The Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Democratic Party (PD) have formed a new governing coalition in Italy. The coalition will allow both parties to avoid a snap election which Matteo Salvini’s League had hoped to trigger by collapsing the previous government. Davide Angelucci, Pierangelo Isernia, Gianluca Piccolino and Andrea Scavo write that given the ideological differences between the M5S and PD, it is questionable whether the new government will prove any more stable than what came before it.

The first truly populist and sovereigntist ruling coalition in Western Europe dissolved itself after approximately one year. After the striking success of the League during Italy’s European elections in May, and the halving of the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) support in less than fourteen months, Matteo Salvini abruptly pulled the League out of the Conte government in August, seeking a snap election in the autumn.

This now appears to have been a clumsy move, since the M5S and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), after days of troubled negotiations, have since managed to forge a new alliance of convenience. While commentators disagree on whether marriages of convenience are really “so bad”, the future of the Yellow-Red coalition looks likely to be an uphill battle. Here we briefly suggest four reasons why.

A first reason is the quite different ideological makeup of the two parties. While the League and the M5S were united, beyond their profound ideological differences, by common populist sentiments, here instead we have two radically different ideological electorates. As shown in Figure 1, no party carries such a mixed ideological composition as the M5S. On the contrary, the PD electorate is firmly rooted in the left-wing ideological camp.

Figure 1: Self-identified ideological orientation of Five Star Movement supporters

Source: SWG data

A second source of friction is the weight of the past. Both parties have ferociously attacked one another over the last 14 months. This contentious relationship has left some notable scars on the electorate. Two pieces of evidence support this claim.

First, the (low) attractiveness each party exerts on the electorate of the other coalition partner: in July 2019, a few weeks ahead of the government crisis and when the relationship among the League and the M5S was already worn out, 15% of M5S voters still considered the League as an alternative. Only a few M5S voters (5%) instead would contemplate the PD as a realistic voting option. PD voters mirror the “Grillini”: only a tiny minority would cast their ballot for the M5S (4%).

Second, the lack of confidence in the leaders of the respective party: for the M5S, trust in Salvini was second only to that in Di Maio and Conte, while sympathy for the two leaders of the PD in this period (Martina and Zingaretti) has always been minimal. In July 2019, 35% of M5S voters still trusted (very much or somewhat) Salvini, but only 6% the secretary general of the PD Zingaretti. This sense of aversion is well reciprocated in the PD. Only 5% of PD voters had some trust in Di Maio.

Figure 2: Trust in Italy’s political leaders

Note: The figure indicates the percentage of League (Lega), M5S and PD voters who expressed ‘trust’ (‘very much’ or ‘somewhat’) in leaders of the other parties. For the PD, the question refers to the two secretaries general of this period, respectively Martina and Zingaretti, whose tenure period is marked in the black line. Source: SWG data

A third source of problems for the newly born coalition is that their electorate does not share the same values, as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Values of PD, M5S and Lega voters

Source: SWG data

Differences are more relevant on anti-fascism and globalisation. Anti-fascism is an essential value for most PD voters, while the issue is decidedly more divisive for the M5S and definitely a thing of the past for the League voters. On globalisation, the M5S and the PD voters’ part ways, with 59% of M5S voters thinking globalisation has brought more disadvantages than advantages, while PD voters are less concerned about the negative effects of globalisation.

Meanwhile on capitalism (and on the possibility of reforming it), roughly 80% of voters of all three parties believe that it needs revision (either radical or moderate). However, while one third of the M5S electorate believes that capitalism should be completely changed, only 16% and 15% respectively of PD and League voters share this view.

Policies are the fourth source of attrition between PD and M5S voters (Table 2). Migration, foreign policy and Italy’s relationship with the EU are the most likely sources of policy tensions within the new government. Some 72% of the M5S electorate approves of the anti-migration measures adopted by the former government, mostly under pressure from Matteo Salvini. These measures are largely unpopular among PD voters (only 17% approve of them). The M5S and League electorate see eye-to-eye on relationships with Russia. 36% of the M5S’ voters favour a strengthening of relations with Russia. Instead, only 8% of PD voters support closer ties with Russia. Almost half of the M5S electorate (45%) is critical of the European integration process and supports an Italexit. Among PD voters only a tiny proportion considers the integration process a bad thing for the country and supports the leave option (7%).

Table 2: Policy preferences of Italian voters

Source: SWG data

The two electorates are instead more in tune on the environment and civil and social rights. Both parties (and to a greater extent the M5S) have a strong ‘green’ component. Strong majorities (84% and 78% of PD and M5S voters respectively) support greater freedom of expression for the LGBT community and an absolute majority of the two electorates (more enthusiastically the PD voters less so the M5S electorate) support the full recognition of different forms of family.

While we cannot say at this time whether this newly forged mariage de convenance will last more (or less) than one built on true love (or, for that matter, the previous green-yellow marriage), the four factors discussed above suggest their relationship will be, to say the least, “turbulent”. While it is conceivable that the new yellow-red coalition will increase mutual sympathy between the two electorates, as happened 14 months ago with the League, it remains unlikely that voters will change their values ​​and their vision of society over the short term.

The League-M5S government briefly developed into a meaningful relationship, with strong affective components among the two electorates, but eventually came unstuck amid regrets and mutual allegations, mostly because of policy differences. The M5S and PD will certainly enter their relationship with a more sober – if not disenchanted – attitude. To make this relationship a success, it is vital that the government starts on the right footing, with policies that make people in both parties appreciate their reasons for working together, given the long list of potential reasons to quit.

As in any relationship, a lot will also depend on luck. From this perspective, quite paradoxically, the looming recession and the difficult economic conditions in “Europe’s locomotive”, Germany, combined with the strong “green” inclinations in both parties, may prompt a convergence of interests. With some European blessings, this might help bring together two parties who until now have felt little attraction toward one another.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Presidenza della Repubblica (Public Domain)


About the authors

Davide Angelucci – Center For Italian Electoral Studies – Luiss Rome
Davide Angelucci is a PhD student at the University of Siena and Research Fellow at CISE, LUISS – Guido Carli. His research interests focus on European politics, political behaviour and political participation. He has recently worked on the politicisation of European foreign and security policy. He is currently working on youth and political inequalities in Europe.

Pierangelo Isernia – University of Siena
Pierangelo Isernia is Jean Monnet chair of International Relations in the Department of Social, Political and Cognitive Sciences (DISPOC) at the University of Siena, Italy. He is also the Director of the Survey Research Center (LAPS – Laboratorio Analisi Politiche e Sociali) at the University of Siena.

Gianluca Piccolino – Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies – University of Siena and Florence
Gianluca Piccolino is a PhD candidate in Political Science, European Politics and International Relations, a joint initiative of the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and the Universities of Florence, Pisa and Siena. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre d’études européennes at Sciences Po Paris and at the Cologne Center for Comparative Politics at the University of Cologne.

Andrea Scavo – SWG
Andrea Scavo has a PhD in policy analysis. He has worked in universities and research institutes in Italy, Germany, and the UK. Since 2017, he has been Research Director for Political, Social and Institutional Research at SWG, an Italian survey research company, with a focus on the analysis of the Italian and European political system and the evaluation of policy programmes.

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