Over two decades have passed since Silvio Berlusconi announced his entry into politics in 1994. Since then, the Italian centre-left coalition has had a half-dozen leaders and has changed its name three times, Italy has seen the first Pope to resign in the history of the Catholic Church and witnessed the first re-election of a president in Italian democracy. Despite all of this, the “jaguar” – more famous for his eccentric metaphors, myriad scandals and oftentimes over-the-top theatrics than for his political achievements – is still there. And, if we consider the Italian electoral system, Berlusconi will be there in the near future.
The highly controversial Rosatellum bis – the new Italian electoral law approved by both the centre-left and centre-right coalitions and opposed by the opposition Five Star Movement – is a mixed system very likely to produce – some might say especially designed to produce – a hung parliament. The electoral system allocates 37 per cent of seats using a first-past-the-post method. The remaining 63 per cent of seats are distributed using the proportional largest remainder method. In order to limit political fragmentation, there is a 3 per cent electoral threshold for winning seats from proportional allocation. According to the majority of poll projections, on March, 4th – the day after the Italian general election – there will not be a clear-cut winner. Instead, there are three likely outcomes.
The first one is that the President of the Italian Republic will step in to resolve the probable impasse and appoint as prime minister an eminent personality, capable of securing a broad and cross-party support. This is a peculiar Italian political formula – known as “government of the President” or “technical government” – used to deal either with severe political crisis or with a hung parliament scenario. The rather unlikely second scenario is that no agreements can be reached, and this intransigence results in a new round of voting.
The more likely third scenario is a “grand” coalition government, including both the centre-left and centre-right coalitions, under the leadership of the latter. The centre-right coalition should achieve easily 36 per cent of the votes, which would result in roughly 40 per cent of the proportionally allocated seats. In order to get the absolute majority in both houses, this result would have to come alongside with 70 per cent of the first-past-the-post seats, which seems a rather tall order, if not completely unachievable result for everybody, but Berlusconi.
In any case Silvio Berlusconi will have massive political clout. The seats in parliament he controls (a court ruling prevents him from running for elected office), will weigh heavily in the tenuous balancing of conflicting interests of a coalition government. The fact that there is not a clear-cutter winner does not mean that all the losers are the same.
The octogenarian jaguar’s comeback is in part due to his unique personality, constant presence and outsized role in Italian society and in part the result of structural factors. While Italy’s political landscape has long been regionally divided, centre-right forces are making inroads in unlikely parts of the country. According to the latest election polls, Northern Italy’s first-past-the post constituencies – except for the traditionally left wing Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna – are firmly on centre-right, and even in Southern Italy’s constituencies there is a trend in favour of Berlusconi’s coalition.
Should Southern Italy – particularly Sicily and Campania, where 20 out of 33 Southern first-past-the-post seats can be won – go Berlusconi’s way, it would tip the balance in his coalition’s favour. Southern Italy has traditionally been difficult terrain for the centre-right coalition for two reasons. First, the League – the former Lega Nord of Matteo Salvini – with its discourse of regional superiority and autonomy is electorally weak here, consequently the whole coalition is less competitive. Second, the populist Five Star movement is comparatively strong, due to the fact it receives a large number of protest votes from an electorate disenchanted by establishment politics. Against these odds, Berlusconi’ coalition is projected to win a substantial number of seats in Southern Italy, boding well for the jaguar’s return to political pre-eminence.
“Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum” (to err is human, but to persist is diabolical). On Election day, it will be revealed how much Italians have learnt from the last quarter century, and if voters will indeed pave the way for Berlusconi comeback.