Comparative Politics

The Italian General Election of February 2013: Deadlock after Technocracy

Feb 28 '13

Continuing our series of election reports in conjunction with Electoral Studies, the following is a post-election report on the February 24-25 Italian parliamentary elections from political scientist Aldo Di Virgilio and Daniela Giannetti of the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Bologna. Pre-election reports on the election can be found here, here, and here.


The main results of the Italian General Election held on 24-25 February 2013 were unexpected. The most blatant outcome is the success of the brand new Five Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo. This political movement received the most votes in the Chamber, gaining more than 25 per cent of valid votes.

The centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party’s leader Pierluigi Bersani gained a plurality of votes in the Chamber (29.5% of valid votes). The seat bonus provided by the electoral system ensured the centre-left coalition a majority of seats (340 seats out of 630). In the Senate, where the seat bonus is allocated on a regional basis, the centre-left coalition gained 121 seats, far short of the majority threshold required to govern (158).

The centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi gained about 29.2% of valid votes in the Chamber and 30.7% in the Senate. The centre-right coalition lost the majority bonus in the Lower Chamber for a tiny amount of votes (124,407) and in the Senate gained slightly less seats than Bersani’s PD led coalition (117).

Finally, the coalition led by incumbent Prime Minister Mario Monti barely passed the 10% threshold set by electoral system for electoral coalitions in the Chamber. In the Senate, the Monti led coalition won 22 seats, not enough to be pivotal for any potential centre-left or right wing government.

The 2013 elections have resulted in a tie between the centre-left, which was predicted to win in the pre-election polls, and the centre-right. The strong performance of the centre-right was the result of Silvio Berlusconi’s effective personalised election campaign. The coalition led by Mario Monti dropped to fourth place, while the Five Stars Movement is the undisputable winner of this election.

The Election Results

Table 1 presents the electoral results in the Chamber (617 multi-member districts, plus the single member district of the Aosta Valley region and the 12 seats allocated to foreign constituencies). No party obtained more than 26 per cent of valid votes. Nine party lists obtained seats. In the 2006 and the 2008 general elections, held under the same electoral system, the two main electoral blocs on the centre-left and on the centre-right gained a vast majority (99% and 85% respectively)  of the  valid votes. As a result, the seat bonus went to winning coalitions securing more than 45% of the popular vote. The fragmentation of party support in 2013 made it possible for the left-wing coalition to obtain the seat bonus (i.e. 55% of the total seats) with less than 30% of total vote. This high level of disproportionality favouring the marginally most popular coalition highlights the fact that the designers of the current electoral law never expected a third large political group to emerge on the national stage.

The fragmentation of party support in the 2013 elections also had an important impact on the conversion of votes into seats in the Senate which has a different seat bonus mechanism allocated region by region. The number of seats elected by each region depends on the population (for example, Lombardy elects 49 senators, Tuscany elects 18 senators, Sardinia elects 8 senators) and the “value” of the bonus differs accordingly. The 17 regional bonuses may be allocated to different winners and the aggregate outcome may result in an advantage for the coalition that wins in a number of important regions (2008), or alternatively in a zero sum game when the seat bonus is equal for each coalition (2006). In 2013, the overall allocation of seats in the Senate made it impossible for any coalition or party to win a majority of seats. Table 2 shows that the seat bonus was ‘shared’ in 2013 between the top two coalitions, which contrasts with the greater seat-to-vote disproportionality noted above for the Chamber.

Voter turnout in 2013 at 75%, although high in comparative terms, represented the lowest level of electoral participation in an Italian general election since 1948; and represents a decline on turnout in 2008 of 5 percentage points. Most commentators interpret the record low level of turnout as reflecting popular disaffection with party politics in Italy. This alienation from contemporary Italian parties is also strongly evident in the changing levels of support for parties between the 2008 and 2013 general elections shown in Table 3. All of the main parties lost votes with right wing parties (People of Freedom and Union of the Centre) appearing to suffer the highest levels of attrition. Data presented in Table 3 indicate that at least 38% of voters in the 2008 elections (13.8 millions) changed their choice. This is a remarkably high level of volatility that stems mainly from the emergence of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which in February 2013 attracted 8.6 million votes in the Chamber and became the largest party.

Explaining the Results

The 2013 election campaign was unique because Italian voters were asked to choose their next government after a year of unpopular austerity measures enacted by a technocratic government that had cross-party support in the parliament. The growth in opposition to increased taxation and reduced spending during 2012 created an opportunity for party leaders to seek electoral gains by promoting populist policies such as repealing new taxes or re-negotiating Italy’s position in the European Union and Eurozone. This populist style of campaigning has been most strongly associated with Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, the latter has been particularly effective in making the European Union a salient second dimension of party competition. Of course, Grillo’s Five Star Movement (which asserts that it is not a political party) is primarily characterised by its ardently anti-partisan position where it claims that the current Italian political elite is irremediably corrupt; and nothing less than a refoundation of the Italian politics is required. One of the main battle cries in the Grillo’s campaign was “tutti a casa” (all politicians go home).

Many commentators have also remarked on the relative success of Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo’s election campaigns where both parties managed to perform much better than predicted from the outset of the campaign in December 2012. Berlusconi and Grillo’s attempts to attract the large block of disaffected centrist voters adopted different personalised campaigning strategies. Berlusconi focussed on frequent television appearance using his skills from his earlier career as an entertainer to get his electoral message to viewers. In contrast, Grillo employed social media such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook to promote his ‘root and branch’ reform messages, which was accompanied by very well attended public rallies in major Italian cities such as Rome and Milan. These public rallies were the subject of intense media coverage.

The campaign of Bersani’s centre-left and Mario Monti’s centre-right coalitions were in comparison very lacklustre. In the latter case, there was disappointment and frustration that the reform platform promoted by Monti, as the incumbent prime minister, was not more effectively articulated. Across the European Union there have been fears that the populist appeals of Berlusconi and Grillo may undermine the reform measures implemented during 2012; and hence create wider problems for the Eurozone members in the future. The current ‘ingovernabilità’ situation has increased such international fears where the immediate reaction of the markets has been negative with sharp drops in stock market indices in Milan and Wall Street. In addition the spread on Italian government bonds has increased once again.

The Way Forward?

The first meeting of both chambers of the Italian Parliament is scheduled for March 15. In this opening session of the new legislature, Italian MPs will be asked to elect presidents of both houses and form parliamentary party groups. Thereafter on April 15, there will be the first meeting of the electoral college (Chamber and Senate plus delegates of Regional Councils) to elect the new head of state (President of the Republic) who will replace the incumbent Giorgio Napolitano. There is an important limitation on the powers of President Napolitano because the Italian Constitution does not allow him to dissolve parliament as he is in the final six months of his last term in office. Consequently, Napolitano will appoint a formateur in the next government formation process or, in case of failing to find any coalition or party to form a government, will prolong the life of the ongoing caretaker government led by Mario Monti. More generally, the general election results from the February 2013 elections offer four possible scenarios:

  1. Survival of the current government as a caretaker scheduling new elections
  2. A minority government formed by the centre-left with the problem of getting a confidence vote in the Senate
  3. Formation of a “grand coalition” (actually a minimum winning coalition) by the centre-left and centre-right
  4. Formation of a coalition with the centre-left and the Grillo movement (again a minimum winning coalition).


The first and the fourth possibilities are highly unlikely. The first one is unlikely because Monti entered the political race. The fourth is unlikely because Grillo refuses any kind of alliances. A “grand coalition” (option 3) could be imposed by some external pressure, such as negative reaction by the international markets combined with informal pressure from members of the Eurozone and its associated institutions. All things considered, the most likely option is a minority government that will negotiate parliamentary support on institutional reforms or specific legislative bills. Such a government may last only a few months. The most realistic prospect is that the Italian electorate will vote again quite soon.