What's going on in Italy? Italy is preparing for an early general election on Sunday, September 25. Italy's upcoming general elections were originally scheduled for next spring. So why are politicians battling the scorching heat of this summer while campaigning for the vote?
This was fueled by the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi on 21 July and the collapse of the grand tent coalition government of left, right and centrist parties.
Draghi came to power after another coalition headed by lawyer Giuseppe Conte collapsed in January 2021.
Draghi was applauded by analysts and commentators around the world for spearheading Italy's post-COVID economic recovery in 2021, leading to him being named "Country of the Year" by The Economist, in shocking contrast to the "sick man of Europe" label. This followed Italy after years of stagnant economic growth.
Still, it was the abusive former prime minister Conte himself who triggered the downfall of Draghi's government. Conte's party, the Five Star Movement, pulled the plug by withdrawing its support for Draghi's economic aid decree.
This was largely due to disagreements over the amount of support available to families and the construction of a new waste-to-power plant proposed to tackle Rome's garbage crisis - a plan the Five Star Movement contested over fears of its possible environmental impact.
Draghi's resignation ultimately led to the start of the country's first general election season in August, a month when most Italians flocked to the seashore.
Heat and holidays aside, summer and early autumn are also an inopportune time for elections, as it is when the budget law is debated and finally approved by the Italian parliament.
How does the electoral system work? Italian politics is often shrouded in mystery and scandal. New parties emerge as old ones disappear, and controversy and corruption have plagued the careers of politicians for decades.
Unlike France and the United States, Italy's president does not have executive power and is elected in a different and rather secret election round.
As in the last general elections held in 2018, the current electoral system favors coalitions over individual parties and sets the majority threshold at 40% of the seats.
However, the number of seats in parliament was reduced following the 2020 referendum. Italians previously voted for 630 deputies, now they will vote for 400 deputies. The number of senators has also been reduced from 315 to 200.
Governments have collapsed repeatedly, resulting in 67 cabinets in the 76 years since the Italian republic was founded. The country's socioeconomic weaknesses - due to a fragmented cultural heritage, a sharp north-south divide and reliance on foreign support - have exacerbated this problem.
Key candidates and who is ahead?
The "center-right coalition" (coalizione di centrodestra) is currently leading the polls: Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FDI); Matteo Salvini's Northern League (Lega Nord, LN); and Silvio Berlusconi's Go Italy (Forza Italia, FI).
-Brothers of Italy
The Brothers of Italy is currently the largest party in the coalition, according to polls.
The Brothers of Italy, a socially conservative, nationalist force that traces its roots directly to the Italian Social Movement (a neo-Fascist party founded after Benito Mussolini's death), is routinely exposed for its links to fascism.
Professor Andrea Mammone of the Sapienza University of Rome, an expert in Italy's far-right political history, told Euronews that the party is "in line with the neo-fascist tradition" and that "most of its members have a positive attitude towards the Mussolini regime".
Indeed, two of the members of the Brothers of Italy are direct descendants of dictator Benito Mussolini and proudly bear his surname. Moreover, an interview that resurfaced in 1996 shows that Meloni, who was 19 at the time, described Mussolini as a "good politician" who "does everything he does for Italy".
However, the current manifesto of the Brothers of Italy has no direct allusion to fascism and has softened some of the social conservatism of the 2018 program by trading social concerns for economic ones. It should be noted that Meloni still uses a far-right rhetorical style that emphasizes "God, homeland and family".
Salvini, his once meteoric rise to power – whose party single-handedly surpassed the 40% majority threshold in 2019 – has been eclipsed by his coalition counterpart, Meloni.
The Northern League began in the 1990s as a separatist movement calling for the independence of Italy's prosperous northern regions, but was renamed a nationalist force by Salvini in the mid-2010s.
It stands on a manifesto consistent with its long-standing anti-immigration ticket, promising cuts to covert immigrant arrivals ("stop agli Sbarchi" or "stop boat arrivals").
Also, Salvini was a longtime fan of Vladimir Putin and wore a T-shirt with the Russian President's face in 2017. He argued that while opposing the invasion of Ukraine and moving away from the Kremlin, the sanctions did more harm to the Italians than to the Russians.
The third of the centre-right parties is the Go Italy of longtime former Prime Minister Berlusconi. The party platform may have taken a more moderate stance than that of its coalition allies, but his personal scandalous history – from his 2013 conviction for tax evasion to his decades-long friendship with Putin and allegations of soliciting sexual services from a minor – has drawn more scrutiny.
While Go Italy's electorate has shrunk considerably over the past few years and is now a smaller force in the coalition, Berlusconi's support for Meloni and Salvini seems necessary to ensure the coalition reaches a majority. That means the controversial former prime minister's party could still tip the scales and wield considerable power.
-Democratic Party (PD)…
On the other side of the political spectrum is the centre-left coalition (coalizione di centrosinistra). Its greatest strength is the Democratic Party (Partito Democratic; PD) and it is accompanied by a group of other smaller parties with various progressive positions.
The PD is currently led by Enrico Letta, a professor and former prime minister of Italy from 2013 to 2014.
The party generally has a moderate, pro-European stance and strongly opposes Putin and the war in Ukraine. It also openly supports LGBTQ+ rights, including same-sex marriage and anti-homophobia laws.
The Democratic Party specifically warns against the rise of the Brotherhood of Italy, which it thinks will unleash a potentially authoritarian tide.
-Five Star Movement
Avoiding the left-right political duo, the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle; M5S) is once again operating as an independent party. Its leader is former prime minister Giuseppe Conte.
The populist party, whose political orientation has always been somewhat ambiguous, was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and digital entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio as a grassroots anti-establishment force against systemic corruption.
The Five Star Movement's longstanding ethos has been its claim to transcend "traditional" politics with a platform built on digital democracy, environmental sustainability, and a mix of progressive and conservative social stances. Its rise in the 2010s led to the height of the Eurozone crisis and Italy's deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, resulting in its emergence as the country's largest single party in both the 2013 and 2018 general elections.
However, internal divisions within the Movement and the party's growing corporate image have dampened its populist appeal, especially after former party leader Luigi di Maio jumped ship and joined forces with the centre-left. Indeed, polls show that more than half of their voters have disappeared since 2018.
The last of the major political forces marching is the so-called "Third Pole" (a centrist coalition made up of the fragmented parties of the PD) - the Action (Azione) of former minister Carlo Calenda and Italy Alive (Italy Viva, IV) of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
This new bloc was formed after Calenda's coalition with the centre-left, which lasted only five days, fell in August.
Both candidates are currently taking part in an economically liberal and pro-European platform that aims to revitalize and digitize Italy.
Beyond the four major political blocs, many smaller parties are competing, from the far-left Popular Union (Unione Popolare, UP) – most interestingly – to the newly formed Italexit, which, as the name suggests, advocates Italy's departure from the EU.
As they all go to the polls in single-digit percentages, such parties are unlikely to win many seats in parliament or even reach the required threshold.
The economic stakes. As the war in Ukraine escalated and led to a major energy crisis across Europe, rising bills and increasingly unaffordable living costs occupied the central area of the ongoing election debate.
A recent Quorum/YouTrend survey showed that 90% of Italians, like most Europeans, are concerned about their energy bills. Meloni promised to keep public finances in check, but she also promised to protect Italians from the worst of the energy shortage. This will be a difficult balancing act as rising costs and price pressures have no visible end.
The parties have proposed a variety of solutions, although not all have been made explicit, particularly in light of the current EU-wide pauses. The centre-left proposes a price cap for bills, while the right demands energy self-sufficiency, particularly by pushing for nuclear power, and has been criticized by its opponents for linking sanctions and rising prices.
Another key point of contention is the post-COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Plan, which is part of Italy's EU-wide effort to inject funds into the economies of member states, in which Italy will receive a €190 billion package from Brussels.
While the Democratic Party supported it in its current form, the Brothers of Italy called for reform.
There is another important point in the right playbook: introducing a flat tax. This raises taxation to 15% in all tranches. The movement is opposed by the centre-left, which supports progressive taxation.
On the domestic growth side, a Bloomberg survey of 34 economists predicts the Italian economy will grow by just 0.4% next year, after 3.3% in 2022.
Horrible Outlook.The Italian economy has probably already stopped growing and economists are predicting a recession this winter. Source: Istat, Bloomberg
Who will win? If the polls are to be trusted, it seems likely that Giorgia Meloni's rapid rise will make her the first female prime minister of Italy. The Roman politician leads the largest party in a coalition with 46-48% of the vote, well above the 40% threshold required for a majority.
Brothers of Italy alone get 24-26% of the vote, while League and Go Italy are at 12-14% and 7-9% respectively.
The remaining centre-left coalition currently receives around 27-29% of the vote, and the Democratic Party receives 22-24%. The Five Star Movement is currently at 13-14%, while the centrist "Third Pole" bloc is at 5-7%.
The latest opinion polls. Source: Youtrend, Euronews
Conclusion? It seems very likely that Italy will enter a new phase in its history. With the rise of the far right, people seem to have accepted Meloni as the future leader of Italy.
Draghi and Finance Minister Daniele Franco have said in recent weeks that Italy can avoid an economic contraction for now. He also noted that high tax revenue, supported in part by accelerated inflation, is giving a small boost to public finances.
This may be a small comfort for the new government, which will face a worsening economic outlook fraught with uncertainty. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, rising energy prices, rampant inflation, and rising interest rates have all combined to seriously undermine growth.
But Italy is dependent on the €190 billion EU package to help restart its chronically underperforming economy and faces questions over the sustainability of its nearly $3 trillion government debt. Together, Italian analysts expect them to keep the new government on the side of key European powers such as France and Germany and check their confrontational impulses. The low growth forecast will have a negative impact on the current account deficit. This will intensify the fight for the right-wing coalition, which is likely to form in the weeks after the election.
Italy is particularly vulnerable as the European Central Bank tightens its monetary policy. Rome will have to comply with EU commitments, including structural reforms promised as part of the Covid recovery programme, to take advantage of a new ECB government bond-buying program aimed at preventing further borrowing costs.
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