Italy’s coalition government – revealing a tricky balance in supporters’ values

By Federico Quadrelli.

With the new Italian government, consisting of a coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right Lega Nord (hereinafter League) party, the results of the Italian general election of March 4 look at first sight like a resounding defeat for the open society values of democracy and tolerance. But this isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

The M5S and the League, jointly taking half the votes, are both anti-immigrant and anti-European, but that hides greater complexities.

It is still too early to tell where this two-party coalition representing different ends of the political spectrum will position itself on human rights, freedom of speech, transparency and minority protection.

So far, the available data suggests that the views of those who voted for M5S and the League are complex to the point of being contradictory.

The new reality is that many voters in Italy may defend both open and closed society values. For example, it’s possible to defend religious freedom while believing at the same time that Catholic values must be protected.

This more complex approach to social issues may offer a key to understanding Italians’ electoral choices, and thus opening a dialogue with them.

No longer a class or generational divide

Italy’s political culture has changed radically since the previous general election in 2013. The social-democrats’ once popular Democratic Party (PD) lost votes in both northern and southern Italy, including the traditional « red regions » of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. With only 18.8 percent of votes, this was the Left’s worst electoral score since the end of the Second World War, and a clear rejection of PD Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s reforms.

Research by IPSOS consultancy has shown that M5S voters spanned different generations and social classes, making it very clear that M5S doesn’t owe its success to less educated and lower income voters. Like the League, it is supported across generations and backgrounds. Because the age, education or income levels of voters can no longer explain electoral results in Italy, it is clear that they require closer and more sophisticated analysis.

Time for a more subtle analysis of voters’ views

Electoral campaigns in the run-up to the March 2018 elections centred on contentious issues like immigration, religious freedom and minority rights. But many people failed to vote in a manner that was consistent with these issues. While openly hostile to some freedoms, they proved open to others. The League and M5S both advocate a crackdown on immigration, but although they won broad support across Italian society for this, that doesn’t necessarily imply a whole-hearted rejection of open society values.

Voices on Values is a joint project of the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part. It monitors changing public perception of social issues in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and Hungary. Its surveys show that the same voters often share both progressive and less progressive values.

Respondents were asked to rate the importance of issues like freedom of expression and quotas on immigrants. Based on the answer options two scores were computed and standardised, one for the rating of open (open society score) and one for closed society attributes (closed society score). Thereby a score of 0 means respondents said “not at all essential” to all seven items, a score of 1 means they said “absolutely essential” to all seven items.

Support for open and closed society values among voters

Looking at how important supporters of different parties evaluate open and closed society attributes, i.e. at their open and closed society scores, provides some interesting food for thought:

Supporters of the League and centre-right Forza Italia predictably favoured closed society values, while the leftist Democratic and Progressive Movement (MDP) and the centrist Alternativa Popolare (AP) proved closer to open society principles. The truly interesting finding has been that people who voted for M5S, the League and Forza Italia often held views that evoke both open and closed society attitudes. How can this seeming contradiction be explained? And what does it tell us about voters of the League and MS5 in particular?

Social attitudes, in Italy and elsewhere, are far more complex than has traditionally been assumed, and so cannot be neatly categorised. Our data indicates that voters of MS5 and the League are more likely to evaluate closed society attributes as essential, while at the same time evaluating open society attributes as important. This means that a person might advocate the protection of minorities, while at the same time he or she may believe that it is more important to protect Italians’ economic well-being than that of migrants’. Policy-makers would do well to become increasingly aware of this more subtle balancing of voter views.

The author of this article, Federico Quadrelli, is a Research Fellow at CILD.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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