The choice facing Italians
Italian voters go to the polls today and tomorrow amid uncertainty over whether a clear winner will emerge to tackle Europe’s most sluggish economy.
What is almost certain is the emergence of four political blocs after the election: the centre-left Democratic Party led by Pier Luigi Bersani, the centre-right People of Freedom party led by Silvio Berlusconi, the Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo (a result of voter anger against the establishment and the poor state of the economy) and the centrist bloc led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti.
Until recently Bersani’s Democratic Party was leading in the polls but surprisingly Berlusconi’s People of Freedom has been catching up. No one bloc will get an absolute majority or votes or a very large relative majority of votes, but Italy’s electoral system awards an overall majority of seats in the lower house of parliament to the party with the most votes on a national basis.
So it is probable that Bersani’s centre-left bloc will be given a parliamentary majority in the lower house. However, the election is not so simple in the Senate where winners’ extra seats are awarded on a region-by-region basis.
In a number of regions the centre-left and centre-right blocs are running neck and neck, so the outcome is very unclear.
Many analysts and observers in European capitals are hoping for a coalition between Bersani’s centre-left and Monti’s centrist bloc with the outgoing Prime Minister being appointed Finance Minister. This appointment would boost confidence in the financial markets and give Italy great credibility abroad.
Such a coalition would be necessary if Bersani does not get a majority of seats in the Senate.
Berlusconi’s re-election, on the other hand, is not being considered as a good outcome – the former Prime Minister failed to bring about major economic reforms and he presided over huge borrowing costs for Italy.
For Monti to have a good chance of joining a coalition with Bersani, he needs to reach the eight per cent threshold in as many regions as possible in order to win Senate seats.
Observers believe this will not be easy, as Monti’s support is being eroded by the left, particularly in the region of Lombardy.
It is therefore still possible for Bersani to win a majority of seats in the Senate, which means he would be able to govern on his own, or, if he so chooses, in coalition with Monti –but from a position of strength. Neither option would be ideal, as the centre-left on its own or in a dominant position in a coalition can hardly be expected to carry out the radical reforms Italy so badly needs.
Even though a Bersani coalition with a strong centrist bloc is probably the best hope for Italy, this too could be problematic, as it could be engulfed in endless policy disputes. Ministers is such a coalition would range from conservative Catholics to former Communists, so clashes would be inevitable.
Whatever government emerges after the election, however, will need to address Italy’s deeply uncompetitive economy and the fact that the country is in its fourth recession since 2001.
The European Commission said last week that Italy’s economy will shrink again this year and unemployment will continue rising in 2014 to reach 12 per cent.
The worst possible outcome for Italy and the eurozone is the emergence of a weak government incapable of taking decisive action to tackle the country’s economic woes. This would lead to a decline in confidence in the markets, and borrowing costs – which Monti has managed to get under control – would soar once again.