Italy heading to snap election as unity coalition crumbles: Explaining the nation's fragmented party system

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi resigned for a second time in a week on July 21, 2022, after his earlier attempt to step down was rejected by the country’s president.

This time, President Sergio Mattarella responded by dissolving parliament. A new election is set for late September. In the meantime, Mattarella asked Draghi to carry on as caretaker leader. His resignation comes a day after Draghi won a vote of confidence in parliament, but in a way that signaled that the broad ruling coalition was fractured beyond repair.

It’s a lot to unpack. So The Conversation called on Carol Mershon, an expert on Italian politics at University of Virginia, to explain the situation and what may come next.

What is going on in Italian politics?

It’s been an interesting few days. Mario Draghi, who was not elected to Parliament but was invited to form a government in February 2021 by the president, resigned twice. Draghi has been serving as a nonpartisan prime minister leading a broad coalition of parties that made up a unity government. But that coalition has crumbled. First, members of the populist 5-Star Movement refused to vote on a government bill over concerns that cost of living relief measures were insufficient, prompting Draghi’s first resignation.

That led to a vote of confidence on July 20. Draghi won the ballot in the Senate with 95 votes in favor and 38 against. But it was by no means a ringing endorsement. The Senate has 315 seats – which means that many lawmakers opted to vote “present not voting, "abstain,” or were just absent for the vote. Thus, Draghi resigned again.

Why did Draghi step down if he won the confidence vote?

Although Draghi technically survived the confidence vote, it was not the sort of result he needed to stay on as prime minister. In addition to 5-Star, other members of the ruling coalition, including the rightist parties Forza Italia and League, were in dissent.

Draghi has long emphasized that as a nonparty leader, he needs the support of a broad coalition, especially at a time when the country is facing serious economic and social challenges. He leads a unity government – and without unity among the parties, it would be hard for him to govern.

Both the withdrawal of backing by parties and the fracturing of the parties themselves, with some members of parliament leaving coalition partners, suggest that the coalition is now past the point of being able to operate in unity.

How many parties are in the coalition? Do they broadly share the same politics?

As with much in Italian politics, that isn’t a straightforward question to answer. When the Draghi government was launched in February 2021, it had cabinet ministers from six parties – the populist 5-Star Movement, the right-wing League and Forza Italia, Democrats and its splinter party, Italy Alive, and finally the progressive Article One. But six became seven when former 5-Star members created another party, Together for the Future. Then, if you count junior ministers in the coalition, three more parties were included.

Now you have more splintering of parties and departures of members as politicians maneuver for advantage with an election on the horizon, making it even more difficult to say just how many parties are in the coalition.

Coalition governments are not uncommon in Italy; in fact, they are the norm. But the one under Draghi was particularly broad, going from progressive parties to far right groups.

Why so many parties? And why coalitions?

Italy has a fragmented party system. I have done research that shows the average number of parties represented in Italy’s parliament between 1946 and 1992 was 12 – more than most democracies. Since then, the country has gone through a series of electoral reforms, but the multiparty system has stayed in place.

There are three factors behind Italy’s fragmented parliament. First, Italian post-World War II elections have always had a strong component of proportional representation – that is to say, the number of seats each party has is proportional to the number of votes it receives. So in Italy, a party that gets 5% of the national vote can reasonably expect to get 5% of the seats. Compare that to the U.K. system, in which a party that gets 5% of the national votes would likely get zero seats.

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