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Is Giorgia Meloni Ready to Revive Italy?

13 Oct 2022
By Professor Piero Garofalo
(foto di Francesco Ammendola - Ufficio per la Stampa e la Comunicazione della Presidenza della Repubblica) Source:

Italy pivoted hard right, propelling Giorgia Meloni’s coalition to victory. The recent elections were characterised by record-high abstentions and voters’ rejection of traditional political parties.

Italians went to the polls on 25 September and elected Italy’s 70th and most conservative government since 1945. Poised to be Italy’s first female premier, Giorgia Meloni and her national-conservative populist party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, FdI), received 26 percent of the popular vote. She led the centre-right coalition, which received 44 percent of the vote, to a majority victory in both the Senate (115 of 200 seats) and the Chamber of Deputies (237 of 400 seats).

This parliamentary majority results from an electoral process that encourages the formation of coalitions. Under this system, known as Rosatellum (Rosato Law, 2017), 37 percent of seats are elected on a first-past-the-post basis, and 63 percent are distributed on a proportional basis. Because the centre-right’s opposition was divided into competing blocs, Meloni’s coalition gained many of the first-past-the-post seats. In addition, the constitutional referendum of 2020 reduced the number of MPs in the Parliament from 630 to 400 in the Chamber of Deputies and from 315 to 200 in the Senate. This reduction in MPs has changed the physiognomy of the Parliament. Today, the Italian government has a new face and a new political profile.

The Winner

Meloni’s victory was not a surprise. Polling since mid-July indicated that FdI was the clear frontrunner. Tensions between the populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, M5S) and the allied Lega (League) and Forza Italia (FI) parties precipitated the government crisis that triggered these snap elections. All three were punished by the electorate. While M5S, Lega, and Forza Italia participated in outgoing-premier Mario Draghi’s governing coalition, Giorgia Meloni, as FdI’s leader, was the public face of the opposition. This mediatic prominence amplified her political and popular stature as a credible alternative to the status quo. Meloni also expanded her appeal among the electorate by actively rebranding the party’s image—especially since the 2019 European parliamentarian elections. FdI’s makeover emphasised a modern nationalist platform and sought to normalise far-right positions in political and public discourse. In 2020, Meloni further enhanced her international stature and credibility when she became president of the European Conservatives and Reformists alliance in the European Union. In addition, because of her charisma, relative youth (she is 45), and outsider status, Meloni seemed a fresh and viable alternative to Italy’s established and ineffectual political class.

Comparing this election to that of 2018, FdI emerges as the clear and only winner. Delving into the numbers, Meloni’s party grew from 4.4 percent to 26 percent of the vote. This dramatic six-fold increase, however, came in large part at the expense of her coalition allies, from whom she siphoned off significant support, as well as from right-wing elements of M5S and disaffected voters. Indeed, exit poll analyses conducted by Ixè Institute and SWG Research Institute indicate that a third of FdI’s support came from people who voted Lega in 2018. Across age groups, FdI dominated as well except among the youngest voters (18 to 24-year-olds), where it trailed Carlo Calenda’s Azione (Action) and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva centrist coalition, and among senior voters (over 65), where it trailed Enrico Letta’s Partito democratico (Democratic Party, PD). The two age groups that most heavily favoured FdI were 55 to 64-year-olds. In addition, female voters (27 percent) favoured FdI at a greater rate than male voters (25 percent).

Meloni’s Junior Partners

In contrast, FdI’s centre-right allies suffered dramatic losses compared to 2018. Matteo Salvini’s Lega decreased from 17.5 percent to 8.8 percent of the popular vote. Lega drew its greatest support from middle-aged voters (35 to 54-year-olds) and was weakest among both the youngest and oldest age groups. Many ex-Lega voters rejected the party’s compromising participation in the previous two governments and turned to FdI, which shares Lega’s anti-immigration stance. Salvini is hoping to serve as interior minister, a strategic role that would place migration in his purview, but Meloni has been resistant to this appointment. Without a prominent ministry, Lega risks marginalisation and further electorate erosion. Salvini’s leadership of Lega is very much in question, as is his rapport with Meloni.

Somehow, 86-year-old Silvio Berlusconi has remained relevant. While FI continues to lose voters (down to 8.2 percent from 14.2 percent in 2018), it is essential to the coalition’s majority and should limit Meloni’s ability to enact extreme policies. The over-65 age group demonstrated the strongest support for Forza Italia, and 55 to 64-year-olds demonstrated the least support. Instead of Berlusconi, former European Parliament President Antonio Tajani is a likely FI appointment to Meloni’s cabinet as foreign minister.

The Opposition

Turning to the opposition, PD came in a distant second to FdI at 19.07 percent of the vote, garnering results comparable to those in 2018. Early polling in July had PD contesting FdI for the lead, but enthusiasm declined as the electoral campaign progressed. Support for PD was strongest among university-educated and over-65 voters and weakest among 18 to 24-year-olds. As with FdI, female voters favoured PD to a greater degree than males. Florence and Bologna remain PD strongholds, but the party’s geographic area of influence has shrunk dramatically. Struggling to connect with voters and to present a clear and compelling platform, PD failed to secure a broad alliance that could have defeated the centre-right. Another blow came from former PD members Matteo Renzi and Carlo Calenda, who formed a centrist alliance (7.8 percent) that attracted disaffected ex-PD voters. As a result, Enrico Letta has resigned his leadership role.

Giuseppe Conte’s M5S fell from 32.5 percent to 15.5 percent — an enormous loss, but a better showing than what pollsters had anticipated. This was confirmation that M5S is essential to a centre-left coalition. The vote verifies that M5S’s electoral base has shifted to the south, where the “citizen’s income,” a conditional guaranteed income enacted by Conte’s cabinet in 2019, is popular, but which the centre-right has vowed to abolish. Support for M5S came primarily from the unemployed, 35 to 44-year-olds, and 25 to 34-year-olds (20.22 percent). Support was weakest among the over 65 and 18 to 24-year-olds. The loss of members to FdI has also reshaped M5S. Today 50 percent of M5S identifies with the left compared to 29 percent in 2018.

In the centre-left alliance, Europa Verde (Green Europe) and Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left) joined forces to secure enough votes (3.5 percent) to return to parliament. Emma Bonino, a leading voice in Italian radical politics since 1976, and Luigi Di Maio, out-going minister of foreign affairs, were not re-elected.

The Largest Political Bloc: Non-Voters

Abstention increased from 27 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2022. Among female voters, the abstention rate was 41 percent, which continues a downward trend from prior elections and indicates a strong disaffection with the political system. Abstention was highest among the economically disadvantaged (46 percent) and the working-class (45 percent).

The 25 September results reaffirm the Italian electorate’s disillusionment with the status quo. Giorgia Meloni exploited this dissatisfaction to win the elections, but whether she is “Ready to Revive Italy” remains an open question.

Piero Garofalo is a Professor of Italian Studies at the University of New Hampshire, United States.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.