Support for Early Elections Grows in Italy

Angelino Alfano, head of the junior ruling party, suggests snap elections could be held in February.

Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano speaks with colleagues during a European People's Party summit in Brussels, October 23, 2014
Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano speaks with colleagues during a European People’s Party summit in Brussels, October 23, 2014 (EPP)

Support for early elections is growing Italy. Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, the head of the junior ruling party Nuovo Centrodestra, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Tuesday he expects elections will be held in February.

Alfano made his comments after speaking with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who announced his resignation on Monday.

The opposition Five Star Movement and Northern League have both pressed for snap elections after Renzi lost a referendum on Sunday that was nominally about constitutional reforms.

Renzi’s resignation

In what was interpreted as a massive vote of no-confidence in Renzi and his government, nearly 60 percent of Italians voted “no” in the referendum.

Renzi had tied his premiership to the outcome and promptly stepped down.

However, President Sergio Mattarella told him to stay on until parliament approves the 2017 budget.

Renzi is due to defend the spending plan in the Senate on Wednesday, after which he is expected to return to Mattarella and submit his resignation again.

Expectations

Many observers (this one included) predicted Mattarella would ask a technocrat, like economy minister Pier Carlo Padoan, to take over from Renzi and sit out this parliament’s mandate, which doesn’t expire until 2018.

That could still happen. Polls suggest neither of the three ruling parties — Renzi’s Democrats on the left, Nuovo Centrodestra on the right and the Union of the Center in the middle — would gain if elections were held in the next few months. Better to stick together and hope their prospects will improve when the economy does too.

Fresh elections could also spook the markets and Italy’s European allies.

Germany and France both have elections next year. Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to see off a Euroskeptic challenge in her country, but the nationalist party’s Marine Le Pen could qualify for the second voting round in the French presidential election.

An election in Italy, the third largest economy in the eurozone, would add to concerns that market-friendly policies and European integration are at risk.

The Five Star Movement and the Northern League are both projected to win seats. An alliance between them is unlikely, but a government led by either one would put a fright into the European mainstream. Both want to take Italy out of the euro and end sanctions on Russia.

Challenged reforms

Ironically, the Five Stars’ success in stopping Renzi’s constitutional reforms makes it less likely they will come to power.

Renzi’s plan was to reduce the Senate from an elected body with full lawmaking powers to a weak assembly of regional deputies.

In combination with a separate electoral reform law, which guarantees a majority in the lower chamber to the party that receives at least 40 percent support, the change would have made Italy easier to govern.

But it would also have made it easier for any one party to gain absolute control, which is why smaller parties and centrists opposed to it.

The electoral reform law, nicknamed Italicum, is pending review by the Constitutional Court, which is not expected to rule on it until early 2017 — calling Alfano’s timeline into question.

Polls

The Five Star Movement has been gaining in the polls since the beginning of last year and is now hovering around 30 percent support, neck and neck with Renzi’s Democrats.

The Northern League gets around 13 percent support in most surveys, up from 4 percent in the last election. It would only be able to form a government in coalition with other right-wing parties, including Alfano’s and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s.