What future for Italian political parties? Comparison of voting behaviour in the European and Italian Parliament

Elif Lab
Elif Lab
Nov 17, 2016 · 14 min read

This study has been undertaken jointly by Elif Lab and VoteWatch Europe.


The Italian referendum on Constitutional reform is likely to reshape the politics of one EU’s biggest countries, whichever way the result goes. This will also have a substantial impact on Europe as a whole.

In the run-up to the Italian constitutional referendum, political observers are trying to forecast the potential developments in case of a defeat of the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in particular regarding the future alliances between Italian parties. We analysed 20 key votes in both the Italian Parliament and the European Parliament in order to spot how consistent Italian parties are when it comes to deciding on the future of Italians, but also of Europeans as a whole.

Before looking at the conclusions, it is worth observing that in the Italian parliament, the voting behavior is influenced by whether a party is in the opposition or in the government (parties in government vote against a proposal by the opposition and vice versa), whereas in the European Parliament members are more free to vote according to their core values (less constrained by the national alliances), given that they have a much weaker link to the European executive branch.

We found that:

– On some of the votes, there is a divergence between the positions adopted at home and the ones defended in Brussels

– The Italian Democratic Party is more to the left in the European Parliament than in the Italian one, in particular on foreign and environmental policy

– Instead, Forza Italia is more centrist in the European Parliament than in the Italian one, as in the latter it tends to vote more frequently with the Northern League

The votes in the European Parliament suggests that despite their current positioning at home, Democratic Party’s MEPs are still quite progressive on environmental, social and economic issues, whereas Forza Italia’s MEPs are economically liberal and moderately conservative on social issues.

These results indicate that, in spite of the current and contingent domestic positioning, the main Italian political parties are still anchored to clear core values, which shape their choices within less structured contexts of decision making. This highlights interesting perspectives on the potential features of the future Italian political landscape, especially in case of a political turmoil unleashed by the referendum’s outcome. There is still the possibility of shift to the left of the Democratic Party, with the consequent formation of a coalition with the parties on its left (despite its recent centrist evolution), whereas Forza Italia might try to appeal to its traditional core voters in the middle ground, therefore distancing itself from the lepenist stance of its biggest ally: the Northern League.

All in all, it is essential to keep in mind that the current political landscape in Italy is inevitably transitory and that new developments will arise after the next political elections in Italy, which would be contested with a new electoral law.


Introduction

On December 4th, Italy will vote to decide whether to approve or reject its most recent constitutional reform, strongly promoted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. This referendum is particularly important, as the leader of the Democratic Party previously linked the fate of his government to the outcome of the upcoming referendum. The result of the consultation will be decisive for his career, as in case of victory he will be considered as the head of government with the strongest legitimacy in Europe, whereas if he loses he will face a strong pressure to resign as he initially promised, thus leaving an uncertain future for Italian politics.

Despite the fact that the referendum mainly concerns the internal functioning of the Italian political system, the EU institutions are paying considerable attention to the developments undergoing in Italy. In fact, despite the somewhat fierce rhetoric of Matteo Renzi against the bureaucrats in Brussels, his government is currently considered as the least bad option by European institutions and national governments alike. In fact, the main opposition party, the 5 Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, supports holding a referendum on the permanence of Italy in the Eurozone in case of electoral victory. Such a perspective is frightful enough for the other European leaders to lead them into tolerating Renzi, despite his continuous attacks against their positions on several topics (austerity, Russia, migration, etc.). The rise of the far-right Northern League, which is trying to brand itself as an Italian version of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, also contributes to strengthening the image of Matteo Renzi as the only beacon of hope for the moderate and pro-European stakeholders.

However, at the domestic level, the political games are much more complex.

On one hand, there is the center-right that is trying to recompose: Forza Italia hopes that its historical alliance with the Northern League, a movement that is moving more and more towards the far-right, will not turn its moderate electoral base away. Additionally, the Northern League hopes Forza Italia to not re-engage with the former fellow party members, now in Popular Area (also known as NCD-UdC), that have been the main allies to the Renzi cabinet in these last years and against which the Northern League has sworn war.

On the other hand, the centrist positions towards which Renzi has brought the Democratic Party and his unscrupulous approach to politics have irritated the “traditional” members of the party, some of which have even left the party and formed a new leftist entity. Furthermore, many groups and associations traditionally close to the Democratic Party, such as the biggest Italian trade union (CGIL) and the leading association representing the partisans (ANPI), are now strongly campaigning against his constitutional reform.

Therefore, the answers to the following two questions are crucial for defining the future of Italian politics: will the alliance between the Democratic Party and Popular Area go on? And is the Democratic Party at this point steadily embarked on this sort of blairian third way?

With the spectre of a government reshuffle or even of a new round of elections coming up, the composition of these two groups is one of the main themes, also to understand how they can cope with the 5 Star Movement, for months acknowledged as the first party by all the surveys and only now described in slight decline.

To answer all these questions, we have tried to understand how these parties move in a different context, which is less tied to the dynamics between the majority and the opposition: the European Parliament.

Methodology

In order to do this, we have taken into consideration 20 key votes covering 20 topics on which there has been a vote in both the Italian and in the European Parliament and we have compared the alliances and positions in the two assemblies of the six main Italian parties.

As for the methodology used for the Italian Parliament, we chose to take into account 20 out of over 18000 electronic votes in the Chamber of Deputies, starting from the beginning of its

term. All the 20 votes took place during the Renzi cabinet. We considered votes on several types of acts (law proposals, motions, resolutions, orders of the day, amendments), tabled by different parties (5 by the Democratic Party, 5 by the 5 Star Movement, 3 by the Northern League and 7 by other parties).

Not all these votes can be considered “key votes” in the current Italian political dynamic: both because some types of acts are considered less important than others (e.g. orders of the day) and some discussed topics which might not be central to the Italian political debate. In spite of these elements, they still represent a precious source to identify emerging policy preferences.

As for the European votes, we adopted an analogous methodology of analyzing 20 votes on different types of acts. Additionally, we considered the votes expressed by three MEPs elected in the list The Other Europe with Tsipras and we compared them to the ones of the Italian Left — Left Ecology Freedom in the Italian Parliament.

The positions of these two parties do not match entirely but the Italian Left- SEL (which was only SEL at that time) supported The Other Europe with Tsipras at the European elections. Therefore, they represent a similar political area and, for this reason, they are compared in this analysis.

Below you will find two maps representing the positioning of the members of the Italian Chamber of Deputies as well as the one of the MEPs in regards to the key votes analyzed in the text.

Each dot on the map represents the voting positioning of an MP in the set of 20 key votes.

The proximity between two dots reflects a greater or a lesser vote-similarity between the MPs:

Two MPs who voted in the same way in many of the 20 votes are then close on the map.

The size of each dot is proportional to the percentage of participation of the MP in the 20 roll-call votes.

Click on the image below to see the interactive version of the maps with the exact positions of the Parliamentarians.

Click to see the interactive version of the maps with the exact positions of the Parliamentarians.
Click to see the interactive version of the maps with the exact positions of the Parliamentarians.

The political situation in the Italian Parliament

Appointed in February 2014, Matteo Renzi has now served as Prime Minister for more than two and a half years.

The coalition in the current government, inherited from the previous Letta cabinet, is based on the agreement between Renzi’s Democratic Party and Popular Area (led by the Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano), as well as smaller parties, such as the centrist Civic Choice and The Democratic Centre in the Chamber of Deputies and Italy of Values and the Italian Socialist Party in the Senate.

The main actors of the parliamentary opposition are Forza Italia (FI), the 5 Star Movement (M5S), the Northern League (LN) and the Italian Left- SEL (SI), in addition to some smaller parliamentary groups. Interestingly, while all these parties generally tend to vote together against the Democratic Party on the major acts proposed by the government majority, they differ in voting on acts presented by one of the opposition parties (which the governing coalition is almost always opposing). Therefore, one can observe that the opposition is divided into two poles.

The first pole is made up of Forza Italia and the Northern League, while the other one is represented by the 5 Star Movement and the Italian Left-SEL.

What is peculiar in this situation, is that the 5 Star Movement appears close to the left, but in fact it is also not far from the Northern League, usually depicted as a far right-wing party.

Italy is then still characterized by a fragmented political scene, with the governing majority being composed by two ideologically different parties and multiple oppositions that unite against policies presented by the Government and differ on acts presented by the opposition parties.

In the meantime, Matteo Renzi is struggling with some division in his party, also in regard to the new electoral law. On the other hand, the 5 Star Movement tries not to fall victim to its unexpected electoral success and its political inexperience. Finally, the center-right tries to come out with new projects and alliances in order to succeed in the next elections, but still continues to struggle with the lack of a recognized leader.

The political situation in the European Parliament

Following the elections for the EP in 2014, 7 Italian lists gained representation in the 8th term of the European Parliament: the Democratic Party (S&D), the 5 Star Movement (EFDD), Forza Italia (EPP), the Northern League (ENF), the New Centre-Right- Centre Union (EPP), the Other Europe with Tsipras (GUE-NGL) and, with only one MEP, the South Tyrolean People’s Party (EPP). The Italian delegations are spread across 6 pan-European political groups, which bring together international groups of Parliamentarians sharing the same political values. Being a member of one of the political families in the EP is crucial, as they control the assignation of the reports on legislative files, as well as the appointment of MEPs to the highest positions in the Parliament.

Differently from what happens in the Member States, there is no clear cleavage between the majority and the opposition in the EU. Political groups form coalitions on a case-by-case basis, depending on the issue at stake. However, the European Commission (which can be considered as sort of a “European” government) is supported by centrist political groups (EPP, S&D and ALDE), also because the Eurosceptic attitudes of the fringe groups in the assembly prevent them from supporting this other European institution. Additionally, according to the data by VoteWatch Europe, the three above-mentioned groups have high winning rates, when compared to the other ones. As the three groups often cooperate with each other, they usually manage to keep the key positions in the European Parliament for themselves.

For this reason, the Italian representatives from the Democratic Party, Forza Italia and New Centre-Right are the only ones who managed to be appointed to important positions within the European Parliament. Additionally, after the striking performance of Matteo Renzi’s party at the latest European elections, the Democratic Party has become the largest delegation in the centre-left group and gained considerable clout, also considering that it is the second largest party in the whole assembly.

Instead, the second largest Italian party in the EP, the 5 Star Movement sits together with the eurosceptic UK Independence Party, previously led by Nigel Farage. The group is relatively isolated in the European Parliament and its ability to shape the policies of the European Parliament is rather limited. However, because of the disinterest of the British for European policy-making, the “grillini” Parliamentarians are often shadow rapporteurs in the Committee on behalf of their own groups and this allow them to interact with the other shadow rapporteurs and the rapporteur during the crucial Committee-stage. Although they both share common eurosceptic views, UKIP and the 5 Stars Movement vote differently on many policy issues.

In the case of the Northern League, it sits within the ranks of the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom, which is mostly made up of representatives of the National Front. Also because of the relatively small size of the Northern League’s delegation, its ability to shape policies remains rather limited, although the establishment of this group allowed representatives of the Northern League to become rapporteurs on a couple of legislative reports.

The clout of the representatives of Forza Italia has been reduced by the outcome of the latest European elections. Once one of the largest delegations in the EPP, it can currently count on only 12 representatives. However, as a member of the largest group in the EP, Berlusconi’s party still plays an active role in the European assembly, especially when it comes to influencing legislation.

Comparing voting behavior

If we focus on the main parties and compare their voting behavior in the Italian Parliament with that in the European Parliament, the first difference that catches our eye is definitely the different positioning of Forza Italia and Popular Area (NCD-UdC). The two parties are both part of the EPP group in the European Parliament and therefore tend to vote together in most of the votes in Strasbourg (our data shows the two parties have a matching rate of 80%).

In Italy, instead, following the split occurred inside the People of Freedom in November 2013, Popular Area has become Renzi’s main ally and it’s been since then almost always aligned with the positions of the Democratic Party. This government pact brings the party to take less conservative stances on ethical issues in Italy and consequently, the matching rate between Popular Area and Forza Italia is as low as 25%.

While in Europe Popular Area voted against policies for greater access to abortion, in Italy, instead, it lined up against a protection tout court of conscientious objection. Additionally, while in the European Parliament it opposed the institutionalization of same sex unions, in Italy it ended up voting in its favor. An exception is represented by the policies on surrogacy, a topic on which in Strasbourg Popular Area voted yes, but is still opposing it in Italy.

On the other hand, Forza Italia is closer to the right in Italy, expressing opinions similar to those of the Northern League, both in regard to the criticism of the European Union and its austerity policies, both regarding its foreign policy, opposing, for example, the sanctions against Russia. Our data shows a matching rate of 65% between those two parties in the Chamber of Deputies.

All in all, Forza Italia tends to express more radical positions in the national parliament than in the European one, where the party voted in favour even to the sanctions against Russia and the establishment of a common European intelligence capacity.

Moreover, our voting data shows that, the MEPs of the Democratic Party tend to vote against controversial and highly unpopular policies, such as the sanctions against Russia, the renewal of glyphosate and the austerity policies (often voting together with the 5SM and the far left). Instead, in Rome, Renzi’s Parliamentarians are more supportive of these measures (they tend to vote with the New Centre Right or even Forza Italia on these issues).

Interestingly, as for the question of bombs being transferred from Italy to Saudi Arabia and being used in the war against Yemen, the Democratic Party takes a strong censure position in Europe but rejects the recommendation when voting in Italy.

As a result, the party led by Matteo Renzi is much closer to the left and the 5 Star Movement in Europe (with a matching rate between 65%-80%), rather than to Popular Area, with which it shares instead most of the positions in Italy.

Studying the 5 Star Movement and the Northern League, we noticed there are less differences in regard to the voting behavior in the two legislative institutions. These two parties are, in fact, more radical in their positioning on most of the issues and it would be difficult for their MEPs to vote in a way that would clearly contradict what their parties preach at home.

In the European Parliament, for example, the MEPs of the 5 Star Movement did not support the institutionalization of unions between LGBTI people and decided to abstain instead. This position mirrors the voting behavior of their Parliamentarians in Rome, who did not support the initiative by the government to legalize civil unions between people of the same sex (and also between heterosexuals).

The Northern League appears to be coherent as well. Interestingly, the main difference we can detect is a conflicting position on the minimum threshold for basic income: the 60% threshold calculated on the medium national income is supported in Italy and rejected in the European Parliament.

The leftist parties (as mentioned above we are comparing the Other Europe with Tsipras to the Italian Left-SEL) are very much aligned on the policies we are taking into consideration, but the three Members of the European Parliament opposed the motion calling for Juncker’s resignation, while their colleagues in Italy supported it.

To conclude, there is a clear divergence between the votes of some parliamentarians in Italy and their political counterparts in the EU. As we observed, depending on whether we look at the EP or the national parliament, some parties might change their political orientation (e.g. FI is more right-wing in Italy while PD is more leftist in the EU). This might depend on many factors, such as the existing coalitions between parties, the political impact of a decision, opportunism and others.

All this leaves us with many possibilities in regard to the future of the Italian political scene which will be affected by the outcome of the imminent referendum and also in regard to the result of a future vote, since the new electoral law will play a crucial role in shaping coalitions.


For more insights contact us at info@eliflab.com

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