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5 October 2022

The struggle for Italy

As Giorgia Meloni celebrates victory, Italians are already questioning how long her government will last.

By Tim Parks

Sunday 25 September, 1pm. In my hand I hold two ballot papers, one pink and one yellow. After 41 years in Italy, I’m finally eligible to vote. The pink paper is for the Chamber of Deputies, recently ­reduced from 630 members to 400, the yellow is for the Senate of the Republic, reduced from 315 to 200. With this election 345 people are losing their jobs.

I don’t just vote for a name on each slip. In both the Chamber and the Senate three of every eight seats are elected with a majority, first-past-the-post system; the other five, by proportional representation.

For the ­proportional candidates I’m voting in Lombardy 1, which includes Milan; for the Chamber majority candidate, central southern Milan; for the Senate majority candidate all of southern Milan. Three different constituencies. Not to worry; none of those elected will be back to hold surgeries or test local opinion. Candidates are selected by the national parties at the last minute and many have little connection to the area.

The ballot papers are tabloid-size with plenty of names and colourful symbols. But I can’t “split” my vote, choosing one party on the proportional side, one on the majority. Imagine that for the proportional, I want to vote for the Partito Democratico (PD) as I like their candidates. Well and good. But for the majority seat they are in coalition with three other parties, and the candidate is from the +Europa party, which I don’t like. Too bad. It’s both or neither. Though I could vote for a different party in the Senate, if I chose, to cause a little confusion.

The complications are just beginning. If I vote PD because the first of their four proportional candidates is party leader, Enrico Letta, that doesn’t mean he will become my MP, even though PD are bound to win at least one of the eight seats available here. Candidates can stand in up to five proportional constituencies, as well as for one majority seat. If they win their majority seat they are eliminated from the proportional lists. If they lose the majority seat, but win seats in more than one proportional constituency, then they are considered elected for the area where their party had the smallest proportion of the votes.

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[See also: The making and meaning of Giorgia Meloni]

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So, the more people vote PD in Milan the less likely Letta – head of the list – is to be elected here. The attraction of his name is to the advantage of others on the list.

Proportional candidate lists must ­alternate men and women, by law. However, if a party puts a popular woman candidate at the top of the list in five constituencies, this will be to the benefit of four men second on the lists. There is a threshold of 3 per cent of the national vote below which a party ­cannot win a seat, but if the party is in a coalition that wins more than 10 per cent of the vote, then it need only to win 1 per cent for its votes to be passed to other members of the coalition. It’s not easy to know whom you’re voting for.

I could go on. This is Italy in every area of life. It doesn’t change. Debating convenient adjustments to the electoral system in Florence in the 15th century, Cosimo de’ Medici warned his collaborators that “the greatest attention must be paid to the technical aspects”. If I put a cross on a majority candidate’s name, rather than on the symbol of the ­party I support, then the proportional side of my vote will be divided between the parties in the coalition this candidate represents – which means counting halves and thirds and quarters of votes. It is hard to think of a system more likely to alienate the public from its elected representatives. The consequent disaffection will be a decisive factor in today’s vote.

Enough. I’ve shown my ID; I’m in the booth. Who can I vote for? Twenty parties are presenting themselves, but only six count. There are the three main parties of the right-wing coalition: Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI). In the event of their winning a majority they have stated that the leader of the party with the most votes will be prime minister.

Since FdI were recently polling 25 per cent as opposed to Lega’s 11 per cent and FI’s 8 per cent, this means Meloni. The press has made much of her neo-fascist roots, which she has long since eschewed. Looking through the three manifestos we’re talking a range of opinion not dissimilar to the broad-church, UK Conservative Party, with a strong dash of Euroscepticism.

Above all, Meloni is pledging to introduce a new presidential system, on French or American lines, which would enable the public to elect the president. Neither of the outgoing parliament’s two prime ministers, the lawyer Giuseppe Conte and the banker Mario Draghi, had been on any ballot at the 2018 election. 

Letta’s PD has based its campaign on attacking Meloni’s extremist past, lamenting the downfall of Draghi’s government and warning that the right would not be welcome in Brussels. In coalition with three other minor parties, PD does not have any distinctive policies beyond championing the rights of minorities and insisting that salvation lies in the EU. The coalition has hinted it would invite Draghi back. As the respected writer Walter Siti observed, PD had long since “consigned the economy to the automatisms of international capitalist finance”.

[See also: Why Italy remains ungovernable]

Carlo Calenda and Matteo Renzi’s ­centrist Azione party also wants Draghi back. They have been asking voters to give them 10 per cent so they can hold the balance of power and bring about a government of national unity. Finally, there is the Five Star Movement, the largest party in the last parliament, now polling 11 per cent. Once genuinely revolutionary, or at least endearingly maverick, it now offers no more than a generous range of welfare handouts, appealing unashamedly to the poorer south.

And Draghi? The prime minister is not standing for election, not supporting any party, and has said he doesn’t want to be prime minister again, but in such a way that Italians understand he probably would, if pressed. So you might be voting for him, if you vote PD, or Azione, but then again you might not. I take the indelible pencil provided and quickly make my two crosses on the symbol of my chosen party.

11pm. For two weeks before Italian ­elections no opinion polls can be published, to avoid influencing our decision. But polling goes on just the same and politicians have access to it. Any change in a party’s electoral messaging prompts fierce speculation as to what polling trends might be behind it. Pollsters are interviewed and tell us excitedly that a lot is shifting, only they can’t say what.

Hence, late in the evening, we are agog for the first exit polls, which merely confirm previous trends. The one surprise is that the Five Star Movement, at 15 per cent, has done better than expected. Crucially, with 26 per cent of the vote, Meloni has more than double the support of her allies, with the Lega on 8.5 per cent and Forza Italia on 8 per cent. PD is on 19 per cent – a disaster. It is the most emphatic electoral result in Italy in decades, and, at 64 per cent, the lowest turnout in a general election since the Second World War.

3am. Although counting all those half and quarter votes for the final assignment of the proportional seats will take days, Meloni gives her victory speech. She has the gift of appearing natural and makes no attempt to hide her lower-middle-class roots and marked Roman idiom. The tone is sober, reflective, intimate: this is a time of responsibility; life will be tough; we must preserve the dignity of the institutions and govern for all Italians. No polemics. Whatever one thinks of Meloni’s politics, it is hard not to be impressed by the distance she has travelled since her party polled 4 per cent in 2018.

In an article published at midnight by the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, her close adviser, the journalist, novelist and, intriguingly, Muslim convert, Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, observes that the mistake of the left has been to ridicule Meloni, which pushed large numbers of ordinary people to rally around her. It’s fair comment; Meloni’s election, I suspect, has as much to do with class solidarity as political leanings. At the deepest level, so much of what happens in Italy is about belonging.

Monday 26 September. Despite an overwhelming victory, the immediate question, the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore tells us, is how long a Meloni government can last. There will be trouble with her coalition partners, who have been humiliated. The economic situation is dire, with high inflation and ­rocketing energy costs. Europe is hostile. ­Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has threatened that the EU “has tools” if Italy strays from the what it deems to be the right path.

In a matter of hours, this is the narrative emerging on the losing side. Meloni won’t be able to govern. Soon enough we will be safely back to an administration of national unity run by some respectable institutional figure admired in Brussels.

This, it seems to me, is what is at stake in Italy today, and indeed in Europe. Is Italy to have a determinedly national government that fights its corner in the EU at every level of community policy, or is it to be a small part of a powerful federation, with only limited room for manoeuvre, mainly in the cultural sphere? Both visions are respectable, but it’s hard to see how one can oscillate between them. Either Giorgia Meloni’s will be the last failed attempt at a strong national government, or the beginning of a new era that will have profound consequences for EU ambitions.

[See also: Who is Giorgia Meloni?]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!