The media seem to have discovered Italian fascism. There has been a spate of stories in the last week warning of the danger posed by the far right and the influence it might have following next Sunday’s election.

That’s all well and good: the alarm is not unjustified, although the publicity given to fringe groups like CasaPound may well be doing more harm than good. (A poll last week put its support at 1.8%, but until then it had barely registered.)

But the shape of the next Italian government, like the last one, is almost certain to be the product of post-election negotiations, whose relationship to the decisions of the electorate will be complex and uncertain. And key to those negotiations, of course, will be the 81-year-old godfather of the centre-right, Silvio Berlusconi.

I’ve been writing about Silvio Berlusconi for at least 12 years (here’s one of the early ones). A few years ago I even titled a post “Probably not the last Berlusconi story.” But still the man refuses to go away. Indeed, it’s very possible that in the next few weeks he will play his most important role yet.

As I explained in a previous post, the new electoral system is largely proportional; the old “winner’s bonus” for the plurality coalition has been abolished. The system will still exaggerate the support of the largest parties a little, but overall levels of support will be a good guide to the proportions of seats that parties will end up with. And since no more polls can be published, Wikipedia’s compilation can now be taken as final.

On that basis, things are deceptively simple. None of the three main blocs will have a majority: the centre-right is running in the high 30s, and the centre-left and the Five Star Movement are basically tied for second, both in the high 20s. Free and Equal, also on the left, is the only other significant player, with about 5-6%.

Moreover, within the centre-right coalition, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is running about level with the forces to his right, the xenophobic Northern League and the post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

So if we count Free and Equal in with the centre-left, and divide the centre-right into Berlusconi and hard right, we can do some simple arithmetic. The following are likely to be the possible majority combinations:

(a) Centre-left + Five Star

(b) Berlusconi + hard right + Five Star

(c) Berlusconi + centre-left

It was the failure of (a) to yield any sort of agreement that plagued the last period of government-formation, five years ago. It’s not clear whether it will be the same this time: the Five Stars now have a new leader, Luigi Di Maio, who seems likely to be a more serious negotiator than comedian Beppe Grillo was. They have previously talked up an association with Free and Equal, and while even a loose arrangement with the centre-left seems like a big ask, so is any sort of collaboration with Berlusconi.

If the Five Stars and the centre-left can’t come to terms, it will come down to (b) or (c), and Berlusconi will have to choose whether he throws his support to a populist Eurosceptic government or agrees to another grand coalition with the centre-left.

The wily old Cavaliere is playing his cards close to his chest. What he really wants, of course, is to win a majority in his own right for the centre-right coalition (as he had in his last two terms as prime minister), and so avoid having to choose between the left and the populists.

But if the polls are right, he’s going to fall short. Last time around he linked up with the centre-left, but that was under a different electoral system, which gave the centre-left a majority in the lower house – but not the Senate – as a result of winning the popular vote. A Berlusconi/Five Star coalition then would have meant deadlock; this time, it is a possible option for government.

Possible, but still bizarre, since the Five Star Movement was founded to fight Italy’s institutionalised corruption, of which Berlusconi is the outstanding exemplar. Yet the other options seem to have equally serious problems.

Somehow, eventually, Italy will get itself a new government. But Sunday’s voting will be only the first step in determining its composition.

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