Star Movement (M5S)

New Centre-Right (NCD) (heading up a joint list with the UdC this year)

The Other Europe with with Tsipras (AET)

Likely results

Following the introduction of the Renzi cabinet, the Democratic Party is now experiencing a honeymoon. It is polling in the low to mid 30s and can be expected to win the election. Its Berlusconi-led nemesis, Forza Italia is currently polling at around 20%, and the M5S is likely to come second and win around 20 seats.

Lega Nord and the UdC-NCD joint list are likely to win small but notable numbers of seats, with both polling around the 5% mark.

The South Tyrol People’s Party will win a seat by virtue of special dispensation for minority lingual parties.

Other parties are polling either just above, or just below the threshold for representation, with Civic Choice polling particularly poorly.