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NIAS Europe Studies
Italy's far-right wins 2022 elections

  Padmashree Anandhan

Italy's intricate electoral reforms, internal differences in the coalition, and distrust at the regional level challenge its political stability.

Italy's far-right wins 2022 elections

What happened? 
On 25 September, the right alliance, left alliance, the Five-Star Movement, the centre, and other traditional autonomist parties contested in Italy’s snap elections. Among the four coalitions, the centre-right alliance headed by Giorgia Meloni from the Brothers of Italy, and others including the League, Forza-Italia, and Nio Moderati parties emerged as the clear winner. It won with a majority of 237 seats out of 400 in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and 115 seats out of 200 in the Senate of the Republic (upper house). The centre-left alliance led by Enrico Letta from the Democratic Party, and including the Green, Più Europa, and Impegno Civico were able to secure only 85 seats in the lower house and 44 seats in the upper house.  

About the parties
Lega Nord 
The Lega Nord came into being in 1989 as an alliance of six regional parties and was officially launched as a party in 1991 with the merger of few regional parties, particularly Lega Lombarda and Liga Veneta. The party’s core values have been “political federalism, and regionalism,” with a “socially conservative” stance. Bringing the northern Italians together in support of federalism has always been the focus of the party. In terms of regional and foreign policy, it has never had a pro-US stance, does not support the EU, takes a hard stand against illegal immigration and Muslim countries, and strongly protects the “Christian identity.” From 2006 to 2022, the party outperformed only in the 2018 elections as part of the centre-right alliance with 183 seats out of 402 total seats won by the alliance in both houses. Since then, the party’s share has been declining after its leader Matteo Salvini came under legal controversy over kidnapping migrants.

Forza Italia
Forza Italia, formed by Silvio Berlusconi in 1993 and formerly known as “The People of Freedom,” emerged from the break-up of the coalition government “Pentapartito” due to a corruption scandal. The coalition included Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberals, Socialists, and republican parties. The members of the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Liberal parties formed the base of Forza Italia with liberal socialism as its core value. It was a bridge to the Catholics and non-Catholics focused on social market and economic welfare as its major policies. Staunchly supporting fiscal federalism and promoting liberal conservatism, the party has been in coalition with Lega Nord since 2001. Between 2006 to 2022, its best electoral performance with 423 seats out of 518 total seats in both houses was in in 2008. This marked the third term of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister after 1994 and 2001.  Since his 2013 tax fraud offence, the party has been on the decline. 

Brothers of Italy
The Brothers of Italy, formed by Georgia Meloni in 2012, includes members from the Italian Social Movement (MSI) who were known for neo-fascist principles. Between 2013 to 2022, the party gained the most with 184 seats out of 352 as part of the far-right alliance in the lower and upper houses in the 2022 elections. The 2013 elections were won by the left alliance led by the Democratic Party, and the far-right alliance coming second. The Brothers of Italy gained their first representation in 2013 with nine seats in the Chamber of Deputies and increased it to 50 seats in the lower and upper houses in the 2018 elections as part of the far-right alliance. With the League and Forza Italia on a decline and the Five-Star Movement failing to gain support to form a coalition the 2022 elections provided the opportune moment for the party, and the Brothers of Italy won the election with a majority.

Olive Tree/Democratic Party
The Democratic Party, formerly known as The Olive Tree, was formed in 1995 as an alliance and later consolidated into a party with the merger of the Democrats of the Left and Italian Democratic Socialists in 2007. Unlike the Lega Nord, the party is based on the principles of social democracy and the Christian left, in support of American liberalism and pro-Europeanism. Its coalition partners have mostly been the Five-Star Movement, the National Unity Government, the Communist Party, the Greens, and the Union Democrats for Europe. Between 2006 to 2022, its electoral performance in the 2013 elections was the best with 408 seats out of 468 total seats in both houses leading the left-alliance to win. Since then it’s electoral performance has been on a steady decline.  Regardless, between 2013 and 2018, the Italian government was led by three successive Democratic Prime Ministers, and it continues to be the strongest opposition against the right alliance.

Five-Star Movement
The Five-Star Movement came into being in 2009. Promoting both left-wing issues and right-wing policies, it was perceived as a “post-ideological movement.” The party has been a supporter of populism, environmentalism, and anti-austerity and has a strong position on anti-immigration and is pro-Russian. It is seen as the most adapted with a varied focus on digital democracy, green economy, adoption, and LGBT issues. The party suffered a break due to a clash between its members and the withdrawal of the League and Democratic Party in 2019 and 2021 which led to the collapse of the coalition triggering a political crisis in Italy. It remains the single party to have won the maximum number of seats among its alliance partners in the lower and upper houses in 2018 elections.

Factors influencing the political backdrop of Italy 
Many factors are responsible for the current political environment in Italy, 
First, continued interventions in the form of electoral reforms and a complex voting system. Since 1993, four electoral reforms have been introduced. The first reform, the Mattarellum, proposed by Sergio Mattarella, a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, changed the parliament’s proportional vote system to a mixed electoral, where 75 per cent of the Members of Parliament (MPs) were to be chosen in single-member constituencies and 25 per cent through proportional representation. This reform was mainly aimed to encourage more coalitions with defined policies to prevent fragmentation and a way of removing small parties and those with extreme positions. The outcome was, however, a decrease in the number of seats of any majority party and an increase in the number of parties joining under different coalitions. It diluted political unity further and challenged the majority party from working on its agenda. 

After the 1993 reform, there were two more attempts in 2005 and 2015 to roll back the effects of the previous reform. In 2005, Roberto Calderoli of Lega Nord introduced the electoral law Porcellum, where the winning coalition was assured a bonus system to get a majority in both houses, where people get to vote for the coalition and not the party. This was considered unconstitutional as it concentrated power to one party. The Italicum 2015 reform, supported by the Democratic Party, Forza Italia, and new centre-right parties aimed at bringing smaller parties under the two large coalitions, and preventing candidates from competing in many constituencies. To do this, a shortlist was introduced to make voters aware of the candidates instead of voting for the coalition. The limitation of this reform proposal was that the smaller parties might not have a voice when they are grouped within larger coalitions. With no majority in the parliament, the reform proposal was rejected. Then came the 2017 reform, Rosatellum, proposed by Ettore Rosato from the Democratic Party which combined majoritarian and proportional voting, to promote the formation of coalitions before elections to enhance smoother governance and prevent the breaking up of coalitions. Under this reform, 62.5 per cent were to be elected through proportional representation and 32.5 per cent through a first-past-the-post basis. Out these, 12 MPs and four senators could be elected by overseas citizens. Under the new system, MPs and senators will have “multiple candidacies,” where they could compete in several constituencies as a single member and as part of the coalition. This arrangement was still considered fragile as the combined voting placed power in the largest coalitions, and yet challenged their unity. 

Second, fragility in coalitions. The electoral reforms were introduced to reduce post-poll complexity and ensure the smoother formation of bigger coalitions. However, every reform only resulted in widening the differences between the coalition partners. With different and aften competing interests to retain power, economic and foreign policies compelled parties to withdraw from the coalition in case of conflict of interest in drafting policies, which led to easy and frequent breaking up of coalitions. The 2022, 2018, and 2013 elections came about due to such differences and withdrawals from ruling coalitions. 

Third, the deterioration of religion-based voting. The left and right-wing supporters existed in Italy’s electoral history but were superseded by catholic followers whose role was significant in deciding the electoral outcome. This was not replaced by the emergence of class. Among the ruling class comprising of entrepreneurs, managers, and freelancers, the Democratic Party has the major share within the wealthy and medium-high economic strata followed by the Brothers of Italy with many voters from the working class or medium-lower economic strata, and the League and Forza Italia. The Five Star Movement has attracted a group of voters who support the Democratic party through its anti-system stance. Although the 2022 election voting groups consisted of a small group of catholic supporters for Meloni, the class-based voting turned out to be the determining factor.

Electoral issues in the 2022 elections
First, keeping Italy first. In terms of energy and dealing with its financial crisis, Italy’s economy is heading towards a contraction, with COVID-19-induced debt, and an energy crisis. So far EUR 66 billion have already been spent to protect its people. Promising to balance this debt by not expanding the deficit and to keep the energy prices in check by using cash to finance aid and renegotiate the EU’s recovery fund to ensure clarity over payback of the borrowing rules are some unique measures that Meloni has laid out during the campaign. In terms of tackling the energy crisis, support for the EU-wide price cap is staunch but Meloni plans to reorganize Italy’s energy sector to prevent burdening its debt. Especially compared with Germany which has nearly spent EUR 200 billion to protect its people and business, Meloni does not wish to grant subsidies and aggravate the deficit. 

Second, fight against immigration. One of the main reasons for the Brothers of Italy to gain a sudden majority in the 2022 elections was due to its anti-immigrant stance. Since the foundation of the party, the chant has been on restricting the flow of immigrants from middle-east and African regions. The call to bring down the asylum seeker count through domestic restrictions such as naval blockades, and the promise to bring stricter norms in migrant entry formed the core message of the campaign. The League which equally holds an anti-immigrant stance added to the Brothers of Italy’s advantage in the elections. Italy experienced the worst immigrant influx from the 2015 and 2016 migrant crises which never got any policy attention from other parties, which became another advantage for Meloni to utilise the gap.

Third, the stance in the Ukraine war. For the Brothers of Italy, their support for Ukraine in the war served as a boon in securing the winning majority. Although the party’s origin stems from neo-fascist ideas, and their coalition partners such as the League hold a pro-Russia stance, the Brothers of Italy has managed to keep away and continued to support Ukraine and sanction Russia. Its contrarian stance from the fascist ideology to support Ukraine, accepting the Ukrainian refugees, and at the same time addressing the energy crisis induced by the Ukraine war showcased it as the one to take Italy in the right direction.

What do the election results mean? 
First, the rise of the right. The rise of the right actualised over one election was not entirely due to their policy agenda but due to the breakdown of other coalitions. One, the quest for power motivated the League, Forza Italia, and the Democratic Party to form big coalitions and create new electoral reforms to remain in power which only complicated the system. Two, foreign and economic policy differences such as austerity measures, tax cuts, immigration policy, pro-Europeanism, and economic equality have been on the rise. In the absence of attempts to negotiate any common agreement, it consolidated fissures in the coalitions, resulting in political chaos and questioning the very foundations of every political party. Three, , the corruption scandals and court trials of prominent leaders from the League and Forza Italia damaged their individual reputations and brought into question the credibility of the oldest parties in Italy. All three developments provided an opportune platform for the Brothers of Italy to mobilise the right-wing parties together and lead the alliance to victory.

Second, shift in class-based voting. The voting groups can be split three ways. One, progressive-radicals, social democrats, and social Christians as identitarians; two, moderate conservatives; and three, authoritarians. With identity-based and religion-based voting in vogue since the end of the cold war, class-based voting has become the new norm in Italy. With the Democratic Party sustaining through votes largely from the social-culture groups from the highly-educated category, there has been a slight shift in the votes from the group into Brothers of Italy due to the Democratic Party’s resistance to adopting radical reforms. In the case of the conservatives, authoritarians, and working class, a bulk of the lower class and youth are aligned with the Five-Star Movement, leaving the majority of the middle-aged group and working-class vote shift to the Brothers of Italy who earlier supported the League and Forza Italia. 

Third, a threat to the immigrant community in Italy. With a strong anti-immigrant government in place, the measures against asylum seekers and migrants, especially Muslim migrants, are likely to be harsh, which can lead to their deportation back to their countries. These populist measures will lead to human rights violations and harsh treatment of immigrants. 

Fourth, short-term stability in Italy’s political landscape. With the Brothers of Italy taking the lead in the elections and heading the best coalition so far, there are lesser chances for a breakup of the coalition, thereby signalling political stability. Despite internal differences between Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi, the vote difference leaves no option for the latter two leaders but to be part of the coalition. Unlike previous coalitions where there were differences in basic ideology and major policies on the economy and foreign policy front, the current coalition is deemed the least diverse compared to the last five governments. The only uncertain factor would be if either of the right-alliance party withdraws their support, which may pressure Meloni to seek support from the centre alliance or other smaller parties.

Fifth, troubled EU equation. Comparing internal and regional policies, Georgia Meloni seems to be tactical in siding with the EU for Ukraine, in sanctioning Russia and implementing the energy price cap, which is opposed by the League. While the differences over the energy crisis, debt, Russia, and neo-fascist ideology exist within the coalition, it unites over COVID-19 restrictions, human rights, and LGBT rights. For Meloni, the aim has always been to maintain the balance within the coalition to avoid political mishaps and also ensure a smooth relationship with the EU which would serve to benefit Italy’s economy. However, under any future scenario which calls for prioritizing Italy or the EU, Italy’s domestic prosperity will always supersede regional cooperation for the far-right group. Therefore, the upcoming government can be expected to lean towards Italy-centric policies than Euro-centric. 

Padmashree Anandhan, is a Project Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.

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