ROME – A Sunday parliamentary election will determine who governs next in Italy. But it might take weeks before a coalition government is actually in place to run the major industrial economy and key NATO member.
Opinion polls indicate that voters might elect the first far-right premier of the post-World War II era — and the first woman to lead an Italian government — in the person of Giorgia Meloni.
Given Italy’s fractured political spectrum, no single party stands much chance of winning enough seats to govern alone. Right-wing and right-leaning centrists forged a campaign pact that could propel Meloni into power. The rival center-left bloc failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists or centrists, which could leave it at a big disadvantage.
WHY HAVE ELECTIONS NOW?
Elections were due in spring 2023, when Parliament's five-year term was supposed to end. But populist leaders saw their parties' support steadily slipping both in opinion polls and in various mayoral and gubernatorial races since the last national election in 2018.
In July, 5-Star Movement head Giuseppe Conte, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi yanked their support for Premier Mario Draghi during a confidence vote. That triggered the premature demise of the wide-ranging coalition government and paved the way for early elections.
Meloni's meteoric rise in opinion polls made the trio of populist leaders nervous about waiting until spring to face voters. Her far-right Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, won just over 4% in the 2018 election. Polls tab the party as possibly taking as much as 25% on Sunday. Salvini and Berlusconi are now in an electoral alliance with Meloni.
Many lawmakers won’t be reelected — regardless of their legislative record — simply due to math. Since the last election, a reform has been passed aimed at streamlining Parliament and make its operation less costly to taxpayers. In the upper chamber, the number of senators drops from 315 to 200, while the lower Chamber of Deputies will number 400 instead of 630.
Just about everyone agrees Italy's electoral law is complicated, including lawmakers who created it. Of the total seats, 36% are determined by a first-past-the post system — whoever gets the most votes for a particular district wins. The remaining 64% of the seats get divvied up proportionally, based on candidate lists determined by parties and their alliances.
Lawmakers have likened the proportional part of the electoral system to a game of pinball, particularly in the Chamber of Deputies. Under the “pinball effect,” a candidate who, say, came in first in a specific district could see another candidate who finished second elsewhere suddenly shifted to her or his district, knocking the first-place candidate out of a seat.
Confused? So are many voters. Except for in the first-past-the-post contests, many Italians are essentially voting for alliances and parties, not candidates, and don't have a direct say in determining their specific representative in the legislature.
WHEN DOES ITALY GET A NEW GOVERNMENT?
All over Europe, governments are grappling with an energy and cost-of-living crisis — mostly triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — that looks set to spiral this winter. But for the next few weeks Mario Draghi’s caretaker government will likely be doing the grappling for Italy.
President Sergio Mattarella, as head of state, will hold consultations of party leaders to figure out which political forces are willing to team up in a coalition. Then Mattarella will ask someone — if opinion polls prove right, likely Meloni — to try to assemble a government with a solid majority in Parliament.
Whoever gets tapped reports back to the president with a proposed Cabinet list, if a coalition is cobbled together. In 2018, Mattarella nixed the selection for economy minister because the proposed appointee had questioned Italy's continued participation in the group of countries that use Europe’s common currency, the euro.
Sentiment got so tense that the leader of the 5-Star Movement, who was trying to form the coalition, demanded Mattarella's impeachment. Bickering between the 5-Stars and the right-wing League, the proposed coalition's junior partner, dragged on, and it took three months before that government was sworn in.
A MATTER OF CONFIDENCE
All new governments must win a mandatory confidence vote in Parliament. The new legislature must hold its first session within 21 days of the election. Thus the incoming Parliament should be in place by mid-October. After it decides its chambers' presidents, the confidence vote can take place.
HOW LONG DO ITALIAN GOVERMENTS LAST?
In theory, for the full term of Parliament. But post-war governments have generally run out of staying power long before that.
To cite the latest example: since the 2018 election, Italians have had three governments. Two were headed by 5-Star leader Giuseppe Conte, who first teamed up with League leader Matteo Salvini, In Conte II, the Democratic Party of Enrico Letta replaced the League as junior partner.
When Conte's second government fell in early 2021, Mattarella tapped Draghi to lead a pandemic unity government. That coalition's unity unraveled, victim to rival agendas among its major partners: the 5-Stars, the Democrats, the League, and Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
The only main leader who refused to join any coalition government in the outgoing legislature was Giorgia Meloni. Pollsters say voters could reward her for consistency, in staying stalwartly in the opposition.