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Italy Election Preview

Author: Alexandra Silver
April 6, 2006

Introduction

Italy holds elections (ElectionGuide.org) on April 9 and 10 to choose members of its bicameral parliament—the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The results will determine the makeup of Italy's sixtieth government since 1946 and come down to a contest between a center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a center-left bloc led by Romano Prodi. The elections have focused on the stagnant Italian economy, and Prodi, who has served previously as prime minister, is leading by a close margin in opinion surveys. Berlusconi's center-right party, Forza Italia, has been in power since 2001 but has trailed in opinion polls for some time. Still, experts caution against counting Berlusconi out, given past electoral surprises and recent debate about taxes.

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What are the major campaign issues?

The economy has taken center stage in this election. Italy has the lowest economic growth rate in Europe, with no growth at all in 2005. Less than ten days before the election, the government cut its 2006 economic growth forecast while raising its estimate of the expected deficit. Critics say Berlusconi, who emphasized his qualifications as a businessman in the 2001 election, has not done enough for the economy, already suffering when he was elected. Labor market and pension reforms are needed. The employers' association Confindustria, traditionally aligned with the right, has come out against Berlusconi. The prime minister, however, has attacked the tax increases proposed by Prodi. Confusion over the center-left's tax plans has led some to suggest the bloc could suffer in the polls.

Berlusconi has also argued that the center-left coalition is too divided to have any effect. Pepper Culpepper, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government, says that maintaining a stable government has been a major achievement for the Italian prime minister. There are certainly divisions within his coalition as well, but his government has lasted longer than any other since the republic was founded.

The new electoral system is controversial, as are the constitutional reforms pushed through by Berlusconi's government last November. But these reforms, which include decentralizing power and changing the number of members in the parliament, will be subject to a referendum after the elections and are not seen as a decisive issue in this campaign.

What is the significance of the new electoral rules?

There is a new proportional representation electoral system that also provides for a majority bonus, increasing the winning coalition's chamber seats to 340. Manuel Álvarez-Rivera of Election Resources on the Internet compares the new rules to past systems in this overview. Carol Mershon, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and former president of the Conference Group on Italian Politics and Society, says the system is controversial because many Italians consider the majority bonus, which would strengthen the winning coalition, as contrary to their belief in "a diversity of opinion" within the parliament.

Some have criticized the changes as an attempt by Berlusconi's Forza Italia to alter the rules to their advantage, noting that the new system was only introduced in late 2005 after the center-right had a disappointing showing in regional elections. However, if the center-left does win, Mershon notes the advantage could go to Prodi and his coalition, since they could get a bonus majority. If elected, Prodi has said he will undo the changes to the electoral process.

This is also the first year Italians living abroad will vote for their own representatives in parliament; eighteen seats are reserved for the "foreign constituency."

Who are the leading candidates for prime minister?
  • Silvio Berlusconi. Italy's colorful prime minister for the last five years, he is also the richest person in the country and owner of several media outlets. The leader of the center-right party Forza Italia, he heads the House of Freedom (Casa delle Libertà) coalition, which currently holds the majority with 268 seats in the Chamber and 177 in the Senate. Called Il Cavaliere (the knight), Berlusconi is a highly controversial figure both at home and abroad. Since he owns three major television channels, there is great concern over a conflict of interests. Critics, including Professor Culpepper, say Berlusconi has done much more for himself than for the country, citing legislation designed to "shield him and associates from legal prosecution."
  • Romano Prodi. Known as Il Professore because of his previous role as an academic, Prodi is also a former European Commission president as well as Italian prime minister from 1996-1998 (he resigned early after a vote of no confidence regarding the budget). Without leading a particular party he heads the Union List (l'Unione) coalition, representing the center-left. This bloc is very diverse, however, and Berlusconi has said that a Prodi government would not be effectual. Prodi, a much quieter figure than Berlusconi, has emphasized the need for harmony in the country and a renewed closeness with other European countries.
Who's expected to win?

Prodi is expected to win a close contest. The latest surveys—published before a poll blackout came into effect on March 24—put Prodi ahead by about 3.5 to 5 percentage points, but almost a quarter of Italians were undecided. The center-right has trailed in opinion polls for some time, and only the poll commissioned by Berlusconi's own party has him slightly ahead in this election. There's a general consensus that Prodi was the clear winner of the March 14 debate, though the winner of the second and last debate on April 3 was less certain. Corriere della Sera, one of Italy's biggest newspapers, came out in support of Prodi.

Still, Julia Lynch, assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, cautions "there have been a lot of surprises in recent elections" and the Italian voter is not that predictable. While many Italians are dissatisfied with Berlusconi, Lynch says he "has won before and people have been surprised in the past when he's won." She suggests the average Italian voter is more to the right than is usually perceived, and that Italy is "still a fundamentally conservative place in a lot of ways." Turnout is traditionally high in Italy.

Will new leadership significantly change Italy’s direction?

Experts say it's doubtful. Culpepper says that among Italians, "Nobody is excited about either of the teams in the lead." Martin Kettle, political columnist for the Guardian, noting Berlusconi's squandered opportunities for reform and Prodi's likely inability to maintain a stable government, writes that this election "is a contest between a force that has failed and a force that is likely to fail."

What will happen to the center-right if the current governing coalition loses?

Experts believe center-right parties would still remain a force in Italy, but as Lynch says, "Berlusconi may be finished" politically. If he goes, so does Forza Italia. Gianfranco Fini, currently foreign minister and leader of the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) party, is seen as likely to gain control of the right in Italy.

Does Iraq play a role in this election?

Iraq is "practically a non-issue in this campaign," says Ettore Greco, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and deputy director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome. The candidates' plans are not all that different on this point, and Berlusconi has already begun withdrawing troops and says withdrawal will be complete by December. Despite public opposition, Berlusconi supported U.S. efforts in Iraq, and Italian troops, numbering 3,000 (now around 2,600) were the third largest contingent in the U.S.-led coalition. In the second and last debate on April 3, Prodi said he would pull out Italian troops "as soon as possible." Prodi has said he disagrees with the United States government when it comes to Iraq, but that does not mean they are not still allies.

What are the election's implications for U.S.-Italian relations?

Berlusconi has been a strong ally of Bush. But if he loses, experts don't expect any profound changes in the U.S.-Italian relationship. Mershon says "the overarching continuity in Italian foreign policy from the late 1940s on is that Italy is a loyal ally of the United States." She points out that when Prodi was Italy's prime minister from 1996 to 1998, Italy was also an ally. Still, most experts say the relationship between Prodi and Bush would likely be more strained. Lynch says Prodi is "much less likely to toe a Washington line" on everything from foreign affairs to trade policies.

What is Italy's position within the European Union (EU)?

Italians are generally very pro-integration. Yet Berlusconi distanced the country from the EU because of his staunch support for the United States. Experts say a Prodi victory would make for an easier relationship between Italy and fellow European countries, since, as Greco says, "Prodi is in favor of greater autonomy of Europe from the United States." Prodi's professional background with the EU is also cited as an asset in handling regional policy.

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