Tactics, polls and alliances in the Italian elections

As the Italian elections draw closer, all contestants have taken their places for the final straight. Yet, the final outcome of the race is as uncertain as ever.

PD leader and possible future Italian prime minister Pierluigi Bersani. Demotix/Eidon Photographers. All rights reserved.PD leader and possible future Italian prime minister Pierluigi Bersani. Demotix/Eidon Photographers. All rights reserved.

It is generally unwise to start learning your part when you are already on the stage – and even unwiser to change parts. Mario Monti is too old to heed Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare's play Hamlet:

"To thine ownself be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

Monti is, however, clearly listening to Obama’s guru, David Axelrod, trying to soften his image and be a 'man of the people'. This week, the austere economist-turned-technocrat played the part of active granddad in a kindergarten complete with children and crayons, and then cuddled a stray dog emulating Nixon and more recently Berlusconi – surely neither are his models?

For his part, Berlusconi sticks to his well-tried (and successful) character, believing Hitler’s theory that people are more likely to believe the big lie than the small one. After promising “a million new jobs” in 2001, he promised four million on 7 February – later spoiling the effect by semi-retracting and saying it was just an “hypothesis”. The remark comes after his 3 February “shock announcement” to enact the reimbursement of last year’s property tax, IMU, at his first cabinet meeting and cancel it in the future, at least for first houses. Berlusconi has already promised other “shock announcements” before the end of the campaign.

Another lie - or at least manipulation of the truth - is his claim to have reduced the gap between his own centre right coalition and Pierluigi Bersani’s centre left Democratic Party (PD) to less than 2% according to a Euromedia poll - which if true would mean that he could win in the fortnight between now and the elections, a claim however made doubtful by the various links between Alessandra Ghisleri, director of Euromedia, and Berlusconi.

Other polls, less favourable to Berlusconi, tell a different story. Renato Mannheimer in Corriere della Sera puts the gap at 7.5% (37.2 to 29.7%, with Monti’s coalition at 12.9% and Bebbe Grillo’s Five Star Movement at 14.3%), although Mannheimer’s data is inconclusive in the two key regions of Lombardy and Sicily which the centre-left must take to have a good chance of having a majority in the Senate. Ilvo Diamanti in La Repubblica is less optimistic for Bersani but still puts the gap at 5.5% (34.1% to 28.6% with Monti and Grillo both at 16%).

The conclusion is that unless something extraordinary happens over the next fortnight, the centre-left coalition comprised of Bersani's PD,  Nichi Vendola's socialist Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) and other smaller parties will win the Chamber – their 32-35% share of the vote will earn them 55% of the seats - but they probably won't win a majority in the Senate and so will need the support of Monti’s centre. A Monti-Bersani alliance was always on the cards but until this week, was never talked about out in the open. As a minister, Bersani was far more of a reforming free marketeer than most of the centre-right; he shares much of his policy with Monti. Now they have taken the possibly dangerous option of actually talking about a possible alliance. 

On the left of the PD-SEL coalition are Grillo and Ingroia, the leader of the Civic Revolution party. They both tell potential supporters tempted to vote for SEL that this would mean voting for centrist Monti. The same phenomenon is taking place on the other side; to the right of Monti is Berlusconi, who tells wavering centrist voters that voting for Monti means voting for the resolutely left wing Vendola. These tactics could successfully frighten off potential voters. The advantage of making the Bersani-Monti alliance official would thus be to clarify the policies and composition of a hypothetical coalition government.

The PD’s economic spokesman (and probable minister), Stefano Fassina, has said that the economy is too crucial to be farmed out to a coalition ally – a personal as well as a party statement. But he is unlikely to prevent the formation of a government just because he is not given a cabinet post; in any case, there are ways of finessing both positions and policy. In the past, Italy sometimes had three economics ministries at the same time: budget, finance and treasury. There are still many overlaps – and positions to fill. And Vendola might be content to stick with social issues, for example authorizing gay marriage or civil unions as he is a longtime LGBT rights activitist.

Will the odd couple of Monti and Bersani manage to maintain a government for more than the few months Grillo has given them ? - which is wishful thinking on his part. My own guess is a little more optimistic although also tainted by wishful thinking. External pressures from the markets, the ECB and the EU, internal ambitions in the centre-left and fear of repeating the splits and collapse of the Prodi governments will hold the government together, maybe even for the full five years. Vendola is not Bertinotti, whose ideological purity combined with internal bickering brought Prodi down in 1999. Vendola is above all a pragmatic politician who has administered a big region (Apulia) quite successfully - he is not going to risk his whole political career on an uncertain gamble.

On the other side, Monti is obviously not a man of the left - his medium term goal is perhaps to establish a respectable Italian centre right, a twenty-first century Christian Democracy. Currently, there is some tension inside the European Popular Party, as most foreign leaders have endorsed Monti while it still includes Berlusconi and his People of Freedom (PdL). If the PdL does lose, then the most likely scenario is that Berlusconi will finally step down, the PdL fragment (as it was beginning to do in December before Berlusconi came back on the field) with some of the rump going to Monti in time for next year’s European Parliament elections.

There is one last question that needs to be answered as the campaign goes into the final straight: Grillo. The likely 100 or so grillini elected, most without experience of political office (this is after all the point of Grillo's movement), will have to learn parliamentary procedures very quickly in order to carry forward their ambitious reform proposals – if not, they will dissolve quicker than the winter snows.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 - originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

About the author

James Walston is associate professor of international relations at the American University of Rome. He blogs about Italian politics here and tweets @walstonjames.