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'Heading for a two-party system'

The platforms of the centre-right PdL party and the centre-left PD party have been strikingly similar, says Marc Lazar, a researcher at Sciences-Po Paris. But the big challenge confronting the winner will be reforming Italy’s electoral law.


Polls give former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of the centre-right People of Liberty party (PdL) a five-point lead. Is there no suspense in these elections, which were dubbed “dull and tedious” by the Italian daily, La Stampa?

Marc Lazar:  Admittedly, the polls favour the centre-right. But the number of undecided voters remains high, at around 30%. A surprise is still possible: in 2006, the short victory of Romano Prodi was not expected. The voters made up their minds only 15 days before the election.

It is true that this campaign, very different from previous ones, does not stir up the crowds. Italians are used to sharp-tongued exchanges between candidates with Berlusconi demonizing the Left and vice versa. That hasn’t been the case this time around, though in the closing days of the campaign the tone has heated.

The election is lacking a salient theme to mobilise the voters. The platforms of both candidates are strikingly similar. That changed a bit last week: Walter Veltroni of the centre-left came out in support of an increase in pension benefits and Berlusconi jumped on the Alitalia-Air France affair. 

Specifically, Silvio Berlusconi has politicized several economic events, such as Alitalia, but also the Naples waste crisis. Is this an effective strategy?

Marc Lazar:  The waste crisis in Naples remains a local problem. Berlusconi blames the centre-left coalition that was in power both in Rome and in the southern region of Campania. But the impact will be limited to that region. There, voters will undoubtedly be harsh.

Regarding Alitalia, the impact is also regional, but in this case, it’s in the northern part of Italy. Berlusconi’s anti-Air France position is clearly politically motivated with a look to the north.  He gives a nod to his allies, the Northern League, who don’t want Milan’s Malpensa Airport to lose business. He also wants to exploit the wounded national pride of the Italian people, who remain attached to their “national company.” On the other hand, Romans are quite happy with the idea of a takeover by Air France because Rome’s Fiumicino Airport would benefit. For the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) competing against Berlusconi, it is a complicated affair due to the hostility of the trade unions towards Air France.

Why did Walter Veltroni of the Democratic Party (PD, centre-left) decide to break away from the smaller parties?

Marc Lazar:  This has been coming since last July, because he noted that the coalition Prodi formed functioned during the 1996 and 2006 elections. But it stopped functioning once in government [this also partly caused the fall of Prodi less than two years after electoral victory]. A former communist, he wants to come across as a new man while affirming his position in the centre-left. His objective is to simplify and clarify the political system. It’s a strong message for the Italians. It’s the great innovation of these elections: a move toward a two-party system with two strong parties. The fight will be tough for the smaller parties.

What are challenges confronting the winner of Sunday’s elections?

Marc Lazar:  The next prime minister will have to focus on reforming an electoral law that could upset the political system and is poorly understood by Italian citizens. [This law makes it difficult to obtain an absolute majority in the Senate. It thus forces coalitions of very different parties to form, blocking political activity.] But if there are different majorities in parliament’s lower chamber and in the Senate, how do they reach a consensus?

Economic and social questions will also present a challenge. The middle class is being strangled by taxes. As for purchasing power and salaries, they are facing a situation similar to France. But the margin of error is narrow; it is necessary to reduce the national debt, which is very high.

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