An analysis of the 2018 Italian general election

Written by Ariana Habibi

Held on March 4 in response to President Sergio Mattarella’s decision to dissolve the Italian parliament, the 2018 Italian general election was an outright retaliation against the establishment. The election was demonstrative of several key facets of political institutions—the justifications of violence, the structure of states, the importance of legitimacy—and exemplified how elections may be used to demand change following years of discontent.

On the one hand, the election process itself followed a newly-established method: 37% of seats were allocated using first-past-the-post and 63% were allocated using proportional representation (Zampano, 2018). On the other hand, the results were unprecedented—the nationalist Northern League emerged with a plurality of seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic, but the anti-establishment Five Star Movement received the largest number of votes (“Italy election,” 2018). As a consequence, the Italian parliament was hung: no political party held an outright majority in both houses until the League and M5S formed a coalition government. The election was indicative of increasing skepticism of the European Union and rising political nationalism, placing Italy’s global relationship in a precarious position.

Regarding Weber’s three inner justifications of violence—traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal—Italy exists as a rational-legal state (Weber, 1972). Still, though political leaders gain power by legal statute and rationally created rules, they gain support through popular endorsement and public favor; thus, the Italian system encompasses attributes of the charismatic justification. For instance, Matteo Salvini, the presiding Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the League, gained notoriety for his powerful public presence and unapologetic defiance to political norms. To many, his charisma was equally important to his rise to power as his politics. Furthermore, Salvini is plagued with the progressive politician impulse; he is enamored with progress, and portrays himself as the destined bringer of a fruitful future (Weber, 1972). This mindset places the value of the state above the citizenry, augmenting the possibility of governmental indifference to the will of the people.

Due to the separation of the head of state and head of government, and the fusion of legislature and executive, Italy is a parliamentary republic. Although Mattarella serves as president, his role as head of state is far more ceremonial than practical—he is emblematic of national unity, but does not bear true executive power. This limits Italy from being a semi-presidential state. However, Elgie (2004) would argue for Italy’s classification as semi-presidentialism based upon definitional issues related to the term. To avoid subjectivity in power evaluation between head of state and government, Elgie solely considers the dispositional properties of a regime: Italy has a president alongside parliament, and the scope of presidential power is inconsequential. Even so, the responsibility of the Italian executive falls to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was selected by the joint populist coalition to head what has been dubbed a “government of the change” (Barigazzi & Zampano, 2018). This exemplifies a positive attribute of parliamentarism: parties can have a stake in the government in spite of falling short in an election (Linz, 1990). However, considering the coalition was formed of the two most electorally-successful parties, it is dubious whether the government would successfully represent the people.

The presiding Italian government garners legitimacy through its emphasis on nationalist sentiment. Typically, the enhanced severity of a threat constitutes the enhanced control of the state (Grzymala-Busse, 2008). This trend has historically been exemplified in war, but modern Italy has fewer issues with physical invasion than it does with the metaphorical—immigration. The two parties that form the present coalition government both promulgate views of muted xenophobia: immigration restrictions, detachment from the migrant crisis (Walt, 2018). In denying allegations of discrimination, the parties portray greater society as the enemy and themselves as the victims, engendering support from their base and thereby strengthening legitimacy (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012). With the simultaneous rise of immigration and nationalism, Italy is at a critical juncture; the demographic changes instigate socioeconomic changes, which inevitably influence political changes within society (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012). Whether through upholding traditional values or changing European dynamics, the country has an opportunity to modify its trajectory—one that is highly sought, but not easily come by.

The 2018 Italian election was a monumental occurrence in the European realm—it designated deviance from mainstream politics, an ideological shift in the populace, and the formation of a coalition government between the two most radical parties in recent Italian history. Through taking to the polls, the Italian people demanded their voices be heard, and through the election results, their voices are sure to have resonated throughout the world.


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