By Ilvo Diamanti
The outcome of the election of 25 September 2022, with the success of the coalition of the centre right and especially of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, FdI), reflected the latest cleavage (to cite the model advanced by Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan in 1967), or the latest fracture to emerge in Italy’s post-war electoral history.
During the First Republic, the cleavage that had been most apparent at Italian elections until the 1980s was the one symbolised by the Berlin Wall – one reflecting the geopolitical division between the West and the countries of the Soviet Block. ‘Anti-communism’ had ‘condemned’ the DC to a permanent role in government because it had been impossible to contemplate alternation in office with political parties that looked upon the Soviet Union, if not with favour, at least without explicit hostility. Consequently, for many years, the Italian political system had had what Giorgio Galli (1966) called an ‘imperfect two-party system’ in order to emphasise that the two largest parties had pre-defined and obligatory political roles to play. The Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats, DC) and their allies constituted the parties of government, with the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party, PCI) and its successors being confined permanently to the opposition.
In the 1990s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the First Republic, Silvio Berlusconi built a new but similar ‘wall’ – the so-called ‘muro di Arcore’ after the name of the small town in Lombardy where he has his sumptuous residence – thereby becoming the main representative of anti-communist voters. Meanwhile, on the initiative of Romano Prodi and Arturo Parisi among others, the DC’s successors, together with the left, came together beneath the branches of the Olive Tree – the symbol adopted by the coalition of the centre left from 1995 to 2004 – subsequently giving birth to the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD).
But despite these dramatic changes, political traditions persisted. Indeed, in 2008, electoral behaviour in almost three quarters of Italian provinces was analogous to, if not identical with, the behaviour found there in 1953 (Diamanti 2009), oriented by the same anti-communist fracture, because the party choices facing voters were inspired by deeply rooted traditions and identities, by consolidated cleavages. In particular, the cleavages separating Church and state, centre and periphery, employers and workers, still counted for much.
The PCI had been the party of manual workers and non-Church goers, the DC the representative of Catholics especially in those parts of the country where the Church gave rise to social communities through its networks of flanking organisations and the provision of services. This was a role that was played by the parties of the left and especially by the PCI in those parts of the country where they were most deeply rooted; for both they and the DC were ‘mass parties’ with an organised presence, on the ground, in the localities. It was no accident therefore, that the cleavages they sustained lasted for so long.
It was no accident either that the advent of Berlusconi coincided with the emergence of a new ‘party model’, one whose raison d’être lay not in ideological and historical traditions but in the requirements of its leader. This was because Berlusconi helped to consolidate a new phenomenon: the ‘personalisation of politics’. He himself was the founder of Forza Italia (FI), a ‘personal party’ as Mauro Calise (2010) called it. This was a party type that was imitated by other – indeed by all – parties, including the most traditional ones, like the PD, which in 2013 was in its turn ‘personalised’ by Matteo Renzi. The party was profoundly changed as a result and at the time I re-defined it as the PDR: the Partito di Renzi (or ‘Renzi’s Party’). Renzi was the main protagonist of another election marking a turning point – the European election of 2014 when the PD took 40%, Berlusconi having resigned in 2011 brought down by the Eurozone crisis – and the emergence of another cleavage.
However, ‘personalisation’ undermined the parties’ distinct identities because the political life-spans of individuals are briefer and more uncertain than the life-spans of parties typically are. Consequently, they became more fragile, and increasingly unstable, entities. Hence, from 2013, every election had the potential to mark the emergence of a new ‘fracture’: a potential nourished by the fact that the dominant political sentiment among voters was anti-political: no longer a sense of belonging, of attachment to a political creed, but one of mistrust. This explains the support for ‘anti-party parties’: parties that exploit and foment feelings of resentment. Two, in particular, were significant. One was the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five-star Movement, M5s) inspired and led by the comedian, Beppe Grillo, who conceived of his creation as a ‘non-party’ as it called itself when it made its parliamentary debut in 2013. Led by Luigi Di Maio, it won the (watershed) election of 2018 taking more than 32% of the vote and formed the new government together with Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League), which in its turn had also become a (national) anti-party party. Much less associated with regional divisions and with the North than it had originally been Salvini’s League – the Ligue Nationale as I called it in order to emphasise his affinities with Marine Le Pen in France – followed the same anti-political trajectory enabling it to win 34.3% at the European election the following year. Together, the League and the M5s gave birth to the so-called ‘yellow-green’ government, which survived in office for little more than a year, until the summer of 2019.
The distribution of the vote became less geographically distinct, the colours of the political map progressively fading. The ‘white’ areas had already become ‘green’ and subsequently ‘green-blue’ following the disintegration of the DC and its replacement as dominant party in these areas by the League with the support of FI. The ‘red belt’, on the other hand, retained its distinctiveness but grew smaller as Umbria and Marche lost their traditional colour while elections in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany became increasingly competitive. Overall, Italy became ‘colourless’ and lost its distinct geopolitical traditions.
Moreover, driven by the anti-political sentiments of the post-Berlusconi era, recent years have been marked by a succession of crises both within and between parties: crises provoked by growing economic and budgetary problems that have made Italy increasingly reliant on Europe’s monetary authorities.
The arrival of the COVID pandemic, finally, profoundly altered the climate of public opinion. Mistrust gave way to fear as the predominant sentiment, increasing the significance of leaders and undermining the role of parties, with the high point represented by Mario Draghi’s assumption of office as Prime Minister. That he came to office partly as the result of pressure exerted by Europe’s political and monetary authorities is not surprising. He had, after all, been an Italian and then EU public official, heading first the Bank of Italy and then the European Central Bank. However, he was not an ‘elected’ leader and the arrival in office of his government confirmed that Italy’s system of representative democracy was in crisis.
Giuseppe Conte, too, had been an ‘unelected’ prime minister, governing mainly by decree, by-passing Parliament. Mario Draghi, in his turn, heightened the sense that Italy had acquired a de facto presidential (and technocratic) form of government – precisely because, as mentioned, he too was unelected. Moreover, he had been drawn from the world of economics and finance and was sustained by a majority consisting of almost all the parties represented in Parliament. In opposition, and not by chance, there remained just one party: Meloni’s FdI – which – again not by chance – won the election of last September becoming the largest party at the head of the coalition of the centre right. This represented the emergence of a new cleavage because, for the first time, the election had been won by the successors to the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement, MSI) and Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance, AN), and because for the first time the role of Prime Minister was assumed by a woman.
The distinctiveness of the election was reinforced by a number of other factors, especially the geography of voting. In relation to the coalitions, the electoral map of Italy has assumed a predominantly blue colour, accentuated on the right by FdI. It includes patches of other colours, pale reflections of the past, including the light red of the centre left in four provinces of the centre-north and the yellow of the M5s in three provinces of the South. The colouring of this map changes significantly if we consider not the coalitions but the individual parties. In that case, the areas coloured yellow expand considerably in the South: the area with the largest number of claimants of the citizenship income, promoted and defended by the M5s. Meanwhile the areas coloured red – or rather light red – remain confined to the centre of the country: the area that was once called the ‘red belt’ because it had, historically, been distinguished by the deeply rooted presence of the parties of the left.
It is difficult not to notice the profound changes, not only in electoral behaviour but in its social and geographical foundations, reflected in the results and in the personalities and the roles of the political leaders. These are roles that have become increasingly personal and presidential. In the Italian Republic, the political personalities voters today consider most credible and in whom they most believe are both presidents: the president of the Republic and the president of the Council of Ministers (to use the Prime Minister’s official title). Italy has become a ‘personalised democracy’, one in which political participation is limited, or rather limited to the media. It has above all become a digital, ‘immediate’, democracy, one lacking both mediators and mediation (Diamanti 2014).
Thus it is that the country’s cleavages have been normalised. For the book containing our analyses of the results of the 2013 election – analyses based on the data provided by LaPolis (Università di Urbino Carlo Bo) and the research institute, Demos – we had chosen the title, Un salto nel voto (2013), to emphasise that citizens’ voting choices are no longer structured or predictable in advance. The subsequent elections, held in 2018 and 2019, confirmed this idea, and in the light of the elections of last September we can once more reaffirm it – though with even greater emphasis, for the emergence of new cleavages has become ‘normal’.
A final remark needs to be made about those who failed to vote, because FdI’s victory was made possible, or rather accentuated, by the very low turnout, which reached a historic low. The election of last September attracted the participation of less than two thirds of the electorate – 63.8%: the lowest proportion since 1948. In 1976, 93% of the electorate had voted. More recently, in 2018, 73% had done so. This means that in reality, FdI won the election with the support of 16% of those with the right to vote. While this does nothing to undermine either the party’s success or the legitimacy of the outcome, it does reinforce that idea that recent years have seen a growing detachment of citizens from the democratic institutions: a detachment that is expressed by ‘voting against’ or not voting at all.
And in the country where citizens vote to oppose parties rather than to support them, the only genuine cleavage could ultimately turn out to be one reflecting continuity, or otherwise, of electoral choices.
From: Bordignon, F., Ceccarini, L., & Newell, J. L. (Eds.). (2023). Italy at the Polls 2022: The Right Strikes Back. Springer Nature.
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Diamanti, I., Bordignon, F. & Ceccarini, L. (2013). Un salto nel voto. Ritratto politico dell’Italia di oggi. Laterza editori
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Lipset, S.M., & Rokkan, S. (1967). Cleavage Structures, Party Systems and Voter Alignments: An Introduction. In S. M. Lipset & S. Rokkan (Eds.), Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives (pp.1-64). Free Press
 Translator’s note: The title (meaning literally, ‘A leap into the vote’) is a play on the similarity between the word ‘voto’ and the word ‘vuoto’ (meaning ‘void’).