How Italy’s Elite Plans to Stop the Populists: QuickTake Q&A

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What You Need to Know About Italy's Anti-EU Movement

Italy’s mainstream parties are running scared. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s resignation means early elections are possible, with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement virtually tied with his Democratic Party in the polls. A Five Star government might call a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro area, putting the country’s fragile banking system and the European project at risk. Before Italians get to vote again, the other parties are determined to change the election rules to make it harder for Five Star to get in. Italy’s Constitutional Court will weigh in too.

1. What’s the issue with election rules?

The procedure for choosing the lower house, known as the Italicum, is giving mainstream parties sleepless nights because of how it may help Five Star. Renzi introduced the system in 2014, calling it “a beautiful law which all of Europe envies,” and it has yet to be used. It hands an automatic majority of 340 seats out of 630 to the biggest group in the chamber. If no party wins more than 40 percent of the vote, the top two go into a runoff. “The Italicum is the only electoral law which could hand Five Star a bullet-proof majority,” said Marco Cacciotto, a politics expert at Milan University.

2. Why did Renzi create rules that may help Five Star?

He and the rest of the establishment failed to spot Five Star coming. The Italicum was born of a deal between Renzi and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who assumed their parties would be competing in a two-party system, as in the U.S. Then Five Star emerged to ruin their plans. “Renzi messed up,” said Cacciotto.

3. What can be done?

Renzi’s Democratic Party is the dominant force in parliament, which is why it’s long backed a system that rewards the single biggest group. But it could be open to making a coalition of parties eligible for the automatic majority bonus. That would make it possible for other parties to squeeze out Five Star, which has no obvious allies. Much depends on the next prime minister, and what kind of change he can persuade his coalition to support.

4. What does Five Star want?

Elections, right now. Five Star’s co-founder, Beppe Grillo, says any change in the rules would be an establishment stitch-up designed to block his movement. He’s changed his tune somewhat as Five Star’s polling numbers have surged. A post on his blog in April 2015 said the Italicum was unconstitutional: “We’ve already had fascism, once is enough,” historian Aldo Giannuli wrote at the time.

5. What role might the court play?

Italy’s Constitutional Court will rule in January on whether the Italicum is constitutional, and it could strike down the majority bonus.

6. Any idea when the next elections will be?

Let’s get a new government going first. President Sergio Mattarella is expected to start consulting senior political figures this week or next. Elections aren’t due until early 2018, but Renzi may seek to push for a vote early next year in a bid to get back into power. The worst-case scenario for the establishment would be if the parties fail to agree on a new premier, forcing Mattarella to call immediate elections, under current rules. The mainstream parties have a lot to lose in such a scenario, which may help the negotiations.

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