Analysis: Italian impasse threatens second vote

ROME – Eyes will be trained on Italy’s newly elected politicians on March 23 when they return to elect speakers for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate following a dramatic election in which the forces of populism made large gains across the country, with the Five Star Movement's leader, Luigi Di Maio, claiming on Tuesday that he was unafraid of a second round of elections. 

 The meeting of Italy’s two chambers will be the first test of whether any party can emerge from the electoral deadlock to produce a working majority that will allow President Sergio Mattarella to appoint a Prime Minister to lead a new government or whether, alternatively, Italians will be returning to the polls in the near future.

 Throughout the campaign polling had suggested that the M5S and the League would make significant gains in the South and North, respectively. Nonetheless, M5S’s ascent to the pinnacle of Italian politics remains remarkable. The party was only founded in 2009, yet it captured over 32 percent of the vote and is now the preeminent political force in the country.

 But it was the anti-immigration and eurosceptic League that produced the greatest shock on election day, seeing its share of the national vote grow by 13 percent and leapfrogging their right-wing coalition allies, Forza Italia, to become the driving force on the Italian right.

 There remains, nevertheless, a tricky path to power for both parties. Not least with their supporters, who have grown used to being in a position of opposition, rather than power itself.

 As the largest single party in Parliament, the impetus for forming a government would seem to be with M5S. Their share of the votes certainly lends credibility to Di Maio's claim that any government without them would be “an insult to democracy.”

 However, their list of potential allies looks limited. Perhaps the closest fit would be with the Democratic Party (PD). But Italy’s previous governing party have plunged into chaos following a disastrous drop in the polls and only a few isolated voices have called for a deal.

 Indeed, the caretaker secretary, Maurizio Martina, stated unequivocally that the PD would “continue to serve the citizens from opposition” and any deal with M5S would certainly be a humiliating comedown, though not all of the PD’s representatives would have to agree to create a majority.

 On the other hand, the right-wing coalition is closer to a majority than M5S on their own. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League and now the senior partner in the alliance following Forza Italia’s poor electoral performance, has floated the idea of putting together a programme for other parties to sign up to on an ad hoc basis.

 This is similar to Di Maio’s insistence at a press conference on Tuesday that he is ready to negotiate on the themes in M5S’s programme. It is still unclear, however, who would be attracted to such arrangements with either party and whether it would really constitute a workable government.

 So, could the two populist victors team up to form a government?

 It is undoubtedly a mathematical possibility, with enough seats between the League and M5S to form a majority that would threaten the stability of the European Union. Both leaders, likewise, have emphasised their “responsibility” towards the country to form a government.

 However, the overlap in aims between the two parties seems small and sections of M5S would be unhappy working with forces on the right.  

 If no deal can be brokered between any of the parties then Italians will be returning to the polls, possibly after the electoral laws have been amended to make a majority more likely. A caretaker government would also have to be put in place, with La Stampa speculating that it could be headed by “technicians.”

 All of which leaves President Mattarella with a difficult decision. He too has called for “responsibility” from Italy’s parties. Nonetheless, without a face-saving formula for one of the parties, it seems ever likelier that the task may eventually fall to the Italian electorate to drag the country out of the deadlock.


Luigi Di Maio at the Stampa Estera in Rome. Photo: Tim Wade.