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Italy’s 2013 parliamentary election: some thoughts about surprising results

G. Napolitano, the President of the Italian Republic, will have to show the way... (Presidency of the Italian Republic)

G. Napolitano, the President of the Italian Republic, will have to show the way… (Presidency of the Italian Republic)

The parliamentary elections in Italy, last week-end, have brought unclear results. The centre-left coalition of Pierluigi Bersani, announced as winner since the beginning of the campaign, came very slightly ahead the centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi (less than a percentage point margin for the Senato – Senate – and only 0.41% for the Camera dei Diputati – Chamber of Representatives). In addition, Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star-movement showed to be much stronger than any poll had predicted, reaching nearly 24% of the vote for the Senate and more than 25.5% for the Chamber of Representatives. By contrast, Mario Monti’s coalition crashed under 10%, flirting dangerously with irrelevance in the new Parliament.

Here are a few thoughts I would like to share with you about these fascinating results. 

There is a strong protest. Three factors show this: the abstention rate, the vote for Grillo and the weakness of the big established parties and coalitions.

First, regarding abstention, we note that it is at a record-high, reaching nearly 25% of the electorate, i.e. a bit more than five percentage points more than in 2008. This is very reasonable, compared to other countries such as France, but for Italy’s standards, a country used to electoral participation rate of over 80%, it is quite high.

Second, as indicated above, the comedian and populist candidate Beppe Grillo reached a very high score, more than anyone had expected, even though the trend was clearly in his favour. The last public opinion surveys, two weeks before the election (they are prohibited during the two last weeks, by fear that they would shape the public opinion), gave him between 15 and 18%, and the exit polls published yesterday at the closure of polling stations put him between 18 and 20%. So, in the end, many voters decided to vote Grillo without having the courage to assume it openly. Therefore, we may wonder whether the Grillo vote is a “one-time warning” to the established parties or rather a trend designed to last as long as his claims will not be addressed…

Thirdly, the established parties (PdL and PD) and their coalitions literally crashed compared to former elections. This is especially true for the centre-right, but the centre-left is not spared. While they represented together more than three quarters of the vote in 2008, this time, they have troubles reaching together the threshold of 60%.

A reform of the electoral law is necessary. The current system, nicknamed porcellum, sets two different systems for the Camera and the Senato. For the Camera, the coalition that comes first gets 55% of the seats, even though it got only 30% of the vote… This is to ensure the stability of the majority in that Chamber of the Parliament. In the Senate, however, the majority premium is distributed on a regional basis, so that a coalition can win fewer votes on national level, but still be ahead in the Senate if it wins in the biggest regions, such as Lombardy, Sicily and Campania. This is why, today, the centre-left has a comfortable majority in the Camera, while the centre-right has nearly as many senators as the centre-left. There is no possibility of absolute majority without an alliance with Grillo (ruled out by the comedian) or a big coalition PdL-PD.

All political actors agree that this must change. The question is: how? First, it seems clear that although the objective of stability is laudable, the premium at the Camera shall be reduced, because the distribution of seats does not reflect at all the distribution of the vote. Second, the rules for the Senate must change as well, because it is precisely the situation in the Senate that makes Italy “ungovernable” in the current situation (I will question this assumption below…). Reflecting the weight of the different regions is appropriate in an election for Senate, but distributing the majority premium (only) on a regional basis should be modified. One could imagine that the coalition that gets most votes for Senate at national level could get a premium as well… or the coalition that wins in a majority of regions.

A campaign is never won in advance. The PD and its candidate Pier Luigi Bersani were the centre of attention of the media during the primaries elections within the centre-left which were won by Bersani, a man who belongs to the PD establishment, against Matteo Renzi, the young and dynamic mayor of Florence. Following these primaries, polls were giving the centre-left a very wide lead over the PdL and the Five-Star-Movement (M5S for Movimento 5 Stelle). But this led Bersani to “manage” his advantage rather than running a true campaign. Being rather uncharismatic, he did not go very often on TV, allegedly because he was on Italy’s piazze with the people… But by doing so, he let the media space to Silvio Berlusconi and Mario Monti, and Beppe Grillo attracted many more people in open-door meetings. In addition, the PD was damaged by some scandals, e.g. the troubles of the Italian bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena, whose seat is in the heart of PD’s electoral territory and was not capable of finding credible and audible defences. So, the centre-left result is due to a disappointing campaign. Maybe it is time for the PD to truly renew its leaders and to promote Matteo Renzi!

Berlusconi is a genius of electoral campaigns. On the other side of the political spectrum, Silvio Berlusconi realised a true miracle. Early December, his party was trailing in the polls, reaching barely 12-14% of voting intentions. There were talks of organising primaries like in the centre-left, but no candidate managed to really attract attention and to gain some momentum. This was when Berlusconi was called back by the PdL leaders. He first resurrected the alliance with the Lega Nord (Northern League), the populist Northern regionalist party. Then, he led an incredible campaign in the media, being present in a very high number of TV broadcasts. I underline that this is not only due to the fact that he owns some of these media; Monti was very present in the media as well, according to statistics published a couple of weeks ago! Some strong showings, such as his duel won with the TV presentator Michele Santoro, one of his “enemies”, and some very popular (though not necessarily realistic) promises, such as paying back the hated IMU (a sort of residence tax) to the Italians, helped to curb the tendency and to create a momentum that nearly enabled the centre-right coalition to win once again the elections. Though I did not appreciate the sometimes populist tone of his campaign, in particular in respect of the EU, I cannot help admiring a performance that few, if any political leaders could have realised in less than three months. As for the “populist” character of his ideas, I would like to point out the study of Oxford Economics for the Corriere della Sera, which showed that Berlusconi’s programme was the best for jobs and growth in the coming years… but it was always the one presenting the biggest uncertainties. This table summarises the study.

The voice of responsibility failed to convince. Mario Monti, after some hesitations, decided to lead a coalition of the centre. While he was personally still quite popular despite a year of sacrifices asked to the Italian people, this popularity never converted in voting intentions. Obviously, Italians wanted an alternative and preferred to listen to potentially unrealistic promises. Moreover, some have questioned Monti’s decision to ally himself with Pier Ferdinando Casini and Gianfranco Fini. Indeed, this may have damaged his claim to be a “new political force”, since these two leaders have been in Parliament for more than twenty years… Finally, I regret to have to admit that Monti was much better as Professore, as technocratic PM, than as political campaigner, despite the help of some former members of Obama’s communication team.

Is it a vote against Europe? Enrico Letta (PD) claimed that 55% Italians (Grillo’s and Berlusconi’s results cumulated) had voted against Europe. I do not believe so.

First, Berlusconi is not really anti-European. It is true that he had some strong words against “Brussels” and Germany (but some allies of Bersani also had…), and he did not hesitate to use the EU as a scapegoat for Italy’s problem, which was a very populist attitude, but I do not believe that the PdL is fundamentally anti-European.

As for Grillo, I have some doubts that his voters were primarily motivated by European issues. Grillo is an anti-European populist candidate, but his campaign was first of all about sweeping away the current political parties, affected by multiple scandals (bunga bunga, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena case, or charges of links with the mafia, just to mention a few issues…). So, combined with the rise of abstention mentioned above, Grillo’s vote shows more a weariness, or even a rejection of the established political system, than a vote against Europe.

Finally, what shall come next? Some political leaders have announced that they favour the holding of new elections in a near future, but I believe it would be a big mistake. First, Italy would remain without government during a few more months, and this would have a heavy influence on the markets and on the solving of the crisis in the Eurozone. Second, the electoral law must first be changed, before going back to the polls. Otherwise, there is no reason why people would vote differently. They may even be more disgusted with politics and Grillo’s support may therefore increase even further… Third, an election costs money and time, and Italy has neither.

My favourite solution would be a big coalition between the centre-left, the centre-right and Monti. After all, in Germany, the CDU and the SPD managed to govern during 4 years (2005-2009) without too many troubles! This governissimo could be led by an external actor (I am thinking about Luca Cordero di Montezemolo or Corrado Passera who chose not to run for the centre). Italian politicians of all coalitions have to show responsibility and to ally in order to vote the necessary reforms, instead of watering them down like they did during Monti’s government. For most of them, they would finally show some sense of statesmanship. And if they really want to re-vote, do it in 2015, after passing some vital reforms!

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

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2 thoughts on “Italy’s 2013 parliamentary election: some thoughts about surprising results

  1. Pingback: Habemus Napolitano: towards the end of the political tragedy-comedy in Italy | Europe's Café

  2. Pingback: Ch-ch-ch-CHANGE? | Japan Lover

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