Italy is drifting back to its old fragmented politics

 

 

(http://www.economist.com)

 

IN CONTRAST to France, where the political system has been upended by the overwhelming victories of Emmanuel Macron and his new party, voters in Italy on June 11th opted mostly for the devils they know.

In the first round of local elections in more than 1,000 municipalities, candidates representing decades-old parties of the right (Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the more radical, populist Northern League) did particularly well. The biggest loser was Beppe Grillo’s upstart Five Star Movement (M5S). The anti-establishment, Eurosceptic M5S failed to reach the run-offs in any of the 25 provincial capitals that were up for grabs, including Mr Grillo’s native Genoa.

So are Italians, like other Europeans, tiring of Eurosceptic populism? Perhaps. But the Northern League is at least as Eurosceptic and populist as the M5S, and it would be foolhardy to write Mr Grillo’s party off. Besides, local issues and individual personalities had a big influence on the results. The clearest tendency in Italy at the moment is not so much a shift in a specific political direction, but rather a perilous drift back to a system where fragile coalitions of ill-assorted partners are the norm, as they were for decades in Italy after the second world war.

The return of old-style Italian politics can be seen in the preparations for the next general elections, which must be held by May 2018. The president, Sergio Mattarella, is reluctant to call a general election until parliament has harmonised Italy’s electoral laws: it currently has different rules for choosing each of the two chambers. Mr Mattarella fears that the next election could produce different majorities in each house, making Italy even more difficult to govern than usual.

 

Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister and leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), who has been pressing for an early election, seemed to have reached an agreement with the other main parties on an electoral law similar to Germany’s. This would have had the merit of establishing a threshold for entry to parliament. Parties with negligible popular support in the country, but a handful of seats in parliament, have often wielded disproportionate influence because of their ability to provide crucial support for coalition governments. But on June 8th, Mr Renzi’s project came to grief when maverick lawmakers torpedoed a bill incorporating the deal between the main parties.

What the two current electoral laws have in common is that both would create highly fragmented legislatures (except in the unlikely event that one party wins 40% of the vote in the lower house, in which case it would be granted a guaranteed majority). Such fragmentation was characteristic during the Cold War, when politics in Italy became an endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of parties that united and separated in short-lived coalition governments. It was to some extent a deliberate strategy: the common denominator of all of these coalitions was that they never included the thenItalian Communist Party (PCI).

Unless parliament can agree on a substantial reform of the electoral law before next year, the future could start to look much like the past, but with the M5S taking on the role of the old PCI – not because the mainstream parties want to exclude it, but because Mr Grillo’s movement refuses to ally with any of them. “The question is: ‘How will it be possible to govern the country?’,” asks Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of politics at the Luiss university in Rome. “The only answer I can see at this stage is a coalition between the PD and Forza Italia.” Such a partnership would be unnatural, awkward and potentially short-lived. Mr Mattarella is right to worry.