Election in Italy: The clock is ticking inexorably
The countdown is on: On September 25, some 46.6 million Italians are called to the polls. The parties barely had time to prepare for the early elections. The short, two-month election campaign has so far focused on the issues of inflation, rising living and energy costs, the Ukraine war and migration. Italy's right-wing bloc, led by the far-right Fratelli d'Italia in coalition with the Lega and Forza Italia, has good prospects of winning an absolute majority in both chambers. The current unity of the right-wing camp plays a key role in their status as favorites in the election: The Italian electoral system rewards large alliances because part of them is elected according to proportional representation via party lists, but more than a third of the deputies are elected according to the first-past-the-post system. In any case, the turnout of around 65 percent is likely to go down in history as the lowest ever in parliamentary elections since the founding of the Republic.
Giorga Meloni could become Italy's first woman prime minister. She is the charismatic leader of the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy). Meloni has succeeded in making her far-right party respectable and the strongest force in the country. In the last elections in 2018, the party, founded in 2012, came in at just 4%; now it is between 24% and 26% in the polls - and the trend is still upward. Meloni does not appear as blustering as a Salvini but acts rhetorically skillful and authoritative. She is considered Berlusconi's political daughter and made headlines as the youngest minister ever in his government in 2008. In her youth, she was a member of a neo-fascist youth organization; today she agitates against Muslim immigrants and abortion rights and admires Hungary's Viktor Orbán. Promoting the "traditional Italian family" and restricting LGBTIQ+ rights are in line with her planned "God, family, fatherland" policy. Otherwise, the election program includes tax cuts, pension increases, direct elections for Italian president, and the abolition of the controversial "citizen's wage" to fight poverty, the 5-Star Movement's prestige project. From the beginning of the Ukraine war, Meloni has been betting on the transatlantic alliance. In terms of EU policy, she wants to renegotiate the EU economic stimulus program and reform the EU Stability Pact. She is president of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) party, which also includes the Spanish Vox party and the Sweden Democrats. Although she is not currently calling for Italy to leave the EU, she wants to assume a "new role for Italy" in the EU. What that means exactly, however, remains vague.
Matteo Salvini's right-wing populist Lega pursues similar goals in its election program and, with its demands for a restrictive migration policy and a reduction in EU influence, is a natural partner for Meloni. This summer, largely unnoticed by the international media, the island of Lampedusa is once again registering record numbers of arriving migrants - a found meal for the Lega leader to abuse the situation for election campaign purposes and to propagate his hardline policy of closed ports. As a former governing party, the Lega is now only a junior partner and currently stands at 11 percent.
Meloni's party has no government experience whatsoever - the situation is quite different for the third party in the alliance: The aging but politically unstoppable Silvio Berlusconi holds the record as Italy's longest-serving head of government. Despite being convicted of tax fraud and former "bunga bunga" scandals, the 85-year-old "cavaliere" and his conservative Forza Italia party are once again involved in these elections - even if, at around 7 percent according to the polls, they are not nearly as successful as they once were.
The center-left bloc is not as united as the right. The predicted 29 percent is not enough to oppose the overwhelming power of the right-wing parties with an electoral alliance of Social Democrats, Greens, Leftists and Liberals - especially since this broke up after only a few days because the pro-European, liberal party Azione withdrew. Azione's leader, Carlo Calenda, justified the move by saying that his party's credibility for centrist voters was being undermined by the alliance of the social-democratic Partito Democratico (PD) with small left-wing parties and the Greens.
The PD, under the somewhat colorless party leader Enrico Letta, is scoring between 21 and 22 percent in the polls. In its election program, the PD wants to expand renewable energies, support low- and middle-income families, push through wage increases for various occupational groups and introduce a minimum wage of 9 euros. It also aims to make it easier for children of immigrants to enter the labor market and naturalize, toughen penalties for violence or discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
The left-wing populist Movimento 5 Stelle (5-Star Movement), led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, is in a downward spiral compared to the last elections: If the M5S came in at 32 percent in the 2018 elections, it is now between 10 and 14 percent. In social policy, the election program is very similar to that of the PD. Under Conte, the party has moved even further to the left; in European policy, the 5 stars are seeking common EU debts and a change in the Stability Pact. Former U.S. President Donald Trump has issued an election recommendation for his friend "Giuseppi," as he affectionately called Italy's then Prime Minister Conte, who was still without a party. This earned Conte a lot of ridicule and is likely to be rather off-putting for many voters.
In the face of populism from the left and right in Italy, the center of the political spectrum is currently enjoying popularity with the liberal, pro-European alliance led by top candidates Carlo Calenda of Azione and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italia Viva. The liberal alliance is committed to a united Europe, the rule of law, sustainable economic growth and fair-trade relations, as well as opposing populism, further debt and the waste of public money. The resources of the EU's reconstruction fund are to be used for the urgently needed structural change of the economy, society and administration. Both allies were part of and great supporters of the Draghi government. They want to build on the modernization course they have embarked on. With Mariastella Gelmini and Mara Carfagna, two ministers from Forza Italia switched to the liberal alliance out of anger over the party's role in the collapse of the Draghi government. How sustainable the alliance can be and whether it can occupy a place in the political center of the volatile Italian party landscape will also depend on whether it succeeds in the long term in settling the chronic internal party and alliance differences and replacing questions of personality with questions of substance. The "Terzo Polo" (third pole) is hoping for a result of around 10 percent in the elections to tip the scales and prevent a Meloni government after all. Perhaps the government with Meloni as the Atlanticist and her right-wing allies as the "Putiniani," as Putin supporters are called in Italy, will not find a common line and thus a quick end of its own accord. This assumption is not unfounded; after the election is before the election, especially in Italy: 67 governments in 76 years and an average term of office of just over one year. Otherwise, an indicator of chronic instability in the country, in this case it is a glimmer of hope.
Rahel Zibner, Project Manager for Spain, Italy and Portugal at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Madrid