Italy election: Who’s running? How does it work? Who may win?

Italy is readying itself for a snap general election on Sunday, 25 September. 

Here we explain how Italian elections work, who are the main parties and candidates and what the likely outcome will be. 

Why is Italy holding a snap election?

Italy’s upcoming set of general elections was originally slated for next spring. So why have politicians been battling this summer’s torrid temperatures to campaign for votes?

It was sparked by the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi on 21 July and the collapse of his big-tent coalition government, which included leftist, right-wing and centrist parties. 

Draghi came to power after another coalition — headed by the lawyer Giuseppe Conte — collapsed in January 2021.

Draghi has been acclaimed by analysts and commentators around the world for spearheading Italy’s post-COVID economic recovery in 2021, which led to its selection as “Country of the Year” by The Economist – a jarring contrast with the “sick man of Europe” label that has followed Italy after years of sluggish economic growth.

Nevertheless, in what could appear as a game of tit-for-tat, it was the maligned former prime minister, Conte himself, who triggered the downfall of Draghi’s government. Conte’s party, the Five Star Movement, pulled the plug by retracting its support for Draghi’s economic aid decree.

This was largely due to disagreements over the amount of support offered to families and the proposed construction of a new waste-to-energy plant to handle Rome’s garbage crisis – a plan which the Five Star Movement contests over fears of its possible environmental impact.

Draghi’s resignation has consequently led to the country’s first general election season to have kicked off in August – a month when most Italians flock to the seaside.

Heat and holidays aside, summer and early autumn is also an inconvenient time for elections since it’s when the budget law is discussed and eventually approved by the Italian parliament.

How does Italy’s election system work?

Italian politics are often shrouded in mystery and scandal. Electoral rules are byzantine. New parties emerge as quickly as they disappear and controversy and corruption have rocked politicians’ careers for decades.

To begin with, Italy’s complex electoral system combines first-past-the-post and proportional methods. Roughly a third of seats are assigned with the first and two-thirds with the latter models.

As a bicameral parliamentary democracy, general elections decide the composition of the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and Senate (Senato).

Italians aged 18 and over are eligible to vote, but they don’t directly pick their prime minister. Rather, the head of government is picked after the new parliament convenes and a candidate has both won a confidence vote and the president’s approval.

Unlike France and the United States, Italy’s president does not hold executive power and is selected in a different — and highly secretive — round of elections.

While the broad framework of Italy’s political system has remained largely consistent since the country became a republic in 1947, electoral laws change frequently and this year, things will be a bit different for Italians heading the polls.

Much like in the last general elections, held in 2018, the current electoral system favours coalitions over individual parties and sets the majority threshold at 40% of seats.

Nevertheless, following a 2020 referendum, the number of parliamentary seats has been reduced. Italians will now be voting for 400 MPs as opposed to 630 previously. The number of senators has also been reduced, from 315 to 200.

As a result of numerous changes over the decades, Italy’s political system has garnered a reputation for being particularly unstable.

Governments have collapsed repeatedly, resulting in 67 cabinets over the 76 years since the Italian republic was created. The nation’s socioeconomic frailties — owing to a fragmented cultural heritage, a stark north-south divide and reliance on external support — have further exacerbated this issue.

Moreover, the country’s political landscape has grown even more volatile in the past three decades. The power vacuum which succeeded the collapse of Italy’s corruption-ridden major parties in the early 1990s resulted in media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi’s ascent to power; his divisive leadership was subsequently followed by a string of short-lived coalition governments throughout the 2010s after nobody managed to obtain a majority. 

The key parties and candidates: who is Italy voting for?

The so-called “centre-right coalition” (coalizione di centrodestra) is currently leading in the polls and includes four parties, including 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 is now the coalition’s biggest party according to surveys.

A socially conservative, nationalist force which directly traces its roots to the Italian Social Movement — a neo-Fascist party created in the wake of Benito Mussolini’s demise — Brothers of Italy has been routinely pilloried for its links to fascism, which critics claim the party has still not shaken off.

Professor Andrea Mammone of Rome’s Sapienza University, an expert in Italian far-right political history, told Euronews said the party is “in line with the neo-fascist tradition” and that “many of its members show a positive approach towards Mussolini’s regime”.

Indeed, two of Brothers of Italy’s members are direct descendants of dictator Benito Mussolini and proudly carry his surname. Moreover, a resurfaced interview from 1996 shows a 19-year-old Meloni calling Mussolini a “good politician” who “did everything he did for Italy”.

Nevertheless, Brothers of Italy’s current manifesto does not have any direct allusions to fascism, and it has toned down some of the social conservatism of its 2018 programme by trading social concerns with economic ones. Meloni does still, it should be noted, employ a hard-right rhetorical style that emphasises “God, fatherland and family.”

Earlier this summer, she addressed a far-right rally in Spain, lambasting LGBTQ+ “lobbies” and “Islamist violence.”

Standing alongside her is coalition colleague Salvini from the Northern League, whose once meteoric rise to power — in 2019, his party alone skirted the 40% majority threshold — has been eclipsed by Meloni.

The Northern League began in the 1990s as a secessionist movement which called for the independence of Italy’s prosperous northern regions, but was rebranded by Salvini in the mid-2010s as a nationalist force.

He is standing on a manifesto which is consistent with his longstanding anti-immigration ticket, promising cuts to clandestine arrivals (“Stop agli Sbarchi”, or “stop boat arrivals”).

Moreover, Salvini has also been a longtime admirer of Vladimir Putin and wore a T-shirt with the Russian President’s face in 2017. While opposing the invasion of Ukraine and distancing himself from the Kremlin, he has also claimed that sanctions are hurting Italians more than Russians.

The third of the centre-right parties is longtime ex-PM Berlusconi’s Go Italy. His party platform may have a more moderate approach than that of his coalition allies, but it’s his personal history of scandals — ranging from his tax evasion conviction in 2013 to his decades-old friendship with Putin and allegations of soliciting sexual services from a minor — that has attracted more scrutiny.

While Go Italy’s electorate has shrunk considerably in the past few years, and it is now a smaller force in the coalition, Berlusconi’s support for Meloni and Salvini appears necessary to ensure the coalition reaches a majority. This means the controversial former prime minister’s party could still tip the scales and hold considerable power.

On the other side of the political spectrum is the centre-left coalition (coalizione di centrosinistra). Its biggest force is the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico; PD), and it is joined by a smattering of other small parties with a variety of progressive positions.

The PD is currently headed by Enrico Letta, a professor and former prime minister of Italy from 2013 to 2014.

The party has a broadly moderate, pro-European stance, and is vehemently opposed to Putin and the war in Ukraine. It also openly supports LGBTQ+ rights, including same-sex marriage and legislation to combat homophobia.

The Democratic Party especially cautions against the rise of Brothers of Italy, which it sees as potentially unleashing an authoritarian tide.

Eschewing the left-right political binary is the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle; M5S), which is once again running as a stand-alone party. Former prime minister Giuseppe Conte is its leader.

The populist party, whose political orientation has always been somewhat nebulous, was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and digital entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio in 2009, as a grassroots anti-establishment force rallying against systemic corruption.

The Five Star Movement’s longstanding ethos has been a 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 rode the crest of the Eurozone crisis and Italy’s decaying socioeconomic conditions, resulting in its emergence as the country’s biggest single party in both the 2013 and 2018 general elections.

Nevertheless, internal splits within the Movement — especially after former party leader, Luigi di Maio, jumped ship and joined forces with the centre-left — as well as the party’s increasingly institutional image have dampened its populist appeal. Indeed, polls would indicate that it has haemorrhaged more than half of its electorate since 2018.

The last of the major political forces running is the so-called “Third Pole” (Terzo Polo), a centrist coalition formed of PD splinter parties – former minister Carlo Calenda’s Action (Azione) and ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Italy Alive (Italia Viva, IV).

This new bloc was formed after Calenda’s ill-fated coalition with the centre-left fell through in August, having lasted only five days.

Both candidates are currently standing on an economically liberal and pro-European platform that aims to revitalise and digitalise Italian business.

Beyond the four major political blocs, several other minor parties are running, from the far-left People’s Union (Unione Popolare, UP) to – most curiously – the newly formed Italexit, which, as the name suggests, is advocating for Italy’s departure from the EU.

Since they’re all polling at single-digit percentages, it is unlikely that such parties will obtain many seats in parliament or even reach the necessary threshold.

What are the main issues at stake?

As the war in Ukraine rages on and has sparked a major Europe-wide energy crisis, rising bills and the growingly unaffordable cost of living have occupied a central space of ongoing electoral debates.

A recent Quorum/YouTrend poll has shown that 90% of Italians are concerned about their energy bills.

The parties have offered a variety of solutions, although they have not all been clearly laid out – especially in light of current stalls at an EU-wide level. The centre-left proposes a price cap on bills, while the right calls for energy self-sufficiency, especially by pushing for nuclear power, and has been criticised by its opponents for drawing links between sanctions and soaring prices.

Another major bone of contention is Italy’s post-COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Plan, part of an EU-wide effort to inject funds into member states’ economies, whereby Italy would obtain a €190-billion package from Brussels.

While the Democratic Party supports it in its present form, Brothers of Italy have called for it to be reformed.

The right has another major point in its playbook: introducing a flat tax. This would cap taxation at 15% in all brackets. The move is opposed by the centre-left, who support progressive taxation.

While immigration may no longer be the hot-button topic it was in the 2018 election it has not fallen off party agendas.

Salvini and, to a lesser extent, Meloni — who has now relegated the issue to the bottom part of her new manifesto — have framed immigration as a security issue and called for a tightening of current immigration laws.

The environment is an important issue for the centre-left and the Five Star Movement, but gets a mention from all parties.

Lastly, questions relating to LGBTQ+ rights are also being raised as the campaign pans out, especially as the possibility of a socially conservative right-wing government has alarmed certain progressive campaign groups.

Earlier this month, an LGBTQ+ activist stormed the stage of a Brothers of Italy rally and engaged in a brief dialogue with Meloni herself.

Meloni — who objects to gay marriage and adoption — recently took issue with a Peppa Pig episode for showing same-sex parents.

Nonetheless, the Brothers of Italy manifesto has pledged to maintain the law on same-sex civil unions, which the party had opposed upon its entry into force in 2016.

What the pollsters say: who is likely to win?

Italian politics are notoriously mercurial, and opinion polls have fluctuated tremendously over recent years.

If one looks at the polls ten years ago, Berlusconi’s party was Italy’s biggest; five, it was Matteo Salvini’s League; and now, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which in 2018 had only obtained 4% of the vote.

If surveys are to be trusted, it appears that Giorgia Meloni’s meteoric rise is likely to put her in office as Italy’s first woman prime minister. The Roman politician leads the biggest party in a coalition which is polling at 46-48% – well above the 40% threshold needed for a majority.

Brothers of Italy by itself is polling at 24-26%, while the League and Go Italy are at 12-14% and 7-9%, respectively. 

Lagging behind is the centre-left coalition, which is currently polling at around 27-29%, with the Democratic Party coming in at 22-24%. The Five Star Movement is currently at 13-14%, while the centrist “Third Pole” bloc at 5-7%.

Nevertheless, this election season has seen a particularly high number of undecided voters, with an estimated 41% of the electorate not planning to vote.

The PD is especially attempting to attract young voters, which it thinks could still sway results in its favour.

Most recently, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joined social media app Tik Tok, in an attempt to appeal to younger and first-time voters – and joked that he was not there to attract young women

“Now I turn to those who are over 18. To ask what?” Berlusconi quipped in his first Tik Tok video. “To introduce me to your girlfriends? Not at all! To ask you to vote on September 25, and vote for me.”

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