Italian Elections 101: Why You Should Care

Written by: Nick O’Connell

Italians head to the polls on March 4. They will be voting for a new Parliament: 630 congressmen and 315 senators. Why is this election important? What at first glance might seem to be just another general election will likely have a significant impact on the future of the European Union and serves as a reminder that neo-fascism is on the rise in Italy once again.

Why should we care?

Italy has the third largest economy within the EU but is one of its most economically unstable countries, carrying a staggering public debt of 132.0% of GDP. This election cycle will determine Italy’s 65th government since the proclamation of the Italian Republic less than eighty years ago and has recently become toxic due to the rise of populist parties and neo-fascists movements that are now projected to win approximately 50% of the vote.

What caused a rise in extremism and populism?

The past decade has been especially harsh for Italians, and perhaps even more so for their government. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crises, a catastrophic administration brought Italy to the brink of bankruptcy. In this highly unstable situation, the Democratic Party won a majority of seats in the general election of 2013. The newly formed government had to deal with major discontent, political, economic, and social instability, and growing resentment toward European institutions. This resentment was mainly a result of a migration crisis that brought over 600,000 asylum seekers to the peninsula in just over three years.

Taking advantage of this instability, several new political parties rose to channel Italians’ dissatisfaction. Since 2013, some of these parties have gained millions of supporters by advocating for less interference by the European Union, swearing on the gospel to protect Italian traditions, and sometimes even inciting violence against migrants. For example, a neo-fascist militant running for political office for one of Italy’s far-right parties shot six migrants. His justification, as he later stated in an interview from prison, was the color of their skin. In response, thousands marched throughout Italy under anti-fascist banners to protest the wave of hate spreading during this electoral campaign.

It is no surprise that outsiders are also nervously looking at these elections. John Oliver aside, (whose piece is truly fantastic) many European institutionalists have spoken against populist discontent and far-right Italian parties. According to Pierre Moscovici, the EU commissioner for Economic Affairs, these Italian elections are one of the major “political risks” facing the EU this year.  What European officials worry about most is a populist government indicting a referendum to leave the Union, a situation that could mark the end of the European Union experiment. Indeed, several major parties (namely Lega, Forza Italia, Movimento 5 Stelle, Fratelli d’Italia) have already embraced the idea of leaving the European Union in order for Italy to regain its independence from foreign bureaucrats. 

In the wake of this unstable social climate, who are the main contenders?

Partito Democratico

As the incumbent party, the Democratic Party focused its electoral campaign on the government’s achievements in the past five years and how the party will continue build on its success. It focuses on reducing taxes for small business, fighting large corporations and raising taxes for the top 5%. On immigration and on the European Union more generally, it promises to push for further cooperation and better deals for Italy. Matteo Renzi – current party leader and former prime minister – has pledged to fight extremism and populism by exposing fake news.

Movimento 5 Stelle

The “5 Star Movement” was first founded by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who self-proclaimed his party to be the country’s only alternative to the corrupt political establishment. As Italy’s largest party, the Movement is neither on the right nor the left and takes ideas from all sides. While 5 Stars’ centrist stance might at first glance recall En Marche – the winning party of France’s 2017 general election – the leaders of the two parties could not be more different. At 31 years old, Luigi Di Maio has no university degree and has never had a full-time job, while Emmanuel Macron became well known for his strong academic and political background. The party remains very vague on many issues and has even been accused of copying word for word entire Wikipedia pages to write its campaign program, but its anti-establishment message has been very appealing to youth voter bases.

Forza Italia

A center-right party, “Go Italy” is the personal jewel of one of Italy’s most (in)famous politicians, Silvio Berlusconi. Although Berlusconi himself is now barred from running for political office after  being accused of tax fraud and underage prostitution, he remains loved – sometimes literally venerated – by millions of Italians throughout the country and his party is running a strong campaign on the promise of a flat tax (equal for all, even the rich) as well as independence from the claws of the European Union. 


Headed by Matteo Salvini, “The League” is a far-right populist party which runs on the slogan Prima Gli Italiani! (Italians first). Salvini advocates for trade barriers, exiting the European Union, and closing borders to all migrants. Another stronghold of the party is their promise to protect Italian values such as the traditional family and the Christian faith (Yes, he is the one swearing on the gospel).

Possible Scenarios after March 4th

Because of Italy’s new electoral law, it is likely that no party will be able to form a government. The new electoral system encourages coalition building, but exit polls show that no coalition will be able to reach the minimum 40% of the vote required. Berlusconi’s rightist coalition reaches 37%, the 5 Star Movement, who so far has been unable to convince any other party to form a coalition, reaches almost 32% (the largest single party in fact), and the leftist coalition is now at 22%. 

So, what are the alternatives? The President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, has a few on the table. In fact, the President holds a significant amount of constitutional power in these cases to try and avoid a major political crisis. 

Initially, Mr. Mattarella may press the 5 Star Movement to try and reach the required majority through coalition-building, seeing as the Movement will likely finish first in the polls but will not be strong enough to reach 40% of the vote on its own. This same argument goes for the right-wing coalition as well but, considering that all major right-wing parties (LN-FI-FdI) are already part of the coalition, it is unlikely that this particular solution will pan out.

A second possibility is a temporary coalition of several major parties, namely the Democratic Party and Forza Italia (which does not seem very likely given the low voter turnout for both of these parties) or the 5 Star Movement and the League. This option will be taken in consideration by the President if he thinks this temporary coalition has the tools to write a new electoral law that would facilitate the formation of a government. Yet, while some have expressed their willingness to form this technical government, many members from all parties have strongly opposed it.

A third option, known as governo tecnico (the technical government option), would have Mr. Mattarella ask a third-party figure to form a government, someone who could get opposing parties to agree on basic principles such as needed immigration and economic emergency reforms. Despite how unconventional this option might sound, it is a very common practice of Italian politics (there have been two technical governments in the past decade). If this is the case, Paolo Gentiloni seems to be the first choice. As Italy’s prime minister, Mr. Gentiloni is respected not only by his own party but by members of other parties as well.

Because Mr. Mattarella is scheduled to come up with a plan by next week, Italy’s political stability remains at risk. The 5 Star Movement is already looking for improbable allies, namely, the Democratic Party or the League. While Democratic secretary Matteo Renzi and other officials have strongly opposed a possible coalition, other ranking members have been open to the idea. This would result in a split of the center-left, a very usual practice for Italy’s leftist parties. The second most probable coalition would be between the 5 Stars Movement and the League, who finished only one point behind the Democratic Party. While Salvini is still denying any agreement, many within his party are ready to embrace a populist/right-wing coalition, leaving the League the freedom of choosing the next PM while demanding in exchange a referendum to leave the European Union. So far, this request has undermined the formation of this coalition, which until hours before the election was seen as the most probable outcome. While many 5 Stars candidates have in the years expressed their willingness to leave the EU, the party leader Di Maio has recently ruled out this option.  

In spite of the Italy’s current political crisis and economic instability, what remains certain is that the true winner of these elections is the 5 Stars Movement which, with a predicted 30% or more of votes (over 10 points ahead of the Democratic Party), has become the country’s undiscussed majority. As a result, any future coalition and government will likely be formed through them.