Everything You Need to Know About the Election in Italy

A guide to the Italian electoral system, the parties, their leaders and possible coalitions.

The facade of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament in Rome, October 23, 2010
The facade of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian parliament in Rome, October 23, 2010 (Stefano Maffei)

Italians will elect a new parliament on March 4. Here is everything you need to know about the election.

Bottom lines

  • A “grand coalition” between the center-left and center-right may be the only way to form a government.
  • Whatever the outcome, Italy will almost certainly abandon fiscal discipline, and possibly rebel against EU fiscal rules, in order to make extra spending possible.

The Italian electoral system

The Italian electoral system was reformed in 2017. About a third of the seats — 232 out of 630 in the lower house, 116 out of 315 in the Senate — are now elected in single-member constituencies under a first-past-the-post system. The remainder — 386 in the lower house, 193 in the Senate — are awarded by national proportional representation.

Italians living abroad elect an additional twelve deputies and six senators.

To qualify for national seats, parties must win at least 3 percent support. If they fall under 3 percent but are allied to a party that does cross the threshold, their votes are transferred to the stronger party.

The hope was that the changes would benefit the mainstream center-left and center-right and hurt the populist Five Star Movement, which has no allies. But the Five Stars have become so popular that the reforms may not bother them after all.

The new system should help avoid a scenario in which the two chambers are controlled by different parties, as happened in the last election.

The last four years

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi delivers a news conference in Rome, January 13, 2016
Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi delivers a news conference in Rome, January 13, 2016 (Palazzo Chigi)

The center-left, led by the Democratic Party, won an absolute majority in the lower chamber in 2013 but fell short of a majority in the Senate. Pier Luigi Bersani, the Democratic Party leader, tried to do a deal with the Five Star Movement. When he failed, the Democrats replaced him with Enrico Letta, who formed a grand coalition with parties in the center and on the center-right.

Less than a year into Letta’s government, Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative party leader, was convicted of tax fraud. A majority voted to evict him from the Senate. Outraged, Berlusconi withdrew his party from the coalition, but a minority of rightwingers defied him to stay in government.

Letta still had a majority, but the incident weakened him and gave Florence mayor Matteo Renzi an opening to challenge him for the leadership. Renzi prevailed and became prime minister in early 2014.

Renzi enacted long-overdue labor reforms, which made it easier for companies to hire and fire workers. He cut taxes for businesses and individuals, legalized civil unions for gay couples and proposed a constitutional overhaul that would have neutered the Senate and made it easier for the largest party to govern.

The reforms were supported by Berlusconi but rejected by voters in a 2016 referendum. The defeat prompted Renzi to resign.

Paolo Gentiloni, the foreign minister, took over. He continued many of Renzi’s policies but introduced few of his own. With Renzi plotting a comeback from the Democratic Party leadership, leftwingers, including Bersani, were growing alarmed by what they perceived as the party’s drift to the center. Unable to stop Renzi, they left and formed their own party, called Free and Equal.

Key issues

  • Taxes: The right-wing parties are calling for a flat tax of 15 to 23 percent. Click here to read more about it. The Democrats and Five Star Movement propose reducing rates but keeping the system progressive. The Democrats also want a tax credit for low-income families with children. Free and Equal wants to abolish university fees.
  • Income: The Democrats are campaigning for an hourly minimum wage of €10. Forza Italia and the Five Star Movement are both campaigning for something close to a universal basic income.
  • Pensions: Forza Italia would raise the minimum pension to €1,000 per month. The Northern League wants to make it possible to retire after 41 years of work, regardless of age.
  • Labor: Free and Equal wants to restore the labor protections Renzi repealed.
  • Europe: The Five Star Movement no longer calls for giving up the euro. The Northern League still does.
  • Debt: You would think that with a national debt at 136 percent of GDP, this would be a major issue. But no.

The parties

Six parties are projected to cross the 3-percent election threshold and win seats on their own.

The left

  • Democratic Party: Social democratic and pro-European. Strongest in the center of the country and popular with college graduates and pensioners. Has lost working-class support to the right.
  • Free and Equal: Founded by left-wing purists who considered Renzi too business-friendly. Led by former Senate speaker Pietro Grasso.

The right

  • Forza Italia: Silvio Berlusconi’s party. Ideologically somewhat flexible, but always pro-business. Rhetorically Euroskeptic, less so when push comes to shove.
  • Northern League: Formerly in favor of autonomy, or even independence, for the wealthier north of Italy, the League (dropping the “Northern”) has transformed itself into a National Front-style anti-EU, anti-immigration party under Matteo Salvini.
  • Brothers of Italy: Small reactionary party led by Giorgia Meloni.

Other

  • Five Star Movement: Founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo to agitate for direct democracy and greening the economy, the movement is opposed to big business, deeper EU integration and NATO. Its prime ministerial candidate is Luigi Di Maio.

The polls

Support for the six parties has been fairly stable since the beginning of this year:

  • Democratic Party: 22-25 percent
  • Democratic Party + allies: 24-27 percent
  • Free and Equal: 5-7 percent

Left total: 25-34 percent

  • Forza Italia: 15-18 percent
  • Northern League: 12-14 percent
  • Brothers of Italy: 4-6 percent

Right total: 31-38 percent

  • Five Star Movement: 26-30 percent

Possible coalitions

  • Grand coalition: Both the Democrats and Forza Italia have opened the door to another grand coalition, but neither would be happy with this. The Northern League, Brothers of Italy and left wing of the Democratic Party would oppose it.
  • Euroskeptic pact: The Five Star Movement, Northern League and Brothers of Italy could have a majority, but it seems unlikely the left-leaning Five Stars would form a government with the far right.
  • Bersani’s dream: The Democrats, Free and Equal and Five Stars could have a majority, but this would probably require overturning Renzi’s labor reforms.
  • Minority government: A minority, Democratic-led government with informal support from the right could work — for a while.
  • Technocratic government: As a last resort, President Sergio Mattarella could ask an outsider to form a government, just like his predecessor, Giorgio Napolitano, tapped former EU commissioner Mario Monti in 2011.