March 1, 2018
Italians will go to the polls on March 4 in one of the most significant elections in Europe this year. Reflecting the tense political climate across the continent, hot-button issues such as immigration and border security have dominated the debate in one of the most divisive general election campaigns Italy has seen in recent years.

Italy’s notoriously complicated electoral system has long made the country’s elections interesting to watch, but several factors add chaos to intrigue this year. The 2018 elections have given rise to both new and old Italian political personalities—from the emergence of the insurgent, anti-establishment Five Star Movement or the comeback of four-time prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. Regardless of who emerges from the political fray in control of the country, any outcome will have wide-ranging consequences for Italy’s future.

The elections will also be the first to test the country’s new electoral laws, Rosatellum, which created a complex voting system combining first-past-the-post and proportional representation regulations. This change, designed to support “governability,” encourages political coalitions to form ahead of elections. Because voters cannot split their ticket between a party list and a single-member-district candidate not sponsored by that party, citizens’ choices are more limited as they must decide where their loyalties lie.  How this system will function in practice remains to be seen, but it is likely to increase the chance of having no clear winner.

The March 4 vote also follows a wave of transatlantic elections subject to controversial Russian interference. After the targeted disinformation campaigns, leaks, hacks, and other malicious influence operations—which plagued campaigns in France, Germany, the United States, and beyond—concern looms over whether Italy might witness similar tactics the day of the vote. At least two local news stories have stirred up controversy in the few remaining days before voters go to the polls.

However, Italy’s elections pose broader implications for Europe. The country remains the Eurozone’s third largest economy, and some worry that uncertainty surrounding the elections and the likelihood of a tenuous coalition government has the potential to tip the Eurozone back into crisis. Several leading parties on the right, including the Lega Nord (Northern League) and Five Star Movement, continue to question the single currency and pledged to implement policies that would raise the country’s already soaring deficit and put strain on the wider European economy.

Beyond concerns of economic stability, the Italian elections could also further exacerbate populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-establishment waves that soaked recent elections across Europe. These sentiments distil local anxiety and tear at the fabric of the European project. If Italians allow these fears to inform their votes and determine the outcome of the election, the forces of national retrenchment will have significant short and long-term implications across the continent. 

So, what will happen on March 4? Here is a quick guide to the key players and possible outcomes of the Italian elections.

Who to watch

The upcoming vote is essentially a battle between the center-left coalition, center-right alliance, and a far-right anti-establishment movement.

The center-left coalition is led by Italy’s Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD), which is leading the current coalition government. It is led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who resigned in 2016 after a failed referendum on constitutional reform. The PD draws inspiration from the US Democratic party and traditionally holds liberal views on key issues like migration. The center-left coalition also includes support from smaller parties such as Piu Europa (pro-European), Lista Insieme, and Civica Popolare.

The center-right coalition is led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, which fuses liberal-conservative, Christian democratic, and populist views. The other leading party of this alliance is the Lega Nord, an anti-south, anti-immigrant party that leans farther to the right, led by Matteo Salvini. There are also smaller parties on the right that have joined forces under this umbrella, including Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) and Noi con l'Italia (Us with Italy).

The other key player is the Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, MS5), led by Luigi Di Maio. The Five Star Movement recently emerged as an anti-establishment, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, and pro-green party outside of the traditional Italian political spectrum.

Beyond these, there are a plethora of other minor parties and coalitions sprinkled across the landscape, from the Revolutionary Left and Communist Party, to the far-right CasaPound and Italia agli Italiani (Italy for the Italians).

Who will win?

Many of these parties across the political spectrum do not fall into neatly organized ideological categories. Compounded by an already complex parliamentary system, the diffuse parties make the electoral landscape—and any consequent effort to form a government—complicated and unpredictable.

While Italy instituted a ban on publishing polls two weeks ahead of the general election, the latest results all predict a hung parliament. In other words, no party will win an outright majority and a coalition will be required to form a government. The president of the Italian republic will then choose a prime minister that could serve as a compromise leader for the parties involved.

As indicated by the polls, the Five Star Movement will likely receive the largest number of votes as a single party, with a predicted 29.4 percent of the vote. However, this percentage still falls short of a majority. There is speculation that support for the MS5 among Italian citizens frustrated with the status quo is underestimated, and this could lead to better results than previously predicted. While, as a group, the MS5 has thus far ruled out aligning with another major party, its leader Di Maio has been slightly softer on this issue. If they did choose to form a coalition after the vote, a populist alliance between the MS5 and Lega Nord could be a possible, even if unlikely, outcome.

With Renzi’s center-left coalition garnering 27.4 percent in the last polls, the only existing coalition with the possibility to win an overall majority would be Berlusconi’s center-right alliance, which has polled at 34.7 percent of the vote. In this case, there would likely be a heated battle over whether Forza Italia or Lega Nord would choose the prime minister, as Berlusconi is barred from public office over a tax fraud conviction. If the center-right does not win a majority, there is also a possibility that Forza Italia (without Lega Nord) could angle to form a coalition with the PD, leading to a government quite similar to the current one, already riddled with deadlock. 

Stalemate

With neighboring Germany still struggling to form a coalition in the aftermath a potentially fruitless election, it’s not difficult to envision a similar scenario in Italy. If no government is formed, Italy may be stuck in a stalemate and forced to call new elections—an outcome which European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has openly lamented.

However, elections in Italy have a history of high unpredictability, and it is quite possible that the polls will have missed the mark. Contributing to this are the vast numbers of Italian voters—nearly ten million—that remain undecided, as well as the uncertainty surrounding results in several single-member districts in the country’s south.

It is also important to take stock of several recent votes that have surprised publics and pollsters alike—from the 2016 US presidential elections to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. It is possible that Italy could witness a similar phenomenon in which the polls do not accurately reflect the forces of retrenchment and sentiment taking hold of a significant portion of the population. This could be due to any number of factors, from citizens’ reluctance to share to polling errors.

The complex and ever-evolving dynamics on the Italian political stage have paved the way for a range of outcomes that could have wide-ranging ramifications for the country’s future. In the final days leading up to the election, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  

The Atlantic Council’s @DFRLab will continue to monitor disinformation in the lead-up to Italian elections. Follow along with our #ElectionWatch coverage. 

Lauren Speranza is associate director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. You can follow her on Twitter @LaurenSperanza

Graham Brookie, deputy director and managing editor of @DFRLab, contributed to this report. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrahamBrookie

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