The Aftermath of the Constitutional Referendum in Italy: Stability for the Conte Executive, Lega on the decline & Fratelli d’Italia on the rise?

In their latest CARR Insights article, Dr Valerio Alfonso Bruno, Dr James F. Downes and Alessio Scopelliti argue that despite the recent constitutional referendum result in favour of reducing the number of MPs in the Italian Parliament, electoral volatility is likely to continue in Italian politics – with no clear political victory emerging for M5S, nor for the governing coalition. Instead, three main patterns are likely to emerge from the aftermath of the referendum: (a) stability in the short-term for the Conte II Cabinet, (b) electoral decline for the populist radical right (PRR), Lega, and (c) the PRR Fratelli d’Italia experiencing an electoral rise in the long-term based on. These three patterns will have important and far-reaching implications for the future of Italian politics.

The impact of the Regional Elections for Italian Politics

 Italian politics has often characterised as having incredibly high levels of electoral volatility and in the post-World War II period, Italy has had an astonishing 67 governments in the last 75 years. On 20 and 21 September 2020, Italian voters voted in a momentous Constitutional Referendum. This Referendum focused on reducing the number of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Italian Parliament, in order to create a more streamlined and balanced level of representation. The proposed referendum involved reducing the number of MPs by 345, with 115 Senators and 230 Deputies (out of the 951) being cut in total. Furthermore, Italian citizens from seven regions were also asked to vote for the election of their local governor, including six key regions that comprised: Veneto, Campania, Puglia, Tuscany, Liguria, and Marche (alongside the tiny region of Valle d’Aosta).

With 70% of votes in favour of the proposed change, the constitutional referendum was approved unanimously. This result was welcomed by the ‘ideologically ambiguous’ populist Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) who had supported the proposed reform to the Italian Constitution. Luigi Di Maio, the current Italian Foreign Minister and former leader of the M5S party, defined the result as a historic moment in Italian politics.

Arguably, the M5S may lay claim to vindication as part of the constitutional referendum. Afterall, it is a reform akin to their classic playbook of direct democracy and the referendum has been labelled by more than two hundred constitutionalists and influential intellectuals, as a classic ‘emancipatory populist’ move, in challenging the status quo and achieving political reform of the existing system.

The Continued Electoral Decline for M5S

Whilst the constitutional referendum result can be seen as a success for the M5S party, a broader look at the regional election results demonstrates a bleaker picture for M5S in Italian politics. The Movement currently, led by Vito Crimi, performed extremely poorly in the regional elections, thereby diminishing the victory of the Constitutional referendum.

Despite the fact that M5S has nearly always tended to underperform in regional elections, in comparison to general elections, it is clear that M5S is undergoing a broader process of electoral decline in their core electorate. For example, in Veneto, M5S saw a significant reduction in their vote share, from 10% in the 2015 regional election, to 3% in 2020.

In Liguria, M5S declined even more, from 22% in 2015 to 8% in 2020. Similar electoral declines for M5S at the regional level can be seen in important regions, such as Tuscany, in Marche, alongside Campania and Puglia. Table 1 below (that presents the % change in vote shares across each region) provides a more comprehensive picture of this wider electoral decline regionally for the M5S party in Italy.

Furthermore, these regional elections have been interpreted by both the mainstream mass media and the politicians alike as the worst electoral results ever experienced by a main political party in the current Parliament. (James F. Downes and Nicola Palma have also detailed these widespread internal party disputes within the M5S Party, with (a) issue blurring on key issues such as EU integration and socio-economic policies alongside (b) ideological ambiguity that has weakened the party further.) As a result, M5S is now facing a significant power struggle within the party through numerous internal party disputes. M5S will also soon face a party leadership election, in order to establish the new leadership.

Table 1: A Comparison of the Regional Election Results for Italian Political Parties

(% Change in Vote Shares for Selected Parties, 2015–2020) 

Regions M5S

(Ambiguous Populist)

PD

(Centre Left)

Lega

(Populist Radical Right)

FdI

(Populist Radical Right)

Veneto -7.7 -4.7 +0.9 +7
Liguria -14.4 -5.7 -3.1 +7.9
Tuscany -8.1 -11.6 +5.7 +9.7
Marche -11.8 -10 +9.4 +12.2
Campania -7.1 -2.5 N/A +0.5
Apulia -7.3 -2.6 +7.2 +10.2

Source: Adapted from Corriere della Sera

Notes: + indicates an electoral increase for a Party (2015–2020)

  – indicates an electoral decrease for a Party (2015–2020)

Greater bargaining power for the Centre Left

On the other hand, the centre left Partito Democratico (PD), currently under the leadership of Nicola Zingaretti, was able to keep (rather unexpectedly) key regions such as Tuscany and Apulia. Therefore, the combined electoral results of the two major allies in the second Conte cabinet (Conte II Cabinet) has changed the political balance between M5S and PD by shifting greater political bargaining power into the hands of the PD, whose leader is currently pushing for the revision of the so-called “safety-laws” issued by Lega leader Matteo Salvini when he was Interior Minister during the first Conte cabinet (Conte I Cabinet).

Paradoxically, due to the victory in the constitutional referendum and the inability of the opposition to win pivotal regions for the centre left, the Conte executive has emerged for the time being more stable and reinforced, with the concrete possibility to govern until 2023, the ‘natural end’ of the legislature. Whilst the outlook is mixed (but stable overall for the M5S-PD Coalition Government), there are widespread fluctuations for the two populist radical right parties in Italy.

A disappointing electoral performance for the Populist Radical Right Lega

 Regarding the disappointing electoral performance of the populist radical right Lega, political commentators have recently noted the electoral decline of Lega, within the wider context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ambiguous policy stances of some Lega politicians on the constitutional referendum – with key members of the party such as Giancarlo Giorgetti, a former secretary of the council of the ministers and seen as a loyal supporter to Salvini, openly opposing it – has certainly not helped the party.

In Veneto, Lega recorded the best performance amongst all the regions in Italy, with 77% of the vote. Nonetheless, this result exposes latent political contrasts within the party. The excellent performance of Luca Zaia (45%), a key member of the Lega, has further exposed the rivalry within the party between politicians (such as Zaia) that sustain the cleavages that founded the party (for example the autonomy of Veneto against the centralization of power in Rome) against those politicians (such as Salvini) that have nationalist ambitions and aim to control the ‘centre’ rather than separate from it. Evidently, there are significant internal party disputes within Lega that continuously threaten the party’s electoral fortunes.

In Tuscany, and to a lesser extent in Apulia, the Lega performed relatively well, yet not enough to win. In the aftermath of the election Salvini, asked by journalists on the performance of his party and the alleged victory of the PD, rebuffed the notion, saying the centre-right coalition overall governs in fifteen regions out of twenty in Italy and that Zingaretti’s party did not have much to celebrate. Despite this electoral setback, Lega still command a large section of the electorate in Italy and remain an electoral force.

The Electoral Fortunes of the Populist Radical Right Fratelli d’Italia

Giorgia Meloni’s populist radical right party, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), can be considered the real winner of the September vote. Not only did FdI win almost single-handedly the Marche, historically a “red” stronghold, together with Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, but FdI is on the rise in all the regions where the elections took place, notably in the region of Apulia. The FdI has almost completed the process of completely cannibalizing the centre right Forza Italia (FI). The FdI is also hot on the heels of its electoral competitor, the populist radical right Lega Party.

A recent poll from Ipsos surveyed voters on the question of who the leader of the right-wing coalition should be, between Salvini, Meloni and Silvio Berlusconi. A majority of those interviewed supported of Meloni (29%), with Salvini in second place (25%). Giancarlo Giorgetti has perhaps understood what would make the FdI a better and more suitable candidate for the centre-right leadership in Italy: an international network of partnerships and alliances, in Europe and worldwide. In sharp contrast to Salvini’s Lega, Giorgia Meloni has constructed her political project by patiently building a well-structured political machine alongside an important network of relations, both at the national and international level.

Implications for the future of Italian Politics

Despite the large victory of the constitutional referendum, we argue that this result will have a significant long-term impact over processes of representation in Italy. However, this result will not provide a political victory for (a) the party that proposed the referendum (M5S), nor (b) for the executive, under the Conte II Cabinet.

In contrast, we also argue that the regional elections paradoxically reinforced the leadership of the executive, primarily due to the centre-left coalition that kept its historical “red” regions (except for Marche) whereas the right-wing coalition has lost its electoral momentum. In October, Matteo Salvini will face a trial for the Gregoretti ship case. If deemed guilty, Salvini may receive a sentence of up to fifteen years in person and this may put an end to his political ambitions and also the electoral momentum of Lega.

Nonetheless, it is important to point out that the Italian populist radical right is not experiencing a significant electoral decline. The centre-right coalition is more and more moving towards a full-fledged radical-right coalition, with the populist radical right highly influential, at both the regional and national level. The continued ‘rise’ of Giorgia Meloni may also culminate in Meloni becoming the main leader of the populist radical right in Italy and replacing Salvini as the figurehead.

Dr Valerio Alfonso Bruno is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Deputy Head of the Populism Research Unit and Fellow at the Centre for European Futures (CEF). He currently cooperates with the Alta Scuola di Economia e Relazioni Internazionali (ASERI) of Milan and the Observatoire de la Finance (Obsfin), based in Geneva. You can find his profile here.

Dr James F. Downes is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and Head of the Populism Research Unit. James is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics and serves on the Programme Management Committee of the MPUP in Public Policy, in the Department of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). James is Head (Chair) of the Undergraduate Admissions Panel at CUHK. He is also an Associate Research Fellow at CeRSP (Italy) and at The Global Europe Centre (Brussels School of International Studies/The University of Kent). You can find his profile here.

Alessio Scopelliti is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a member of the Populism Research Unit. Alessio is also a Doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. You can find his profile here.

© Valerio Alfonso Bruno, James F. Downes, & Alessio Scopelliti. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

**For more information relating to Populism in Italy and the Constitutional Referendum, please check out the CARR “Right Rising Podcast” related Episode: “Populism in Italian Politics” that features an expert interview with Valerio, Alessio and James. The Episode is available on Spotify & Apple Podcasts, alongside the CARR “Right Rising” Website.