EXPLAINER: Italian elections are only part of government formation

A Sunday parliamentary election will determine who will govern in Italy next. But it could take weeks before a coalition government is actually in place to run the main industrial economy and key NATO member.

Opinion polls indicate that voters could elect the first post-World War II far-right prime minister – and the first woman to lead an Italian government – in the person of Giorgia Melon.

Given Italy’s fractured political spectrum, no single party has a good chance of winning enough seats to govern alone. Centrists right and right have forged a campaign pact that could propel Meloni to power. The rival centre-left bloc has failed to secure such a broad alliance with populists or left-centrists, which could put it at a disadvantage.

WHY ELECTIONS NOW?

The elections were due to take place in the spring of 2023, when the parliament’s five-year term was due to end. But populist leaders have seen support for their parties decline steadily both in opinion polls and in various mayoral and gubernatorial races since the last national elections in 2018.

In July, 5 Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi snatched support from Prime Minister Mario Draghi in a vote of confidence. This triggered the early demise of the high-profile coalition government and paved the way for snap elections.

Meloni’s meteoric rise in the opinion polls has made the trio of populist leaders nervous about waiting until spring to confront voters. His far-right Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, won just over 4% in the 2018 election. Polls indicate the party could garner as much as 25% on Sunday. Salvini and Berlusconi are now in an electoral alliance with Meloni.

LESS LEGISLATIVE

Many legislators will not be re-elected — regardless of their legislative record — simply because of math. Since the last election, a reform has been adopted aimed at streamlining Parliament and making its operation less costly for taxpayers. In the upper house, the number of senators goes from 315 to 200, while the lower house of deputies will have 400 instead of 630.

PINBALL POLITICS

Almost everyone agrees that Italy’s electoral law is complicated, including the lawmakers who created it. Of the total number of seats, 36% are determined by a first-past-the-post system: whoever gets the most votes for a particular district wins. The remaining 64% of the seats are distributed proportionally, on the basis of lists of candidates determined by the parties and their alliances.

Legislators have likened the proportional part of the electoral system to a game of pinball, especially in the Chamber of Deputies. Under the “pinball effect”, a candidate who, for example, came first in a specific constituency might see another candidate who finished second elsewhere suddenly move to their constituency, knocking the first-place candidate upside down by one seat.

Confused? As well as many voters. With the exception of first-past-the-post ballots, many Italians essentially vote for alliances and parties, not candidates, and have no say in determining their specific representative in the legislature.

WHEN DOES ITALY GET A NEW GOVERNMENT?

Governments across Europe are grappling with an energy and cost-of-living crisis – primarily triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that is expected to worsen this winter. But over the next few weeks, the caretaker government of Mario Draghi will likely be grappling with Italy.

President Sergio Mattarella, as head of state, will hold consultations with party leaders to determine which political forces are ready to team up in a coalition. Then Mattarella will ask someone – if the opinion polls prove correct, probably Meloni – to try to put together a government with a solid majority in parliament.

Whoever is bugged reports to the President with a proposed Cabinet slate, if a coalition is cobbled together. In 2018, Mattarella overruled the selection for economy minister because the proposed candidate had questioned Italy’s continued participation in the group of countries that use Europe’s common currency, the euro.

Sentiment grew so tense that the leader of the 5 Star Movement, which was trying to form the coalition, demanded Mattarella’s removal. The squabbles between the 5 Stars and the Right League, the proposed coalition’s junior partner, dragged on, and it took three months before this government was sworn in.

A MATTER OF TRUST

All new governments must win a mandatory vote of confidence in Parliament. The new legislature must hold its first session within 21 days of the election. Thus, the incoming Parliament should be in place by mid-October. After designating the presidents of its chambers, the vote of confidence can take place.

HOW LONG DO ITALIAN GOVERNMENTS LAST?

In theory, for the entire legislature. But post-war governments have generally exhausted their resilience long before that.

To cite the latest example: since the 2018 elections, Italians have had three governments. Two were led by 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte, who first teamed up with League leader Matteo Salvini, In Conte II, Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party replaced the League as junior partner.

When Conte’s second government fell in early 2021, Mattarella tapped Draghi to lead a pandemic unity government. The unity of this coalition collapsed, victim of rival agendas between its main partners: the 5 stars, the democrats, the League and Forza Italia of Berlusconi.

The only senior leader who refused to join a coalition government in the outgoing legislature was Giorgia Meloni. Pollsters say voters could reward her for her consistency, staying staunchly in opposition.

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