Compared to 2013, the 2018 election campaign began in a quieter and calmer economic and social context, since the Italian political and economic crisis was less pronounced. In the campaign itself, no event or topic dominated the discussion. Parties mainly competed on economic measures that resonate well with voters (such as introducing a flat tax and a basic income). However, one dramatic event unfolded soon after the start of the campaign: on February 3, an extremist linked to the extreme right shot at immigrants in the town of Macerata. This racist attack, and the clashes between left- and right-wing extremists which followed, drew the political and media attention of the campaign to immigration and security issues.
The campaign focus on these issues could have played a crucial role in the success of the right-wing populist parties, and especially of Lega. While in the 2013 elections, Lega obtained 4.08 per cent of the vote, in 2018 it became the biggest party of the centre-right coalition, wining a vote share of 17.37 per cent. To a lesser extent, Fratelli d’Italia also obtained a good result, expanding its vote share from 1.95 per cent in 2013 to 4.35 per cent in 2018.
In addition to Lega, the other big winner of the 2018 elections is M5S – it became the biggest party, with its support increasing from 25.55 per cent in 2013 to 32.66 per cent in 2018. More than one third of Italian voters –especially those in the country’s south – opted for the populist party. Generally, the 2018 elections resulted in an upheaval of populist and anti-European forces.
Contrary to populist political forces, the left coalition experienced significant vote losses, with Partito Democratico (PD) losing more than two million votes. While in 2013 PD obtained 25.42 per cent of the vote, in 2018 it only won 18.72 per cent. The implications of this result is very serious, considering that in the first elections under the leadership of Renzi (the 2014 European Parliament Elections), PD obtained 40 per cent of the vote. Voters abandoning PD did not vote for other left wing parties: neither smaller parties of the centre-left coalition, nor the radical left Potere al Popolo managed to win parliamentary seats, while Liberi e Uguali obtained only 3.38 per cent of the popular vote. Acknowledging defeat, Renzi resigned from the position of party leader, though his decision will only come in force after the formation of the new government. Forza Italia (FI) also suffered losses in the 2018 elections - the party’s vote-share declined from 21.56 per cent to 14.01 per cent. As a result, Berlusconi lost the leadership of the right-wing coalition in favour of Lega leader Matteo Salvini. The electoral decline of FI was compensated by Lega’s good showing, which allowed the centre-right coalition to obtain the largest vote-share - 37 per cent of the vote.
Given these results, and the fact that no coalition obtained the number of seats necessary to gain a Parliamentary majority, it remains unclear which parties will take part in the next government. Both the centre-right coalition and M5S claim to have won the elections, with both Salvini and Di Maio declaring that they are ready to form political alliances based on the respect for their parties’ manifestos. The following three scenarios are possible: an alliance between M5S and PD; an alliance between centre-right coalition and PD, an alliance between M5S and Lega. All three options appear too difficult to materialise, given the ideological distance between PD and the two populist parties, especially on crucial issues such as immigration and European integration.
In a nutshell, the 2018 election results produced the image of a divided Italy, unified only by populism.
Partito Democratico (PD) entered the 2018 election campaign weakened by the popular rejection of the Constitutional Reform, proposed by party leader Matteo Renzi in a December 2016 Referendum. The party was also damaged by a split that took place in February 2017, when Pierluigi Bersani and his followers left the party. Although, PD enjoyed rising levels of popular support, reaching an electoral peak in the 2014 European Elections, when the party obtained more than 40 per cent of the popular vote, but this proved to be a short-lived development. The PD’s constitutive objective of creating the perspectives for a left-wing majority from the merger of Democratici di Sinistra (Left Democrats) and Margherita (the Daisy - left-wing Christian Democrats) seemed definitively lost.
While under previous leaderships PD didn't develop a homogeneous profile, with persistent ideological divisions between Democratici di Sinistra and Margherita, Renzi’s leadership (which started in December 2013, and was renewed in April 2017) strongly redefined Democratic Party’s profile, imposing a new line in terms of both issue positioning and party composition. First, Renzi confronted the previous PD ruling elite, with a reform aimed at the generational renovation of the party. This move resulted in a polarisation between the majority faction supporting Renzi, and the minority opposed to the reform, pushing a number of politicians to leave the party. Secondly, for the 2018 Elections, Renzi put forward only candidates who had fully supported his agenda in the past, excluding adversaries from PD’s electoral lists. Moreover, Renzi modified the party’s ideological positioning, traditionally anchored to the cultural and political traditions of the left, by adopting centre-right economic policies such as tax reduction and labour market flexibility. The economic reforms undertaken by the coalition government led by Renzi from February 2014 to December 2016 are an example of this tendency.
During the electoral campaign the accomplishments of the PD-led Coalition Governments (2013-2018) were continuously underlined, with the necessity to maintain the liberal economic reforms undertaken by Renzi Government reaffirmed. Nevertheless, a number of culturally progressive issues – such as the defence of immigrants’ and homosexuals’ rights – also found a place in PD’s 2018 manifesto. Additionally, economic policies, such as the promotion of improved working conditions for all workers, and offering economic support to families, were also a part in the 2018 PD Campaign. Moreover, PD’s manifesto also proposed the introduction of a basic income for all Italian citizens living under the poverty threshold, as an answer to Movimento 5 Stelle’s popular proposal to introduce a ‘citizenship wage’ for all Italians. Finally, with regard to European Union policy, in spite of Renzi’s sharp criticism of European governance mechanisms while heading the government, the 2018 PD Manifesto confirmed the party’s support for further European integration, ultimately aimed at the formation of the ‘United States of Europe’.
Although Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), which refuses to label itself as a ‘party’, rook part in a national election for the first time in 2013, it approached the campaign as an experienced political project five years later. The change of party leadership reflected this development: before the elections, comedian Beppe Grillo stepped down, and the campaign was led by Luigi Di Maio - Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies. While M5S chose to remain in opposition during the entire 17th legislature, even though it emerged as the largest party in 2013, it voiced its readiness for government participation by closing the 2018 electoral campaign with presenting a government team comprised of field experts.
M5S’s transformation did not only involve changes in its leadership and structure, but also in its ideological positioning. M5S’s 2013 manifesto focused on typical left-wing-progressive policies, such as environmental protection, anti-growth economy, and the promotion of political participation through culture and new technologies. In 2018, in spite of declaring its ideological position to be ‘beyond left and right’, the party manifesto showed pronounced references to more conservative policies. For instance, M5S expressed anti-immigration stances, by proposing stricter rules to illegal immigration and the development of repatriation agreements.
In the economic realm, M5S proposed reducing taxes for Italian companies. Nevertheless, M5S maintained its key leftist electoral proposal from 2013 - the introduction of basic income for all Italian citizens. With regard to M5S’s stances on the European Union, the sharp rhetoric against EU institutions and the proposal of organising a referendum on leaving the Eurozone, underlying the party’s 2013 platform, were abandoned and replaced by the demand of more flexibility in the European fiscal parameters.
In 2018, at the age of 81 and despite the ban on running for public office, Silvio Berlusconi came back to the Italian political scene as the leader of the new Forza Italia. Berlusconi’s previous parties - Forza Italia (1994-2008) and Popolo Della Libertà (PDL) (2008-2013) - had been among Italy’s most electorally successful political formations. Berlusconi led Italian right wing coalition governments from 2001 to 2006 and from 2008 to 2011. In 2011, the shock caused by the economic crisis and the intervention of the European Commission led Berlusconi to resign. This contributed to the party’s poor showing in the 2013 Elections, when PDL became the third largest party, trailing behind Movimento 5 Stelle and Partito Democratico. While, at that point, Berlusconi’s political career seemed to be coming to an end, the 2018 campaign demonstrated the opposite.
FI is a centre-right party with a neoliberal economic approach. The key policy proposal of Forza Italia’s 2018 campaign was the introduction of a flat tax, as well as the abolition of taxes on houses and inheritances. With regard to the European Union, FI proposes flexibility in terms of the Eurozone economic and fiscal parameters which, in their view, would facilitate Italy’s economic recovery. The central topics of the 2018 campaign - immigration and security - were also mentioned in FI’s manifesto. Their stances on the matter resonated well with the right-wing coalition in which FI takes part - Berlusconi’s party aspires to reduce immigration flows towards Italy.
It is also opposed to the extension of citizenship rights to the children of immigrants, proposes a greater presence of armed forces in the Italian streets, and is in favour of armed self-defence. Nevertheless, the party usually addresses these topics with a calmer tone than its far-right allies Lega and Fratelli D’Italia.
Lega took part in the 2018 Elections deeply renewed, having completed its evolution from a regional to a national party, as also evidenced by the removal of the adjective ‘nord’ (northern) from its name. In the past Lega Nord had been one of the most successful European regionalist parties since it managed to participate in national governments. Lega Nord served national right-wing coalition governments led by Silvio Berlusconi from 2001 to 2006, and from 2008 to 2011. After the resignation of Berlusconi in 2011, the party did not support the technocratic government led by Mario Monti and moved to the opposition, where it remained after 2013 elections, when it obtained 4.8 per cent of the popular vote.
In 2012, a series of scandals led to the replacement of Lega Nord founder - Umberto Bossi, as party leader. The first to assume the post was Roberto Maroni, followed shortly after by Matteo Salvini, who is leading the party since 2013. In the past five years Salvini redefined the ideological positioning of Lega by supporting views closer to those of populist radical right parties on issues such as nationalism (instead of regionalism), anti-Europeanism and immigration. Lega’s 2018 manifesto reflected the new approach of Salvini, who proposed severe measures against illegal immigration, the deportation of immigrants who have committed a crime, and for the introduction of limits to the number of residency permits given to immigrant workers under the slogan “Italian workers first”. Lega also proposed the cancellation of the “Fornero reform” on pensions, and the introduction of a flat tax. All these issues were often the focus of Salvini during the 2018 campaign. Less attention was given to Lega’s position on the European Union: the party manifesto was clearly against European integration, given the proposed request to review European Treaties signed after Maastricht Treaty in order to regain full national sovereignty over the economy.
PD’s split resulted in the inception of multiple new party formations, with three of them – Articolo1-MDP, Possibile and Sinistra Italiana – deciding to merge and establish the electoral list Liberi e Uguali (LeU), guided by former President of the Senate and PD member, Pietro Grasso. This list’s aim was to reaffirm the values of the left by offering a leftist alternative to PD. For this reason LeU didn’t join the left-wing coalition in the 2018 Elections and presented itself in opposition to PD and the pro-market reforms undertaken by Renzi’s government.
LeU’s manifesto clearly reflected the left-wing ideology of the parties forming the list. Protection of worker’s rights, the creation of jobs through public investments and introducing a „fair taxation“ policy, coupled with combating tax evasion, as means of guaranteeing resources for public services, were among the primary policies the party put forward. LeU considers that the public sector has to be revitalised by further investments, especially in health care. LeU also focused on sexual and reproductive health, demanding a solution to the problem with doctors that refuse to practice abortion. Finally, the request for equal rights for all the citizens was the leitmotiv of LeU campaign: the party manifesto offers policies promoting the rights of immigrants, women, LGBT individuals and same-sex couples and families.
Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) is a right-wing populist party created in 2012 by Giorgia Meloni (former leader of Giovane Italia - the youth-wing of Forza Italia) and members of Alleanza Nazionale - the successor of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movememt (MSI), which took part in the coalition Governments led by Silvio Berlusconi in 2001-2006, and 2006-2008. Initially FdI was led by Giorgia Meloni and two other leaders. This continued until 2014, when Giorgia Meloni became the sole party leader. FdI participated in the 2013 elections as a party of the centre-right coalition, obtaining 1.95 per cent of the votes and having nine MPs elected (these remained in opposition). In 2018, FdI joined the centre-right electoral coalition one more.
The 2018 FdI Manifesto promotes right-wing policies, with particular relevance attributed to anti-immigration measures, internal security and anti-European Union propositions. While the pary’s propositions are in line with those of other coalition members, the populist and nationalist rhetoric used by FdI is peculiar. FdI proposed to stop immigration by reintroducing naval blocks and strengthening immediate repatriation measures. The party also rallies for the defence of Italian culture against a perceived Islamisation. In addition, the party proposes measures aimed at safeguarding ‘traditional’ Italian families by introducing series of financial aids as means of improving birth rates in Italy. With regard to security, the party underlines the importance of the armed forces, and promises better wages and equipment for law enforcement functionaries. FdI is also favourable to citizens’ right of armed self-defence. The national populist stances of Fratelli d’Italia explain the party’s views towards the European Union. In the name of defending national sovereignty, FdI asked for a revision of the Eurozone rules and for introducing a ‘supremacy clause’, which would make national legislation more powerful than legislation at the European level.
Noi con l’Italia (NCI) is an electoral list formed in 2018, unifying the Italian catholic, centrist and moderate right political formations, such as Direzione Italia, Alternativa Popolare and UdC. These forces had usually enjoyed a limited but persistent electoral success. During the previous legislature, the parties comprising NCI supported the Coalition governments led by Partito Democratico. In 2018, NCI joined the centre-right coalition becoming its centrist component. NCI accepted the main propositions of the coalition, such as tax reduction, immigration control and internal security, but developed them with more moderate tones than the other coalition members.
NCI’s 2018 Manifesto clearly shows that the party’s main interest is Italian economic development. The first two points of the manifesto propose tax- reduction and neoliberal economic policies. NCI is in favour of Forza Italia’s proposal of introducing a Flat Tax, and proposes a smaller but more efficient role of the State in the economy. NCI is also in favour of relaxing the Eurozone rules, as means of lifting some austerity measures which party sees as a detriment to Italy’s economic growth. With regard to non-economic issues, NCI proposed stricter rules for preventing illegal immigration and investments in internal security. The party also acknowledges “the fundamental role of family in the Italian society” and proposes a series of measures aimed at supporting families. In addition, NCI promotes structural reforms, such as the valorisation of territorial autonomies, and the introduction of direct presidential elections.
Emma Bonino, the popular leader of the Italian Partito Radicale decided to run for office in the 2018 National Election with an unconventional party named Più Europa (+Europa), which literally means ‘More Europe’. While Emma Bonino is one of Italy’s best-known and appreciated female politicians, thanks to her civil rights achievements (e.g. regarding abortion), her Radical Party have traditionally received about 2 per cent of the vote in elections. Although the party never joined a coalition government, Bonino served as Italy’s Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Enrico Letta (2013-2014).
Proposals for deepening European integration are the distinctive characteristic of +Europa. In its manifesto the party proposes the creation of the ‘United State of Europe’ arguing that at least adopting common European Foreign and Security policies is necessary. Moreover, +Europa favours the Eurozone financial rules ,as well as the Single European Market and Schengen treaty, placing itself in open opposition to anti-European Italian parties. Nevertheless, Bonino did not abandon the policies that she supported with Partito Radicale: +Europa’s manifesto promotes medically-assisted reproduction, favours drug legalisation and asks for a parliamentary discussion of the euthanasia law. +Europa also underlined the necessity of guaranteeing equal rights to traditional and same-sex families. The party is also asking for respecting immigrant rights, and supports the introduction of citizenship for second generation immigrants. Regarding economic policies, +Europa supports economic development concerned with equality and sustainability. For this reason, the party proposed the reduction of the Italian public debt which is a burden on younger generations, and paid specific attention to education, workers’ training, and environmental protection.
Cristina Cremonesi - Post Doc Researcher, Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin
André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV
Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV
Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung