Updated Mar 4, 2018

Italy's election: Berlusconi, Five Star and lots of question marks

A political rally in front of the Colosseum. Photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty Images

Italians are casting their ballots today in an election that could sweep in a right-wing populist government, result in a band-aid coalition of centrists, or prove so inconclusive that they have to do it all over again later this year.

The bottom line: This has been an ugly election cycle, driven by anti-immigrant sentiment and frustration with the state of Italy’s economy and political system. With no party expected to win a majority of seats, it may be some time before it's clear who the real winners are.

Breaking it down

  • A right-wing coalition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi leads the polls but is unlikely to win a majority, and Berlusconi is barred from office due to a tax fraud conviction. Complicating matters, nearly half of the coalition’s likely voters are expected to support the fiercely anti-immigrant Northern League.
  • The biggest single party is the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, which also rails against immigration.
  • A center-left bloc led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is swimming against the tide in the current political climate.
  • Meanwhile, a new mixed voting system makes predicting the outcome even more difficult.

The current polls

Via the Economist’s tracker:

  • Right wing (Berlusconi): 37.1%
  • Center-left (Renzi): 27.5%
  • Five Star (Di Maio): 27.3%

Under the new system, 40% of the overall vote is needed for a parliamentary majority.

Three possible outcomes

  • Back to square one: The Economist maps out a scenario where a lot happens, and little changes.
    • “The likeliest result is a messy stalemate, in which nobody can form a government alone and many players have a veto. It may then be up to the president, Sergio Mattarella, to pick a compromise candidate. Italy’s current prime minister, the urbane Paolo Gentiloni, may yet re-emerge as the only man acceptable to enough factions to stitch together a new government.”
  • Grand coalition: Berlusconi's bloc could join up with the center-left to form a centrist coalition, though it’s unclear who would serve as Prime Minister and how big a role Berlusconi would play.
  • Right turn: Here’s a scenario that would terrify leaders around Europe: Five Star joins with the Northern League to form a government of the far right. Five Star has long been resistant to joining a coalition, but are now changing their tune slightly under di Maio.

The European picture

As James McBride of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, Italy will be the third-largest E.U. economy after Brexit, and could be a long-term drag on Brussels if it can’t sort out its finances.

Two other worries: Euroskepticism is a driving factor in this election, putting further European integration in doubt, and all three of the leading right-of-center parties have an uncomfortably close relationship with Russia.

The Berlusconi factor

The Washington Post has mapped out why Berlusconi, best remembered abroad for sex scandals and financial crises, can be viewed as a figure of stability:

  • “In the past 30 years, there have been 13 different prime ministers in the country.” Berlusconi, who led Italy for 9 of those years, is the only P.M. to have served a full term.
  • Compare: “In the past 30 years, there have been just three German chancellors, five French presidents and six British prime ministers.”

Go deeper: Berlusconi is back

Smart takes

  • "The upcoming general election will be a major test for both Italy and for Europe. Given the many crucial decisions the EU is facing in 2018, Europe cannot afford a euroskeptic, anti-trade, and pro-Kremlin government in Rome,” writes Erik Brattberg of the Carnegie Endowment.
  • The election will be “closely watched on both sides of the Atlantic … as bellwether of the rise of populism in the democratic world. It will be in part a key test of the Italian political system and how it evolves with a likely new conservative government coalition," writes Louis Golino of the Atlantic Council.
  • "When Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency last year, European elites were comforted after twelve months of Trump, Brexit, and a seemingly unstoppable populist global backlash — including against the EU. Now, Italy’s upcoming general election is beginning to shake that new-found confidence," writes Jonas Parello-Plesner of the Hudson Institute.
  • "Barring a severe economic shock — unlikely in the current benign environment — Italy seems likely to go on muddling through without either taking decisive reform steps or falling into the abyss," writes Paul Taylor of Politico.

Go deeper: More perspectives in a great roundup from Carnegie

Go deeper