Daily Archives: March 3, 2013

Italy 2013

Legislative elections were held in Italy on February 24 and 25, 2013. All 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and 315 members of the Senate (Senato della Repubblica) were up for reelection. There were also regional elections (direct election of the regional president and the regional legislature) in Lazio (Latium), Lombardy and Molise.

I explained Italy’s confusing electoral system, its unique political history since 1946 and the plethora of parties and coalitions competing in this year’s election in a long preview post here.

Italy is a rare example of ‘perfect bicameralism’, where both houses of the legislature hold equal powers and a government needs the confidence of both houses and legislation needs to pass in both houses. The electoral system in use since the 2006 election, however, has created an opening for political instability since both houses are elected using a different system. In the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) the coalition (but not party) which wins the most votes nationally automatically receives a majority bonus of 340 seats, corresponding to 54% of the seats in the Chamber (hence, a solid absolute majority). The remainder of the seats (besides one FPTP member for the Aosta Valley and 12 separate seats for Italians abroad) are allocated by proportional representation. In the Senate, however, the ‘majority bonus’ applies separately at the regional level, so that different coalitions end up winning the regional majority bonuses in different regions. This can mean that no single coalition will emerge with a working majority in the Senate.

There were five major contenders in this election. Pier Luigi Bersani led the centre-left coalition, which is spearheaded by Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD). Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (1994-1995, 2001-2006, 2008-2011) led the centre-right coalition, which notably includes Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) party and Roberto Maroni’s regionalist Northern League (LN). Outgoing technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti led a centrist coalition which was backed by two established centre-right parties. Sharp-tongued populist comedian Beppe Grillo led the 5 Star Movement (M5S), a new anti-establishment and anti-system populist party which became popular in 2012.

The last polls, including ‘leaked’ polls which could not be legally published in the last two weeks, showed Bersani’s centre-left coalition with a consistent lead between 3 and 5 points or so over Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. The main changes compared to the last legally published polls came with the two smaller groupings: Beppe Grillo’s support increased from about 15-16% in the last polls to 20-21% in the ‘leaked’ polls while Monti’s support fell from about 13% to 9-11%.

Results

Turnout was 75.19% for the Chamber of Deputies and 75.21% for the Senate, down 5.31% and 5.25% from the last election in 2008 respectively. Italy’s political elite has long been perceived as corrupt, self-interested career politicians or hopelessly out of touch with their constituents. In the past, these feelings had often proven secondary for many voters. However, the economic crisis – austerity and prolonged recession – has significantly heightened feelings of alienation or resentment towards the political elites. Given how these same politicians are asking their constituents to ‘sacrifice’ themselves for the sake of economic recovery (when many have already suffered heavily from the crisis with job losses, pension cuts, lower wages and so forth), endemic political corruption and self-serving politicians filling their pockets are less easily accepted. Like in Greece, one of the first political effects of the economic crisis has been to alienate a substantial number of voters from the political system in general, leading to a significant decrease in turnout. Turnout is historically extremely high in Italy, always over 80% (often over 85%) and it used to be over 90% in the 1970s. Therefore, 75% is the lowest turnout in a legislative election since the end of the war – and by quite a distance. Turnout in the two Greek elections in 2012 had also been the lowest in that country’s democratic history.

Bad weather – including snow in the north – may also have dragged down turnout.

Chamber of Deputies

Party / Coalition % vote (excl. Aosta, abroad) Change Seats (+abroad) Change (dissolution)
PD 25.42% -7.76% 292 (+5) – 297 +94
SEL 3.20% new 37 +37
CD 0.49% new 6 -3
SVP 0.43% +0.02% 5 +3
Centre-left (Bersani) 29.54% -4.05% 340  (+5) – 345 +131
PdL 21.56% -15.82% 97 (+1) – 98 -111
Lega Nord 4.08% -4.22% 18 -40
FdI-CN 1.95% new 9 +9
La Destra 0.64% -1.79% 0 nc
GS-MPA 0.43% -0.7% 0 -16
Other centre-right 0.47% new 0 nc
Centre-right (Berlusconi) 29.18% -20.06% 124 (+1) – 125 -158
M5S (Beppe Grillo) 25.55% new 108 (+1) – 109 +109
SC 8.30% new 37 (+2) – 39 +39
UDC 1.78% -3.84% 8 -28
FLI 0.46% new 0 -24
With Monti for Italy (Monti) 10.56%  +4.94% 45 (+2) 47 -13
RC (Ingroia) 2.25% -5.2%  0 -15
Fermare il Declino (Giannino) 1.12% new 0 nc
All others 1.8% -2.3% 4 (1 Aosta, 3 South America) -56

Senate

Party / Coalition % vote (excl. Aosta, TAA abroad) Change Seats (+Aosta, TAA, abr.) Change (dissolution)
PD 27.43% -6.26% 105 (+4) – 109 +5
SEL 2.97% new 7 +7
CD 0.53% new 0 nc
Megaphone 0.45% new 1 +1
PSI 0.18% -0.69% 0 nc
Other centre-left 0.04% new 0 nc
SVP/PD-SVP/PATT n/a n/a (+6) (+3)
Centre-left (Bersani) 31.63% -2.93% 113  (+10) – 123 +16
PdL 22.30% -15.87% 98 (+1) – 99 -14
Lega Nord 4.33% -3.73% 17 -5
FdI-CN 1.92% new 0 -11
La Destra 0.72% -1.38% 0 nc
Pensioners 0.4% new 0 -1
GS 0.39% -0.54% 1 -16
Other centre-right 0.60% new 0 nc
Centre-right (Berlusconi) 30.72% -18.69% 116 (+1) – 117 -45
M5S (Beppe Grillo) 23.79% new 54 +54
With Monti for Italy (Monti) 9.13%  +3.44% 18 (+1) – 19 +3
RC (Ingroia) 1.79% -5.74%  0 -10
Fermare il Declino (Giannino) 0.9% new 0 nc
All others 2.04% -0.76% 2 (1 Aosta, 1 South America) -16

Italy 2013

Italy’s much anticipated election on February 24-25 ended with no clear winner, a potentially ungovernable country and results filled with surprises after a tense and nail-bitingly close night. Bersani’s centre-left bloc, led by the PD, emerged as the single largest coalition in both houses – with an absolute majority in the Chamber (naturally) but only a thin plurality in the Senate where it is a long way from the 158 seats needed for a majority. Berlusconi’s centre-right performed better than expected and came closer to winning than anyone had imagined – in fact, for a while it looked like Berlusconi could actually pull off a win in both houses. The only clear winner of the night, however, was Beppe Grillo’s upstart M5S, which won about a quarter of the vote nationally.

The first exit polls at 15:00 on Monday afternoon corroborated the last (leaked) polling numbers, with the centre-left coming ahead of the right by about 3-5 points. As in 2006, however, the exit polls were off. TV channels released ‘projections’ based on the trends emerging from the votes actually being counted, and these projections (for the Senate) gave the lead to Berlusconi‘s coalition rather than Bersani. Grillo’s M5S was also performing much better than in the first exit polls. Updated projections maintained this state of affairs for quite some time, and the left’s lead in the actual vote count (first in the Senate – which was counted first, then in the Chamber) shrank consistently and by a considerable amount throughout the night. The final vote ‘projections’, however, showed that the left would be able to eek out a tiny win (in the popular vote) in both houses.

On the final count, the centre-left won the Chamber of Deputies (and the 340 seats ‘bonus’) by 0.36% (124,494 votes) and the Senate by a slightly wider margin of 0.91% (281,004 votes). This is a very tight margin, but the 2006 election was even closer: the left won the Chamber by only 0.11% and actually lost the national popular vote for the Senate (but the crucial popular vote is in the Chamber). The votes received by the centre-right regionalist South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP) in the Chamber (146,804) are greater than the left’s winning margin. If the SVP had run independently, for example, Berlusconi would have won the 340 seat bonus instead.

The left ‘won’ in the technical sense, but it didn’t really win. It was very much a Pyrrhic victory for the left, with a very underwhelming result which is almost as bad as a defeat.

The Berlusconian right didn’t win, because in losing over half of its support from the last election it is definitely one of the biggest losers in this election. But it can pride itself in having lost the election by an unexpectedly tiny margin when almost everybody had bet that they would lose by a significantly larger margin.

The real winner of the election was Beppe Grillo, whose party did not even exist in the last election five years ago and which came out of nowhere in about a year to elect 163 parliamentarians and win about 25% of the vote.

The clearest loser in all this was the outgoing technocrat Prime Minister, Mario Monti, whose first (and likely only) political foray ended in disaster for nearly everybody involved. His pro-European reformist agenda which had excited his European colleagues, The Economist and the Financial Times didn’t excite anybody in his home country, where his tough medicine (austerity) for economic growth was unquestionably rejected by voters.

What happened? The final official polls, the “horse race” and “conclave” leaked polls and the exit polls on the day of had all shown Bersani’s centre-left leading by at least 3 to 5 percentage points over the centre-right.

La Repubblica still has (for now) the results of the first exit polls (in this case for the Chamber) online here. Compared to the actual results, the exit polls (which were basically identical to the final leaked polls) overestimated the centre-left coalition by at least 4.5 points. The Sky-Tecnè exit poll predicted that Bersani would win 34% of the vote, the Rai-Piepoli had given the left between 34 and 38% of the vote.

While the margin between the left and the Berlusconian right was overestimated in the left’s favour by exit polls, it was not because Berlusconi did better than what the exit polls or the final polls had indicated. The right won 29.2% of the Chamber vote and the Sky exit poll gave him 29% (Rai’s fork was 28-32%). In most of the last leaked polls, the right stood between 28 and 30% as well. It would be tempting to explain the surprising result away by saying that a “shy Berlusconi” vote, which nobody could pick up, came out. Except that it’s not what really happened. Berlusconi did not overperform his polling average, rather the left woefully underperformed its polling average.

Compared to the exit polls and final leaked polls, the biggest overperformer was Beppe Grillo’s M5S. The first exit polls had given him 19% (or 19-21%), underestimating the M5S by about 5 points. I can only guess at the various reasons for why even the exit polls proved terrible and badly underestimated M5S while overestimating the left. Perhaps there is some major flaw in the various pollsters’ methodology which made it hard for them to accurately capture the full scale of the M5S tide. Grillo appealed to a younger net-generation which distrusts traditional media sources and established institutions in civil society. It would not be unreasonable to guess that some of these voters might either choose not to respond to pollsters.

This election also had a huge number of last minute deciders. According to Demopolis, even if 52% decided over a month ago, 25% decided in the last 15 days (including 11% in the last 2-3 days). According to a similar poll by ISPO, 35% of voters decided at the last moment (only 20% did so in 2008) and 35% (rather than 53% in 2008) decided over 2 months.

The defeat of the traditional coalitions

The immediate explanation for the left’s near-defeat is that the pollsters are horrible (like they were in 2006) and that we should learn to take them for what they’re worth. But the centre-left needs to shoulder a heavy part of the blame for their horrible result. Once again, the Italian left proved how utterly inept it is at winning elections and how it almost always manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. An election which could have been theirs by a landslide turned out to be a near-loss, a narrow victory that it was practically a defeat.

Even before the election results brought even more bad news to the centre-left, it was clear that the centre-left would win by default rather than by having successfully built a wider coalition behind an popular leader and platform.

The centre-left’s leader, chosen by centre-left voters in an open primary late last year, was a poor choice. Pier Luigi Bersani is probably, at the least, a mildly competent administrator, but he is a poor politician and a low calibre leader who is a poor fit for the post-1994 ultra-personalized politics. Bersani is one of those sleep-inducing stale ‘old guard’ career politicians which the PD has a lot of (too much); a reasonably competent administrator who barely excites anybody beyond his core supporter and who find himself completely crushed by charismatic politicians like Berlusconi or Grillo. The centre-left voters last year made a poor choice with Bersani and many are likely regretting it now; his main rival in that primary, the young mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi is probably tempted to say “told you so”. It is hard to know these things for certain and we can’t change the past, but Renzi with his reformist energy and more centrist (liberal) image would probably have won this election in a much more convincing way than Bersani.

Not only did the centre-left choose the wrong candidate, the PD also led a horrible campaign after the primary. Bersani won the primary and his party dropped out of sight for a while after that, seemingly thinking that if it stayed above the fray it could glide to an easy victory. When Bersani did campaign, he unsurprisingly failed to excite anybody. Against similarly stale and unexciting opponents, this strategy would probably have worked. But again Berlusconi and Grillo, masters at their trade? It was a strategy destined to fail. Despite carrying around heavy baggage and a controversial record (to say the least), Berlusconi proved that he had remained a shrewd politician and that he still mastered television unlike anybody else. Like in the past, Berlusconi quickly seized the initiative from the left and made himself the central figure of the campaign. His simple solutions to Italy’s profound economic woes did not convince everybody, but it allowed him to reignite the Berlusconian right; his much trumpeted promise to abolish and refund Monti’s unpopular new property tax (IMU) was one of his most popular planks and he knew how to make good use of that promise. Grillo has an aversion towards television, but he knows – unlike any other politician in Italy – how to make good use of social media and new technologies to mobilize large crowds and how to seize the spotlight from his rivals. His unorthodox campaign, mixing new technologies and old electioneering (mass popular rallies in the piazzas), turned out to be a success.

Indeed, according to a post-election poll by Demopolis, only 12% of voters felt that Bersani had run the most convincing campaign (against 19% for Berlusconi and 34% for Grillo). The result of a poor candidate, a terribly-run campaign and a boring moderate platform (in sharp contrast to Berlusconi and Grillo’s outlandish promises) was that the left’s support gradually declined from about 40% following the centre-left primary late last year (when the PdL, left without il cavaliere for while, was at rock-bottom) to the low thirties in the last polls. It then severely underperformed its polling numbers on February 24-25.

The ISPO post-election poll showed that the PD had held 61% of its 2008 voters (it lost 4% of its 2008 voters to the SEL or CD). 16% voted for Grillo, 8% voted for Monti and 1% voted for Ingroia’s RC. Only 9% of 2008 PD voters did not vote in 2013.

Within the left, the PD received about 86-87% of the votes which went to the centre-left coalition. Nichi Vendola’s SEL won only 3% of the vote, and a lot of those came in the form of personal votes for Vendola is his political base of Apulia (and surrounding regions). Despite a poor showing, the SEL’s alliance with the centre-left has allowed the ‘radical left’ (ex-communist) to regain a foothold in Parliament, after the Left-Rainbow’s 2008 disaster. Within the governing centre-left coalition, Vendola is also in a fairly strong position to influence government policy, pressure the PD into adopting a more left-wing agenda or extracting (limited) concessions from the PD. However, the SEL might have suffered electorally from its alliance with the moderate centre-left, especially given the constant talk that it would probably form a post-electoral alliance with Mario Monti’s centrist block in order to govern. ‘Radical left’ and far-left voters had little interest in Bersani and his generally moderate centre-left rhetoric. The M5S attracted a lot of radical left and far-left voters who had voted PD or for the Rainbow in 2008; Antonio Ingroia’s Civil Revolution (RC) ended in a trainwreck but it too attracted some radical left voters who cared little for Bersani or the SEL.

The tiny centrist Democratic Centre (CD), allied with the centre-left, was intelligent enough to calculate that it would only survive in a coalition and, indeed, it managed to survive with a handful of seats by virtue of being the largest coalition party below the 2% threshold. Most of its support came from southern Italy. On the other hand, the rump PSI proved how utterly irrelevant it was. The Megaphone, Sicilian regional president Rosario Crocetta’s personal list which ran for the Senate in Sicily, managed to win a single seat. Crocetta’s list won 6.2% of the vote in Sicily.

Berlusconi’s result is rather spectacular, no doubt about it. But making it seem as if he was the big winner of the election and that his story is that of yet another remarkable comeback by a man who has often been presumed politically dead by his opponents is an exaggeration. His result can only be considered to be a victory when compared to the lows where his party and the broader right stood only a few months back in the summer and fall of 2012. In November and December, the PdL sat at lows of only 14-16% in polls (the PdL+Lega together polled between 20 and 25%). About two months later, he won 29.2% (and 30.7%) of the vote with 21.6% (and 22.3%) for the PdL itself. Berlusconi made a comeback during the campaign, but his gains are not as phenomenal and unprecedented as they have been made out to be. His main victory in this election was that he proved that the Berlusconian right remained a relevant actor and that it was not dead in the water, contrarily to what many might have thought (and wished) last year after the right’s abysmal results in the local and regional elections.

That being said, the Berlusconian right still lost heavily – it lost about half of its 2008 support – which makes it hard to read his result as some unquestionable victory. The established parties, both on the right and the left, lost considerable support in this election and were both victims of the Grillist surge. Berlusconi’s only success was that he beat expectations (which he is quite skilled at doing, electorally), polling better than most had thought he would and remaining a relevant and influential political actor. But he still lost over half of his support from the last election and the PdL’s result – only 22% – was a long way from the results of its predecessor parties in any election between 1994 and 2008. The Italian political system no longer revolves entirely around him, and he has lost a significant part of the electoral base which had backed him since 1994.

ISPO’s post-election study showed that Berlusconi held 49% of 2008 PdL voters (only 1% switched to the Lega). About 3% voted for the left instead, 13% voted M5S and 7% voted Monti. Compared to the PD, it is interesting that a lot more 2008 PdL voters did not vote this year (23%).

Within the right-wing coalition, one of the major losers was the Lega Nord. The northern regionalist party won only 4.1% (4.3% in the Senate), losing over half of its votes since the last election. This is the Lega’s second worst result in a general election – only the 2001 election in which it won a bit less 4% The Lega was crippled by the explosive embezzlement scandal which forced the party’s iconic and controversial boss, Umberto Bossi, to resign in April 2012. Prior to the scandal, a year ago, the Lega was riding high – polling about 8-10% in most polls, benefiting from its opposition to the increasingly unpopular Monti cabinet and its austerity measures. However, the Lega fell abruptly (down to 4-6%) following revelations that Bossi and his inner circle had massively embezzled the party’s public financing funds and used them for personal and illicit ends. This scandal was so massive that Bossi, who had been thought to be firmly entrenched as the Lega Nord’s lider maximo and was oftentimes the most prominent ‘face’ of the party, was forced to resign. Roberto Maroni, Bossi’s rival for the party’s leadership, taking the reins did not help the party overcome its abrupt fall from grace in the eyes of the electorate. The scandal destroyed the party’s image. The Lega Nord, like the M5S today, first burst onto the scene in the early 1990s as an anti-system populist party which virulent denounced the moral bankruptcy of the First Republic’s governing elites and the corruption at the highest echelons of powers. Since then, the Lega has continued to benefit from its positioning as a populist, somewhat anti-system force and often got away with consistently trying to have the cake and eat it (acting as a critic of Berlusconi while remaining in his government). The scandal hence destroyed the Lega’s image as the ‘clean’ anti-corruption, anti-system populist force. When any politician or party which presented itself as ‘anti-corruption’ is mixed up in a major corruption scandal, the stench sticks and it really hurts.

Since 1992, the Lega had also served as a receptacle for protest votes in northern Italy. It benefited from popular regional grievances against Rome and the Mezzogiorno, but also attracted protest or anti-system votes on the right (in the north). The emergence of M5S was the first major challenge to the Lega’s hegemony on the protest vote/anti-system playing field and, as a result, it is no longer the natural home for many anti-system ‘protest voters’.

Paradoxically, however, the Lega – regionally – is stronger than ever. Roberto Maroni, supported by the PdL, won the regional elections in Lombardy. With Maroni’s victory, the Lega now controls the regional presidencies of the three most important regions in northern Italy – Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont. As the Lega tries to heal its wounds and rebuild itself, its strong base at the regional level will come in handy.

Despite its horrible performance this year, writing the Lega’s obituary would be premature. The party has already faced such lows, although the presence of M5S as a powerful and more credible competitor for anti-system votes is new and could significantly hinder the Lega’s ability to rebuild. The regional grievances expressed by the Lega since the 1980s remain a potent political factor in northern Italy.

For the time being, the coalition with the PdL will probably stick. The alliance between the PdL and the Lega is a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. For the PdL, without an alliance with the Lega it would face a tougher time in the politically decisive powerhouse regions of Lombardy and Veneto. For the Lega, without the alliance with Berlusconi it would be much less influential in national politics and its representation in institutions at all levels of government would be significantly reduced. For example, in this election, without the last-minute deal with Maroni, Berlusconi would not have come close to winning a majority in the lower house and his political future would be much bleaker. For the Lega, with an alliance with Berlusconi this year, Maroni would not be president of Lombardy and the Lega would have come out even more marginalized and weakened from the election. Both parties would face a much tougher time in the case of a lasting divorce.

ISPO’s post-election study showed that the Lega retained only 42% of its 2008 voters. 14% switched to the PdL instead and 3% went for other parties in the centre-right coalition; 19% did not this year, 11% backed the M5S, 8% voted for Monti and only 3% switched to the centre-left this year (most for the SEL apparently!).

There was a tough three-way contest on the right to be the largest coalition party under the threshold. Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), a new party created by ex-AN members of the PdL with Berlusconi’s blessing, won less than 2% but it held on to a handful of seats (a bit less than it had just before the election) thanks to the ‘largest coalition party below the threshold’ clause. Not a bad result for a brand new party with less a dozen sitting parliamentarians; but the FdI-CN is less an attempt to recreate the AN of yesteryear than a political calculation by Berlusconi to shore up his support on the right.

La Destra – Francesco Storace’s right-wing nationalist party – and Grande Sud – a vaguely regionalist party in the south – did poorly; winning 0.6% and 0.4% respectively. La Destra had actually won 2.4% of the vote in the 2008 election, it likely lost some of that support to FdI (whose geographical patterns were rather similar). Grande Sud managed to win a single senator (in Calabria, with 3.2%) but the party, which – as an alliance of various regionalist parties from the southern and southern dissidents from major parties (Gianfranco Micciché) – had held a sizable number of seats in the legislature at dissolution, was swept out. In the Chamber, the GS did best in Calabria (with about 3%) but in Sicily, it won only 1.9%. Running separately for the Senate, former Sicilian regional president Raffaele Lombardo’s MPA took only 2.2% of the votes on the island, an unmitigated disaster which shows how thin support for Lombardo’s ostensibly regionalist party was.

The Grillo Phenomenon

The big winner of the election was Beppe Grillo’s upstart Five Star Movement (M5S), which was founded less than four years ago (in 2009) and which only started to receive substantial support barely a year ago (in the May 2012 local elections). Even if the M5S lacked the resources of the major parties and even if it was derided by political leaders and established media sources alike; it managed to achieve a phenomenal result – 25.6% in the Chamber of Deputies and electing a total of 163 parliamentarians. The M5S’ dramatic emergence onto the Italian political scene is comparable to Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to political power in the 1994 election, in which his new party – Forza Italia – came out of nowhere to win the most votes (21%). But Grillo’s success is even more remarkable than Berlusconi’s first success in 1994. Berlusconi was already a wealthy businessman backed by an influential media (TV) empire and he built ties with old political actors; in contrast, Grillo was ‘only’ a popular activist blogger who used his popular blog to launch his party. He could only count on the support of dedicated online and offline activists, he received no support from established politicians and did not even have any ‘star candidates’.

Grillo’s rise from blogger/activist to the leader of the single most voted party in the lower house, which happened in less than a year (in February 2012, the M5S polled about 3-6%), is the result of Italy’s contemporary socio-economic condition and the expression of deep-seated popular anger at the political class and the Italian political system in general.

The economic crisis, the tough austerity measures and reforms supported by Mario Monti’s cabinet, a prolonged recession and record-high unemployment created a climate of social frustration and anger. The impact of austerity (which included tax increases in a country with a very heavy tax burden or major cuts in pensions) on the middle-classes, low income earners, retirees and small business owners alike has been particularly tough and caused major social discontent. Austerity was resented as a diktat imposed by the country’s political elites (the casta) and foreign decision-makers (the ECB, IMF, Germany).

Like in Greece or in Spain, the political effect of austerity and its social effects was that the established political parties, which had predominated the political system for decades beforehand, lost most of their credibility in the eyes of the electorate. They are considered as the culprits for the economic mess, and their response to the crisis was deeply unpopular with the electorate.

The economic crisis and austerity in these countries, Italy included, has also led to a significant decline in public trust of democracy, political institutions and politicians. Anti-system, anti-establishment and ‘anti-politician’ sentiments which had been dormant in the past are being expressed politically through different means in different countries.

Italy’s political problems and flawed political system predate the economic crisis and denunciations of corrupt politicians, the political elites and the political system is nothing new in Italian politics – in fact Silvio Berlusconi used that rhetoric in his initial rise to power in 1994. However, the economic crisis has created new deep-seated popular anger at the political elites (la casta) who are seen as ‘parasites’ who do no good and serve their own personal interests on the back of the people. The economic crisis and the resulting credibility crisis faced by all established politicians have allowed for these sentiments to burst onto the scene.

Grillo’s campaign spewed vitriol on the entire Italian political system and its entire political leadership. Grillo does not differentiate between the left and the right because he insists that the entire Italian political system and constitutional model is rotten to its core and that the only solution to these problems would be to get rid of all these ‘parasites’ and replace the system with bottom-up direct democracy. In a climate of social anger, frustration and resentment directed towards la casta, that privileged caste of political and administrative elites which have ridiculously generous conditions and benefits while many voters suffer the weight of austerity measures and economic reforms. These same politicians ask their constituents for ‘sacrifices’ in order to restore economic stability, but at the same time political parties still receive public funding, la casta benefits from lifelong pensions and corrupt politicians continue to run wild. Grillo’s populist anti-system and anti-politician rhetoric, combined with a radically anti-austerity platform – cutting waste, giving monthly stipends to the unemployed, shortening the workweek to 20 hours, a referendum on the euro and debt renegotiation – hit the right notes with voters, both on the left and the right.

Grillo’s surge fed thus fed on three key factors: unpopular austerity, an economic crisis which has bred popular anger against privileged political elites and the discredit of traditional parties on both the left (PD) and right (PdL, Lega). Voters are tired of austerity, high taxes, endemic corruption and the widening disconnect between politicians and the electorate.

The post-election poll by Demopolis reflected that Italians, in large majority, voted for change – oftentimes drastic change. 42% said that the need for a radical renewal of the political leadership was the main influence on their vote, another 31% said that it was the need for different economic, fiscal and labour policies. Only 24% said that the top candidate or party leader was the main influence on their vote, and 9% said that local candidates were the main influence on their vote.

Grillo’s success also shows the growing political power and influence of the internet, more specifically social media. At the heart of the Grillo phenomenon is Grillo’s very popular blog and his own mobilizing power on the internet (when few Italian politicians have embraced social media) has played a key role in the Grillist surge and whirlwind success. The internet forms the backbone of the M5S, whose actual ‘headquarters’ are Grillo’s blog. The party selected its candidate through an open online primary, and Grillo has used his strong presence on social media platforms such as Facebook to mobilize dedicate activists and rally large crowds to his rallies and to his causes. Without such a strong web presence and an ability to organize support through social media platforms, the M5S would likely have had a tougher time organizing itself into a relevant and influential political actor.

The internet is no substitute for traditional political action and electioneering, however. That being said, Grillo also showed that controlling or having a strong presence on television – like Berlusconi has consistently enjoyed since 1994 – is not a necessity. Grillo bans his party’s members from appearing on television, effectively boycotting all political shows or talkshow programs on TV. In late 2012, a Bologna municipal councillor was expelled from the party after appearing on a talkshow on TV. Instead, Grillo’s offline political action and campaigning has come in the form of large rallies in the piazzas. These rallies, often organized online, predate the M5S: Grillo first organized vaffanculo days (fuck off days, rallies for political reform and opposition to the system) in 2007 and 2008. These V-days allowed Grillo’s movement to reach a much wider (offline) audience. During the campaign, Grillo managed to rally thousands to hear his speeches – loud and angry tirades against politicians, the system and the socio-economic situation – throughout Italy. A huge crowd turned out for his final rally on a packed public place in Rome on February 22.

What is the nature of the Grillo phenomenon? Who are the people behind the Grillist surge and who voted for Grillo on February 24-25? Unfortunately, there is only limited information on the demographic or even political background of Grillist voters; research on electoral sociology and related matters seems very sparse in Italy compared to other countries.

A study (done in August 2012) on Grillist supporters on Facebook by UK-based think tank ‘Demos’ offers some interesting insights into the Grillist phenomenon. The study’s findings are based on a survey of over 1,800 Grillist supporters on Facebook.

The Demos study revealed that the movement’s online supporters tended, disproportionately, to be males. A full 63% of the movement’s supporters on Facebook are males (about 54% of Italian Facebook users are males). This is in line with studies done after the 2012 local elections which found that Grillist voters tended, in large part, to be male. What is more surprising, however, from the Demos study is that the M5S’ supporters are actually older than the average Italian Facebook user: 64% of its supporters are over 30 years old (compared to 51% with all Italian Facebook users), and the M5S is actually underrepresented with the youngest age groups (16-20, 21-25). Although 12% of their supporters on Facebook are over 51 years old (against 10% of Italian Facebook users who are over 51), their supporters tend to be largely middle-aged. Other populist movements in Europe, including many far-right parties, tend to find their strongest support with middle-aged males.

The Grillist phenomenon in Italy has been linked to the brief Pirate phenomenon in Germany in 2011-2012. The M5S’ support is certainly deeper and stronger than Pirate support in Germany, given that the Pirates largely responded to ephemeral distaste with the entrenched political system while the M5S is based on deeper distrust of and opposition to the political system and entrenched political corruption. But the M5S might be attracting a similar demographic that the Pirates attracted in Germany: left-leaning males, who are rather well educated and live in urban areas, but many of whom are also unemployed or lower-income (which was the main difference between Pirate and Green support in Germany). However, the Pirates attracted mostly first-time voters, young males (many of whom were unemployed) and many students. The M5S certainly appeals to students and younger age groups as well, but the Grillist voter definitely seems to be older than the Pirate voter – perhaps a result of the M5S’ electorate being far larger than the German Pirate electorate was, even at its height.

The Demos study also showed that the M5S’ supporters on Facebook tended to be considerably more educated than the average Italian. This may reflect, in part, the digital divide. 54% of Grillo’s supporters online have a high school diploma (compared to 35% of Italians) and 27% have a university degree (compared to 12% of Italians). On this count, M5S supporters have more in common with Pirate voters in Germany (well educated) rather than right-wing populist movements in western Europe (who attract those with less education and are weak with the most educated voters).

However, the study also showed that the M5S attracted a considerable number of unemployed voters. 19% of the movement’s Facebook supporters sampled in the study were unemployed, against 8% of Italians at the time of the study. Only 50% were employed full time. 18% were students, which is much higher than the share of students in the Italian population (3%) but also much lower than the share of students in the Pirate Party’s online supporters in Germany (about 35% are students).

On political matters, the study confirms what we could have guessed: Grillist voters are pessimistic, extremely dissatisfied towards the state of Italian democracy and exhibit very deep distrust towards politics, politicians, parties and democratic institutions. The movement’s supporters more favourably disposed to activism (signing petitions, boycotts, unauthorized strikes, occupying factories or buildings) than the wider public.

66% feel that the country’s economic situation will get worse in the next 12 months, compared to 43% of Italians who think likewise. 31% even think that their own lives will get worse, compared with only 18% of Italians who say the same (and while 55% of Italians say their lives will stay the same, only 26% of Grillists say likewise.

Only 4% of respondents were very or somewhat satisfied with the state of democracy in Italy (compared to 32% of Italians) and a full 83% said they were very dissatisfied (only 19% of Italians think likewise). Most (78%) also feel things are going in the ‘wrong direction’ in Italy and in the EU (70%).

M5S supporters, unsurprisingly, exhibit deep distrust towards various institutions, organizations and traditional media outlets. 94% distrust political parties (84% of Italians), 86% distrust government (80% of Italians), 80% distrust big companies (54%), 92% distrust banks, 62% distrust the EU (49%), 82% distrust religious organizations (43%) and 75% distrust unions (56%). They also display a deep aversion towards traditional media outlets and older technologies, but are extremely keen on new technologies. 91% distrust the TV (49%), 83% distrust the press (53%) and 56% distrust the radio (40%). But 76% of Grillists trust the internet, compared with only 37% of Italians. They also tend to be more supportive of SMEs than the average Italian (61% trust vs 53% Italians trust SMEs). Interestingly, however (and in contrast with right-wing populist parties again), Grillists are not disproportionately distrustful of other people – in fact, they seem to distrust others less than other Italians do.

The top two most important issues for Grillist supporters on Facebook were the economic situation (62%) and unemployment (61%). 43% of respondents also cited taxes as one of their top two issues, 36% said rising prices/inflation, 33% were concerned about education or the environment. Immigration, housing, terrorism and foreign policy were less important for most supporters. On the particular topic of immigration, there is a clear difference with right-wing populists in other European countries: most M5S supporters favour immigration, with 56% (compared to 28% of Italians) saying that immigration is more of an opportunity for Italy.

When asked why they backed the M5S, 41% of Facebook Grillists said they backed the movement because they were disillusioned with the main parties and political system and/or wanted change. 28% adhered to the M5S’ values, 20% felt it represented ‘the people’ and 6% support the M5S because of Beppe Grillo’s personal integrity. Only 2% said that they backed the M5S because of economic concerns.

What are the political origins of Grillist voters? Prior to the 2012 local elections, the M5S’ few supporters were clearly on the left of the spectrum (48% of M5S supporters at the end of 2010 placed themselves on the left, only 11% on the right) and the M5S represented a fairly attractive option for left-wingers dissatisfied with the PD and its mediocre performance in opposition. After the 2012 local elections, the M5S’ electorate diversified politically, attracting much more support from the right and weakening the presence of left-wingers within the M5S electorate.

The Demos study in August 2012 still found that the party’s Facebook supports skewed to the left of the wider Italian electorate (the average placement on the 1 left-10 right scale was 3.88). The study’s sample had mostly voted for left-wing parties in 2008: 23% for Antonio Di Pietro’s anti-corruption IdV, 22% for the PD; but also 13% for the PdL and 5% for the Lega. 25% had either voted for other parties, not voted at all or had been too young to vote.

An ISPO study after the 2012 local elections (see here) revealed that 24% of M5S voters in 2012 had voted for the PD in 2008, 16% for the Lega, 13.6% for the PdL, 6% for the Left-Rainbow and about 4% for IdV. 30.5% had not voted or cast invalid ballots.

Demopolis’ post-election study this year analyzed where M5S had come from. 32% of them had voted for the PdL in 2008, 23% had voted PD, 13% had not voted (or were too young), 12% had backed the Lega, 11% supported Di Pietro’s IdV and 9% had voted for other parties. ISPO’s post-election study also asked a similar question to all voters. Overall, 24% of M5S voters this year had backed the PD or IdV in 2008 (21% PD, 5% IdV) and 23% had voted for the right (19% PdL, 4% Lega). 16% voted for the first time this year and 19% did not vote in 2008 (or cast invalid ballots). 16% and 13% of the PD and PdL’s 2008 voters, respectively, voted for the M5S in 2013. 11% of the Lega’s 2008 voters also voted M5S.

Mario Monti’s failure

The biggest loser in these elections was certainly Mario Monti and his centrist coalition. Monti’s decision to enter electoral politics and support a centrist coalition in these elections had excited the Italian centre-right (Casini’s UDC and Fini’s FLI) and foreign observers (the European centre-right and The Economist mostly). Monti and his allies’ goal was clearly to renew the Italian centre-right and recreate the political structure of the First Republic, with a moderate and vaguely centrist DC-type party at the core of the system which could govern either with the moderate centre-left or the right (most often with the centre-left, of course). Casini and Fini both saw in Monti their political saviour, the ostensibly popular non-politician who would lift their fortunes and allow them to retain influence over Italian politics. The Casini-engineered Third Pole with the UDC and FLI never took off and died before it reached maturity; Gianfranco Fini’s dream of renewing the Italian right and preparing it for the post-Berlusconi era had not worked out and his FLI had very low support in polls.

Things did not work out as planned for anybody in the centrist coalition. Mario Monti commanded the respect of many voters only because he was a technocrat who stood above politics and did not associate with any of the established political parties, he lost this significant advantage when he joined partisan politics himself (even if he always denied he was not really joining traditional left-right partisan politics). Monti was campaigning on an unpopular pro-European and liberal/reformist agenda which unambiguously endorsed his cabinet’s unpopular austerity policies and economic reforms/liberalization agenda. On the right, when voters faced between a charismatic populist who promised to solve problems by refunding an unpopular tax and ‘creating jobs’ or a gloomy technocrat who preached austerity and more sacrifices; the choice was quite easy.

Monti also had the misfortune of running a terrible campaign which never got off the ground – his campaign was even worse than the centre-left’s disastrous campaign (only 5% of voters felt that Monti ran the most convincing campaign). The reason for all this is quite simple: Monti is an economics professor and a pure technocrat, not remotely close to being an actual politician. He is uncharismatic, his rhetoric and demeanor is boring and stale, and he was awkward on television. This election confirmed the heavily personalized nature of Italian politics since 1994. Those politicians who do well in elections are those, like Berlusconi and Grillo, who are charismatic larger-than-life figures who master political communications. Those who don’t do well are politicians like Bersani and Monti, who are not telegenic and who are not very charismatic at all.

The result was basically a disaster for Monti’s coalition. It won 10.6% of the vote in the Chamber (barely clearing the 10% threshold to be recognized as a coalition for seat allocation purposes) and only 9.1% for the Senate. It will have a small caucus in both houses of Parliament.

In the Chamber, where the coalition’s three components each ran separate lists, about 78% of the coalition’s voters supported Mario Monti’s civic list (Civic Choice, SC) – which won 8.3%. Casini’s UDC won only 1.8% (down 3.8% since 2008) and Fini’s FLI won a disastrous 0.5%. The UDC fell below the 2% threshold a coalition party needs to win seats, but it salvaged 8 deputies by virtue of the ‘largest coalition party below the threshold’ rule. However, by winning less than 2%, the UDC destroyed the FLI. Gianfranco Fini’s party lost its two dozen seats in the Chamber of Deputies (it might have saved a few senators through the coalition’s common list for the Senate). Both the UDC and FLI felt that allying themselves with Monti would be their political salvation; it backfired on both of them. Gianfranco Fini lost reelection – interestingly, he is the second President of the Chamber of Deputies in a row to lose reelection, the communist Fausto Bertinotti lost reelection in 2008.

Other parties fell flat

Civil Revolution, a left-wing anti-corruption list led by former anti-corruption magistrate Antonio Ingroia and which included the two moribund communist parties, Di Pietro’s IdV, Naples mayor De Magistris’ new party and the irrelevant greens, fell far short of winning seats. It won 2.3% and 1.8%, underperforming its polling numbers. RC suffered from competition from M5S, which took many potential left-wing and/or anti-corruption voters the RC would have needed to win. Beppe Grillo was a far more popular option for those voters, RC never really broke out and unlike the Grillists it never attracted lots of media attention or coverage during the campaign. The RC’s failure likely spells the end of the road for Di Pietro’s IdV, already half-destroyed by deep divisions and internal rifts. Di Pietro resigned as IdV leader following the election, it is tough to see how his party would be able to survive without any parliamentarians and its long-time standard bearer. The two communist parties, PRC and PdCI, will remain deeply irrelevant.

Oscar Giannino’s neoliberal/libertarian Act to Stop the Decline went nowhere, barely winning 1% of the vote. It attracted a very economically liberal/libertarian right-wing voters, but little else besides that.

Geography of the Vote

Largest coalition by comuni, Chamber of Deputies (source: YouTrend)

Geographically, the election saw both persistent old traditions and voting patterns (such as the left-right divide) but also a lot of new patterns, linked to the emergence of the M5S. Grillist support was one of the most important and interesting aspect of the election, and its geographic distribution could be instructive as we try to decipher the nature of Grillo’s support.

YouTrend (and igraphics.gr, the Greek company which did those similarly fantastic map of the Greek elections last year) has produced a fantastic interactive map of the result, which allows you to explore results down to the comuni level but also visualize the support for coalitions and parties or compare 2013 results to those of the last election in 2008.

Senate

Under the current electoral law, control of the Senate is decided by elections in individual regions. The left  is somewhat penalized by the concentration of some of its votes in the Red Quadrilateral, it won by about 20 points in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany and about 13 points in Umbria (in all three cases, the M5S placed second). It also won Basilicata, the centre-left’s usual southern stronghold (largely because the local DC cadres turned to the left after 1994), by 11 points over the right.

The centre-left was able to pull off important victory in “swing regions” – it won by 3 in the Lazio, Marche, Liguria, Sardinia (in the latter three cases, the M5S was second), by 0.5 in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont. However, the right was able to walk away with a bare plurality of senators (excluding the Aosta Valley, TAA and the abroad seats elected by a different system) because it managed to sweep the main ‘swing regions’ including Lombardy, Veneto, Campania, Calabria and Sicily. The left severely underperformed in Lombardy (in the senate contest), the right took the region by 7 points. It also won Veneto by 8 points. The left also did much worse than expected in Campania, the region surrounding Naples, it lost that region by an unexpectedly large 9 point margin to the right. The right won Apulia by 6 and Sicily by about 4 points (6 points over the left, which placed third). It also won Calabria by 4 points. The left’s unexpectedly weak performance nationally served as a major drag on the centre-left in individual regional Senate races and allowed Berlusconi to walk out with many more seats than originally predicted.

The centre-left won a bare plurality of seats in the Senate thanks to its results in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtiro, where the PD and its local allies (the SVP, the PATT and the UPT) won 6 seats, against only one for the PdL-Lega; and abroad, where the PD won 4 seats (out of 6).

Voting patterns

In northern and central Italy, the traditional left-right divide remained visible. The centre-left coalition won 40.1% in Emilia-Romagna, 41.5% in Tuscany and 35.5% in Umbria (for the Chamber). The right won 35.7% in Lombardy and 31.8% in the Veneto. Piedmont remained a swing region, with the left winning the region in the Senate contest with 29.8% against 29.3% for the centre-right (it also won 28.3% in the Chamber of Deputies in Piedmont). At the provincial and municipal level, the old Red Quadrilateral/Red Zones of central Italy – the PCI’s strongholds during the First Republic – are naturally quite visible, and provided the centre-left with some of its best results in the entire country.

The centre-left won most major urban centres in the country. In the core of the Red Quadrilateral, it won 48.3% in Florence and 46.9% in Bologna. It won in Rome, with 33.7% against 27.3% for the M5S, but lost nearly 13 points compared to the 2008 election. In Milan, the Berlusconian right lost over 20 points (the left lost ‘only’ 5.6) can placed second with 29% against 33.6% for the left. The centre-left also won Venice (with 33.9% against 27.6% for M5S), Trieste (by a hair – M5S and the left both took 28.7%), Turin (34.6% against 25.6% for M5S) and Genoa (35.2% against 32.2% for M5S). In southern Italy, however, the right won Naples by a hair (30.3% vs 30% for the left) and M5S won Palermo in Sicily (with 32.8%).  The right also won Bari (Apulia) and Catania (Sicily). The largest city won by the right in the north was Verona, the largest city won by the left in the south was Cagliari (Sardinia).

% vote for the M5S by comuni, Chamber of Deputies (source: YouTrend)

In the Senate, the M5S did not win any region; but in the Chamber, the M5S topped the poll in Liguria (32%), Marche (32%), Abruzzo (29.9%), Sardinia (29.7%) and did best in Sicily (33.5%). The party’s worst results, outside German-speaking Bolzano, were in Lombardy – particularly the Prealpine provinces where the Lega does best, the inland regions of the Red Quadrilateral in Tuscany and Emilia and parts of the south including Campania and the tip of Calabria. Although the Grillists won up to 40.2% of the vote in one province (Trapani in Sicily), their vote was fairly homogeneously distributed throughout the country – the worst province (besides Bolzano) was Bergamo (Lombardy) and the M5S still took 16.8% there.

The M5S’ support reveals how heterogeneous its electorate is. The party broke the traditional left-right patterns, doing best in right-wing regions (Sicily, parts of Liguria, parts of rural Lazio, parts of Veneto) but also in left-wing regions (Marche, parts of Piedmont, parts of Sardinia). It did well both in urban areas and in some rural areas, it won both left-wingers and right-wingers, both middle-class voters and working-class voters.

Regional patterns and local factors certainly played an important role in the M5S’ vote. Grillo himself is from Genoa and his movement did very well in Liguria. In the province of Turin, where M5S won 29% of the vote, it did extremely well in the Val di Susa – a valley extending westwards from Turin – taking over 40% in most comunis in that valley. In this particular case, the M5S benefited from a particular local issue: opposition to the TAV, a proposed high speed train which would connect Turin to Lyon (in France), the proposed route would go through the Val di Susa. The M5S opposes the TAV and a few of its new MPs from Piedmont are linked to the anti-TAV social movements.

Throughout the north but also in parts of central and southern Italy, it is interesting to point out that M5S did best not in the urban cores (Milan, Turin, Venice, Rome etc) themselves but rather in all surrounding suburban or exurban municipalities, so that its support forms a kind of halo around major cities. This does not mean that the Grillists did poorly in major cities – it won 25.6% in Turin, 27.6% in Venice, 28.7% in Trieste, 32.2% in Genoa and 27.3% in Rome – but it did even better in municipalities surrounding these cities. This is particularly clear in Venice, where the left won the city itself but the M5S swept surrounding areas, including Chioggia, Mira and Mirano; but also in Milan, where the M5S won only 17% in Milan itself but won well over 20% in surrounding municipalities – most of which formed part of a solidly left-wing proletarian hinterland (‘Red Belt’) under the First Republic. In Rome, the left won the capital city itself but the M5S won a lot of the city’s suburban areas; including working-class Guidonia Montecelio and Monterotondo (33% in both) but also Fiumicino (36%), Aprilia (35%) and Civitavecchia (35%). It also won Tarquinia (33%), Viterbo (32%) and Rieti (32%). In parts, there appears to be a superficial correlation between municipalities were the PCI did well in the 1970s and the 1980s and the municipalities won by the M5S.

Urban and suburban areas concentrate well educated young and middle-aged voters, which seem to have formed the core of the Grillist base. The M5S clearly won both working-class and middle-class voters in urban and suburban areas. It would be interesting to compare the M5S’ support at a municipal level in these areas with variables including unemployment. Urban and suburban areas would likely be the most sensitive to Grillo’s style of campaigning; middle-aged voters, lower middle-classes and the working-class have also suffered disproportionately from austerity measures and economic reform, and their Grillist vote expresses the despair of well-educated voters who have lost their jobs and many of whom are forced to seek employment in other regions or in other countries.

Southern Italy is a politically volatile regions, and factors such as ideology play a less important role in forming voting patterns than in northern Italy. In the 2012 local elections, the M5S did not really do all that wel in southern Italy, leading some to think that it would have a tougher time breaking through the old walls of clientelism and political traditionalism in southern Italy. But in the Sicilian regional elections in October 2012, it surprised all observers by winning 18% of the presidential vote and 15% of the list vote. In some cases, the M5S still had some trouble breaking through in rural areas of the south, particularly in Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and parts of Apulia; at the same time, however, the Grillists did extremely well in most urban areas in southern and insular Italy.

% vote for the M5S by comuni in Sicily, Chamber of Deputies (source: YouTrend)

Sicily was the M5S’ best region, winning 33.5% of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies and the Sicilian provinces of Trapani (40%!), Ragusa (39%), Siracusa (37%), Caltanissetta (36.6%) and Agrigento (36%) were the M5S’ five best provinces in the country. The Sicilian results are extremely interesting, and somewhat puzzling. The Grillist’s strong performance may be due to them already having a base of elected officials in Sicily since October 2012 – the M5S also did quite well in Parma province (29%), where they have held the mayoralty of Parma since last year.

Politics in Sicily and other parts of the Mezzogiorno tends to be less ideologically-driven and more volatile than politics in northern Italy. Ideology and partisanship is a factor, but the personality of the candidate tends to play a much stronger role in the south and voters tend to be drawn to populism. The SEL’s strong performance in Apulia (6.5%), Basilicata (5.9%) and Molise (5.5%) confirms this; these are three Catholic and small-c conservative regions which are not usually associated with the SEL’s ecosocialist ideology. Rather, the SEL’s vote in these regions was a friends-and-neighbors vote for regional favourite son Nichi Vendola (regional president of Apulia).

Hence, southern and insular voters were likely drawn to Grillo because of his strong personality and his populist style – two things which southern voters tend to like in their politicians. In Sicily and the south, the Grillists likely took most of their votes from the Berlusconian rights (though they took a lot from the left as well).

In Sicily, the results at the comuni level tell us some things about the nature of Grillist support on the island. Even if his support was, once again, spread relatively homogeneously, there are a few regions which stand out. Firstly, the five aformentioned provinces are located on the southern or southeastern/southwestern coast of the island; he did not perform as well along the northern coast, particularly in the province of Messina (25.7%). Secondly, the Grillist vote was – once again – strongest in urban and suburban areas – 33% in Palermo (and even higher in some surrounding towns), 39.6% in Trapani, 38% in Marsala, 43% in Mazara del Vallo, 41% in Sciaccia, 37% in Agrigento, 39.7% in Caltanissetta, 43% in Vittoria, 41% in Ragusa, 40% in Modica, 35.3% in Siracusa, 42% in Augusta (an industrial area with a big petrochemical refinery), 32% in Catania (even higher in surrounding towns) and a low of 27.7% in Messina. He did not do as well in small towns and villages, especially in mountainous areas in the province of Palermo and Messina. Thirdly, and rather interestingly, the M5S’ map shows a superficial (although quite imperfect) correlation with those municipalities where the PCI used to poll well in the 1970s and 1980s. Trapani was also the only Sicilian province to vote for the republic in 1946; the republican vote was also stronger in those southern provinces where the M5S performed best.

While the Grillist took more from the right than from the left in Sicily and southern Italy – a region where the Berlusconian right has usually performed better than the left since 1994 – the M5S likely took more from the left in Marche, a traditionally solidly left-wing region in the Red Quadrilateral. Marche and Abruzzo are two other rather puzzling results.

Interestingly, in both regions – particularly Abruzzo – it is striking how the M5S performed best in urban/suburban areas, along the coast and in other low-lying areas while it did not do as well in mountainous regions. Similar patterns are also apparent in parts of northern and central Italy – for example, in Emilia-Romagna, the M5S did not do as well in the Apennines; and it performed poorly in the Alps. Is this only a pure coincidence and geography cannot explain anything about Grillist support? After all, the Grillist vote was very high in a bunch of rural mountainous villages in Liguria.

Or could it still be the beginnings of a (partial) explanation of the Grillist vote? Perhaps mountainous villages were more permeable to Grillo’s unorthodox style of campaigning – based on the internet and organizing large rallies in the piazzas of main towns (both of which would be more likely to reach a urban or suburban clientele) – and perhaps did not experience a ‘late swing’ to Grillo as a result? Could relative isolation from the main modes of communication and transportation still have an impact on the diffusion of new political ideologies in 2013?

In northern Italy, the M5S certainly stole a lot of votes from the Lega Nord – particularly in the Veneto. However, exploring the results at the comuni level reveals that there is no correlation – on the contrary, if there is a correlation it is probably a negative one – between the Lega Nord’s results and the Grillist vote. In Lombardy and the Veneto, the M5S polled best in urban and suburban areas – there is a noticeable ‘halo’ effect around Milan and Venice – or in other low-lying areas, such as the province of Mantova (the most left-wing province in Lombardy) or the province of Pavia (these areas are often old small industrial centres, which were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in northern Italy). On the other hand, the Lega Nord usually finds its strongest support in rural areas, particularly the Pedemontana, the region at the feet of the Prealps and in mountainous regions themselves. The Lega won 22.5% in Sondrio, 19.7% in Bergamo, 17.6% in Brescia and 16.1% in Varese – with the exception of Varese, the M5S’ result was below the regional average (19.7%) in all those provinces.

The Grillist vote is a fascinating new political phenomenon, and it certainly merits a much more thorough explanation. Unfortunately, Italy tends to lack academic interest in electoral geography and electoral sociology. The M5S movement is a new populist movement quite unlike the traditional far-right populism seen elsewhere in western Europe; but also different from the left-libertarian populism represented by the Pirate Party in Germany. A more thorough study of its vote, down to the comuni level, would be fascinating and reveal tons about modern Italian society and the socio-political effects of the crisis in Italy.

Monti’s map was rather interesting. In part, it resembles the old map of the DC – strongholds in the north (Veneto, rural Lombardy and Piedmont) and in the conservative south (Campania and Basilicata). Monti did well in northern Italy. He won his best result, 20.7%, in the Trento – but that was largely due to an alliance with Lorenzo Dellai’s local Union for Trentino (UPT) for the Chamber of Deputies. But he still won 11-15% in most northern provinces in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy and the Piedmont. Monti’s reformist and liberal agenda was a fairly good fit for some voters in the north, traditional Christian democrats or reformist right-wingers drawn to Monti’s pro-European centre-right and more repelled by the PdL and the Lega’s shift towards populism and anti-austerity rhetoric. Northern Italy has a strong and vibrant culture of ‘progressive Catholic’ small business owners and entrepreneurs who formed the backbone of the northern DC up until 1992 and have traditionally backed the right.

By virtue of his alliance with the UDC and the FLI, whose supports lies primarily in the south and Sicily (regions where the DC vote held up better than in the north in the 1990s and where the post-DC centre has been able to do best), Monti performed quite well in the south as well. He won 19.5% in the Campanian province of Avellino, where the DC’s networks of political patronage and clientelism proved surprisingly resilient after 1994 (the PPI won Avellino in 1994 and 1996); and took 10-12% in much of the Mezzogiorno. However, Monti’s performance in the south was quite mediocre. Despite his alliance with Casini and Fini, Monti was unable to hold traditional centrist voters in the south. In these poorer and more populist regions, Monti’s liberal, elitist and pro-European style likely turned off a lot of voters.

Monti’s best results came from Italians abroad – he won second place with 18.4% of the vote in the international vote in the Camera. He took 27% in Europe, 27.8% in North and Central America and 31.2% in Asia/Africa/Oceania (it did not run in South America). This should not be too surprising: a lot of expats, particularly those who lean to the right, tend to be educated professionals or affluent businessmen and these voters would naturally love a centre-right candidate like Monti. By living abroad, they were also relatively unaffected by austerity (therefore less likely to dislike Monti because of it) and perhaps somewhat disconnected from the campaign back home.

Voting Shifts since 2008

An important key to understanding these results is the shift in votes since the 2008 election. YouTrend/igraphics.gr’s maps gives you the ability to visualize the voting shifts since the 2008 election. These shifts are extremely important in helping us understand the ideological and political nature of the Grillist electorate.

Centre-left coalition ‘trend’ since 2008, Chamber of Deputies (trend: % swing since 2008 by comuni compared to the national swing since 2008)

The map on the left shows the ‘trend’ in the centre-left since the 2008 election: municipalities shaded in green indicate areas where the swing against the centre-left was smaller than the national average; those shaded in red indicate areas where the swing against the centre-left was larger than the national average. Nationally, according to YouTrend’s calculations, the centre-left lost 9% since 2008. In my calculations above, I excluded the IdV from the centre-left’s vote share in 2008; YouTrend’s map includes the IdV in the centre-left’s 2008 vote share.

The left suffered heavy loses along the Adriatic coastline in Marche, Abruzzo and Molise. It also suffered similarly heavy loses in the Val di Susa in Turin province, around Genoa and Savona in Liguria, in the Lazio, in parts of Calabria (Cosenza and Crotone), Sicily and Sardinia. In Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, the left generally suffered some large loses as well; though it resisted well in mountainous regions (the Apennines) and in Piacenza (Bersani’s native province in Emilia).

From the map, it is quite clear that the Grillist vote along the Adriatic in Marche and Abruzzo fed heavily on the left. In the Lazio, the Red Quadrilateral, Calabria (and other parts of southern Italy), parts of Liguria and the islands; the left also lost a good number of votes to the M5S. Even in Sicily, the huge Grillist vote also came from the left – notice how the northern parts of the island (Messina and Palermo province) had swings lower than the national average.

In Molise, the loses are due to the IdV being counted as part of the centre-left coalition in 2008. The PD itself actually improved its vote share in the region, where the IdV vote was extremely strong in 2008 (Molise is Di Pietro’s native region).

In the north, the left’s vote generally held up a bit better. The lowest swings against the left came from Lombardy and eastern Piedmont, where the Grillist vote likely came disproportionately from the right. The centre-left had also performed poorly in those regions in the 2008 election, and it could not fall much lower.

PdL ‘trend’ since 2008, Chamber of Deputies (trend: % swing since 2008 by comuni compared to the national swing since 2008)

Berlusconi’s PdL saw its share of the vote drop by about 15.8% since the 2008 election. The PdL’s heaviest loses came from Sardinia, the Lazio, parts of Sicily and Campania, and the provinces of Imperia and Savona in Liguria. The PdL vote held up much better in the north, particularly in the Veneto and eastern Lombardy. In the north, it likely managed to gain a few votes from 2008 Lega Nord voters; helping to limit the bleeding. The PdL could not fall much lower in the left-wing strongholds of the Red Quadrilateral.

Sardinia is fairly interesting. Clearly, both the left and the right lost heavily to Grillo on the island; but the PdL had been doing quite poorly in Sardinia ever since the 2009 European elections (which followed the right’s victory in snap regional elections in Sardinia). In the Lazio, the particularly heavy loses suffered by the PdL – which once again benefited Grillo. The swing in the Lazio was perhaps exaggerated by the dismal state of the PdL and the right in the Lazio after regional president Renata Polverini was forced to resign following a scandal involving embezzlement of public funds by right-wing regional councillors. In Liguria, the Grillist vote – in part a favourite son vote – gained a lot of votes from the right, particularly in the conservative provinces of Imperia and Savona.

While the Grillist vote in the Marche and Abruzzo was clearly a left-wing vote in large majority, the PdL was not immune to the Grillist surge in those regions either.

The Lega Nord lost about 4.2% nationally. Obviously, the swing was largest in those northern regions where it was strongest while the swing was much lower in central regions where it is quite irrelevant.

Lega ‘trend’ since 2008, Chamber of Deputies (trend: % swing since 2008 by comuni compared to the national swing since 2008)

The Lega accounts for most of the centre-right’s loses in the Veneto, where the right’s general performance was surprisingly well. The Lega polled extremely well in the Veneto in 2008 and 2010, doing better than in Lombardy (27% in Veneto and 21.6% in Lombardy in 2008). This year, the Lega won only 10.5% in Veneto, while it won 12.9% in Lombardy. In the Veneto, the Lega mostly lost votes to the M5S, but also to the PdL and Monti.

Regional elections

There were also regional elections – for the regional president and regional legislature – in Lombardy, Lazio and Molise on election day.

Lazio

Regional president

Nicola Zingaretti (PD) 40.65% winning 10 seats
Francesco Storace (La Destra-PdL) 29.32% winning 1 seat
Davide Barillari (M5S) 20.22%
Giulia Bongiorno (FLI-Centre) 4.73%
Sandro Ruotolo (RC) 2.17%
Simone Di Stefano (Casapound) 0.79%
Alessandra Baldassarri (Fare) 0.57%
Giuseppe Rossodivita (amnistia giustizia libertà) 0.44%
Roberto Fiore (Forza Nuova) 0.37%
Luca Romagnoli (Fiamma tricolore) 0.34%
Luigi Sorge (PCL) 0.27%
Giuseppe Strano (Rete dei cittadini) 0.08%

Regional legislature

Zingaretti Coalition 41.63% winning 18 seats
Storace Coalition 32.80% winning 11 seats
M5S 16.64% winning 7 seats
Centre (Bongiorno) 4.42% winning 2 seats
RC 2.09% winning 0 seats
Casapound 0.65% winning 0 seats
Fare 0.5% winning 0 seats
Amnistia giustizia libertà 0.39% winning 0 seats
Forza Nuova 0.27% winning 0 seats
Fiamma tricolore 0.26% winning 0 seats
PCL 0.2% winning 0 seats
Rete dei cittadini 0.09% winning 0 seats

As expected, centre-left Nicola Zingaretti – the president of the province of Rome – was elected regional president of Lazio by a solid 11% margin over Francesco Storace, a former AN regional president (2000-2005) who is now the leader of La Destra. The outgoing PdL regional president, Renata Polverini, was forced to resign following a scandal concerning the embezzlement of public funds by right-wing regional councillors who used those funds for personal purposes or to organize lavish purposes. The scandal left the regional right in disarray, deeply weakened. The young and fairly charismatic Nicola Zingaretti, the popular president of the province of Rome, ran a good campaign, and won easily.

The M5S did not do as well in the regional elections; it won 28% in the Chamber election, but its candidate took only 20% of the vote. Given that the right performed only marginally better regionally, many M5S voters at the national level must have voted for the centre-left’s candidate at the regional level. The centre, which won 8.8% in the Chamber election, also did significantly worse in the regional election.

Many Roman politicians go on to play prominent roles in national politics – Francesco Rutelli and Walter Veltroni, two former centre-left mayors of Rome both went on to lead the centre-left coalition in general elections (in 2001 and 2008 respectively). Zingaretti’s victory makes him a potential player nationally.

Lombardy

Regional president

Roberto Maroni (Lega Nord-PdL) 42.81%
Umberto Ambrosoli (PD) 38.24%
Silvana Carcano (M5S) 13.62%
Gabriele Albertini (Monti) 4.12%
Carlo Maria Pinardi (Fare) 1.18%

Regional legislature

Maroni Coalition 43.07% winning 48 seats
Ambrosoli Coalition 37.27% winning 21 seats
M5S 14.33% winning 9 seats
Centre-UDC (Albertini) 4.05% winning 0 seats
Fare 1.26% winning 0 seats

In the most disputed and important regional election, Roberto Maroni – the national leader of the Lega Nord – scored an important win for the Lega and the centre-right in Lombardy, Italy’s most populous region and economic powerhouse. Lombardy is a right-wing stronghold, but the resignation of longtime centre-right president Roberto Formigoni because one of his allies was accused of buying votes from the Calabrian mafia had allowed the left to hope that it could finally score a big win. It was thus a high-stakes contest for both sides: the left hoping for a major win in a right-wing stronghold, and the Lega Nord trying to conquer – with the PdL’s backing – its birthplace and the most important region in northern Italy.

Maroni won by a bit less than 5 points, a wider margin than predicted by polls (all had basically shown a close race) although the centre-left still performed decently considering the national circumstances. The M5S’ candidate did not do as well as her party did in the national election – she won 13.6% (the regional list won 14.3%) while the Grillists won 19.7% in the Chamber election. This proves that a fair number of Grillist voters preferred to vote for the traditional left or right in the regional election. Many of them likely voted for the Lega Nord: the Lega and Maroni’s personal list won 23.2% of the regional list vote put together (13% for the Lega itself), while the Lega won only 12.9% in the Chamber election. Still, a substantial number also voted for the left, which did about 10% better in the regional election than in the general election. One party which did horribly, however, was Monti’s centrist coalition. Although it had a solid candidate (Albertini is a MEP and former Berlusconian mayor of Milan), it won only 4% of the vote – while it won 12.1% in the Chamber.

Maroni’s victory is a major boon for the Lega, which paradoxically finds itself in control of northern Italy’s three most important regions while it is in a precarious shape at the national level.

Molise

Regional president

Paolo Di Laura Frattura (PD) 44.70% winning 3 seats
Angelo Michele Iorio (PdL-UDC) 25.8% winning 1 seat
Antonio Federico (M5S) 16.76%
Massimo Romano (Centre-Fare) 11.01%
Antonio De Lellis (Rivoluzione Democratica) 1.12%
Camillo Colella (Lavoro Sport e Sociale) 0.59%

Regional legislature

Frattura Coalition 50.14% winning 9 seats
Iorio Coalition 27.54% winning 4 seats
M5S 12.18% winning 2 seats
Romano Coalition 8.67% winning 1 seat
Rivoluzione Democratica 0.93% winning 0 seats
Lavoro Sport e Sociale 0.52% winning 0 seats

Angelo Michele Iorio, the incumbent centre-right regional president of the small southern region of Molise (since 2001) lost reelection by a wide margin. He had won reelection by a tiny margin in the 2011 election, but the 2011 election was overturned because of irregularities in the election.  The PD’s Paolo Di Laura Frattura, who had narrowly lost the 2011 election, won in a landslide.

In the general election (Chamber), the centre-left won 28.9% against 28.4% for the right, with the M5S at 27.7%. Iorio actually did worse than his coalition did in the general election – despite his alliance with the UDC at the regional level. The centre-left candidate did much better than the centre-left did in the general election, about 16 points better. Given how the M5S underperformed at the regional level, most of these additional voters simultaneously voted for the M5S in the general election.

The regional elections all show that a substantial number of M5S voters are quite ready for the centre-left (or centre-right). Although the Grillist rhetoric is uncompromising towards other parties, the new Grillist electorate is not as uncompromising as it might appear.

What next for Italy?

On the basis of these results, Bersani’s centre-left coalition has a large majority in the Chamber of Deputies because of the electoral system and the national supermajority bonus. However, the Senate is deadlocked. Bersani’s centre-left coalition narrowly emerged with a plurality of seats – 123 – but fell far short of the 158 seats needed to form an absolute majority on its own.

Before the election, when it looked as if Bersani would win by more than a point, most had predicted that even if the centre-left was to lack an absolute majority, it could easily form an alliance with Mario Monti’s centrist coalition in the Senate and cobble together a more or less solid governing majority. That was not to be. Both Bersani and Monti did horribly, and the result is that even when put together, the centre-left and the centre lack an absolute majority on their own. They hold 142 seats in the Senate, and at least 158 seats are needed for an absolute majority (and, ideally, a stable government in Italy needs more than a bare absolute majority in the Senate to protect itself from defectors – just ask Prodi).

In a lot of bicameral countries – like in Spain for example, this would not be a major problem because the lower house is often the more powerful of the two houses and a government is able to govern even if it lacks a majority in the Senate. Italian bicameralism, however, is ‘perfect bicameralism’ – both houses are equals, they must both approve bills (and no one house can override the other house’s opposition) and – most importantly – a government may only be formed and then continue to govern as long as it enjoys the confidence of both houses. A government, however, does not necessarily fall if one of its bills is rejected by one house.

The new legislature only convenes on March 15, so Bersani and the other parties have until that date to try to reach an agreement. As per the Italian constitution, the President – Giorgio Napolitano – would likely appoint Bersani to form a government. The constitution gives him ten days following his appointment to receive the confidence of both houses.

Bersani needs to find at least 16 senators to obtain the confidence of the Senate, where abstentions seem to be counted as votes against the government. Bersani could either turn to Berlusconi’s PdL and form an unprecedented and unruly Grand Coalition with the right, or he could turn to the M5S and lobby individual M5S senators to gain their support.

A coalition with Berlusconi would have been disastrous for both sides – and it would have been the best thing ever for Grillo. There are differences between Bersani and Berlusconi, and a government which includes both of their parties would have been unruly, chaotic, unstable and unable to take action on any major issue (economic reform, corruption etc) because of deadlock between both parties. A coalition between the two old coalitions of Second Republic politics would have been perfect, politically and electorally, for Grillo. Neither the centre-left nor the centre-right were ever warm on the idea to begin with. SEL leader Nichi Vendola flatly opposed any coalition with Berlusconi and Bersani recently closed the door on any such deal.

The only option for Bersani is now to seek the confidence of at least 16 (if not more) Grillist senators. Beppe Grillo has always refused any electoral coalitions or political alliances/deals with the traditional parties, always preaching “a plague on both their houses”. Grillo’s rhetoric brands both traditional parties/coalitions on the left and right as corrupt parasites which must be overthrown and replaced with a new political order and a new political system. Bersani has recognized his precarious position and has said that he is willing to offer various concessions to the M5S – supporting a Grillist to be President of the Chamber, electoral reform and new laws against corruption. He has also more or less signaled that this would be a short-lived government, which would focus on electoral reform and anti-corruption legislation, before quickly returning to the polls – perhaps as early as the fall.

Grillo, as noted above, is the central icon of his movement. Although he claims to reject traditional party discipline and partisan hierarchy, and claims that the M5S is a movement rather than a political party; it is quite clear that Grillo is the leader of the movement/party/whatever and that he controls the M5S with an iron hand. For example, he expelled two M5S members in December 2012 – one local councillor for appearing on TV, and one regional councillor for daring to speak out about internal democracy in the M5S. The only other rather prominent and well-known figure in the M5S is Grillo’s right-hand man, Gianroberto Casaleggio – an entrepreneur and businessman. Casaleggio is a controversial figure, his opponents say he is a shadowy and mysterious ‘guru’ who controls the Grillist machine from behind the scenes.

However, the Grillist movement is thrust into uncharted waters now. The M5S now has 163 parliamentarians (109 deputies, 54 senators). Almost all of them are political novices with no prior parliamentary or even political experience. Its new caucus includes a wide array of students, businessmen, activists, environmentalists, academics, researchers and young men and women. Their leader, Beppe Grillo, did not run and will not be in Parliament – he will continue to control the movement through his blog, from the outside.

The movement’s new parliamentarians are newbies in Parliament, but they are the real kingmakers who will make or break any government and decide the country’s future. How will they act? Grillo is ‘radical’ and intransigent. He has refused any deal or parliamentary pact with Bersani, and has announced that Grillists will not give their confidence to the centre-left or anybody else. Will the new Grillist deputies follow the words of their leader and flatly deny confidence to any other party?

As a new movement born – in large part – on the internet and recruiting from different social horizons, many in the M5S’ caucus have made clear that they will act independently as parliamentarians, and vote their conscience rather than adhere to any party line or subject themselves to partisan discipline. Not much – if anything – is known about the new Grillist parliamentarians, but perhaps a good number of them are more pragmatic than their leader, and more inclined towards reaching consensus. Apparently, by the comments on his blog, Grillo’s announcement that he would not vote in favour of any government, did not go down all that well with many Grillist activists. There are signs that the Grillist electorate and perhaps the caucus is more pragmatic and would be amenable to endorsing a short-term Bersani government which focuses on electoral reform and anti-corruption laws. Some new Grillist deputies have openly said that they would support legislation which they judge to be ‘good’.

Canadian readers will be familiar with the experience of the Progressive Party in Canadian politics in the early 1920s. The M5S is by no means identical – the Progressives were always a sectional party, the M5S is anything but a sectional or regional party. However, like the M5S, the Canadian Progressives were a new movement which burst onto the scene. It represent political interests and voters which other parties had not been able to represent or accommodate, and expressed the alienation of a certain segment of voters from the traditional party system and their policies. And although the issues behind the rise of both parties are separated by over 90 years and were quite different, there were still some similarities. Like the M5S, the Progressives made a big splash in their first election (in 1921, they were the second largest party ahead of the Conservatives) and their novice MPs were forced into assuming major political responsibilities. The subsequent experience of the Progressives might be parallel to that of the M5S today.

The Progressives were quickly wrecked by internal divisions. You had the so-called “Liberal-Progressives” whose focus was on redressing short-term economic conditions for their region/electorate and integrating the traditional partisan system; many of these MPs later joined the governing Liberal Party. On the other hand, you had the “Gingers”, a radical group of novice MPs which wanted a whole new political system (they opposed representative democracy and supported some kind of group government/corporatism) and wanted more far-reaching social reforms. They refused to subject themselves to partisan discipline. Many Gingers went on to form what is today the NDP.

Could the M5S, which also has a large caucus of first-time novice parliamentarians, have the same experience as the Progressive Party? Could more pragmatic members integrate the traditional party system or at least collaborate with the traditional parties, like the Liberal-Progressives did in Canada in the 1920s? Seeing M5S parliamentarians ‘institutionalize’ themselves by integrating the current political system is certainly what the centre-left and other established parties would love to see.

For now, Bersani’s path to confidence in the Senate is to win the support of individual M5S senators. Grillo has virulently attacked him, but Bersani – to his credit – has appeared quite good at maneuvering these treacherous waters thus far and he understands that while he will not be able to convince the entire M5S or its leader, he could be able to win individual M5S senators to his side. If he does succeed in winning the confidence of the Senate, he will rely on individual M5S parliamentarians who will offer him case-by-case support for legislation. This is what is currently happening in Sicily – the regional governor, on the centre-left, lacks a legislative majority, but he wins supports on a case-by-case basis from M5S representatives. This could provide a major divide within the M5S, but it seems to be the option which most Italians – and most M5S voters – prefer.

Nevertheless, whatever emerges from the Senate after March 15 will not last for very long. The main word coming out from these election is ‘ungovernable’. Indeed, the country appears to be ungovernable and early elections by the end of 2013 seem nearly inevitable.

The two houses will need to elect a president (speaker) once they convene. Their next task – which they cannot ‘duck’ – is the election of a new President once President Napolitano’s seven year term draws to a close in April-May. Napolitano is eligible to run for reelection, but he has said that he will not seek reelection. The Italian President is elected by Parliament and regional delegates; any candidate requires a two-thirds majority to be elected on the first three ballots and only an absolute majority in the fourth and subsequent ballots. Therefore, electing a President will require a deal between the centre-left, the M5S and/or the centre-right. Mario Monti was once seen as a favourite for the ceremonial office, after his participation in this election it seems less likely. A number of names are swirling around, one of the favourites might be Giuliano Amato, a former centre-left Prime Minister who might be acceptable to the centre-right.

The constitution does not allow for the Parliament to be dissolved in the last six months of the President’s term, meaning that dissolution and early elections are impossible until May-June at the least.

Interestingly, the Italian constitution allows for the President to dissolve one or both chambers. This could allow for a snap election only for the Senate; this seems rather unlikely as there have never been elections for only a single house of Parliament in Italy, and it would likely be poorly received by the electorate.

If Bersani is able to cobble together a short-term government to prepare for new elections at the end of the year or early next year, one of the main issues he will face will be electoral reform. This election proved how unfair and unrepresentative the current electoral system is. The 2006 and 2008 resulted in a Parliament more or less representative of the voice of the electorate, because two large coalitions won – by far – most votes (99% in 2006, 84% in 2008). This year, no coalition won more than 30% of the vote and the traditional left and right blocs won only 59% of the vote together. The supermajority bonus in the Chamber of Deputies allowed the centre-left, on 29.5% of the vote, to win 54% of the seats.

The Gallagher Disproportionality Index, which measures for ‘disproportionality’ in election results by comparing the popular vote to the seat totals, was 17.34 for this election – higher values represent a more disproportional outcome, and indices above 10 tend to be quite disproportional. The indice for the 2008 Italian election was 5.7 and this is, by far, the most ‘disproportional’ election result in Italy since the war. Quite tellingly, with this result, Italy currently has the second most ‘disproportional’/unrepresentative legislature in the EU after France (17.66) and ahead of the United Kingdom (15.1). But unlike either France or the UK, Italy officially uses proportional representation.

Almost everybody agrees on the need for a new electoral law, which might be in place before any new election. But there is probably a lot of disagreement as to what electoral system should be used instead. The PD seems partial to the “French” system, with two-round voting in single-member constituencies. The M5S has often criticized the disconnect between MPs and their constituents, a disconnect made worse by the fact that a single individual may run for election in multiple constituencies and then choose which constituency they will represent. Italy already experimented with single-member constituencies between 1994 and 2005, when most deputies and senators were elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies and a smaller number elected by a PR list vote. The PD would like any electoral system which would narrow the field to two major parties, but Italy is always going to be a multi-party system. The experience with FPTP in the 1990s did not see a narrowing of the field to two parties, rather the coalitions on both sides distributed seats between the various component parties. And now, with the rise of M5S, the establishment parties might prove cooler on single-member constituencies.

Other options likely include a “German” system (either MMP or parallel voting), purer proportional representation, a reform of the current system with either a much smaller majority bonus (and changes in the Senate majority bonus system) or a “Spanish” d’Hondt PR system at a constituency level which would advantage larger parties.

In the meantime, Italy’s economy is still is a perilous position. The news of the results – Berlusconi’s near-victory, the rejection of Monti’s policies by voters, the Grillist wave and ungovernability – sent financial markets into panic mode. European markets dropped, the Euro dropped and Italian sovereign bond yields jumped. The results in Italy may have brought the Euro crisis back to centre stage and reopens the door of a Eurozone breakup. Foreign reactions to the results of the Italian election were almost overwhelmingly negative. The Economist opined that “confronted by the worst recession in their country since the 1930s and the possible implosion of Europe’s single currency, the people of Italy have decided to avoid reality.” Peer Steinbrück, the gaffe-prone candidate of the German SPD in the German federal elections this fall created a mini-crisis when he called Grillo and Berlusconi ‘clowns’.

Although Italians will probably return to the polls before long, this election will likely mark a decisive in Italian political history. Berlusconi was not eliminated and trounced as many had predicted and wished, but he is no longer the ‘central’ figure of Italian politics (although he remains very influential and important). The traditional left-right polarization was disturbed by the Grillist wave, which represents a fascinating new form of populist movement unlike other existing populist movements in western Europe. This election may not be as significant and epoch-making as the 1994 election, but it does mark at least the beginning of the end of the ‘Second Republic’ political system.

What will replace it is very unclear. Will the M5S be a passing fad and go the way of so many other populist movements, or will it become a major political actor for years to come? Where will the Italian left and right go from here? How will the Italian right manage the necessary transition to a post-Berlusconi era when Berlusconi fully retires or leaves politics? Italian politics is entering uncharted waters, and it is more unpredictable than ever.

Guest Post: Eastleigh (United Kingdom) by-election 2013

While everybody was busy with Italy, an important by-election was held in the UK – in the constituency of Eastleigh. Chris Terry was nice enough to offer me a fantastic guest post on this by-election. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom and you can follow him on Twitter here.

A by-election was held in Eastleigh, England on the 28th of February.

The by-election was caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne MP. Huhne was a prominent Liberal Democrat, originally Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK’s coalition government. He had twice run for leader of the party, both times coming second. The second time he was only very narrowly beaten by 1.2% by current Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. 1,200 votes were held up in the Christmas post and an unofficial check of them revealed that Huhne had had enough votes to win the leadership, though, to his credit, he stood by the result.

Background

Shortly after being made a Minister in Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2010 Huhne had split from his wife, Vicky Pryce, a former head of the Government Economic Service. He had left her for his press officer, Carina Trimingham. The nature of this revelation caused Pryce to leak to the press that Huhne had had her claim responsibility for speeding when he had been caught by a speed camera. Lying in this way was perversion of justice, and so a court case started against Huhne and then also against Pryce, as she, too, had been complicit in this. Pryce claimed not guilty due to ‘marital coercion’, a rarely used defence in UK law. Huhne eventually pleaded guilty on the 5th of February. He has not been sentenced yet but, as it was clear he would receive jail time he resigned his seat. Pryce’s trial is currently subject to a retrial as the Jury could not reach a decision in the original trial.

The 2010 election had resulted in Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974 and the first peacetime Coalition government since before the war. After thirteen years of Labour governance Britain was suddenly faced with a Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. During the 2010 election the Lib Dems and their leader, Nick Clegg, had become briefly extremely popular, riding a wave known as ‘Cleggmania’ from Clegg’s strong performance in Prime Ministerial debates. Polls early in the campaign had shown the Lib Dems challenging for the most votes. On election day, however, they fell back from these optimistic predictions, winning 23.0% (a gain of 1%) of the vote, and remaining in third. They also lost six seats. Nonetheless this was their strongest popular vote since 1983, and their second strongest since 1923, shortly after Labour had leap frogged them to being the main opposition to the Conservatives. They also held the balance of power in a hung parliament, and formed a Coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.

After forming the Coalition, Lib Dem fortunes quickly deteriorated. Lib Dem voters are a heterogenous group but perhaps a majority in 2010 were either protest voters or left-of-centre. Many voters had voted for the Lib Dems because they saw them as more left-wing than Labour. A particularly symbolic moment for many was the vote on University tuition fees. The Lib Dems had long been against University tuition fees and during the 2010 campaign its MPs had signed a cast-iron pledge designed by the National Union of Students to the effect that, as a MP, they would not vote for any rise in tuition fees. This was a short-sighted policy in many ways, both Labour and Conservatives clearly favoured tuition fees in private and considering Britain’s economic position (a budget deficit equivalent to around 10% of GDP) it was difficult to see where the money would come from. The Lib Dem’s therefore ended up having to agree to raising tuition fees from a maximum of £3,000 a year; to £9,000 a year (it is very rare to see a University charging less than the maximum). The Lib Dems had had a very strong youth and student base and this was seen as a massive betrayal. The Lib Dem party itself split in the Commons. 27 Lib Dems, almost all ministers in the government, voted for the rise, 21 voted against and 8 abstained, in an atmosphere notable for the massive student protests in London.

From 23% in 2010, opinion polls indicated that the Lib Dems may have fallen into the single digits nationally, with some polls showing the Lib Dems as low as 8%, though some higher, at around 15%, with the polls mostly averaging around the 10% mark. Considering Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system if uniform swing applied this would mean the loss of a startling number of Lib Dem seats, the vast majority. However a glimmer of hope remained for the Lib Dems in their results in local elections where they demonstrated a capability to maintain strength in the areas where they have MPs and particularly against the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats as a party have often relied on strong local figures maintaining a strong profile as ‘local MPs’ and therefore having a strong personal vote. Indications were that this was continuing. A tradition of Labour supporters tactically voting Lib Dem to stop Conservatives getting in also seemed to continue. It was in areas where the Lib Dems had strong second or third places in 2010 where they lost the most votes. This suggested that the Lib Dems may save more seats than uniform swing indicated, especially as 38 of the party’s 57 seats were in seats where the Conservatives were in second place.

The Conservatives had had started in government fairly well, with a surprisingly long honeymoon period in the initial days of the Coalition in contrast to their Lib Dem partners. However since the 2012 budget things started to fall off the Conservative wagon. The government had cut the new top rate of tax introduced by Labour for those earning over £150,000 a year from 50% to 45%, whilst also removing certain exemptions from the tax code. A particularly odd argument that raged on was that of the ‘pasty tax’. The government had removed an exemption from VAT for hot takeaway food, such as pasties, a savoury pastry filled with meat and vegetables. The pasty is seen as a food of the working class, and so the ‘pasty tax’ was seen as symbolic of a government that did not understand ordinary people. Embarrassing photo ops had to be arranged where politicians explained just how much they enjoyed a pasty. At one point David Cameron was asked at a press conference when the last time he had a pasty was, he responded with a story about buying a pasty at Leeds railway station, but it was later revealed that the pasty shop he mentioned had shut down at the time he said! The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and many other prominent Conservatives come from aristocratic backgrounds and the Conservatives have often been seen as the ‘Party of the Rich’. There was therefore a contrast between the ‘tax cut for millionaires’ as Labour framed it, and a tax raise on a beloved lunchtime meal of the ordinary working man. The Conservatives have also been tainted by associations with the Murdoch press after the fall out from the phone hacking scandal and had to deal with an increasingly rebellious and unruly set of backbench MPs, who feel that the Coalition government has been insufficiently right-of-centre. Cameron has had to deal with an increasingly vocal and rebellious backbench who apparently feel that his moderation was beyond their failure to win in 2010. Unlike Blair who was able to hold moral authority over his party by virtue of his large majorities and therefore claim superior democratic legitimacy Cameron has had no such luck and many Conservative MPs feel a weak attachment to the Coalition Agreement, feeling that their party’s manifesto is more important. One particular backbench MP, Peter Bone, is well known for his almost weekly calls for Cameron to end the Coalition. While his is a lone voice, it is nonetheless a sign of the times in the party.

Labour had been launched into a leadership contest immediately after the 2010 election. The favourite was David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, a former aide to Tony Blair widely seen as on the right of the party. His main competitor was Ed Miliband, his younger brother, the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary and a former aide to Gordon Brown, who was seen as closer to the centre-left of the party. To the surprise of many commentators Ed Miliband won, just.

Ed’s earliest period in power was problematic for the party. He was painted out in the right wing press as ‘Red Ed’, opposed to any and all cuts to the state. He was seen as uncharismatic, nerdy, and even a little weird. There was a strong public perception that he had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ with rumours that the two no longer spoke.

However as the Conservative’s problems grew Labour grew in strength in the polls, and this led to a change in the narrative about him. Ed also became more confident in front of a camera and in the Commons. While Ed still has his problems and is not riding any Obama-like wave of ascendancy, he is no longer seen as the unremitting disaster he was initially presented as.

Nonetheless, approval ratings for all three party leaders are now pretty terrible and there is a certain anti-establishment feeling in the UK.  This has fed into the rise of a new(ish) force – UKIP. Originally short for UK Independence Party (the party recently changed its official name to just the acronym), UKIP was originally a very minor party, eclipsed by the similarly Eurosceptic Referendum Party of millionaire former Conservative donor Sir James Goldsmith. UKIP was originally a single-issue party with a single raison d’etre – the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The party had done well in European Parliamentary elections in the UK, aided by a broadly Eurosceptic electorate, a proportional voting system and low turnouts UKIP had managed to get 3 MEPs elected in 1999 (coming fourth), 12 elected in 2004 (beating the Lib Dems into third) and 13 in 2009 (beating Labour into second).

UKIP had never been particularly good at winning votes in general or local elections however. In 2010 it won 3.1% of the vote in the UK, but came nowhere close to a seat anywhere, with its most prominent candidate, current leader Nigel Farage, only succeeding in third place against Commons Speaker John Bercow (by convention the three main parties do not run against the Speaker). However since 2010 UKIP has been gaining steam, pulling off a string of impressive by-election results, often coming in second, though never actually winning. The party’s best record is 21.7% of the vote in Rotherham in November 2012. The party has also climbed in the opinion polls, where it ranges between 8% and 16%. The party’s success has been due to a variety of factors. Firstly their current leader, Nigel Farage, is a ‘straight talking’ sort of politician who has become popular with news organisations due to his bombastic style replete with quips and put downs for his political contemporaries. In one infamous speech in the European Parliament he lambasted the President of the European Council, the former Belgian PM Herman Van Rompuy, as having the “charisma of a damp rag”, as “looking like a low-grade bank clerk” and as coming from a “non-country”. UKIP has also rounded its policies with policies designed to appeal to right-wing Conservatives in particular. The party increasingly concentrates on opposition to immigration and gay marriage. It is said to be pulling away significant numbers of activists from Conservative Future, the Conservatives youth wing. Finally the party appears to be benefitting from the removal of the Lib Dems as a viable protest vote.

All the seats that had been up for by-election so far had been either Labour safe seats, with the exception of Corby, a Lab/Con marginal which has tended to be the former rather than the latter in recent years. In all of these bar one notable exception (Bradford West, where the former Labour MP George Galloway won backed by his far-left RESPECT coalition) the Labour candidate had won, often fairly resoundingly. Eastleigh, however, was a LD/Con marginal. The Eastleigh by-election therefore provided an interesting opportunity for the psephologically-inclined to see how the Lib Dems might perform against the Conservatives at the next election, scheduled for 2015. It was also important to both Coalition parties. For the Lib Dems, a win would mean rare positive press, a significant morale boost for their base and a demonstration that the party was not heading towards electoral wipe-out. For the Conservatives the win was less necessary but it would show that the party was capable of defeating the Lib Dems, who hold significant numbers of Conservative target seats. Eastleigh was therefore, by many measures, the most important by-election since 2010.

The Seat

Eastleigh is a railway town (a town that primarily developed because of its railway station) in the South of England. It is just 5 miles North of the city of Southampton, one of the larger cities in the South of England, besides London. Like most of Southern England outside London, Eastleigh is overwhelmingly White British, predominantly middle class, though there are working class areas, and economically active.

Up until 1994 Eastleigh had been regarded as a Conservative safe seat, won by the Conservatives at every election since the seat’s creation in 1955. In 1992 the Conservatives had won it with 51.3% of the vote, defeating the second placed Lib Dems with a majority of 23.3%. The sad death of the Conservative MP, Stephen Milligan, a rising star in the party, from what appeared to be a sex act gone wrong led to a by-election in 1994. By this point John Major’s Conservative government had become exceptionally unpopular and in the by-election the Conservative vote collapsed, with the Conservatives winning less than half of their 1992 vote, at 24.7%, coming third with the Lib Dems winning the seat with 44.3% for their candidate, David Chidgey. The seat was held by the Lib Dems from then on. The Conservatives, however, targeted Eastleigh which continually remained just out of reach. The Conservatives would gain votes, but the Lib Dems would succeed through tactical voting in their favour from Labour. Chidgey stood down in 2005, to be replaced by Chris Huhne. In doing so the party lost Chidgeys personal vote and Huhne was only able to defeat the Conservatives by 1.1% of the vote. He increased this in 2010 to 7.2%.

In many other respects Eastleigh has become something of a fortress for the Lib Dems. The party currently holds all of the council seats in the constituency, giving it a stupendous majority on Eastleigh borough council of 40-4 against the Conservatives (with the 4 Conservatives holding seats in areas outside the constituency boundaries). Remarkably the Lib Dems have even managed to gain seats in Eastleigh since 2010, gaining 2 in 2011. No other council is so dominated by the Lib Dems. They also hold all six county council seats in the constituency and even managed to top the poll locally in the super-low turnout Police and Crime Commissioner elections held last year. The Lib Dem machine in Eastleigh is infamous for its effectiveness and ruthlessness at Lib Dem ‘pavement politics’, the art of taking to the streets and campaigning viscerally on local issues. So effective is the Lib Dem machine that local businesses advertise on the back of their leaflets due to their reach. Having such a strong activist base and so many councillors gives the Lib Dems a strong advantage in terms of knowledge of the seat and voting data, something the party exploits.

At the last election the result had been as follows:

Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) 46.5%
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 39.3%
Leo Barraclough (Labour) 9.6%
Ray Finch (UKIP) 3.6%
Others 1%

The candidates and the campaign

The four most notable candidates (in order of their party’s performance in the 2010 election) were:

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrats). The Lib Dems took the safe route with the selection of their candidate in the form of Mike Thornton. Thornton is a local councillor, which gave them the opportunity to localise the contest somewhat and avoid the associations with Nick Clegg that would have happened if the Lib Dems had run a Westminster insider. Some on the campaign trail said he was boring, but this also meant he was uncontroversial.

During the campaign it seemed as if the entire Lib Dem activist base had decamped to Eastleigh for the month. The Lib Dems have traditionally been very good at targeting seats they hoped to win and highly effective at by-elections. They are very good at focusing a campaign on local issues – in this particular case opposition to a local housing development project in a classic piece of British NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard). While all parties notionally support increasing the housing stock nationally in practice at a local level people tend to think that the houses should be somewhere else! This strategy was masterminded by former Lib Dem Chief Executive Chris (now Lord) Rennard and is known as ‘Rennardism’ in some circles. In a twist of fate for the Lib Dems, Rennard was publicly accused of sexual harassment by 10 female former Lib Dem activists during the campaign with the intimation that this is why he lost his position as Chief Exec. The Rennard allegations created significant questions for the leadership, with their knowledge of the allegations being a key question. Rumours about Rennard had circulated in the Westminster village for years, but there had never been proof. Clegg’s claim on the Sunday prior to the by-election that he had not heard the allegations before therefore stretched credibility, and he quickly had to release a statement to the effect that he had heard rumours but nothing more. The Lib Dems were therefore faced an ironic situation where they may have lost the by-election due to the behaviour of Chris Rennard, a man who had previously been seen as responsible for many historic Lib Dem by-election wins. Nonetheless the party broadly remained the favourite, though not overwhelmingly so, during the campaign.

Maria Hutchings (Conservative). The Conservatives once again ran their candidate from 2010, Maria Hutchings, a local businesswoman. This was unsurprising given that the party needed a candidate with local credentials to take on the Liberal Democrat strategy of localised pavement politics. With the party having no local councillors Hutchings almost certainly represented the person in the party who knew the seat and its voters the best.

Hutchings was on the right of the party and stated during the campaign that she would have voted against the government’s recent same-sex marriage bill, a source of consternation on the Conservative backbenches and amongst party activists. She also stated that she would have voted for a motion backed by many Conservative rebels in the Commons for a referendum on European Union membership, another source of great division in the heavily Eurosceptic party. She also uttered some statements which were seen as controversial, such as stating that she had sent her son to an independent (fee-paying) school because he was gifted and wanted to be a surgeon and therefore the right kind of education for him would be “impossible” to find in the state system. This was in contrast to Thornton, whose daughter had had a state education and who is now currently studying Medicine! Hutchings also failed to attend two hustings (local Q&A sessions) for the candidates, the first time apparently because she was campaigning with Cameron, the second because she was “meeting with voters”. This led to allegations from her opponents that the party was trying to ‘hide her’ away.

John O’Farrell (Labour). In the 1994 by-election Labour had succeeded in coming second in Eastleigh, beating the Conservatives into third place. As recently as 2005 the party could still pull in more than 20% of the vote, but their vote had collapsed to less than half that in 2010. While no one expected Labour to win the by-election unless extremely lucky, there was an opportunity here to give a sense of momentum by winning back tactical voters from the Lib Dems, and put down a marker that Labour were viable in the South of England outside London and a few urban conurbations, the weakest area for the party. Compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the party took a radically different tack in its approach to candidate selection, however, selecting John O’Farrell, a comedian, television broadcaster and writer, who lives in Clapham, South London. O’Farrell is best known for his appearances on comedy panel shows such as Have I Got News for You. He has run for parliament before – running in 2001 in a Conservative safe seat, he is also known in Labour circles for his bestselling book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. The book is a memoir tracing the eighteen years of opposition that Labour found itself in between 1979 and 1997 and O’Farrell’s story is a story familiar to many Labour activists and to the party as a whole – that of the transition from radicalism to moderation.

O’Farrell’s campaign was predicated on suggesting that a Lib Dem or Conservative MP for Eastleigh was essentially the same thing as they would both be supporting the same government. Being a comedian his twitter feed included many humourous quips about the by-election. O’Farrell is well known and popular within the Labour Party and I suspect his candidacy helped to galvanise supporters and donors in favour of his campaign. During the campaign O’Farrell was attacked for excerpts from his bestselling memoir when he spoke about a momentary glee on hearing about the 1984 bombing of the Conservative Party conference by the IRA and of supporting the Argentines in the Fawklands War. In the book O’Farrell highlights these as examples of what he sees as the idiocy of radical knee-jerk politics and explains that he is now disgusted by both views but this was still used as a stick to beat him with. Perhaps more damagingly however, friends of mine who were campaigning on the ground say that Eastleigh voters appeared to feel that in nominating a South London based Comedian Labour were not taking the by-election ‘seriously’.

Diane James (UKIP). UKIP nominated Diane James, a councillor and healthcare expert from Waverley in Surrey, originally elected as an independent, James had later joined UKIP. Eastleigh had a special resonance for UKIP as during the 1994 by-election their candidate had been none other than Nigel Farage, their current leader. Farage turned down the opportunity to campaign in the seat again, however.

UKIP ran a surprisingly slick campaign in Eastleigh, and managed to succeed in gaining momentum as the campaign went on. The party nonetheless gained controversy when its leaflets claimed that when immigration laws are relaxed later this year 4 million Bulgarians would come to the UK (the population of Bulgaria is 7.4 million, so this would represent a very large number indeed!) but this did not seem to hurt the party. On Election Day the party pulled ahead of the Conservatives in the betting odds and there were many rumours of a late surge for the party.

In the grand tradition of British by-elections many minor party, fringe and joke party candidates stood. In all 14 candidates stood. The others were Danny Stupple, an independent standing on an anti-gay marriage platform, Michael Walters for the English Democrats, Darren Proctor for the far-left Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Kevin Milburn for the Christian Party. The National Health Action Party, a single-issue party that has gained some media attention for its opposition to NHS privatisation and particularly the government’s controversial new health law stood a candidate, Dr. Iain MacLennan, for the first time. Jim Duggan stood for the Peace Party, Colin Bex stood for the Wessex Regionalists and Ray Hall ran for the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet party, a single issue party which campaigns against pub closures and for the rural way of life. By-election favourites, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, a joke party that dates back to the 1960s, ran their leader Alan “Howling Laud” Hope. Finally perennial by-election candidate, David Bishop, stood under the latest of his Elvis Presley themed joke labels, ‘Elvis Loves Pets’.

Five polls were carried out during the campaign. Three showed the Lib Dems ahead by 3-5% and two showed the Conservatives ahead by 3-4%. The most notable thing from the polls was the fall in the Labour vote and the increase in the UKIP vote. The last poll of the campaign, by Populus, showed Lib Dems 33%, Conservatives 28%, UKIP 21%, Labour 12% and Others 6%.

The result

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 32.06% (-14.44%)
Diane James (UKIP) 27.80% (+24.20%)
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 25.37% (-13.93%)
John O’Farrell (Labour) 9.82% (+0.22%)
Danny Stupple (Ind) 1.85%
Iain Maclennan (National Health Action) 0.94%
Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 0.56%
Kevin Milburn (Christian) 0.39%
Howling Laud Hope (OMRLP) 0.33%
Jim Duggan (Peace) 0.31%
David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 0.17%
Michael Walters (ED) 0.17% (-0.33%)
Daz Procter (TUSC) 0.15%
Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 0.07%

Turnout was 52.8%, down by 16.5% from 2010 but still a very healthy turnout for a by-election.

The Lib Dems therefore succeeded in holding their seat, something which they are exceptionally happy about. Nick Clegg described the victory as “stunning”. The Lib Dem victory does indeed have much to commend it. Despite the hard times of coalition, the Rennard scandal, the jail term of Chris Huhne which had started the whole by-election the Lib Dems had succeeded in running a well-targeted, slick campaign won on local issues, with a solid dependable local candidate. This will be the model the Lib Dems will pursue in 2015 and on this by-election gave them some confidence that they may save more seats than many expect. That said, this is a rather pyrrhic victory. The party still lost almost 15% of the vote compared to 2010, most likely to a combination of abstention of the historically unreliable Lib Dem vote and to UKIP, in the form of protest votes. In a sense they only won because the Conservatives lost almost as much of their vote as they did, and the Lib Dem loss is in line with national opinion polls too. According to an ‘exit poll’ of sorts, (with a low sample, 760) by Conservative Party election expert Lord Ashcroft, 43% of Lib Dem voters voted for the party tactically suggesting that despite the Coalition the party successfully retained Labour tactical voters. 26% of Lib Dem voters also stated that the main reason they voted for the party was local services, totally unprompted. Only 43% of Lib Dem voters said they would ‘probably’ vote for the party in 2010, however now he is the MP Thornton will no doubt pursue the traditional Lib Dem strategy of working very hard as a local MP and building a strong personal vote, so they probably have the advantage in 2015.

UKIP also pulled off a victory of sorts. While they didn’t win the seat, their 27.8% of the vote represents their best every score in a parliamentary constituency, and they came within 4.3% of victory. This gives the party a continued feeling of momentum. According to the Ashcroft polling the party won roughly equal amounts of the Lib Dem and Conservative vote from 2010 (around a fifth in both cases) and 83% of their voters said they “unhappy with the party they usually support nationally” and three quarters said that they were “unhappy with all the main parties at the moment” further evidence that UKIP’s appeal is primarily anti-establishment and ‘plague on all your houses’ based. There does indeed appear to be a late surge element – 31% made up their minds in the last week, 18% on the last day. As with the Lib Dems only 43% said they would probably vote UKIP in 2015, with 10% saying they would likely vote Conservative.

The Conservatives are reeling. Coming in second would have been poor, but understandable, coming third puts the party in an extremely difficult position. The party is calling this a mid-term protest vote and noting that voters often vote against the government in these types of elections. While that’s true, the voters did elect a MP from a party that is in the government! The Conservatives have historically been poor at by-elections as the party is bad at targeting its campaign activities, and not as good at the ‘ground war’ aspect of a by-election as other parties. Sections of the party have also blamed Cameron for moving the party too far to the left and abandoning the party’s core vote to be picked up by UKIP. However as Professor Tim Bale, the leading academic expert in the Conservative Party, notes, the Conservatives have been attempting to ape UKIP for some time in many respects in the form of Cameron’s recent call for an EU referendum and the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s promise to cut immigration by another quarter. In Bale’s view by doing so the Conservatives could be creating the impression that UKIP’s concerns about both are perfectly valid and giving the party credibility, as he puts it “Rather than shooting Nigel Farage’s fox, all Cameron has done is feed it”. The whole argument also ignores that Maria Hutchings stood on a platform that was clearly right of the party leadership. Yet the party leadership is once again under significant pressure from its activists and backbenchers to shift right as a response, and Sunday’s right wing newspapers are replete with references to getting rid of the Human Rights Act, a particular object of hatred for the right-wing media.

Labour are the only one of the main three parties to have gained votes, but they remain below 10% of the vote. This is hardly the marker that they can win votes in the South of England which the party wanted. The party appears to have made a serious tactical misstep by selecting O’Farrell. Polls suggest that the party lost around half its support over the course of the campaign with most probably going to the Lib Dems, but some also likely going to abstention or UKIP. By running a comedian from South London Labour appear to have given the local electorate the idea that they were not taking Eastleigh seriously. The party will have to work harder to convince the electorate that it can succeed in the South of England – a particular focus will be on this year’s county council elections.