With just days until voters go to the polls, Italy looks poised for a tight general election race. Two major coalitions are set to compete: the centre-right coalition comprised of Silvio Berlusconi’s traditional rightwing Forza Italia (EPP) and Matteo Salvini’s populist Lega (the recently rebranded Northern League), along with two smaller parties, will go up against the centre-left coalition made up of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) and three minor parties, including More Europe – a liberal, Europhile coalition led by former European commissioner and minister, Emma Bonino.
The anti-establishment, populist Five Star Movement, formerly led by Beppe Grillo, however, has not entered an alliance with any other groups. Meanwhile, fighting to the left of the PD is Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal), an alliance brought together by a faction that broke away from Renzi’s party last spring.
This close contest is to be fought on an as yet untested battleground, as a new electoral system will be tried for the first time on 4 March. Under a new hybrid voting system approved in October, 63% of seats will be elected through proportional representation (PR), with the remaining seats decided in first past the post (FPTP) districts. The coalitions will be critical as, in these winner-takes-all districts, votes will be automatically transferred between parties of the same coalition.
The nascent electoral system has made this election particularly hard to predict. Opinion polls expect the centre-right coalition to receive the highest number of votes and the Five Star Movement, given its lack of alliances, is likely to be the highest-polling individual party. Even under an established electoral system, pollsters have often failed to accurately predict election results in the past (the 2013 general election and the 2014 European election being notable examples), and with such a high proportion of undecided voters, there is still everything to play for as the campaign enters its final phase.
However, if the polls prove right, no party or coalition will gain a majority of seats in parliament. And in such a polarised political environment, forming a coalition in a hung parliament may not be an easy task.
Adding to this difficulty, the only group that seems in with a chance of reaching a majority, the centre-right coalition, is highly polarised within itself. Berlusconi is cast in the role of traditional, moderate conservative while Salvini models himself on Trump, with nationalist, protectionist stances such as advocating the introduction of tariffs and an exit from the euro.
The PD, meanwhile, has been on a steady decline in the polls. The party does not seem to have benefitted either from signs that Italy’s economic recovery has gained momentum over the last year, or from the reputation of the party’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, who is currently the most popular political leader in the country.
The party is struggling for several reasons. First, as with any incumbent, the PD is at the disadvantage of being identified with the establishment and, therefore, needs to defend its record in office. All other parties have been able to approach the campaign from the position of opposition – despite the fact several have supported the government on occassion.
Some of the PD’s difficulties can also be attributed to their leader’s low approval rating. Following the constitutional referendum called by Renzi in December 2016, and his subsequent resignation as prime minister, the PD leader has continued to lose support from voters. Renzi was advised not to centre the party’s campaign around himself personally, particularly in light of the popularity of several PD ministers. However, despite repeatedly stressing the party is running ‘as a team’, the PD’s ratings have languished around 25%.
On top of the hard task of beating their rival parties, the PD faces factionalism within. The composition of the lists for the PR seats and the candidates for the FPTP districts are characterised by the sharp contrasts between factions within the party. The ability to form a government will largely depend on results in the unpredictable FPTP districts. Here, the selection of one candidate over another could have a big impact on the PD’s chances, and a minority within the party has criticised the centralisation of this process, pointing to the over-representation of candidates loyal to Renzi as a risk to pluralism in the party.
Despite divisions, for now, dissenters within the party have decided to put controversies aside and focus on the campaign. However, should the PD disappoint in the polls, these disputes will resurface and Renzi’s leadership could be under attack once more.