The Progressive Post

Chronicle of a death foretold

With a tripolar party system, the ballot has reproduced a highly fragmented situation.

 is a Past-President of the Società Italiana di Scienza Politica (2008-10). He is the founder and Director of, the largest worldwide provider of open access multimedia courseware in Italian. He has published books, journal articles and newspaper columns in several areas, including state theory, political parties, executive elites, political communication and concept analysis. He is the author, with Theodore J. Lowi, of Hyperpolitics. An Interactive Dictionary of Political Science Concepts, University of Chicago Press (2010). His latest publications in Italian include: Il partito personale (Laterza, 2000 and 2010), La democrazia del leader (Laterza, 2016) and (with Fortunato Musella) Il Principe digitale (Laterza 2019).

The Italian political deadlock comes as no surprise. With a tripolar party system and a non-majoritarian electoral law, the ballot has reproduced a highly fragmented – and divisive – situation. With the leadership factor as both an obstacle and an ultimate solution.

The results of the Italian national elections force the political system into a deadlock from which there is no easy way out. Two winners – the League on the extreme right and the Fivestars Movement – have made the headlines for Italy being stormed by the populist wave. With the governing party, the Pd, loosing almost a third of its electorate – and the executive office. However, neither of the two winners has a majority in Parliament, and they could hardly get together to form one, as they represent two very different strands of populist ideology. While the Democratic party has no interest in offering its votes to back the forming of a government where it would have little if any voice.

The programs of the League and the Fivestars reflect the anti-establishment mood on the rise in Western democracies

Yet, this critical situation comes as no surprise in consideration of three constraining factors. First, the electoral law – a mixed one with 37 percent of the seats allocated via the first-past-the-post system (directly elected), and 64 percent proportionally (indirectly elected based on lists). Second, a tripolar party system which, in the absence of a majoritarian filter, couldn’t but reproduce the fragmentation of three quite different and incompatible political actors. Which is, last not least, the main obstacle today to the formation of a parliamentary majority. The programs of the League and the Fivestars reflect the anti-establishment mood on the rise in Western democracies, with a number of provisions which can easily capture the attention – and the vote – of a protest prone electorate. But are much harder to be translated into effective governmental policies.

The President of the Republic is trying to use his «moral suasion» power to push all three main contenders towards more flexible positions. An unlikely outcome, in light of the leadership factor. In a political scene dominated by highly personalized communication, the success of both the League and the Fivestars is largely dependent on the charisma of their young leaders. Both Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio cannot yield to a compromise executive with the Pd – even less with each other. They need the Premiership to hold on to their visibility as well as to keep a tight control over their own party. The Democratic party is – not surprisingly – in disarray, with the resignation of Matteo Renzi opening a long and winding road for the choice of a new secretary.

There is little hope that a solution to this impasse may be found in a short time. For the next few months, it is more likely that the Spanish path will be followed, with the Gentiloni executive remaining in office until all political actors become aware that, in a democratic polity, words need – sooner or later – be matched by facts. A lesson which may also count for their electors, should they be called to cast their vote again.

Photo: Stefano Zaccaria /

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