Italy’s Dilemma: Can they save themselves from democratic backsliding? by Katelyn Ogunmowo @ University of California, Los Angeles
Ellen Lust, in Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding describes the concept of democratic backsliding as “a deterioration of qualities associated with democratic governance within any regime. It is a decline in the quality of democracy.” (Lust, 2). The recent Italian election has brought forth many concerns that have been slowly brewing overtime about the well-being and stability of the country’s democratic regime. President Sergio Mattarella dissolved parliament in late December of 2017, calling for new election for members of parliament. This election brought forth two populist parties, one leftist and one right, that many people perceive as extremist groups. These groups offered new platforms that established parties had not done before. Italy, a country whose government was already in shambles due to bad economic conditions and public disapproval, is experiencing heavy symptoms that lead to democratic backsliding as a result of this election, as it allowed for “extremist” and non-conventional parties to take rise and gain support.
When analyzing the idea of democratic backsliding, it is important to understand what a strong consolidated democracy consists of. Indeed, there are factors that decrease the likelihood of threats to democracy. The first is that culturally, there needs to be an overwhelming majority of people that believe that democracy is what is best, and have faith that their government can successfully run their country. The second is that constitutionally, all major actors and structural laws of the state need to reflect democratic norms and practices. The last is that behaviorally, no significant groups are actively seeking to overthrow the regime or secede from the state. When actors or movements come into place that go against these factors, a country becomes vulnerable and in turn, very likely to fall victim to democratic erosion.
To give some background to the current political climate in Italy, it is imperative to analyze the events that led up the current situation. After President Mattarella dissolved parliament, the new election was set to choose 630 members of the The Chamber of Deputies and 315 members of the Senate of the Republic. The three main parties were The League, Five Star Movement, and the traditional Democratic Party. The League, led by Matteo Salvini, a centre right party that considers themselves populist, won plurality, the most seats. The Five Star Party, known as the anti-establishment populist party, led by Luigi Di Maio received the most votes and second most seats. The center left party led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi received a small number of votes in comparison to the two other parties. The results of this election leaves Italy now with a huge dilemma–no single party won an outright majority in senate, resulting in a hung parliament. The president and parliament members must come to a resolution through the formation of coalitions or other alternative solutions to resolve this before March 23rd, when the vote of confidence occurs.
While some were taken aback by the election results, for the majority of people it had been foreseeable. The rise of populist parties shattered the establishment and traditional political climate, pushing the country even further into a political revolution, threatening democracy. The first factor that I mentioned above that consolidates democracy mentions the importance of public support and faith in the government, which for Italy, has been slowly declining for years. Italy’s citizens are unhappy with the slow economic growth, public debt, lack of opportunity and are sick of the traditional parties, longing for new leadership. Their highly divided country, both geographically and economically led to the wealthier middle class in the North and the impoverished in the South. This, along with the recent influx of Libyan immigrants, have all caused strict and monstrous divides and hatred for the government. The economic woes experienced by many Southern Italians have caused a general distrust of their government and its ability to govern. The North, vehemently opposes what the Southerners want, and do not believe that their taxes should be given to the South, causing them to fight for a majority party that can address their needs. The disparities between the North and the South are so great that many believe it will eventually provoke some sort of geopolitical crisis in Italy. The effect of these tensions have already taken place as a growing number of people are supporting the North’s succession from Italy–which is a direct sign of a weak democracy, as stated in my third factor above. Italy, over the years has formed a sentiment of distrust for politicians, their representation and participation. Voters took this election to give rise to the populist parties The League and Five Star and used it as a chance to regain central control.
When looking at the map of election results, the stark divide is clear as every single province in the South voted for Five Star and almost every country in the North voted for The League, with only a few voting for the established democratic party.It is drastic changes and deviations from the status quo such as these that mark symptoms of democratic backsliding. The general distrust in the government from both the North and the South allowed for two populist, many even say extremist and non-conventional, parties to take rise and with no single party having a majority, shows a structural failure in Italy’s democracy.
It is important to mention that Italy did put up certain structural safeguards to prevent the rise of extremist parties. In October of last year, the Italian Electoral Law of 2017 was passed in direct response to the rise in support for Five Star in an attempt to shoot down the party. It called for a parallel voting system, which acts as a mixed system, with 37% of seats allocated using a first past the post electoral system and 61% using a proportional method, with one round of voting. This law made it much harder for Five Star to gain the majority. In Bermeo’s Journal of Democracy, she warns that one form of backsliding is strategic manipulation by the government to keep a certain party in power. “Strategic manipulation denotes a range of actions aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents.” (Bermeo, 13). In an effort to keep traditional parties in power, Italy did just that. Unfortunately their plan backfired. When countries try to manipulate the democratic system that was put in place to maintain stability, there are many adverse effects. Rather than allowing the natural turnover of parties in rule, Italy’s government hindered it, agnering many. By suppressing Five Star’s chance of being the majority party, they only exacerbated their support and helped the movement gain steam.
In what seems as an already sinking ship, is there any way Italy can save themselves? The leader of the Five Star party, Luigi Di Maio, has already stated that he refuses to form any coalitions that cause him to sway on his political stances because he believes he would have majority if it weren’t for the manipulation of the electorate law. There might be hope if, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the The League decides to form a coalition within parliament to gain a majority. But even if this occurs, it does not negate the multitude of structural and cultural problems that Italy is facing. Given the current political climate, is not conducive for the success of their citizens nor the stability of their Democracy. If Italy does not find a way to bridge the large gap between the North and South, and find a way to integrate these populist parties into their government, the future of their democracy is at great risk for backsliding. More and more people are supporting the two populist extremist parties because they have been able to address issues that have, for so long, been ignored by the current government. If they do not take the proper steps to remedy this issue, the unwavering support for the populist parties on both the left and the right can eventually cause regions to secede from the country, dramatic government reform or even a political revolution.
 Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–19., doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
 Horowitz, Jason. “Italy’s Surging Populists Run Into a Political Muddle. But for How Long?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/05/world/europe/italy-election-muddle.html.
 “Italian General Election, 2018.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_general_election,_2018.
 Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.
“Photo by anonymous submission to Euronews, “Could the rise of the Five Star Movement make Luigi di Maio Italy’s youngest PM?” (Euronews)”