By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
Italian laws prohibit the sharing of opinion polls in the weeks immediately prior to an election. The final opinion polls show that working voters continue to abandon the center-left Partito democratico (Pd) and the Right wing coalition is on track to form government. They also show that Italian political parties are disconnected from the electorate on the issue of power and gas, and the intimately connected question of sanctions on Russia.
The 7 September edition of Porta a porta published polling data that show the Pd dropping to 19.5% of voters. This same poll reported that Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) had increased its vote share to 24.3%, while the 5 Star Movement increased its vote to 13.5%. Salvini’s Lega sat at 13%.
This situation is reflected in other opinion polls. The 9 September edition of Tg La7 released the details of an SWG poll that put FdI at 27% of the vote, the Pd at 20.4%, the Lega at 12.1%, and the 5 Star at 12%. The results produced by SWG and published by Tg La7 10 days earlier, on 29 August, had FdI at 24.8%, Pd at 22.3%, the Lega at 12.5%, and 5 Star at 11.6%.
The Renzi-Calenda list, a recent electoral pact between Matteo Renzi’s candidates and those of Carlo Calenda, supports another Draghi government and will naturally drag some votes away from the Pd. The largest shifts across the board are, however, from other parties towards FdI. First and foremost, the data show that Meloni continues to win voters from her coalition partners the Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. An opinion poll undertaken by Cluster17 for Il Fatto Quotidiano and published on 8 September gave FdI the lead with a vote of 24.4%, followed by the Pd (20.8%), 5 Star (14.1%), and the Lega (11.3%). More importantly, the poll reported that FdI stands to win 44% of Lega voters from 2018 and 38% of Forza Italia voters.
5 Star has obviously been the big loser since the last election, when it won 32.7% of the vote. Only 46% of people who voted for 5 Star in 2018 intend to vote for them again, and 17% of former 5 Star voters indicated that they intend to vote for Meloni’s FdI in the coming election. Voters on the Right and anti-establishment voters obviously intend to punish their former parties for supporting EU-backed pro-austerity technocratic governments, but this is far from the only motivation for the flight toward the right.
When the polls are sliced by work and income, the complete collapse of the working vote for the center-Left is evident. Less than 10% of blue-collar workers intend to vote for the Pd, while 28% intend to vote for FdI and 21% for the Lega.
The Pd only really shows strength amongst a few subsets of the Italian voter base. From an employment point of view, the Cluster17 opinion poll showed that 34% of knowledge workers and the managerial class intend to vote for the Pd, giving it the largest voter share amongst this group.
In financial terms, this is reflected in the Pd’s polling at 35% in the highest income band, those who earn more than EUR 5,000 a month. In stark contrast, it only managed to poll at 11% with prospective voters earning EUR 1,000-1,500 a month.
Leading into the election, CISE found that the highest priority valence issues for Italian voters are guaranteeing citizens and businesses have sustainable power and gas prices, combatting unemployment, combatting violence against women and femicide, reducing poverty, sustaining economic growth, combatting inflation, and reducing taxes on income.
As prices for power and gas skyrocket alongside the rest of the West, Italians clearly want a solution on this issue going into the election, but there is little fodder amongst the political spectrum to satisfy this hunger.
The direct connection between sanctions against Russia and the power and gas crisis is evident to Italian voters, as are solutions, even if it isn’t so clear to politicians. CISE reported that 43% of respondents were in favor of suspending economic sanctions against Russia, while 57% were in favor of maintaining them.
Termometro Politico conducted a survey between 30 August and 2 September asking: “In the face of a sudden rise in the price of gas and of inflation, do you think that sanctions should be removed from Russia?” In more nuanced responses, 24.2% of respondents opposed removing sanctions, arguing instead that they should be stronger; 19.8% wanted to keep sanctions as they are. 23.1% of those surveyed thought sanctions were understandable in February but should be removed now, while 28% said sanctions should never have been imposed in the first place (4.9% didn’t know or didn’t want to respond).
Where do these voters turn? Among the largest parties, none has taken a position against sanctions on Russia. The 5 Star had an internal conflict over the question of sending arms to Ukraine but now opposes sending further weapons. Despite this, the party’s leader Giuseppe Conte said on television this week that he was proud of the fact that the Ukrainian people were defending and taking territory in part using weapons sent by Italy. On 5 September, he confirmed that the 5 Star are in favor of maintaining sanctions.
Salvini, as the leader of the Lega, has questioned the sanctions and highlighted the cost to Italy. On 3 September he posted on Twitter to say that sanctions aren’t working because Russia is making money while the sanctioning countries are on their knees. He argued that the strategy needed to be rethought to save Italian jobs and businesses.
Nonetheless, Salvini wants to have his cake and eat it; even as he talks about the cost of sanctions to Italian business and employees, he has been keen to remind people that the Lega has consistently voted in favor of all Italian measures on Ukraine. He has insisted that the election won’t change Italy’s foreign policy position while also “just asking” whether the sanctions are hurting the people they are designed to hurt.
While playing this double game, Salvini has sought to ensure that voters don’t hold him responsible for the fall-out. Discussing the price rises on the campaign circuit, he claimed that “Europe is jointly responsible for these increases with its ideological green policies, with its sanctions on Russia, and it has to be Europe that protects families and businesses.”
Meloni has consistently sought to reassure the international community that FdI isn’t a threat to the international order and has continued to express her support for sanctions on Russia. During a 6 September TV appearance, Meloni disagreed with Salvini that sanctions aren’t working.
In this, she is at odds with her voter base. According to a Sky TG24 opinion poll published on 4 September, 43% of Italian voters thought it was right to impose sanctions on Russia compared to 37% who thought it was wrong, and 20% who didn’t know. Within the Right-wing coalition, this jumps to 45% against sanctions, 39% in favor, and 16% undecided. Amongst the three coalition partners, FdI recorded the highest percentage of those who thought it was wrong to impose sanctions on Russia (55%).
Only minor parties and alliances that are below the threshold to enter parliament according to opinion polls, like the recently formed Italia Sovrana e Popolare (ISP), have explicitly opposed sanctions on Russia (and have campaigned for leaving NATO and the EU).
In February, Enrico Letta of the Pd advocated for harsh, Europe-wide sanctions on Russia, and has continued to support this position. The 2022 campaign platform for the Pd treats sanctions and their resulting economic cost as unavoidable. It claims that Italy has faced five crises in recent years, including “Putin’s war and its consequences for the economy and energy”. A key focus of the entire platform is unity with Europe and the importance of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, the Italian aspect of the Next Generation EU recovery fund, which the Pd claims is an essential part of the solution to Italy’s problems.
For Italians preparing to vote in the upcoming election, none of the major parties is offering a solution to the energy crisis that involves removing sanctions from Russia. The Pd has almost no blue-collar workers to support its pro-EU, pro-Draghi, pro-sanctions policies even if it wins support among the wealthy. The large number of voters who are in favor of removing sanctions are left with little choice on the issue. By associating the question of sanctions with the EU, the Right-wing coalition can still sway voters through its vaguely anti-establishment and anti-EU platform, even if this has now left a majority of FdI voters in opposition to their own party’s position on sanctions.