- Italy's 2018 general election is underway
- Polls opened at 06:00 GMT (01:00 EST) and are set to close at 22:00 GMT (17:00 EST).
- The country's electoral system is notoriously complex, and a coalition government is almost guaranteed.
- New electoral laws come into force for 2018's election.
- The vote is full of intrigue, with the rise of the populist Five Star Movement, and the return of Silvio Berlusconi among major talking points.
- Business Insider highlights some of the key issues in the election.
LONDON – Italy's general election — to be held on March 4 — is a hugely significant event, not just for the country, but for Europe as a whole.
Italy's politics have always had something of an air of chaos. More than 60 different heads of government since the Second World War, a system where majority government is nigh on impossible, and a ranking as a "flawed democracy" (by the Economist's Intelligence Unit) point to the problems Italy faces.
This year's election is no different in that regard, so Business Insider decided to pick out some of the more intriguing and sometimes downright strange features of Italy's election.
The Five Star Movement
Founded in 2009, Five Star is leading in virtually every poll, and could gain the largest number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy's parliament.
The party's policies don't fit neatly into the traditional left-right political spectrum, something it is keen to emphasise. It is variously anti-establishment, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and pro-green. The "Five Stars" refers to its five flagship issues: publicly owned water, sustainable (eco-friendly) transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism.
Five Star's popularity has led it to moderate its stance on certain issues, and install a new leader, the 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, who replaced Five Star's founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, in October 2017.
Doing so has allowed the party to gain even more popularity, and move in just eight years from a protest movement to a viable political force.
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Di Maio's story is not that of an archetypal politician. He grew up in Naples, dropped out of university, and prior to becoming Five Star leader had never held a professional job. A headline in the Daily Telegraph prior to his election described him as a "former waiter."
Discussing Five Star in an interview with the Washington Post in November 2017, Di Maio said: "The movement was born out of the failure of both parties on the left and right."
"The real problem in Italy is that there are many citizens who don't identify with these parties because they fail to defend the values and interests of different parts of the country."
How does the election work?
Italy's general election is run via a combination of both First Past the Post and Proportional Representation. The Chamber of Deputies, akin to the UK's House of Commons, has 630 seats, with 232 of those elected by FPTP, and 386 by PR. The remaining 12 seats are assigned to politicians voted for by Italians living overseas.
A similar split is evident in the upper house of the Italian parliament — the Senate of the Republic — with 102 members of the senate elected via FPTP, and 207 via PR. Six senators are elected by overseas voters.
Those deputies and senators elected by PR are done so via a list-based system.
Previously, Italy's electoral laws gave an automatic majority in parliament to any party securing 40% of the vote, but that rule has now been abolished. However, any party, or coalition of parties, is likely to be able to govern reasonably effectively.
Several parties are consistently in broad coalitions, and pool their resources to form electoral blocs based on their ideological stances. For example, Italy's current government, led by technocrat Paolo Gentiloni, has ministers from four different parties.
As an indication of quite how complex Italy's politics are, the graphic below sets out the relationships between Italy's main governing branches:
111Alleskönner/Wikimedia Commons/CC 3.0
2018's election is the first vote in which the rules laid out above, which were only passed into law last October by the incumbent government, are in force. Gentiloni's government came to power late in 2016 after Italians rejected a referendum on reforming the electoral system put forward by then-prime minister, Matteo Renzi.
Renzi staked his individual reputation on the vote, and was forced to resign, leading to Gentiloni's government. After a few months in the wildnerness, Renzi returned as leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), and wants to once again be prime minister in 2018. As it stands, his chances look fairly slim, with the PD polling an average of around five points behind Five Star.
The return of Silvio Berlusconi
Another unique quirk of Italy's election in 2018 is the return of four-time prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud in 2013, and was sentenced to four years in prison. Three of those years were pardoned, and because of his age, Berlusconi was spared jail in favour of unpaid community work.
Berlusconi's conviction means that he is no longer eligible to hold any legislative office in the next six years, creating a unique situation where he can remain the leader of his party, the right-wing Forza Italia party, but will not be able to hold any sort of office if the party gets into a government coalition.
Despite his conviction, Berlusconi is still wildly popular among many Italian voters, and Forza Italia is set to win roughly 18% of the popular vote. The party has a coalition agreement with the Lega Nord, a party on the far-right of the political spectrum.
Led by Matteo Salvini, the Lega Nord is strongly anti-immigration, pledging to effectively close Italy's borders, as well as wanting to repatriate 100,000 immigrants per year. Along with being strongly anti-EU, the party also wants to crack down on crime, reopen brothels, and improve relations with Russia. It is currently polling at around 13%.
Who is actually going to win?
As it stands, the Five Star Movement is likely to be the biggest individual party with around 28% of the vote. That does not, however, necessarily mean it will lead the next government. Five Star has ruled out a coalition in the past, and although its stance on ruling in tandem with other parties seems to be softening, that it will be able to strike a coalition agreement is not guaranteed.
In second place is Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party, on roughly 23%. While that's well behind Five Star, the PD has the advantage of having previous coalition partners to work with, in a centre-left alliance. That alliance would include parties called More Europe, Together Italy and Popular Civic List, and will likely command around 30% of the vote.
Behind them is the combination of Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the Lega Nord, although with the support of minor parties on the right like Brothers of Italy and Us with Italy, there is a chance that a Berlusconi led alliance could hit 40%.
Here's the current standing in the polls (a key of the major parties can be seen below):
Impru20/Wikimedia Commons/CC 3.0
Five Star: Yellow — Democratic Party: Red — Forza Italia: Blue — Lega Nord: Green
In reality though, Italian voters are a fairly fickle bunch, and allegiances could switch rapidly in the weeks before the election, especially when faced with the economic reality facing Italy right now.
JPMorgan Asset Management's Karen Ward put the point concisely in January when she told Business Insider that Italy's current economic performance — which is stronger than it has been in many years — suggests that parties like Five Star and the Lega Nord are unlikely to cause as big an upset as some expect.
"When people get to the ballot, if the economy has been strong in the last few months, they sort of decide in the end not to rock the boat, and simply stay with those that are seen to delivering this recovery," Ward said.
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