Sunday, 27 May 2012

Italian local elections: a country for old men?

This post by Duncan McDonnell originally appeared at LSE's EUROPP blog.

Here’s a shocking statistic: after the 2012 local elections, not one of Italy’s 50 (yes, fifty) largest cities will have a female mayor. Here’s a less shocking one: the Italian media seems not to have noticed. Rather, the focus of attention since the first round of local elections two weeks ago has been mostly on the results gained by comedian Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five Star Movement) and on the poor performances of Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PDL – People of Freedom) and the Lega Nord (LN – Northern League). However, there is little reason for cheer for any of the parties currently in parliament.

Movimento Cinque Stelle leader Beppe Grillo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (BY SA)

Although the first round of local elections on May 6th and May 7th only concerned around 20% of the total electorate, it was inevitably seen as a first key test for the parties following the suspension of party government at national level and the installation of Mario Monti’s technocratic government in November 2011. As the results came in, there were three obvious conclusions. The first was that the bipolarization of politics which has long been touted as the remedy to Italy’s ills is now in tatters. In part this was due to the former allies PDL and LN running separately, but it also reflected a general fragmentation of the vote. Since the introduction of directly-elected mayors in 1993, Italy has had a local electoral system that turned most mayoral contests into two-horse races. Not any more. As Vincenzo Emanuele of CISE shows, while the top two mayoral candidates received an average total of 88% in the first round of the 2007 elections (when most of the same cities last voted), this has now fallen to 69%. The days of a straight centre-left versus centre-right fight are gone for now.

The second obvious conclusion was that the PDLand the Lega Nord did badly on all fronts: mayoral victories, council seats and overall vote share. As a study by the Istituto Cattaneo highlights, compared to the 2010 regional elections, both parties have lost at least half their votes in absolute terms. The story is not so rosy however for the other major parties, which have seen many of their voters abstain in 2012. The centre-left Partito Democratico (PD – Democratic Party) will finish up with more mayoralties, but this does not reflect a jump in popularity for it or the other two parties in national parliament, Italia dei Valori (IDV – Italy of Values) and the Unione di Centro (UDC – Union of the Centre). Rather, as an Ipsos survey conducted on 7 May showed, while the PD remains in first place, it does so with just over 25%. Indeed, as we can see from the figure below which compares current poll results with the last two general elections and the 2009 European Parliament elections, none of the current parties in parliament is benefiting particularly from the decline of the PDL and the Lega Nord.

Figure 1 – General and European election results in Italy since 2006, and current polling

Source: Ministero dell’Interno and Ipsos

So who is doing well? This brings us to the third obvious conclusion from these elections. Although Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) had been rising in the polls for some time, its results took all commentators by surprise. In the north and centre-north, it received well over 10% of the vote and in cities like Genoaand Parma(where its mayoral candidate has made the second round), it performed way beyond expectations. Perhaps fuelled by this success, it is now running at between 12% and 17% in national opinion polls. There has been a widespread tendency to dismiss Grillo’s movement as ‘anti-political’. However, this does it a disservice. While it is certainly ‘anti’ the main parties, ‘anti’ the Monti government and ‘anti’ austerity, it is not anti-politics per se.

In fact, Grillo’s meet-ups and now the M5S have been active for at least five years at grassroots level in campaigns ranging from sustainable development to political transparency to utility privatizations. They are not saying that politics is a dirty world which voters should keep at arm’s length by delegating the M5S to sort it out. Rather, they are saying that the current parties are incompetent and untrustworthy and that citizens themselves should become more involved in scrutinizing and shaping decisions. Moreover, as an ISPO survey shows, over 30% of those who voted for the M5S two weeks ago had previously abstained. The movement is thus bringing people back into politics at a time when over 40% of respondents are stating in surveys that they are not planning to vote or are undecided. And when just 66.9% voted in the local elections – the lowest such turnout to date.

Finally, a less obvious conclusion: while a few years ago, Letizia Moratti was mayor inMilan, Marta Vincenzi in Genoa and Rosa Russo Iervolino in Naples, now none of Italy’s 50 largest cities has a female mayor. Amidst all the debate regarding Grillo and the state of the parties, this development seems to have gone unnoticed in Italy. Sadly, it is entirely in line with the composition of the country’s current governing class. Only two out of Italy’s twenty regions have a female president, while most Italian party leaders are male and over 60. Meanwhile, in the absence of the parties, the Monti technocratic government has provided some continuity at national level thanks to a cabinet with an average age of 64 and just three women ministers out of 18. The party system may be in turmoil, but Italy remains a country for old men. In that sense, but probably only that, the sprightly 63-year old Mr. Grillo fits right in.

Duncan McDonnell – European University Institute, Florence
Duncan McDonnell is Jean Monnet Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence. He is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Populism (Palgrave, 2008) and has published recently on the Lega Nord and Outsider Parties. He is currently working with Daniele Albertazzi on a book entitled ‘Populists in Power’ (Routledge, 2013) and with Anna Bosco on the 2012 ‘Politica in Italia/Italian Politics’ yearbook, published in Italian and English by Il Mulino and Berghahn.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Lega Nord now below Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà?

The corruption scandal surrounding the Lega Nord has had predictable and severe consequences for the party's standing in the polls. Here's one estimate of how the party is faring. Click to see a larger version:

About this graph: This graph is based on poll results publicly available at It shows the top six parties over the relevant period. A smoothed line ("loess fit") is added to aid interpretation. The current values of that smoothed line are plotted at the end. The smoothed line does not (yet!) take account of variations in polling sample sizes or house effects.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Monti government: democracy without choice?

This post by Duncan McDonnell originally appeared at LSE's EUROPP blog.

Party government was formally suspended in Italy on 18 November 2011. On that day, less than a week after Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation, a new government led by the former European commissioner Mario Monti received the support of the Chamber of Deputies, with only the regionalist-populist Lega Nord (Northern League) voting against it. By an overwhelming majority, all but one of Italy’s parliamentary parties approved a government that contained not a single party representative or elected parliamentarian.

Italian prime minister Mario Monti Credit: Friends of Europe (Creative Commons BY)

Italy of course was not the only EU member state to change its government in November 2011. The Cannes G20 summit at the start of that month had marked the beginning of the end not only for Berlusconi, but also for George Papandreou who resigned as Greek prime minister on 10 November. In fact, all five countries of the unflattering PIIGS acronym – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain– saw new governments take office during 2011. In three (Ireland, Spain and Portugal), these were the products of elections, with the incumbents in each case suffering heavy defeats. In Italy and Greece, events and outcomes may appear similar at first glance, however there are important differences. In Greece, the former vice-president of the ECB, Lucas Papademos, became prime minister of a cabinet composed almost entirely of representatives from the two largest parties: PASOK and New Democracy. Moreover, his remit was primarily to steer the country through its latest bailout ratification and up to early elections in the first half of 2012.

His government can be seen as a ‘national unity’ caretaker government, a temporary grand coalition of the main parties, led by a technocrat. In Italy, the situation is very different: Monti’s is not a ‘caretaker government’ (as the BBC and the Financial Times initially argued) and nor is it a grand coalition. Rather, it is a technocratic government containing not a single party representative which has been put in place with the task of introducing a range of major reforms over a period of a year and a half. Indeed, should the Monti government survive (as intended) until at least 17 March 2013, it will become the second-longest serving technocratic government in post-war Europe, ahead of Lamberto Dini’s administration in 1995-1996 in Italy, and surpassed only by Lyuben Berov’s administration in transition-era Bulgaria between December 1992 and September 1994 (which, unlike Monti’s cabinet, did however contain a handful of party representatives).

One could argue of course that the principal difference between the new government in Italy and that in another PIIGS member Ireland(to take just one example) is that Irish parties have simply been able to ‘keep up appearances’. In other words, it perhaps makes little difference who is in power in either country since the narrow lines within which these governments can act are drawn elsewhere (and those actions are then monitored by the IMF and the ECB). Both countries – and they are not the only ones in Western Europe – have to some extent become ‘democracies without choices’ as Ivan Krastev termed those in the Balkans a decade ago. Nonetheless, the fact that in Italy party government has been suspended (for the second time in twenty years) and that this has been so readily accepted by almost all parties does appear significant.

Discussing what parties were still able to do in office, the late Peter Mair wrote in 2009 that the main characteristics of party government could be summarized under the headings ‘responsiveness’, ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’, with parties now privileging responsibility over responsiveness. For Mair, ‘responsiveness’ implied political leaders and governments considering and responding to public demands, ‘accountability’ meant them being held to account (as William H. Riker famously put it, the public could ‘throw the rascals out’ at the next general election), while responsibility ‘involves an acceptance that, in certain areas and in certain procedures, the leaders’ hands will be tied’ due to external constraints, that governments ‘are expected to act prudently and consistently’ and that they must live up to commitments and agreements ‘with other governments and institutions’.

What has happened in Italy underlines the importance of ‘responsibility’ for European governments: the Italian parties did not see themselves, and were not seen by others both inside and (crucially) outside the country, as able to produce a stable government which could introduce the reforms demanded. Unable to be responsible, parties therefore had to leave government. As a result, Italy now has a non-party government which can only be responsible. By definition, Monti’s government cannot be either responsive or accountable since it has not presented itself to the electorate on the basis of a programme, contains no members who are parliamentarians or party representatives, and will not (apparently) seek re-election after its term in office is over. Rather, and especially given the circumstances by which it came into power, its remit is that it must be first and foremost responsible.

What does all this mean for the parties? While the Monti government obviously allows them to escape some of the blame for painful measures, the abandonment of government and (with the exception of the Lega Nord and the small Italia dei Valori party) opposition is not cost-free. Surveys show that party identification is declining sharply and trust in the parties generally has fallen to under 10%. Indeed, in one poll, 47.9% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘democracy can function without political parties’ while in another only 27% said they would like a party politician as prime minister after Monti. These figures suggest that it is not just the idea of party government which is being damaged inItaly, but the very idea of the party’s role as an indispensable agent of democracy. Having negotiated a suspension of their core business, parties in Italy may find it is not so easy to resume it.

Duncan McDonnell – European University Institute, Florence
Duncan McDonnell is Jean Monnet Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence. He is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Populism (Palgrave, 2008) and has published recently on the Lega Nord and Outsider Parties. He is currently working with Daniele Albertazzi on a book entitled ‘Populists in Power’ (Routledge, 2013) and with Anna Bosco on the 2012 ‘Politica in Italia/Italian Politics’ yearbook, published in Italian and English by Il Mulino and Berghahn.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Italian Politics @ PSA 2012

The Group will sponsor a number of panels at the PSA annual conference. In 2012, the panels are to be as follows:

  1. ‘Long-lost brothers? Italy and the UK in comparative perspective’

  2. "Development here and there: utopia or real chance? Comparative research on Ghanaian migrants’ associations in Italy and in the UK"
    Francesco Marini

    "Italy and the UK: Lost Brothers or Fruitful Friends? The cases of the Democratic and Labour Party Primaries – Notes for mutual lessons"
    Mara Morini and Antonella Seddone

    "Britain and Italy in the 1980s: Anti-political or post-political age? Intellectual discourses in comparative perspective"
    Marzia Maccaferri

  3. ‘Long-lost brothers? Italy and the UK in comparative perspective 2’

    "Comparing Institutional reforms in Italy and the UK"
    Gianfranco Baldini

    "Italian and UK devolutions compared: Does bringing the design and delivery of policy ‘closer to the people’ really increase accountability?"
    Laura Polverari and James Mitchell

    "Italy’s Paradox of Trust, and how it is being Resolved"
    Paul Furlong

  4. 'Back to the future 2 – The endless return of "the centre" in Italian politics'

  5. "Party System Structure and the Quality of Government"
    Mark Donovan

    "Alliance with the Center? Homogeneity of Coalitions and Political Culture in Italy"
    Paola Bordandini and Roberto Cartocci

    "The Italian Centre-Left's (Last) Best Hope?"
    Simona Guerra

  6. Roundtable: Author meets critics. Bill Emmott’s book on Italy and how to begin again after Berlusconi