Italy, one year away from the general elections and no coalition is certain

Matteo Salvini

On 4 March 2018, the last general elections were held in neighbouring Italy and, despite the fact that there is less than a year to go until the next one (all on the basis that the current legislature will run out), practically nothing is known yet about how the parties will present themselves. The issue is not an easy one: almost half of the current parliamentarians will not be able to revalidate their seats, since after the "referendum" in September 2020, there will be only 400 representatives in the lower house where there were 630 before, and 200 in the upper house where historically there have been 315.

The only thing that seems clear is that the centre-right is going to win over the centre-left, as, since September 2018, it has been ahead of them, in poll after poll, by more than ten points, and the trend is not changing. Of course, the battle between Salvini and Meloni is more open than ever: which of the two will get the most votes? As of today, and polls in hand, it would be Meloni, but there is still a year left in which many things can happen. It is enough, for example, for the war in Ukraine to substantially worsen the transalpine macroeconomic situation for Salvini to begin to regain lost ground, whipping up his characteristic populism, demagogy and ultra-nationalism.

On the centre-left, things are even worse. It is true that the Democratic Party (PD) is doing better than ever in terms of voting intentions compared to five years ago, but it is still without a leader (its current secretary general is interim, and a "regent", as he is known there, is not usually a front-runner), it is not holding primaries and there are many open fronts. One of them is whether or not to make a joint candidacy with the bleeding Five Star Movement, which is only going down in the polls: even its brand new leader, the former Prime Minister Pugliese or "avvocato del poppolo", is only deflating, because he hardly appears in the media; having had to give up the Presidency of the Council of Ministers has made him lose a lot of visibility; and a university professor (which is what he is, after all), does not usually have much electoral pull (just ask Mario Monti in the 2013 elections).

At the same time, the Democratic Party has a major problem with the female sector of its party, which is very angry with the party leadership for having decided that the three ministers who joined the Draghi government at the time would be men, leaving the deputy ministers and under-secretaries to women MPs. Many of them would only need to be left off the top of the electoral lists for the naturally unstable Democratic Party (seven general secretaries between interim and primary winners in less than fifteen years of the party's existence, and one of them, Matteo Renzi, served in two different mandates) for there to be a full-fledged rebellion. And even less to leave their post to people from the Five Star Movement, who during the 2013-18 legislature attacked them mercilessly, something that not a few people still remember.

Finally, it is necessary to talk about the coalition currently known as "centrist, pro-European and reformist". The amalgam of possible parties is simply colossal: Italia Viva, Cambiamento, Azione, Piu Europa, etc. At this stage, it seems that there should be only one coalition (remember that a minimum of 10% of the vote is needed to enter parliament), given that the vast majority of support will be divided between the centre-left and centre-right, and that the 4-5% that the South Tyrolean People's Party, also known as the "Autonomy Group", usually garners is also to be reckoned with. Not to mention that an expelled Five Star candidate, Paragone, has already launched his party; that he hopes to count on the support of his close friend and former parliamentary spokesman Alessandro di Battista; and that many of the current members of the Mixed Group in both Houses will try to get on the lists of something that would be like a "New Five Star" or something similar.

There will be a key moment for all this: the elections that are due to take place in the Sicilian region in October this year. This island has traditionally been considered a real "test laboratory" for what will happen at the national level, and this was certainly the case in 2017-18: the centre-right won, the Five Star Movement achieved a very significant level of support and the Democratic Party, on the other hand, lost the island's government. Just what happened five months later at the national level: the centre-right won the most votes, although individually the party with the highest number of votes was the Five Star Movement, and Matteo Renzi's PD collapsed to unsuspected limits, achieving a level of support far below that obtained by Pierluigi Bersani in the 2013 elections.

And it is precisely this issue, that of forging coalitions for the 2023 elections, to which all the parties must dedicate themselves, since the government is being led by the "iron fist" Mario Draghi (the rest of the ministers hardly appear except for very, very specific matters) and therefore the only way to do politics at the moment is to draw up an attractive political programme and to choose the heads of the lists in all the constituencies. All this without ruling out the possibility of an early election: the parties are increasingly divided over the war in Ukraine and Draghi's tough stance as a way of weakening (or even toppling) the Russian president (Vladimir Putin) as soon as possible, and precisely for this reason this "maggioranza" (with the exception of Meloni's party, as already mentioned) could break up at any moment, although Mattarella, the head of state, will surely urge them, before signing the call for elections, to approve the General State Budget Law (PGE) for the year 2023, which would give the current government a few more months of life. 

The only thing that is clear, barring a monumental surprise, is that there will be no new electoral law, among other things because the current one (known as "Rosattellum bis") is fully constitutional and because the last thing a government like the current one is concerned about is drafting a new electoral law. From there, one knows the rule or "sbarramento" (threshold for parliamentary representation) that it established when it was approved (October 2017): 3% for individual parties and 10% for those running in coalitions. Coalitions that no one sees at the moment but that it was clear when Mattarella was asked to run for a second presidential term would require a lot of time, and they are working on it. 

From that point on, it is time to wait, although no particular surprises are expected. And surely, as has happened in recent years (with the exception of 2006-08), despite so many changes of government, the President of the Republic will achieve what is an unwritten but real mandate in his role as the first authority of the State: that he will not go to elections before the end of the five years established by the current Constitution. We shall see if this is the case again in the current constitution.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor of International Relations at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana (1946-2021)' (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021).