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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 24 January, 2020

Explainer: Everything you need to know about today's Italian election

Who’s running? What’s at stake? How are they picked? And is Silvio Berlusconi really in line for a fourth term in office?

Mario Monti has set up his own political party to try and keep power - but the chances of him doing so are slim.
Mario Monti has set up his own political party to try and keep power - but the chances of him doing so are slim.
Image: Antonio Calanni/AP

ITALIANS TODAY start heading to the polls in a key election that could dictate whether Italy can help drag Europe out of its financial crisis, or whether it could undo some of its economic progress and run the risk of heading back into bailout territory.

It’s the end of Mario Monti’s tenure, bringing to an end a bizarre era in Italian politics where an independent economist and senator-for-life was asked to keep the show on the road when the world was turning its back on Italy.

The previous prime minister – noted sad-looking-man Silvio Berlusconi – was forced out in late 2011 when fears about Italy’s financial future sent its cost of borrowing spiralling.

President Georgio Napolitano (whose role is broadly similar to Ireland’s president) asked economist and former European Commissioner Mario Monti to chair a ‘caretaker’ government. Monti was therefore made a ‘senator for life’ – a role which can be given only to five people at a time – so he could lead his government.

That government has successfully brought the cost of borrowing back into reasonable territory, and with Italy’s last Budget passed by parliament in December, Monti called a new election.

First, the basics

Electoral law in Italy is relatively unique among the modern nations of the world. It elects the full population of both the Chamber of Deputies (630 members) and the Senate (315 members) at once.

However, the voting criteria for the two are separate – voters only get to elect Senators at age 25, but Deputies at age 18. What’s more, there are no candidates running for election – only parties, with MPs appointed based on their standing in a ‘party list’ system.

In a further unique setup, there is a formal recognition of political coalitions: parties formally register as a coalition before they run for office, with their electoral result determined by this status.

The combination of recognised coalitions and the absence of direct candidates means Italy’s laws bend even further: the party (or coalition) which gets the most votes nationwide is automatically given 54 per cent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies – more than enough to grant it a safe majority.

In the Senate it’s trickier, though, because the ‘majority bonus’ in the Senate is allocated based on results in individual regions – where the most popular party or coalition gets 55 per cent of the seats for that region.

This means that a party which comes in second place nationally, but which leads the polls in a couple of large regions, can stop the national winner from gaining a majority in both houses of parliament.

The rules are intended to ensure a cohesive government in what was once a fragmented series of countries, by rewarding coalitions and those who gain broad national support – but it means that building a national platform to govern for five years is tricky business.

In order to make sure that the government gets off to a decent start, the very first act of parliament is to debate a motion of confidence in the proposed government. Once the two houses have approved the proposed cabinet, it’s up and running.

So who’s in the running?

There are three main coalitions in the running, with a couple of other large-ish parties opting to run on their own. The three coalitions are all standing behind their respective candidates.

(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Firstly, there’s the outgoing premier Mario Monti. It’s a centrist coalition which includes the newly-founded ‘Civic Choice’ – set up by Monti himself when he decided to seek re-appointment as Prime Minister, and including the remnants of other smaller Monti-supporting parties.

It also includes a couple of Fine Gael-style centre-right, Christian Democrat parties – and, importantly for some, had the backing of the Vatican (or, at least, it did until Pope Benedict decided he’d step down only a few days after the result was known).

Its chances look quite weak, however: one of the reasons why Monti resigned when he did is because both the public and the political classes were beginning to tire of their unelected leader.

Monti’s coalition accounts for barely a tenth of the outgoing Chamber, and even less in the Senate – and with his two main rivals looking to pounce on public fatigue for Monti, it’s not looking good.

(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Secondly, there’s Silvio Berlusconi - who is putting his own marathon legal troubles to one side to look for an unprecedented fourth term in office. Italy’s richest man, now aged 76, has reclaimed power in his People of Freedom party and revived its partnership with the centre-right Northern League.

Joining forces with the Northern League has worked out well for Berlusconi in the past, and the two are the biggest parties in an eight-way coalition that also takes in populists, pensioners, moderates and right-wingers.

Though the internal relationships in the coalition are good – the group has been together for so long that they’re now like family – the problem is with Berlusconi himself: many voters have lost trust in his ability to manage Italy’s finances as well as he has managed his own. Even the very mention of his candidacy sent Italian bond yields rocketing, such is the fear with which investors regard a return to power.

Furthermore, the series of criminal trials – and convictions – against him mean his image has been tarnished. That said, as Italy’s largest media owner, Berlusconi has adequate means to sculpt public opinion to perhaps win one last attempt at power.

(AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

The leader of the third – and the most popular – coalition is Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the Democratic Party and the ‘Common Good’ coalition, which is backed by socialists, democrats, leftists and a few moderate parties.

Bersani has been generous in his praise of Monti’s era, commending him for making good a near-impossible task, and has worked his way up to the top of his party after holding three different cabinet positions in Democratic governments led by the likes of Romano Prodi.

He’s a former MEP, which does no harm for his credentials in winning the support of other countries, but his candidacy has been unremarkable. Some would perceive that Bersani is the frontrunner simply because he is one of the longest-serving senior politicians in the country.

He is, however, seen as a safe pair of hands. In a way perversely similar to Berlusconi, he is respected for having stayed the course and been a loyal and adept servant to his party. The question is whether this support will translate into an appointment to Italy’s most powerful job.

Given Bersani’s previous support for the Monti regime, and his outspoken praise for how the economist handled the job, it remains possible that Bersani and Monti will set up a super-coalition of their own – especially if the Common Good coalition cannot win an outright majority in the Senate.

(AP Photo/Massimo Pinca, File photo)

The individual parties have almost zero chance of wielding any influence, but worth mentioning is the ‘Five Star Alliance’ set up by satirist and TV host Beppe Grillo. As a general anti-establishment party, it has no real political ideology, but supports direct democracy and is slightly Eurosceptic.

It’s performed well in sporadic local elections nationwide, including winning the mayorship of Parma, and picked its national ‘list’ of prospective MPs through an unprecedented online primary – but initial enthusiasm waned and party is now in a head-on race for third place with Monti’s coalition.

Who’s going to win?

Officially it’s tricky to tell: Italian law bans opinion polls within two weeks of the election date, meaning the polls of February 9 are the most recent. They showed a slight lead for the centre-left coalition (34 per cent) with Berlusconi’s centre-right gaining ground (28 per cent).

Don’t forget, the margin of victory is relatively meaningless: whichever coalition tops the nationwide poll is guaranteed a majority in the Chamber.

There are ways of telling, though. InTrade, a website which is similar to Betfair where members ‘buy’ shares in a certain outcome, is offering ‘shares’ in the election – with 86.5 per cent of shareholders reckoning Bersani is a shoo-in.

Berlusconi has merely a 4.4 per cent chance, while Grillo has a 0.3 per cent chance (which is generous, considering he’s not even on the party list to be elected and therefore can’t be the premier).

Mario Monti’s coalition is an outside bet, but has only a 2.2 per cent chance – with a 9.1 per cent chance that the result will be inconclusive and require another Monti-style outsider to be appointed as a national caretaker.

Still, though, it’s all up for grabs: two weeks ago, in the last polls, the momentum was with Berlusconi. If that has continued over the last fortnight, the Italian people will have made an old man very happy by Monday morning.

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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