Another government in Italy, another election in Spain
Since 1946, Italy has had more than 65 governments, on average about one every 13 months. And over the last four years, Spain has had three elections. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that another government took office in Italy two weeks ago, little more than a year after the previous one was formed after the March 2018 election. Nor is it surprising that Spanish voters, who went to the polls in April, will go back to the polls once again on Nov. 10. Old habits die hard.
The fact that Italy has just experienced the formation of another government and Spain will soon experience another election of course reflects processes that are unique to each country. But they also reflect something both countries share — an increased difficulty, in the face of increased fragmentation of their party systems and increased polarization among the parties contesting elections, in forming stable governing coalitions.
It was not surprising the government formed by the right-wing, xenophobic League (Lega) headed by Matteo Salvini and the left populist Five Star Movement (M5S) after Italy’s 2018 election broke down in August; indeed, the only surprise was that a government formed by those parties lasted as long as it did. Nor was it surprising that Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialists (PSOE), was unable to form a government after the April election; although the governing People’s Party (PP) lost almost half of the vote it obtained in 2016 and more than half of the seats it won in the Congress of Deputies that year, and although PSOE increased its share of the vote and number of seats in the 2018 election, the Socialists nevertheless won only slightly more than one-third of the seats, largely because of the arrival on the political scene in recent years of three new parties – the left-of-PSOE United We Can (Unidas Podemos), the center-right Citizens (Ciudadanos), and the far-right, xenophobic Vox (Latin for voice). Those three, taken together, won the same number of seats in last year’s election that PSOE won.
Five Star was the biggest winner in the March 2018 election in Italy. Founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger, it burst onto the scene in the 2013 election when it won 25.6 percent of the vote. In the 2018 election, it won 32.7 percent, 14 percentage points more than the vote for the next largest party, the Democratic Party (PD), and 227 of the 630 seats elected through the new mixed member proportional electoral system introduced the previous year. A populist, anti-establishment movement that took its name from the five issues with which it was initially concerned — public water, sustainable transportation, sustainable development, the environment, and internet access, Five Star was also concerned with the excesses of consumption in a capitalist economy, advocated “degrowth,” and was concerned about poverty, inequality, and the high rate of unemployment — in particular, youth unemployment. Broadly euroskeptic, until shortly before the election it had called for a referendum on leaving the euro area, and during the campaign it said it would call a referendum if the fiscal and economic rules governing the euro areas were not amended. It attracted widespread support among young voters, those in the south, those with low incomes, and those believing Italy’s problems could be blamed largely, if not entirely, on the EU.
The other big winner was the League, until late 2017 the Northern League, the full name of which was the Northern League for the Independence of Padania. Headed since 2013 by Salvini, the League, which was founded in 1991 from regional movements supporting federalism and greater regional autonomy in Piedmont, Lombardy and elsewhere in northern Italy, moved to the right under Salvini and staked out a position as a nationalist, xenophobic and euroskeptic party that was opposed, in particular, to the national and EU policies that had allowed the arrival of more than 600,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries since 2012. Running in a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the far-right Brother of Italy, the League won 17.4 percent of the vote in 2018, a gain of some 13 percentage points over its vote in 2013.
After nearly three months of difficult negotiation, Five Star and the League agreed in June 2018 to form a government, headed by Giuseppe Conte, in which Luigi Di Maio, the leader of Five Star, and Salvini would be deputy prime ministers — Di Maio serving as minister of economic development, labor and social policies and Salvini serving as minister of the interior. It was undoubtedly one of the oddest of political odd couples ever seen in Europe — a coalition between an internet-based, left-leaning, anti-establishment movement that, among other things, wanted to provide a “citizenship income” of €780 per month to all citizens and a hard-right party that wanted to introduce a two-tier flat income tax, stop new arrivals of refugees and return those who had already arrived, and leave the euro area (but only after the European Central Bank wrote off the €250 billion in Italian bonds it had bought in its quantitative easing program.)
Even before the government was formed, polls taken in the spring of 2018 revealed a substantial shift in support for Five Star and the League. Support for the League increased dramatically above the 17 percent it received in the March election, while support for Five Star dropped dramatically from the 33 percent it received in the election. It was, therefore, not surprising that, even before the government had taken office, Salvini called for a new election and he repeated that call frequently over the next year — especially after the League doubled its share of the vote in the May 2019 European Parliament election to 34.3 percent. In contrast, support for Five Star plummeted from 32.7 percent in the 2018 election to 17.1 percent in the EP election. It was only a matter of time before Salvini would try to figure out some way to force President Sergio Mattarella to call a new election.
Over the summer, as support for the League in polls approached 40 percent and support for Five Star continued to drop, Salvini carried on a public campaign in the media and on the beaches for a new election. In early August, after Five Star put forward a motion to block construction of a high-speed rail line between France and Italy — one of the League’s pet projects — Salvini called for a snap election and urged Conte to reconvene Parliament so it could confirm that the government was no longer viable. The League said it would present a motion of no confidence in the Conte government in the Senate which, if it passed, would presumably lead the president to call a new election.
After some haggling among the party leaders, they agreed on Aug. 20 as the date for the vote on the League’s motion of no confidence. But in a deft move that Salvini evidently didn’t anticipate, on Aug. 20 Conte preemptively resigned as prime minister before the vote on the motion could take place, thereby leaving it up to the president to determine, before dissolving the parliament and calling a new election, whether there might be an alternative coalition that could command a majority. The obvious candidates were Five Star which, despite its plummeting support in the polls, still had the 227 seats in the Chamber it won in the 2018 election, and the Democratic Party (PD), which won 112 seats with its 18.8 percent of the vote in that election. If they could agree to form a government, the new government would have 339 seats, a narrow but workable majority in a Chamber of 630, and a similar narrow majority in the Senate.
President Mattarella gave the parties until Aug. 27 to form a government and it was not at all certain the PD, now led by Nicola Zingaretti but previously led by Matteo Renzi, who had been the prime minister of a PD-led coalition government that took office after the 2013 election until he resigned in late 2016 in the wake of the failed constitutional referendum, would agree to a coalition. Aside from the fact that Five Star’s parliamentary representation was grossly inflated, relative to its current standing in the polls, Zingaretti was initially opposed to a coalition with Five Star, in part no doubt because the PD had been the primary target of Five Star’s election campaign in 2018. But the PD eventually agreed to a coalition, provided Five Star agreed to revise the bill Salvini had pushed through in early August that closed Italian ports to rescue vessels with migrants and authorized the seizure of such vessels and the arrest of their captains. Zingaretti also insisted that Di Maio relinquish his position of Deputy Prime Minister if Conte continued as Prime Minister, as Five Star wanted.
Eventually, facing the president’s deadline, the deal was done and on Aug. 29 President Mattarella asked Conte to form a new government. On Sept. 4, Conte announced the composition of the new government, in which Di Maio would serve as Foreign Minister, and on Sept. 9 and 10 the new government won votes of confidence in the Chamber and the Senate. A few days later, the new government underscored its new policy in regard to the migration of refugees by authorizing the disembarkation of 82 migrants from the Ocean Viking after the European Commission agreed to coordinate the distribution of the migrants among the member states and France and Germany each agreed to take 25 percent of them. It was a modest first step toward a more humane migration policy, wrapped as it was in the commitments from the EU and other member states. But it was at least a first step. How long the new government lasts, given the erosion in public support for Five Star and the coalition’s narrow majorities in the Chamber and Senate, remains to be seen – even if the new party Renzi intends to create will, as he has said, continue to support the PD-Five Star government. But at least it’s not the ideological odd couple its short-lived predecessor was.
Turning to Spain, after two days of talks with the party leaders last week, King Felipe VI announced that he would not be putting forward a candidate for the position of prime minister since no candidate, including the acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez, was likely to win an investiture debate. Barring a last-minute agreement by some of the parties to form a government, the parliament will be dissolved at midnight tonight and a general election held on Nov. 10.
For much of the post-Franco era, Spanish politics has been a duopoly in which the two largest parties — PSOE and the PP and its predecessor the People’s Alliance (AP) — alternated, each governing for a long period before giving way to the other. Thus, Felipe González served as prime minister of PSOE governments from 1982 to 1996, José María Aznar served as prime minister of PP governments from 1996 to 2004, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero served as prime minister of PSOE governments from 2004 to 2011. But in the wake of the sharp contraction in the economy and rise in unemployment that occurred as the government pursued a policy of sustained austerity after the economic and financial crisis that hit Spain in 2008-09, PSOE, as the governing party, experienced a dramatic electoral contraction. Thus, whereas it had won 44 percent of the vote in the March 2008 election, in the November 2011 election its share of the vote dropped by 15 percentage points, to 28.8 percent, and the PP, led by Mariano Rajoy, took office. Four years later, in the December 2015 election, PSOE continued to lose support, dropping to 22 percent, while a new left-of-PSOE populist party, We Can (Podemos) that grew out of the anti-austerity movement and was formed in early 2014, took 20.7 percent of the vote, much of it from disenchanted former PSOE voters. After six months of unsuccessful negotiation over a new government, in large part because the PP in 2015 had, like PSOE in 2011, suffered a substantial loss of support, with its share of the vote dropping from 44.6 percent in 2011 to 28.7 percent in 2015, another election took place in June 2016. PSOE’s vote remained virtually unchanged, at 22.6 percent, while We Can (Podemos), by then allied with the United Left in United We Can (Unidos Podemos) won 21.2 percent.
After the June 2016 election, Rajoy and the PP formed a minority government supported in the Congress of Deputies by the Citizens Party and the Canarian Coalition, a conservative regionalist party. But a series of party and financial scandals, coupled with the Catalan independence crisis in the autumn of 2017, greatly weakened Rajoy and the PP, and after a court in May 2018 convicted 29 businessmen and PP officials, including the party’s treasurer, of corruption in a wide-ranging kickbacks-for-contracts operation, Sánchez submitted a motion of no confidence in the government. According to parliamentary rules, as the author of the motion, he would automatically become prime minister if it were supported by a majority. Although PSOE held only 85 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies, on June 1, 2018 the motion of no confidence was approved by a narrow majority and Sánchez became prime minister.
Prior to the vote of no confidence, Sánchez said he intended to remain in power only long enough to ensure passage of the 2019 budget and enact some reforms in social, economic and educational policy, after which he would call new elections. While he had supported the Rajoy government’s use of the powers granted under Article 155 of the Constitution to dismiss the Catalan government headed by Carles Puigdemont and call new elections in Catalonia after it declared the creation of an independent republic following its Oct. 1, 2017 referendum, Sánchez began, with the support of United We Can and four small Catalan and Basque parties, a dialogue with the new Catalan government aimed at ameliorating, if not resolving, the contentious relationship between Madrid and Catalonia. But after he refused to negotiate a new Catalan referendum on independence, the Catalan parties withdrew their support for the government’s 2019 budget, so he called another election.
On April 28, Spanish voters went to the polls for the third time in the last four years. In the run-up to the election, the headlines around the world focused on the anticipated increase in support for Vox, a populist, right-wing, xenophobic party that had won only 0.2 percent of the vote in the 2016 election. But drawing on resentment fueled by the recent increase in refugees coming from North Africa – last year Spain received more than 65,000 refugees by land and sea, more than Greece and almost three times the number Italy received, and in the first four months this year it received almost 8,000, most of them arriving by sea from Moroccan pots – and building on the 11 percent it won in last December’s regional election in Andalucía, Vox, with its brand of xenophobic, anti-Muslim nationalism, increased its share of the vote to 10.3 percent.
The growth in support for Vox came very largely at the expense of the People’s Party (PP), which won only 16.7 percent of the vote – only half of the 33 percent it won in the 2016 election and lost more than half of its 135 seals in the Congress. Moving to the right under Pablo Casado, who replaced Rajoy as leader after his retirement from politics last year, as it chased after the voters attracted to Vox, the PP barely outpolled the Citizens, or C’s, a center-right, liberal market-oriented party that first came on the scene in the 2015 election, is strongly opposed to Catalan independence, and, like the PP, moved to the right in the campaign. The C’s, headed by Albert Rivera, received 15.9 percent of the vote, an increase of nearly 3 percentage points over the 13.1 percent it received in 2016, and 57 seats in the Congress of Deputies, compared with its 32 seats in the current Congress.
Some had assumed before the election that the anticipated increase in support for Vox would lead to the formation of a new center-right government by the PP and the C’s, perhaps, as is now the case in Andalucía, supported by Vox in parliament. But the election results made it clear there wouldn’t be a center-right government, with or without Vox; the three parties together won 147 seats, almost 30 short of the 176 needed for a majority in the Congress. That being the case, if there was to be a government after the April election, it would almost certainly have to be one formed by PSOE and United We Can (Unidad Podemos), perhaps with the parliamentary support of several of the small regional parties.
In the April election, PSOE won 28.7 percent of the vote, an increase of roughly six percentage points compared with its vote in 2016, and 123 seats in the Congress, 38 more than it had won in 2016. A substantial portion of that increase, both in vote and in seats, came at the expense of the UP, which saw its share of the vote drop from 21.2 percent in the 2016 election to 14.3 percent and its number of seats in the Congress from 71 in 2016 to 42. In the evening of election day, Pablo Iglesias, the UP’s leader, called Sánchez to congratulate him and express UP’s willingness to work with PSOE to form a coalition government, despite the fact that PSOE’s gains came largely at the expense of the UP.
Nevertheless, the fact remained that, because PSOE’s gains were largely UP’s losses, the two parties, while closer to a majority in the 350-seat Congress after the April election than they had been after the 2016 election, would still be short of a majority, even if they were able to resolve their differences over such matters as whether UP would, as it preferred, be a full-fledged partner of PSOE in a coalition government and hold several ministries or would, as PSOE preferred, simply provide support in the Congress for a PSOE government. After five months of haggling over policies and portfolios, during which PSOE refused to share power with UP while, for good measure, the C’s refused to enter a coalition with PSOE, it became clear the only alternative was another election. And so on Nov. 10, Spain will go to the polls once again.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.