The Democrats (the PD) have been the leading force in a broad coalition government which has been in power – with three different Prime Ministers – since the 2013 election. They are running in an electoral coalition with a pro-European party and two centrist groups.
They are competing against: the populist 5 Star Movement (M5S), led by the 31-year-old Luigi di Maio. Essentially the comments section of a political blog made flesh, the M5S is a lesson to anyone who has enjoyed a political comedian like Bill Hicks or Mark Steel and thought: why don’t they start a political party? Founder Beppe Grillo was a popular Italian comedian, whose furious rants turned into activism and then a political party. The M5S are no joke, however, and is likely to be the biggest single party in terms of votes, but by steadfastly refusing to join any coalition, it will be unable to form a government.
The coalition currently ahead when opinion polls closed is made up of Matteo Salvini’s the League, the far-right former northern secessionists; the Walking Dead roué that is Silvio Berlusconi and his revived Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdL). These are joined by the remnants of the Christian Democrats – Us with Italy (NcL) and have been described as a ‘center-right’ grouping, largely out of habit. They are anything but center. Salvini is a poisonous race-baiter who has talked of cleansing Italy of immigrants, regularly espouses Islamophobic hatred and whose party has been endorsed by CasaPound, an avowedly fascist association named after Ezra Pound. Meloni’s FdL have their own historic roots in the quasi-fascist National Alliance of the nineties. Berlusconi is an unprincipled adventurist who only really cares about power. Due to a criminal conviction, he is currently banned from holding office so it is unlikely he would be able to temper the drift to the extreme right even if he was so inclined.
In his end-of-the-year speech for 2017, President Mattarella (Italy has both a President, who is elected by the Senate for a 7-year term and therefore not up for re-election, and a Prime Minister, who is) expressed his hope that the election would be fought on ‘sensible and concrete proposals’. That was the funniest moment in what has been a deeply depressing campaign. The Left promise free university, tax cuts, and minimum wage. M5S would introduce a basic income as well as cutting high pensions and tax cuts. They’re also noises about making vaccinations optional. Meanwhile, the Right are proposing a flat income tax, more tax cuts and a draconian crackdown on immigration. Very little of this has been sensibly costed and none of it takes into account Italy’s gigantic national debt, second only to Greece in the Eurozone. In fact, one of the recurring themes of the election has been the ridiculousness of the promises made: charges slung from one part to the other. But with everyone certain that no one will win, having an actionable program is relatively moot.
It would be business-as-usual funny if it wasn’t for the darker aspects of the campaign. The increasing normalisation of the far right has seen exponents of CasaPound appear on national television and with the right likely to come out on top, the possibility that Salvini will gain a powerful position in government, if not Prime Minister. As if the fascist rumblings weren’t enough, there has been a rise in political violence with a Lega supporter shooting and wounding six black people in a shooting spree in the town of Macerata, which ended in a fascist salute. Anti-fascist demonstrations have degenerated into violence and a member of another far-right party Forza Nuova was beaten up by anti-fascists in Palermo, sparking fears of a tit-for-tat escalation in violence. As well as the beatings and murders of the fascist period, this also brings back memories of the ‘years of lead’ during the 70s and 80s, when the far left Red Brigades pursued a terror campaign, mixed in with some weird conspiracies from a Masonic group called P2.
The electoral system in Italy has for years been held up for ridicule. With a high turnover of governments and a system of proportional representation that guarantees unstable coalitions, electoral reform has tinkered without fixing for a good while. It’s understandable that it’s difficult. The players are trying to change the rules of the game while the game is in play, so everyone looks at any potential reform from the point of view of short-term political gain. This led to one such reform being nicknamed the Porcellum – the pig law. But today democracy is, more than ever in post-war history, in crisis. Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Turkey have all chipped away at democratic safeguards and principles and the United States is becoming an object lesson in the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of demagoguery. And yet perhaps the electoral system will prevent disaster. By producing a stalemate, a centrist block could be formed, especially if it rallied around principles of economic probity, legality, democracy, and anti-fascism – none of which ought to be the unique preserve of either the left or the right. But then we’re back to President Mattarella’s ‘sensible and concrete’ proposals again.