Italy Elections: Steve Bannon Lends Support to Populist Candidate

Bannon's weekend trip to Rome signals stakes as Italian populists flirt with becoming first European party to ride nationalist wave into power. Here are five things you need to know about Sunday's vote

Steve Bannon poses in Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy, March 2, 2018.
\ TONY GENTILE/ REUTERS

An election in Italy on Sunday will determine the makeup of the nation’s Parliament and its next government. The balloting also should indicate if Italian voters, like those elsewhere in Europe, have tilted toward populist parties since the last general election in 2013. A split vote could spell weeks or months of negotiations to form a new government.

Here are five things worth noting about the election and aftermath:

Plethora of populist parties

Populism was a factor to varying degrees in recent votes in Germany, France and Britain. Italy is taking the trend a step further. Three main parties that can claim a populist or nationalist bent are fielding candidates.

Steve Bannon — the populist architect of Donald Trump’s successful White House campaign — visited Rome this weekend, signalizing a sign of the stakes.

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, the anti-migrant League and the far-right Brothers of Italy are the main players in a right-wing coalition with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. The 5-Star Movement has a policy of refusing to be part of coalitions.

The parties share euroskeptic leanings and have promised to crack down on immigration. Even Berlusconi has vowed to repatriate 600,000 migrants.

Two running candidates are also members of neo-fascist parties, but unlike the other three, they are not expected to reach the threshold to enter Parliament.

None of the populist forces are expected to receive enough votes to govern alone. Analysts will be watching to see if the three parties end up topping 50 percent of the vote combined, an outcome that would signal a backlash against Italy’s more established parties that for years have dominated politics in center-right and center-left coalitions.

Ballot Confusion

Changes to Italy’s election laws last year necessitated a new kind of ballot which some experts warn might confuse voters and result in a high percentage of invalid ballots.

Voters can mark preferences for an individual local candidate, a party list, or both. Unlike past elections, if voters tick boxes for both a candidate and a party list, the two must correspond.

Some analysts think this could hurt the 5-Star Movement since most of its candidates are unknowns. If a voter picks the 5-Star Movement along with a more familiar candidate from another party list, the ballot will be disqualified.

There are three main blocs fielding candidates: the center-right, anchored by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the center-left, anchored by the Democratic Party of ex-Premier Matteo Renzi, and the 5-Star Movement, headed by Luigi Di Maio.

Berlusconi can’t run for office because of a tax fraud conviction. He has endorsed a longtime Forza Italia member, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, to be premier if Forza Italia comes out ahead within the center-right.

Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant, nationalist League party that is part of Berlusconi’s coalition, also is gunning for the top job in Italian government, but the League has consistently polled lower than Forza Italia.

In the center-left coalition, Renzi is automatically a candidate as Democratic Party secretary. But Renzi has alienated much of the Democratic base as well as his coalition partners. Current Democratic Premier Paolo Gentiloni is considered a more palatable candidate by many.

Di Maio is the candidate for the 5-Stars.

The ballot only lists candidates for parliament seats, but during the campaign, parties signal who their candidate for premier would be if the president looks to them to form a government after the election.

New law

A new law passed last year, ostensibly to make Italy more governable, calls for a combination of direct and proportional voting for members of Parliament. The lower Chamber of deputies has 630 seats; the Senate has 315 seats.

The new law calls for roughly a third of the seats to be selected by the direct “first-past-the-post” system, with the remainder selected by proportional outcomes divided among allied parties and coalitions.

Not all votes will count. If a party gets less than 1 percent of the vote, no seat is assigned. If a party gets more than 1 percent but less than 3 percent, that party’s vote goes to the coalition it has joined, assuming it joined a coalition before the election.

Possible outcomes

The final polls published before a pre-vote blackout period took effect demonstrated that the 5-Stars had the most support of any single party among voters who had made up their minds, but not enough to govern alone.

The 5-Stars have sworn they won’t form coalitions, though Di Maio has hinted he would be willing to talk to other political forces.

Previous polls indicated the only coalition with a chance of grabbing an absolute majority is the center-right. But roughly a third of those queried said they hadn’t decided who would get their vote or if they would vote at all.

Analysts suggest that the likely outcome of the vote is a hung Parliament and a period of uncertainty.

Weeks of political haggling could ensue as parties try to line up enough support to win mandatory confidence votes in Parliament.

President Sergio Mattarella would invite party leaders to the hilltop Quirinal Palace to sound them out on possibilities for a viable coalition. When Mattarella is convinced the “formula” for a new government is solid, the candidate’s name will be announced and the cabinet ministers sworn in.