[ANALYSIS] Italian election: the winners, losers, and survivors

Giorgia Meloni was the only clear winner in an election which saw her gain 22 points over 2018, while all other parties suffered a massive drop in support. Will a bitter Matteo Salvini upset her honeymoon and how far will Silvio Berlusconi condition her choices?

Italy’s right-wing coalition leaders Giorgia Meloni, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini
Italy’s right-wing coalition leaders Giorgia Meloni, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini

With over 44% of the vote, Italy’s right-wing coalition, led by hard-right Fratelli d’Italia, has won nearly 60% of seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. This super-majority is the product of a hybrid electoral system known as the rosatellum, in which one-third of seats are elected on a first-past-the-post basis, while the rest are distributed on a proportional basis.

With the opposition divided into three rival forces, the right could easily sweep the first-past-the-post seats. It would have been a different story if all seats were distributed on a proportional basis, because the combined percentage of the opposition in its entirety remains greater than that of the winning coalition.

No more technocrats?

This means that the right-wing coalition has mastered enough support to govern for a whole legislative term, giving Italy its first homogenous political government emerging directly from the polls, since the fall of the scandal-ridden Berlusconi-led government in 2011.

The latest result contrasts with that of 2018 which saw the same right-wing coalition winning a relative majority but without having sufficient seats to govern. This was followed first by a populist government formed between the far-right Lega and populist Movimento Cinque Stelle, then by a centre-left government between the Democrats and the M5S, and finally by a technocratic government supported by everyone but Meloni.

So, in part, the success of the right could represent a desire for clarity and an aversion to patchy deals made by parties following elections.

Meloni’s incredible 22-point surge

The only party to gain votes since 2018 was Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia which was in opposition for the past four years.

While Meloni saw her party’s support increase by 22 points, all other major parties either lost votes or remained stuck at 2018 levels. This suggests that Italians have penalised all the parties which supported the Draghi government.

But it also shows that Italians are increasingly restless, choosing one fad after the other: first choosing Matteo Renzi who was close to 40% in the MEP elections in 2009; then opting for the Cinque Stelle which won one-third of votes in 2018; then switching to Salvini in MEP elections in 2019; and finally giving Meloni a try. The result itself suggests a shift from the Lega Nord and from the Cinque Stelle, to Meloni’s party.

Significantly the right-wing electorate has shifted the balance further to the right. For while in 2018 the Lega was just 3 points stronger than Forza Italia, which had been dominant in all previous appointments since 1994, this time around Meloni’s party is 18 points stronger than both Forza Italia and the Lega.

In this sense the government is now more hard-right than centre-right.

The loser on the winning side

On the winning side, the greatest loser was Matteo Salvini’s Lega which saw its support plummet from 17 points to 9. This suggests that Salvini’s right-wing populist electorate was disoriented first by the coalition with the more left-leaning Cinque Stelle, and then by Salvini’s own support for the Draghi government. This electorate could easily shift to Meloni’s Fratelli D’Italia, which is equally anti-immigrant and whose anti-establishment credentials were not corroded by support for Draghi.

Yet, with Meloni becoming prime minister and forced to compromise with EU partners and even follow the Draghi rulebook to avoid economic collapse, the Lega may well play the same game Meloni played in the past two years: that of outflanking its rival in the coalition from the right. But to do so Salvini needs a platform which Meloni may now deny him: that of becoming once again home affairs minister responsible for migration.

For Meloni may now be wary of giving this platform to a bitter Salvini and seek to score points on this issue by appointing someone from her own party in this strategic role. This may well spell the end of the Lega as a national force, and possibly its relegation to a regionalist force as it was under Umberto Bossi in the 1990s.

Moreover, Meloni may still find a way to satisfy her base without upsetting the apple cart of the economy. She may do this by compensating frustration at continuity in economic and foreign policy, with a more confrontational approach on migration and by inciting culture wars which could solidify her hegemony on the right.

But such a strategy may also attract more international scrutiny, especially if Italy resorts to showdowns with other EU countries like Malta by refusing any responsibility for boat people.

The problem is that the right wing’s culture of fear can easily slip out of hand, emboldening more random acts of racism which could further lacerate communities.

Also risky for Meloni is any attempt to push too far on issues like gay rights and abortion as this could backfire badly in terms of public support and give the left a worthy cause to mobilise for: that of standing for civil liberties.

The octogenarian survivor

Silvio Berlusconi, the third leg of the coalition, has also seen support for his party drop from 14 to 8 points. But Forza Italia has avoided being relegated to the role of a junior partner of two much stronger parties.

Although much weaker than Meloni, Berlusconi’s party is now at a par with Salvini’s Lega and has managed to avoid the humiliation of becoming irrelevant to the make-up of the next government. While some polls suggested that the two far-right parties may have enough votes to govern without needing Forza Italia, in the final instance Berlusconi remains indispensable to the right-wing majority: his party’s affiliation with the European People’s Party could even give a veneer of legitimacy to the ruling coalition.

And the party could shore up the limited talent pool of the hard right by offering seasoned politicians like former European Parliament president Antonio Tajani to Meloni’s cabinet. In this way, Berlusconi can deliver on his solemn pre-electoral promise to be the guarantee for a foreign policy anchored in NATO and the EU, even if doubts persist on his own past ties with Vladimir Putin.

But despite his persistence and political lucidity, Berlusconi is now a pale shadow of his former self as his party has been supplanted by a stronger and more right-wing force. Ironically Fratelli d’ Italia is the heir of Alleanza Nazionale, which Berlusconi had accepted as a coalition partner in 1994, rescuing it from the political wilderness. In short, this is also a lesson for centre-right parties who flirt with the far right to win power, only to end up being swallowed whole by their former allies.

Another loser which did better than expected in the polls was Guiseppe Conte, whose Cinque Stelle still lost a staggering 18 points since 2018 but avoided obliteration thanks to a late surge in support in southern regions, which include the highest number of beneficiaries of the Italian citizenship income – a supplement for the unemployed and low-wage earnrs – which Conte has vowed to defend.

By securing over 15% of the vote, Conte’s party remains indispensable for the creation of a centre-left alternative which can eventually overcome the right wing. Plans to scrap the ‘citizenship income’ along with the introduction of a flat-tax rate which favours the more well off, may well galvanize Conte’s brand of populism infused with social justice. Moreover Letta’s resignation may pave the way for a new PD leadership which is more open to an alliance with Conte.

Time to go in opposition

The clearest loser of the election was the Democratic Party. Although the party has retained the same support as in 2018, this was already a historic low for the party which inherited the mantle of the both the Communist Party and left wing of the Christian Democratic Party.

Moreover, the party failed to secure a wide alliance with the Cinque Stelle which would have given it a fighting chance. It also failed to capture the imagination of non-voters in an election which has seen turnout shrink to 64%. In short, the party may well have been punished for participating in a number of governments which were not directly elected in elections but were created through post-election arrangements.

The result also suggests that the left cannot simply win by presenting itself as the decent and competent alternative to the far right. It also has to offer a better prospect in life to the masses.

But if the right wing flops on the economy, the Democrats may well be seen once more as the adults in the room. But that hope may keep the party from focusing on reconnecting itself to voters, something which it can only do from the opposition.

The party’s former leader Matteo Renzi, allied with Carlo Calenda – another ex-Democrat – only managed to siphon votes from the left without harming the right. And while this new centrist outfit garnered a respectable 7%, it failed in its declared mission of becoming kingmaker in a hung parliament scenario. In the centre-left, the Greens in alliance with the Left (Sinistra) have returned to the Italian parliament for the first time since 2008 after securing 3.5% of the vote; while Emma Bonino – the protagonist of major civil rights battles over the past 50 years – has missed out on parliamentary representation for her party by a whisker.