What’s happening in Italy?

I read a few good articles in English about the latest elections in Italy, but they all seemed a bit unclear about what can actually happen and what cannot happen.

I hope this post can be easy to understand, not too boring and not too imprecise (I’m trying to simplify a few things and I didn’t study law).

A brief introduction

Italy is a parliamentary republic. The parliament is formed by two separate houses, the chamber of deputies and the senate. The two houses have the same powers to make laws and to pass votes of confidence for the government.
The cabinet is usually formed by members of the parliament, but this is not a requirement. The prime minister is not particularly powerful, for instance the prime minister cannot dismiss ministers or call for new elections.
The president of Italy is the head of state. The president is mainly a figurehead with limited powers, but becomes very important when it’s time to form a new government or to dissolve the parliament.
The president is elected by a joint session of the two houses of the parliament plus 58 local representatives for a 7-year term.

How is the parliament elected?

The current electoral law, disliked by almost everybody, was used for the first time in 2006 and was designed to make it difficult for the left to get a stable majority. Parties can form coalitions or stand on their own.
For the lower house, the coalition or party with the most votes automatically gets 55% of the seats. The rest of the seats are assigned to the other coalitions or parties on a proportional basis.
The senate is elected in a similar way, but on a regional basis (Italy is formed by 20 regions). This means that the party or coalition that gets most of the votes in a region gets 55% of the seats assigned to that region. It means that, at a national level, it’s possible that nobody will have a majority.

What are the main parties/coalitions in Italy?

The left is formed mainly by the Democratic Party (a center-left social democratic party) and by Left Ecology Freedom (a communist-ish/green party).
The centre is a mix of Christian and economically liberal parties. Its leader is Mario Monti, the current technocrat prime minister.
The right is formed by Silvio Berlusconi‘s People of Freedom and by the Northern League (they want more independence for the North of Italy and they are a bit populist and racist).
The new entry at the latest elections was Beppe Grillo‘s Five Star Movement. Their policies are a mix of environmentalism, anti-corruption and euroscepticism. While most of their goals are laudable, they are very populist with huge holes in their policies; basically it’s not clear where they could get the money for any of their policies. While they claim to value direct democracy, it’s Beppe Grillo who actually completely controls the party, even if he was not a candidate at the elections.

Why isn’t Beppe Grillo in the parliament?

Beppe Grillo says he is just the spokesperson of his party. Moreover, the Five Star Movement is against electing people that were found guilty of any crime in the past and Beppe Grillo was found guilty of manslaughter for a car accident in which three passengers died.

Who won the elections?

Nobody. The left has a majority in the lower house, but no current coalition has a majority in the senate.

Who voted for the 5 Star Movement?

Apparently one third of their voters used to vote for the left, one third for the right and one third didn’t vote in the past.

What is going to happen now?

The new parliament’s term will start in a couple of weeks. At that point the two houses need to vote for their presidents/speakers. Then the Italian president will hold meetings with the various political leaders and try to find a prime minister that has good chances of creating a cabinet that could pass a confidence vote by both houses of the parliament. This is the problem as there is no majority at the moment.

Is a broader coalition possible?

In theory yes. Any coalition will have to include the left because they control the lower house.

  • A coalition of the left and the centre is what most people expected before the elections, but Monti didn’t get as many votes as expected, so this coalition would not have a majority in the senate.
  • A coalition of the left and the 5 Star Movement would have a majority, but Beppe Grillo doesn’t want to form alliances with anybody. The 5 stars are against traditional politics and want a deep renovation of the Italian political class; if they decided to form an alliance with a traditional party they would lose a lot of their voters.
  • A coalition of the left and the right is possible too, but unlikely. The current technocrat government was, after all, a coalition of left, centre and right, but Berlusconi decided to stop supporting it, so why should he be trusted again? Moreover, I think that a coalition of left and right would disgust a lot of their voters.

Is a minority government possible?

It would be very unstable but yes, it would be possible to have a minority government formed by the left and, maybe, the centre with external support by the 5 stars. The problem is that this cabinet would still need to pass a vote of confidence in the lower house (easy) and in the senate (not so easy as the 5 stars don’t want to vote for it).

But the 5 star senators could just abstain, right?

No. Abstentions in the senate count as no, so the government would not get the parliament’s confidence.

But the 5 star senators could just leave the senate during the confidence vote!

No. Votes in the senate are only valid if the majority of senators are present. The right would not have enough votes to block the confidence vote, but they could just leave before the vote, making the vote invalid.

Can’t you just vote again?

Usually the president, when it’s clear that there is no chance to form a cabinet, calls for elections, but this time it’s not possible.
The authors of our constitution were worried that a president could dissolve the parliament just before the end of the presidential term in the hope of getting a more favourable parliament that would elect the current president for another term.
The term of the current president will end in a few months, so he cannot dissolve the parliament now.

How about another technocrat government?

It would be possible (and it would be very different from the current one!) but it would be very difficult to get the left and the 5 stars to agree on much.

Could the new parliament elect another president that would then dissolve the parliament?

Yes, but finding an agreement to make this happen is going to be complicated and take time. In the meantime, Italy won’t have a stable government (the current Monti government will be in charge until a new government is found, but with very limited powers).

So, what is going to happen?

Good question. I have no idea.

17 thoughts on “What’s happening in Italy?

  1. We should send you back Elio Di Rupo, he knows how to make impossible coalitions in such situation 😉


  2. Very straight forward and well done analysis. I think what is going to happen is much simpler then it seems (which is indeed the exact reason why I choose not to vote at all this time), there will be a broad left+right coalition with yet another monti government which will continue exactly where it left (or it is supposed to leave), with left and right parties accousing the(ir) government for the “not so popular decisions” it will make at the next electoral campaign, exactly what happen before these elections. Anyway (bad) time will tell. Have you got room for me in London? 🙂


  3. Lapo: if they do that they will lose a lot of votes and the new government would be very unstable. I don’t think they want their parties to commit political suicide.


  4. “For the lower house, the coalition or party with the most votes automatically gets 55% of the seats.”
    That is freaking INSANE. Here in Argentina we already have a lot of trouble with the Peronists passing any vote the President wants just because they have a mayority (sure, we have a presidentialist republic here but nothing would change if we had a parlamentary republic instead, after all the President/Prime Minister is usually the leader of the party).


  5. @Alex:
    The goal is to give more stability to the government. I think it’s a ridiculous thing to do. A similar law was passed twice in the past in Italy; the first time during fascism and the second time in the ’50s. The latter was nicknamed fraud law and didn’t last long.

    Similar laws are also used for local elections. In this case I think it makes sense because local governments have little power. Somebody taking responsibility and doing stuff (with little risk of doing too much damage because of the limited powers) is better than a local council without a majority.


  6. @Alex: the whole point of the “porcellum” (the nickname of the electoral law, i.e. “the pig”) is to make it really hard for the left to get the majority in both chambers. it was created by the center-right coalition, and bears the name of a political hack of the northern league. since the layout of the senate is decided by the electoral results in the various regions, and there are more historically center-right regions than center-left ones, the law effectively pins control of the higher chamber to the center-right.

    there are other issues of the electoral law as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Electoral_Law

    it’s an awesome piece of legislation, really; one that puts third world dictatorships and “banana republics” to shame.


  7. Marco, political suicide? Here in italy? Man, there’s no such a thing over here, look at berlusconi getting around 30% after all. You’re spending too much time abroad pal.


  8. Thanks Marco, this is a good overview, and I share it for more or less its entirety.

    I sincerely hope the disequality “5 Stars Movement ≠ Beppe Grillo” holds when it’s time to give the vote of confidence.

    After all, the left government could help the 5 Stars Movement to realize many of their programmatic points. It would be amusing if the 5-Stars’ MPs were to call for another election *after being given the capability to act*. It’s time they act responsibly, and show that they are not just populists or destructivists.

    Truth is, the 5-Stars’ people elected already have a lot of internal problems. They don’t know how the Parliament works, they already have some ethical issues (mother and son both elected, a person who received just *one* vote at the past city elections now is a deputy (how can that be representative?), etc.), and they have very different ideas among them (homophobic people as well as people in favor of gay marriage, people in favor of gun control and hunters, etc.). Hope is low, but not zero.

    PS. Can we have Stefano Rodotà as the next President of the Republic? That would be a very nice and professional guy, who would be able to help with the situation.

    @Lapo: I don’t think a Left+Right government will realistically happen. For sure, at least the Left would lose a cartload of votes from such a move; especially now that Berlusconi has been yet again incriminated for corrupting other parties’ MPs so that they made the 2008 left government fall.

    By the way, does that not call for high treason charges? It’s subverting the order of the Republic, afaik.


  9. Very well written summary, as simple as these things can be.

    One other option which would save everything it’s a minority government with limited objectives* to bring the country to a new election in one year.

    * New election laws, anti-corruption laws, new head of state and nothing more.

    Greetings from Italy… for now.


  10. @Lapo, not voting is not a good way to express dissent: I believe that voting is a moral and social obligation, but if you disagree with everybody, just void the electoral card. That way your vote is counted towards the total, but nobody gets your vote. Much more responsible.


  11. No it doesn’t but at least you’ve voted and it distinguishes you from the lazy bastards who can’t be bothered


  12. Tristan: there’s no difference at all from voting or voiding the card, I choosed not to vote, strangelly enough, not for my proverbial lazyness, but for the reasons I expressed before also considering that the current rules (which the left party didn’t change when they had the power to do so) stink way too much to make me happy to use them.


  13. Hi
    A couple of obvious things I have spotted:
    1 – the prime minister CAN fire other ministers, contrary to what you stated
    2 – the journalist peter gomez explained that n the senate, if the centrist MPs vote for together with the left, and only 16 MPs of the grillo party stay in and vote against, then a left-center government would have the numbers to get the trust. Once te government has the trust, the grillo men have said they would vote any proposal that matches their program. very thin c hance, but still a chance


  14. 1 – I don’t think so. The parts of the constitution I checked don’t say it’s possible (well, the constitution doesn’t mention any way of removing single ministers). All the other articles I found claim it’s not possible either.

    2 – Well, if MPs change party or vote against their party then everything is possible.


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