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Availability or disengagement ‘ How Italian Citizens reacted to the two faced Parliamentary Grand Coalition supporting the Monti Government

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Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
POLISπóλις
ςς
ς, XXVIII, 1, aprile 2014, pp. 61-84
AVAILABILITY OR DISENGAGEMENT?
HOW ITALIAN CITIZENS REACTED TO THE
TWO-FACED PARLIAMENTARY GRAND COALITION
SUPPORTING THE MONTI GOVERNMENT
1. Introduction: Grand Coalition, Italian Style
Times may come in which democracies have to suspend electoral
competition for the sake of the general interest. Wars, divisive memories
of past conflicts, a prolonged economic crisis, but also electoral out-
comes without a clear and politically viable governing majority are the
challenges that may oblige ideologically distant parties to join forces in
a grand coalition government. In 2011, Italian parties found themselves
in such a situation. Starting in the summer, the Italian financial situation
worsened to the point that, between October and November 2011, the
risk of a sovereign default was tangible. The common wisdom within as
well as outside the country was clear. Italy needed urgent structural re-
forms capable of restoring confidence among its Eu partners and finan-
cial investors. The expectation was that only a grand coalition between
the main parties would have been able to overcome the several veto
points that over the years have led Italy to the edge of the cliff.
Although such a decision might have been seen as necessary, this is
a difficult move for any party in any country, since it may alter the con-
ditions under which voters usually make their voting choices at the fol-
lowing election. When the contraposition between government and op-
position is suspended, voters might find it hard to take into account what
has been done and who is responsible for what. Moreover, when this
comes together with the discovery of a vast web of political scandals,
citizens’ political disengagement is likely to further increase.
Nonetheless, the way Italian parties decided to respond to the chal-
lenge was highly peculiar in four aspects, at least in comparison with the
The authors are grateful for comments and suggestions by two anonymous ref-
erees. A previous version of the paper has been presented at Universidad
Autónoma de Madrid, in occasion of the XII Seminario de investigacion. We
thank participants for their useful comments. All errors remain ours.
62 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
experience of grand coalitions in Germany and Austria over the last fifty
years. First, in 2011 a coalition between the main political parties was
not an option that emerged after a competitive election, where voters
could have taken into account what the incumbent government did over
the previous years, as happened in Germany and Austria
1
. Rather, it
turned out to be an alternative to calling for a new election. At the be-
ginning of November 2011, Berlusconi resigned from his role as Prime
minister given the collapse of his majority. Instead of calling for a new
election, the President of the Republic nominated a highly-respected
economist and former Eu Commissioner as new Prime minister: Mario
Monti
2
.
Second, although the President of the Republic urged the main polit-
ical parties to join the government, they only accepted to support the
government in Parliament. Thus, instead of a governing grand coalition,
the result of these manoeuvres turned out to be a technocratic cabinet,
composed exclusively of non-political figures but supported by an over-
sized parliamentary coalition that included the two major rival parties,
the left-wing Partito Democratico (Democratic Party – Pd) and the right-
wing Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom party – Pdl), as well as a
relatively small centrist party, the Unione di Centro (Union of the Cen-
tre – Udc).
Third, the two main parties, often internally divided, kept on end-
lessly quarrelling with each other in public, often criticising what the
technocratic government was doing. This peculiar pattern of coalitional
behaviour lasted until December 2012, when Berlusconi decided to stop
the support of his party for the Monti cabinet, paving the way for new
elections the following February.
All in all, the management of the crucial linkage between the cabinet
and the oversized parliamentary majority was very different from the
typical pattern seen with German and Austrian grand coalitions. Miller
and Müller (2011) reported that three management mechanisms have
frequently been used in the German and Austrian experiences: public
coalition agreement, coalition committees, and watchdog junior minis-
ters belonging to different parties from the «senior» ministers. All of
these are helpful mechanisms to pre-empt the constant risk of conflict
between coalition parties, and no less importantly, to reduce the risk that
1
The German grand coalition 1966-69 between Cdu-Csu and Spd was the
result of the collapse of the previous coalition between the former and the Fdp.
2
Just a few days before being nominated Prime minister he was nominated a
senator for life by the President of the Republic.
Availability or Disengagement? 63
cabinet members would feel free to follow their own agenda instead of
the government platform parties agreed on. However, according to what
was reported by the media during those days, none of these mechanisms
seemed to be in place in the case of the Monti government and its strana
maggioranza («odd majority», as pundits labelled it).
Parties seemed to motivate such a two-faced coalitional behaviour
on the basis of the notion that their voters were unlikely to understand
and to finally accept their joint responsibility in the government. It is
hard to know what their voters would actually have preferred. Nonethe-
less, one might put forward an opposite opinion from the one that the
parties had. The parties’ decision to stand half-way, supporting the gov-
ernment in Parliament but not taking any governing responsibility for it
or, even worse, jointly agreeing behind the Tv screen on what they
were going to quarrel about in front of the public – made it even harder
for voters to understand what was going on. In this context, voters were
exposed to a chaotic flow of information. The only accessible and robust
piece of evidence for many voters was the fact that the main parties coa-
lesced in supporting a technocratic government, while at the same time
they were constantly fighting with each other. In a climate of rampant
negative feelings towards politics, this behaviour could be easily inter-
preted as evidence that parties were misleading the electorate.
2. Expectations from a Two-Faced Coalitional Behaviour
Literature on government coalitions and related party and voter be-
haviour is vast. A large part of it is devoted to coalition building and the
selection of ministers. Studies that focus on the electoral consequences
of the coalitions and the grand coalition in particular are less common.
The main findings suggest that coalition governments may hamper the
clarity of responsibility that make it possible for the voters to get a ras-
cal out of office (Hobolt and Karp 2010; Maravall 2010). In the case of
grand coalitions, the literature refers almost exclusively to the German
experience, and shows that the electoral price that parties pay for joining
a grand coalition government is generally rather high. Careful coalition
management may reduce it, but only up to a certain point. Scarrow
(2012) shows that, in the elections immediately following the 2005-
2009 German grand coalition, turnout decreased, volatility rose, party
fragmentation increased and protest voting became more vibrant. On the
same line, Banazsak and Doerschler (2012) reports that, in elections af-
ter grand coalitions, voters tend to move away from the coalitional par-
64 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
ties towards opposition parties, and this movement is more likely among
the more radical voters of the parties.
Studies on the Italian elections of February 2013 showed similar
phenomena, albeit larger in magnitude. Turnout decline was unprece-
dented, as Diamanti (2013) and Itanes (2013) have documented. Elec-
toral volatility was so high that the 2013 election ranks first among the
most volatile Italian post-second world war elections. The two main par-
ties that supported the Monti government were the most strongly affect-
ed by voter defection. The Pd and Pdl combined have lost almost ten
million votes since 2008 (3.5 million and 6.5 million respectively).
Moreover, approximately one out of four valid votes went to a new par-
ty that claimed to be outside the traditional left-right ideological divi-
sions, namely the Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement – M5s).
Individual-level analyses offered some more detailed insights. As
Baldassari (2013) and De Sio and Schadee (2013) show, Italian voters
still think of left-right as the predominant dimension of the national po-
litical space, regardless of the massive electoral change. In addition, a
comparison between voters who remained loyal to the Pd and the Pdl
since 2008 and those who defected shows that the policy preferences of
the fleeing voters are quite moderate and different from the loyal voters,
while their negative sentiments towards politics are stronger. Finally, the
Pd and Pdl defectors are not on the fringe of the left and right continu-
um, but are rather located around the centre (Passarelli and Tuorto 2013;
Vezzoni 2013). This is quite a different scenario from the above-
mentioned effects of the German grand coalition.
Bellucci and Segatti (2013) recently argued that voters’ party choice
during the 2013 election might have been conditioned by the context in
which Italians made their decisions. They referred to three key context
characteristics: the economic crisis, the wave of disengagement from
politics nurtured by scandals and the abuse of public money, and the
joint support by the main parties for the Monti government which ren-
dered the attribution of blame harder for voters. The latter contextual
characteristic is particularly important for our study. While no empirical
evidence has been provided on the effects of these phenomena on peo-
ple's preferences, previous studies have empirically shown how patterns
of competition might be altered by contextual factors such as polariza-
tion (Dahlberg 2009; Lachat 2008; 2011; Van der Eijk, Schmitt and
Binder 2005). Building upon these authors’ intuition, we aim to provide
a first empirical assessment of how Italian voters have been reacting to
the experience of an inter-block parliamentary coalition in the period
before the elections. Although in this study we are not able to provide a
Availability or Disengagement? 65
proper measurement for polarisation, we argue that voters have most
likely seen the parliamentary support to the Monti government by the
two main parties (from November 2011 to December 2012) as a behav-
ioural indicator of decreasing party polarisation. This expectation is
drawn from literature on the impact of coalition governments on the
perceptions of party ideologies, showing that members of the same coa-
litions tend to be seen as ideologically more similar than they actually
are (Fortunato and Stevenson 2013). Naturally, relying solely on this
assumption does not allow us to categorically exclude that voters still
perceived the Pd and the Pdl as quite apart from each other. However,
we show in a different study that the months of the technocratic gov-
ernment were characterized by a decrease in the correlation between
people's ideological positions and their evaluations of the two parties
(Vegetti, Poletti and Segatti 2013).
Given this assumption, we formulate two expectations. First, during
the time span in which the Pd and the Pdl jointly supported the Monti
government, the suspension of their usual reciprocal hostility may have
diminished the ideological distinctiveness of the two parties, at least in
the perceptions of their peripheral voters. In turn, this may have in-
creased voter openness to the appeals coming from the opposite ideolog-
ical side, enhancing the reciprocal availability of the two main parties’
electorates (Bartolini 1999). Second, the inconsistencies between how
parties behaved in Parliament – supporting the government – and in oth-
er public arena – fighting on a daily basis – (what we call two-faced be-
haviour) may have led part of the public to think that the parties were
trying to fool voters. Thus, over the months prior to the 2013 election,
the coalitional behaviour mismatch of Pd and Pdl, together with blatant
cases of corruption and the abuse of public money over the period, may
have actually increased the disengagement of citizens from political par-
ties. In other words, the parties’ two-faced behaviour, far from being
understood by the voters as a way of keeping the parties’ reputation
high, may have been interpreted as a strategy to mislead the public from
what party elites were really doing.
Both expectations rest on the assumption that ideology has lost
ground in constraining some determinants of the voting calculus, even
though these same voters are still using the left-right continuum as a
representation of the political space (Baldassari 2013; Segatti 2013;
Vegetti, Poletti and Segatti 2013).
66 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
3. Assessing electoral availability using propensity to vote scores
We offer an empirical exploration of the public’s response to the po-
litical events taking place between the summer of 2011 and the elections
of February 2013, using data from a repeated cross-sectional survey
conducted by Ipsos
3
. Our sample consists of 49,901 respondents of a
survey conducted every week on a fresh sample from March 2011 to
February 2013
4
. The survey was conducted by following the Computer
assisted telephone interviewing (Cati) method, on a sample drawn by
random digit dialling and corrected by gender, age, region and munici-
pality size.
In order to measure party evaluations, we rely on a type of rating
scale known as propensity to vote (Ptv) scores. Similar to other variables
created over the years to observe respondents’ evaluations of the major
political parties, Ptvs are ordered scales (in our case ranging from one to
ten) where respondents are asked to say «how likely» it is that they will
«ever» vote for each party (see Tillie 1995 and van der Eijk et al. 2006
for a more focused discussion on the psychological bases of Ptvs and
their empirical validation). In a broad sense, Ptvs measure the extent to
which a respondent is considering voting for a party, without constrain-
ing this consideration into a single ipsative choice, as is the case for the
more common «vote choice» or «vote intention» variable. Naturally,
voting itself is an ipsative act, insomuch as it forces the voter to choose
for one and only one option
5
. Nevertheless, one of the aims of public
3
Ipsos is a social research institute that collects the public opinion of citi-
zens. Data has been provided by the University of Milan by virtue of a grant by
the Fondazione Cariplo. The authors are grateful to prof. Paolo Natale for his
continuous support.
4
The value refers to the total number of cases having no missing values in
any of the relevant variables. The monthly sample size varies between a mini-
mum of 927 in October 2011 to a maximum of 4,237 in January 2013. Three
months are missing from the time series: August 2011, January 2012 and August
2012.
5
«Vote intention» forces respondents to compare a list of party options and
pick the one that is most preferred. Ptvs instead allow us to have a measure for
the propensity to vote for a specific party for all the (more or less desired) op-
tions in the list. Ptvs are therefore richer in information than vote intention be-
cause they measure the desirability of all parties, rather than identifying only
which one is the most desirable. Given that in our analyses we want to measure
whether there has been an increase in the electorate’s availability (e.g. voters’
openness to the appeals coming from the opposite ideological side), using Ptvs
instead of «vote intention» is an obvious choice. Moreover, over the period cov-
ered by our study, in every survey the percentage of respondents who claim to
be undecided or reticent about their voting intentions is very high.
Availability or Disengagement? 67
opinion research is to assess how characteristics of the external political
context may influence the opinions that eventually shape individual be-
haviour. In this respect, Ptvs are to be regarded as measures of potential
behaviour, as they capture the foundations of the choice by observing
for each individual which parties are excluded from the short-list (the
ones that the respondent says he/she would never vote for) and which
parties are the real competing candidates running for the final choice
(the parties that receive a high propensity to vote).
Given this property, to observe a voter’s set of Ptvs is equivalent to
measuring his/her degree of electoral availability, that is, the extent to
which he/she is open to modify his/her electoral choice (Bartolini 1999).
If voters express a positive propensity to vote for one party only, and no
propensity to vote for all the others, it is likely that their choice is al-
ready made, no matter what further strategies parties will adopt. Con-
versely, if voters give the same Ptv to all the parties, their choice is open
to influence by a potentially large number of events and last-minute
considerations. In the first case, the probability that any voter will
switch between parties is essentially null, and thus party allegiances are
going to be frozen. In the second case the potential for switching party is
virtually unlimited, and voting will resemble something approaching a
random choice.
However, in the real world most people’s consideration sets tends to
lie in between these two extremes. For instance, voters can be similarly
attracted by two parties, and completely disinterested in all the others. In
this situation, it is reasonable to assert that the two parties are competing
with each other for their votes. Thus, on aggregate, this is equivalent to
saying that patterns of covariation between Ptvs provide a picture of
who competes with whom in the electoral arena at any given moment. If
the Ptvs of two parties covary in opposite directions, it means that a pos-
itive evaluation of one party corresponds to a negative evaluation of the
other, and vice versa. In this situation, the two parties are not competing
for the same voters, as being attracted by one corresponds in the voters’
mind to being repelled by the other. In other words, the (potential) elec-
torate of one party is unavailable to the other. On the other hand, when
the Ptvs of two parties covary positively, a higher likelihood to vote for
one corresponds to a higher likelihood to vote for the other, and there-
fore their electorates are reciprocally available. In this case, the two par-
ties must compete with each other to win over the same voters.
The Italian election of 2013 has been characterised by the largest
amount of vote switching in republican history (Itanes 2013). This could
be due to the fact that the effects of the left-right cleavage which con-
68 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
tributed a great deal in maintaining the voters’ choice sets, mostly «fro-
zen» into relatively stable ideological blocks during the Second Repub-
lic, have eventually weakened. Although it has been shown that voters’
movements between the Pd and the Pdl have decreased from 2008 to
2013 (De Sio and Schadee 2013), we expect that a weakening of the
left-right cleavage should be reflected, among other things, by a pattern
of increasing reciprocal availability between the electorates of the two
most important parties of the two blocks, the Pd and the Pdl, at least as a
temporary effect of the joint support by the two parties for the Monti
government.
Figure 1 shows something interesting in this regard, illustrating the
monthly variation of the polychoric correlation between the Ptvs of the
two parties from March 2011 to February 2013
6
. The pattern shown in
the figure is consistent with our expectation. Up to November/December
2012, the correlation between the Ptvs of the Pd and the Pdl is negative
and significant. Substantively this means that, in the months within our
time window preceding the technocratic government, to have a higher
propensity to vote for the Pd (vs. Pdl) corresponded with having a lower
propensity to vote for the Pdl (vs. Pd). This does not come as a surprise
for those who experienced the political mood of the Second Republic,
characterised by constant reciprocal accusations between party spokes-
men on Tv talk-shows and repeated appeals to ideological labels as
group flags. However, from December 2012, immediately after the res-
ignation of Silvio Berlusconi as Prime minister and the handover to
Mario Monti, the correlation becomes increasingly weaker, reaching a
level in Spring/Summer 2012 where it looks not significantly different
from zero. Normally, a zero correlation is interpreted as «independ-
ence», that is, knowing a person’s position on one variable does not
provide any support for inferring his/her position on the other variable.
In our case, this zero could be interpreted literally, by claiming that from
April to September 2012 the Pdl and the Pd were evaluated inde-
pendently from each other
7
, or we could simply note that the predomi-
6
The polychoric correlation assumes two continuous, normally-distributed
latent variables that are observed on ordinal scales, and therefore it is the most
appropriate technique in estimating the correlation between variables such as the
Ptvs. Polychoric correlations are interpreted in the same way as the Pearson’s r,
and like their better-known counterpart they range between -1, indicating perfect
negative correlation, and +1, indicating perfect positive correlation. The coeffi-
cients are computed via maximum likelihood estimation.
7
In the month of July 2012 the correlation seems to become slightly strong-
er, before dropping again in September. We believe that this effect is mainly due
to an anomaly in the sampling for the month of July, probably due to the fact
Availability or Disengagement? 69
nance of opposing feelings towards the two parties among the public has
disappeared. This implies that the electorates of the two main parties on
the left and the right were, for a few months at least, «open» to the pos-
sibility of voting for the main opponent, although without necessarily
providing a positive evaluation of it.
Figure 1 also shows that, from October 2012, the negative correla-
tion between the Ptvs of the two parties gains new strength, reaching at
the moment of the election in February 2013 the same level observed
before the beginning of the technocratic government. This steady but
persistent return to a polarised situation, where the propensities to vote
for the two parties are essentially mutually exclusive, reflects a growing
tendency by the Pd and the Pdl to «close ranks» among their supporters.
The turning point here is the beginning of the primary campaign for the
election of the candidate for Prime minister by the left-wing coalition.
The primary elections which were announced earlier in the summer had,
for the first few weeks, only one candidate supported by the Pd coalition
leader, namely Pierluigi Bersani, the secretary of the party. However, in
mid-September Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, presented himself
that many potential respondents are on vacation. This suspicion is somewhat
strengthened by the presence of a similarly outlying observation in July 2011.
F
IG
. 1. Correlation between propensity to vote for the Pd and the Pdl
over time
(bootstrapped 95% c.i.).
Source: own elaboration of Ipsos data.
70 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
as an alternative candidate, pushing for an agenda heavily based on the
renewal of the leading class of the Pd. At around the same time, two
other members of the coalition presented their candidacy, effectively
starting the primary campaign. The primary elections, won by Bersani
on the second ballot, marked the beginning of the actual electoral cam-
paign. On December 6
th
, only a few days after the official designation of
Bersani as the left-wing coalition’s candidate for prime minister, the
former Pm and leader of the Pdl Silvio Berlusconi announced that he
would be the candidate of the right-wing coalition. On the same day, the
Pdl withdrew its support from the Monti government, ending the tempo-
rary compromise with the Pd. From this point, the electoral campaign
carried on with the same hostile tones that the voters were used to be-
fore the Pd and the Pdl jointly supported the Monti government (a peri-
od during which reciprocal accusations among the two parties were still
present, but the tones were somewhat softened).
Figure 1 succeeds in showing one important pattern: the joint sup-
port by the two parties for the Monti cabinet seems to have de facto de-
polarised the attitudes of the voters towards the two parties. In other
words, for a few months in 2012, the electorates of each of the two par-
ties were more available to the appeals of the other. Thus, our data
seems to confirm that the left-right cleavage temporarily weakened dur-
ing this period. This could have happened regardless of whether voters
might still have perceived the two parties as quite far apart from each
other. Nevertheless, the combination of signs of behavioural conver-
gence between the two parties on the one hand, and of quarrelling di-
vergence on the other, may also have generated a wave of disengage-
ment from electoral politics
4. Greater Electoral Availability or More Disengagement from Poli-
tics?
The pattern observed so far, i.e. the simple correlation between the
Ptvs of the Pd and the Pdl, can reflect two qualitatively different phe-
nomena. The most obvious one, following the rationale discussed earli-
er, is the variation of the competition between the two parties by means
of an increased reciprocal availability of their respective electorates.
This part of the story refers to the propensities to vote for the Pd and the
Pdl becoming less (or more) mutually exclusive, and thus the two par-
ties becoming more (or less) appealing to the same electorate.
Availability or Disengagement? 71
However, a second phenomenon that can be captured by the varying
correlation between the two Ptvs is the variation over time of the pro-
portion of respondents who state their unwillingness to vote for any par-
ty in the system, and therefore give the lowest value to all the Ptv ques-
tions. In fact, the contribution that these respondents give to the correla-
tion between the Ptvs of the Pd and the Pdl is always positive: for them,
the correlation will always be +1. Thus, for instance, if in the months
between March 2011 and February 2013 the proportion of citizens re-
sponding in this way increased, the negative correlation between the two
Ptvs would inevitably look weaker. Nonetheless, this would not be due
to a growing reciprocal availability of the two electorates, but rather to a
growing tendency among the population to refuse being available at all.
These respondents are those who do not feel attracted by any of the
relevant options, and thus refuse to even consider voting for them.
These individuals are by all means unavailable to any party, and thus
completely out of party competition, given that no matter how parties
change their appeals, they will simply ignore them. We define such citi-
zens as disengaged, or detached, from the traditional political parties,
and we categorise them using a dummy that has value of one if they
give the lowest to all the main parties, and zero otherwise. In the calcu-
lation of this variable, we consider the Ptv of eight parties: Pd, Pdl, Lega
Nord, Italia dei Valori (and its pre-electoral merge with other left-wing
parties, Rivoluzione Civile), Udc, FlI, Sel and Monti’s Scelta Civica
party. We exclude from the calculation the Ptv for the Movimento 5
Stelle (M5s). This is due both to a theoretical and a practical reason.
First, our variable measures the refusal to vote for the traditional par-
ties, i.e. the parties who describe themselves as insiders of the political
system, of which the Pd and the Pdl are the two main poles, while the
M5s presents itself as an alternative to the political system. This differ-
ence is not trivial, as it implies that the space of competition (see Sani
and Sartori 1983) where the M5s seeks votes is essentially different
from the one where the other parties act. In fact, since its first days as a
grassroots movement in the mid-2000s, the M5s built an image aimed at
expressively capturing and channelling citizens’ negative sentiments
towards parties, obtaining an anti-political movement label in the media.
Thus, including the Ptv of the M5s in our calculation would have ex-
cluded those respondents who give a higher Ptv only to M5s, i.e. the
voters who are already out of the space of competition, in which the Pd
and the Pdl contend their votes. A second and more pragmatic reason to
exclude the Ptv of M5s is that, due to the relatively sudden growth of
the party, the variable is only present in our data from June 2012 on-
72 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
wards. Given this constraint, including the M5s in our calculation would
make the cases classified as disengaged before and after that month not
equivalent, biasing the reliability of our operationalisation.
According to our measurements, the disengaged citizens represent
approximately 10% of our sample, and vary considerably across
months, ranging from a minimum of roughly 6% (March 2011) to a
maximum of 16% (May 2012). The trend shown in fig. 2 resembles the
one in fig. 1, with some important differences. First of all, while fig. 1
clearly showed the beginning of the decline of the correlation in De-
cember 2011, here the bump starts in March 2012. Second, fig. 2 shows
a sudden drop of these respondents in the months of June, July and Sep-
tember 2012. We attribute this drop at least in part to the quality of the
sampling used to collect our data. Despite this, the figure shows a pat-
tern of increase and subsequent decrease that follows the political events
that occurred in those months that we discussed earlier. Thus, the period
of the technocratic government saw a significant increase in citizens'
detachment from the traditional parties. Moreover, the Pdl’s withdrawal
from the majority, coincident to the beginning of the electoral campaign,
seems to be related to an inversion of this tendency. However, one thing
worth noticing is that, at the end of our time series, the overall level of
disengagement is significantly higher than at the beginning. This marks
F
IG
. 2. Disengagement from the traditional political parties over time.
Source: own elaboration of Ipsos data.
Availability or Disengagement? 73
an important difference from the trend in fig. 1: while there the level of
correlation in February 2013 was back on the same level it had before
the beginning of the technocratic government, here the level of disen-
gagement increased by almost five percentage points.
Once the correlation is clean from the spurious association with the
variable measuring feelings of detachment, the pattern looks different.
Figure 3 shows the same correlations computed for fig. 1, but applied
only to the sub-sample of respondents who are open to party competi-
tion, i.e. those who gave a positive Ptv to at least one party. The picture
makes three main points. First, the entire series is shifted downwards,
increasing in negative strength of 0.1 points (on a scale from -1 to 1),
and is always significantly different from zero. This means that, once a
very specific group representing about 10% of the population is exclud-
ed from our observation, the correlation between the Ptvs of Pd and Pdl
is always and inevitably negative. Second, the range of the monthly var-
iation reduces considerably, going from 0.4 points of fig. 1 to 0.25
points. In other words, for this population, parliamentary support of the
technocratic government by the Pd and the Pdl has had a relatively
smaller impact. Finally, at the moment of the elections in February
2013, the negative correlation between the two Ptvs has once again
F
IG
. 3. Correlation between propensity to vote for the Pd and the Pdl over t
ime,
for the voters who are open to party competition (bootstrapped 95% c.i.).
Source: own elaboration of Ipsos data.
74 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
reached the levels it had before November 2011. Hence, the ability of
the grand coalition to depolarise the electorate, and thus increase the re-
ciprocal availability of the electorates of the two main parties of the left
and the right blocks, has been limited to the period in which the grand
coalition lasted. Once the electoral campaign started, the reciprocal
availability between the electorates of the Pd and the Pdl went back to
the (low) levels that it used to have.
Together, figures 2 and 3 effectively decompose the phenomenon
observed in fig. 1, namely the significant reduction of the negative cor-
relation between the propensities to vote for Pd and the Pdl, and thus the
apparent increase of the competition between the two main parties of the
left and the right blocks. Our data shows that there has indeed been a
moment where the evaluations of Pd were less negatively associated
with the ones of the Pdl, which lasted for most of 2012. Nonetheless, the
extent of this phenomenon has been rather limited, and its occurrence
was only contingent to the presence of the grand coalition. At the same
time, another much less desirable phenomenon affected the electorate to
a similar extent. In addition to making the electorate less shy to cross the
border between left and right, the behaviour of the elites also contribut-
ed to an increase in the amount of citizens who were disengaged from
the traditional parties, a tendency that persisted for a portion of citizens
even after the end of the grand coalition.
5. Correlates of Disengagement and Availability at the Individual Lev-
el
What are the factors associated with the two phenomena that we
have just discussed? It is interesting to understand which characteristics
link voters to the disengagement from the political parties on the one
hand, and make them regard the Pd and the Pdl more or less equally ap-
pealing on the other. Moreover, by controlling for individual character-
istics, we can clean our picture from correlations given by the sample
composition of each month, and ensure that during the months of the
Pd/Pdl coalition the voters have been significantly different in their
probability to be disengaged by the parties and in their joint evaluations
of the Pd and the Pdl. Thus, to perform a last investigation, we model
these two phenomena at the individual level using multilevel regression
analysis.
The two dependent variables are straightforward. First, the detach-
ment from the traditional parties is observed at an individual level by
Availability or Disengagement? 75
means of the dummy variable discussed before. As a reminder, our Dv
here measures one when the respondents give the lowest Ptv to each and
every party (excluding the M5s) and zero otherwise. Second, we ob-
serve the difference in judgement between the Pd and the Pdl (and
therefore their mutual exclusiveness) by taking the absolute difference
between their Ptvs. This measure, which we call Ptv certainty, has a
higher value when the Pd and the Pdl are given two very different Ptvs,
and a lower value when they are evaluated similarly. The range, then,
runs from from zero (Ptv Pd = Ptv Pdl) to nine (one Ptv is 1 and the oth-
er Ptv is 10). The term «certainty» is justified by the fact that the greater
the absolute difference between the two Ptvs, the more a voter’s choice
is predetermined, and thus the smaller the chance that he/she will be
convinced by the other party. Given that for those who give the lowest
value to all Ptvs the difference between the Ptv of the Pd and that of the
Pdl will always be zero, the second model will be estimated on the sub-
sample of respondents who are open to party competition, i.e. the same
observed in fig. 3.
The social-structural predictors that we include in the model are the
respondent’s age (measured in years, centred around the sample mean),
gender (a dummy where 1 = female; 0 = male), level of education (an
ordinal variable with five ascending categories going from low to high
education, centred around the median), degree of attendance to religious
services (an ordinal variable with four ascending categories going from
«never» to «weekly attendance», centred around the median), and the
geo-political area of residence. The latter is divided into five categories:
the North-West (used here as a reference category, including the regions
of Piemonte, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia, and Liguria), the North-East
(the so called «white area», including Trentino-Alto Adige/Sud Tirolo,
Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia), the Centre-North (the so called «red
belt area», including Emilia-Romagna, Toscana, Umbria and the
Marche), the Centre-South (Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise and Sardegna), and
the South (Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicilia). These varia-
bles help us generate a socio-demographic «profile» of the disengaged
citizens, and of those who are more or less open to competition between
the Pd and the Pdl.
Another three individual-level variables that are included in the
model are three dummies indicating the ideological orientation, or self-
definition, of the respondents: one for left-wing voters, one for right-
wing voters, and one for the voters who refuse to position themselves on
76 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
the left-right spectrum
8
. These variables are useful to see whether and
how disengagement and availability to switch between blocks have been
associated in different ways with people from different ideological iden-
tities (including those who refuse to have such an identity at all). Final-
ly, the model predicting the Ptv difference between Pd and Pdl requires
one additional control variable, namely one that captures the level of the
highest Ptv between the two considered
9
.
Finally, we add to the model two macro predictors observed at the
month level: a dummy indicating the months where the Pdl and the Pd
were part of the parliamentary grand coalition jointly supporting the
technocratic government
10
, and the passage of time, assessed by a pro-
gressive number associated to each month, going from 1 in March 2011
to 21 in February 2013. Both variables are rather important for our ar-
gument, as we contend that the parliamentary coalition between the two
parties is the main motive for the loosening of the psychological bound-
ary between ideological blocks. However, while the first indicator is
meant to capture the extent to which our dependent variables vary dur-
ing the grand coalition period, the second will tell us whether their vari-
ation lasted even after the end of the agreement. Thus, to observe a sig-
nificant coefficient for these two variables while controlling for individ-
ual characteristics would essentially prove that the coalition was associ-
ated with the public’s evaluations.
8
The reference category in this case consists of the voters who position
themselves at the centre of the left-right scale.
9
This control is necessary as our dependent variable is a compound meas-
ure. In fact, the difference between the two Ptvs has a theoretical maximum that
inevitably depends on the level of the highest one. Let’s take as an example a
supporter of the Pdl who gives it a Ptv of nine. In the case of this respondent, the
difference between the two Ptvs can range from zero, in the case that he/she
gives a Ptv of nine to the Pd as well, to eight, in the case that he/she gives the Pd
a Ptv of one. However, if another respondent, also a supporter of the Pdl, gives
it a Ptv of four, then the difference can be at the most three points, because it is
not possible to give the Pd a Ptv smaller than one. Not considering the level of
the highest Ptv creates artificial heterogeneity in the measurement, which needs
to be compensated for by adding among the predictors the value of the largest
Ptv (among the two considered here). The correlation of this variable with our
dependent variable is expected to be always positive and highly significant, alt-
hough this result is purely mechanical, and thus not interesting from a substan-
tive point of view. Note that omitting this variable from the model leads to very
similar coefficients for the other variables of interest (in some cases even with a
larger magnitude) but also to a substantial drop in the model fit.
10
The dummy has value one for the months from November 2011 to No-
vember 2012 included, and zero for the months before and after this period.
Availability or Disengagement? 77
Given the hierarchical structure of our data, with individuals nested
within months, we model our dependent variables in a multilevel set-
ting. Multilevel modelling allows us to set the effect of some variables
as fixed, i.e. constant among the time points of our series, and of other
variables as random, i.e. free to vary across months. In our case, we
specify a simple random intercept model, hence controlling for each
month’s specific sample the effect on our dependent variables, without
having this effect absorbed by other predictors, while at the same time
accounting for the non-independence between observations belonging to
the same month. Because disengagement is operationalised as a dummy
variable, we model it assuming a binomial distribution with a logit link
function. For the Ptv difference between Pd and Pdl we rely on a more
common linear modelling. The models are estimated via restricted max-
imum likelihood, using the package Lme4 for R.
Table 1 shows the results of the two models. The magnitudes of the
two sets of coefficients are not comparable to each other, as they repre-
sent in one case variations of the linear predictor (for the logit model of
disengagement) and in the other variations of the actual distribution of
the dependent variable (for the linear model of Ptv difference). Howev-
er, we can analyse the direction and the statistical significance of the ef-
fects in each model, in order to assess what characterises disengaged
citizens and what determines people’s availability among the Pd and the
Pdl.
Focusing on the first model, we note that more educated people, and
people who more frequently attend religious services, are significantly
less likely to feel disengaged from the traditional political parties. This
makes sense if we consider that disengaged citizens are expected to be
generally more socially marginalised than people who are positively en-
gaged, and both education and church attendance are indicators of posi-
tive social integration. Moreover, all our indicators related to ideological
self-labelling are significantly associated to the refusal to express a party
preference for all parties. First of all, both being positioned on the left
and on the right is associated with a lower probability to be disengaged,
with a stronger effect for left-wing voters than for right-wing voters. In
other words, citizens who state their own ideological identity to be ei-
ther left-wing or right-wing are more likely than those at the centre to be
attracted by at least one among the (relevant) competing parties. This
finding suggests a certain degree of detachment of «centre» voters from
the political supply, which nicely confirms what Itanes scholars (2013)
have found on the basis of a different dataset. This is also implicitly a
confirmation of the bipolar nature of Italian political divisions as well as
78 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
of the weakening of the left-right ideological constraints on the «cen-
trist» voters. Second, people who refuse to admit any ideological affilia-
tion by not positioning themselves on the left-right axis are more likely
to have the same attitude as the «centrist» voters. This is again a confir-
mation that among «centrist» voters there are many whose attitudes are
similar to those of the respondents who do not place themselves on the
left-right continuum. Such a tendency reflects the one observed for left-
wing and right-wing voters, namely that ideological self-identifications
in Italy are (still) strongly associated to party evaluations, and thus re-
fusing to be associated with such labels in all probability is united with
the tendency not to be attracted by any of the relevant party options. On
these grounds, we could define «centrist» voters and those who do not
place themselves on the left-right continuum as voters who are or be-
came politically marginalised from the bipolar competition peculiar of
the Second Republic.
Our macro-level predictors, i.e. the presence of the grand coalition
and the passage of time, have both a strong positive and significant ef-
fect. This implies, first, that in the months where the Pd and the Pdl
T
AB
.
1.
d
isengagement (dummy) and
Ptv certainty between Pd and Pdl (0 = minimum certainty;
9 =
maximum certainty).
The table reports the point estimates (β)
and Standard errors
Dependent Variable
Disengagement
Logit
Ptv Certainty Pd/Pdl
Ols
β
S.E.
β
S.E.
Max Ptv (Pd and Pdl)
0.881
(0.004)
Age
-
0.001
(0.001)
0.009
(0.001)
Gender (female)
0
.023
(0.033)
-
0.021
(0.017)
Education
-
0.047
(0.013)
0.121
(0.007)
Church attendance
-
0.054
(0.014)
-
0.153
(0.008)
North
-
East
-
0.048
(0.056)
0.009
(0.030)
Center
-
North
-
0.050
(0.050)
0.057
(0.026)
Center
-
South
0.086
(0.045)
-
0.047
(0.025)
South
0.047
(0.044)
-
0.062
(0.025)
Left
-
0.783
(0.057)
1.160
(0.029)
Right
-
0.262
(0.058)
0.315
(0.030)
Not positioned on l
-
r
1.587
(0.053)
0.155
(0.036)
Joint support government
0.330
(0.077)
-
0.106
(0.050)
Time
0.033
(0.006)
0.007
(0.004)
Intercep
t
-
2.906
(0.098)
2.912
(0.058)
Var (intercept)
0.0216
0.0098
Observations
49,901
43,694
Groups
21
21
Log likelihood
-
14,378
-
87,416
Availability or Disengagement? 79
joined a parliamentary coalition, citizens’ disengagement, on average,
increased; and second, that this tendency remained also in the following
three months, during the electoral campaign before the elections. This
confirms what was observed in fig. 2, and holds even after taking into
account the «usual suspect» variables at an individual level. Thus, we
conclude that both the joint support by the two main parties and the two-
faced pattern of competition were linked prior to the elections to an in-
creasing citizens’ disengagement from the traditional political parties.
Moving on to the second model, some effects change substantively,
while others maintain a similar profile. First of all, we note that older
citizens are more «certain» about their choice between the Pd and the
Pdl, that is to say, they are less likely to switch between them. This find-
ing is rather intuitive, as older citizens are more likely to have developed
a voting habit, and thus to be relatively harder to be influenced by dif-
ferent party appeals. We also find that education has the same effect as
age in making up voters’ minds about their party preference, while the
coefficient of church attendance goes in the opposite direction. In other
words, our data shows that more religious people are more open to
switching between the Pd and the Pdl, when holding everything else
constant, while more educated people are more likely to take a side. Fi-
nally, we find a significant tendency to be more certain among the Pd
and the Pdl in the Centre-North, and to be less certain in the South. Both
these findings make sense if we keep in mind that the red regions of the
Centre-North are possibly the last territories that are clearly identified
with a partisan affiliation (for the Pd, or in general for left-wing parties),
while the South has recently given several signals of a generalized re-
fusal of the two main parties (see for instance the Sicilian regional elec-
tions of October 2012). The coefficients of the three categories of ideo-
logical self-identification are all positive and significant, suggesting that
both left-wing and right-wing citizens, and those who do not identify
themselves using ideological categories, evaluate the Pd and the Pdl dif-
ferently than voters at the centre. Here, again, the coefficient associated
with left-wing voters is much stronger than the other two groups, indi-
cating that people who place themselves on the left are more certain
about their party preference (presumably for the Pd). Interestingly, those
who refuse to place themselves on the left-right range tend to be more
certain about their evaluations among the Pd and the Pdl. This is some-
what counter-intuitive, as one would expect that people who refuse
ideological labels are also more likely to regard the two parties in a
similar way.
80 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
As for the case of first model, the macro-level indicators confirm
what can be observed in the figures. First, the Pd/Pdl coalition in sup-
port of the Monti government is negatively associated with Ptv certain-
ty, indicating that during the months of the grand coalition there has in
fact been a slight depolarization among the two electorates. Second, the
effect of time is not distinguishable from zero, i.e. there is no trend of
growing reciprocal availability between the supporters of the Pd and the
Pdl. In other words, following the end of the grand coalition and the be-
ginning of the electoral campaign, the degree of mutual-exclusiveness
between the evaluations of the two parties returned to the levels that it
had before the events of 2011 forced the formation of the technocratic
cabinet.
These results add an interesting detail to the overall picture of how
voters’ perceptions of the political space might have been affected by
the experience of the parliamentary coalition in support of the techno-
cratic government. Essentially, our data shows that the legacy of the
joint, but contentious, support for the Monti Government did not open a
«breach» between left and right blocks, hence reducing the polarization
of the electorate along the ideological cleavage. Quite the contrary, the
most enduring reaction was an increased feeling of disengagement from
all political parties. In other words, our data shows the makings of the
subsequent electoral earthquake, which made the emergence of a third
block possible
11
.
11
Our findings do not exclude that other factors might have contributed to
both the reciprocal availability of the Pd and Pdl’s electorates and disengage-
ment. In particular, two important candidates are the voters’ perceptions of the
economic situation, which might have fueled people’s political frustration, and
the evaluation of the government’s work. Unfortunately, such individual-level
indicators are not available in our data for all the months included in the obser-
vation. However, to make sure that such explanations do not overrule our own,
we replicated our analyses including those variables, to test whether their inclu-
sion in the model would decrease the significance of our findings. While both
retrospective and prospective economic evaluations, and evaluations of the gov-
ernment's performance, have a significant effect on both our dependent varia-
bles, their inclusion in the model does not alter the substantive results reported
here. When choosing to report the models based on the largest amount of data
available, as we did here, we recognise that additional factors played a role in
the phenomena observed. Yet we note that those factors are indeed additional,
not alternative, to our explanation.
Availability or Disengagement? 81
6. Discussion and Conclusions
This article argues that the choice of a grand coalition government
might have been the right thing to do to reassure the financial markets
during the sovereign debt crisis in autumn 2011, but it had (unintended)
discouraging consequences among the voters.
By observing monthly changes of party evaluations in a sample of
the public opinion we find that, first, there has been a slight increase in
the reciprocal availability between the electorates of the Pd and the Pdl,
although this effect vanished as soon as the Pdl withdrew its support
from the technocratic government and started the electoral campaign.
Secondly, we show that the months of the technocratic government also
led to a high degree of disengagement from the traditional parties
among the public. Nevertheless, in this case the growing trend continued
even after the beginning of the electoral campaign. In other words,
while an increased tendency by the voters to consider the main left-wing
and right-wing parties as similarly attractive lasted only for the frame of
the parties’ temporary armistice, the tendency to feel disengaged from
the traditional parties remained to a certain extent even beyond that pe-
riod, lasting at least until the election in February 2013.
A lack of data and space limits impede us from analysing the report-
ed electoral behaviour at the February 2013 elections of the respondents
who have been refusing to express any positive party preference over
the period we considered. Nonetheless, the theoretical rationale of our
analysis is that the «political earthquake» of the election of 2013 may
have been produced by the choices of the parties themselves, i.e. their
inability to cope with the brand-new experience of a grand coalition
brought about by necessity in a moment of economic emergency.
Hard times can call for political responsibility. If a government of
technocrats led by a respected and internationally-recognised character
such as Mario Monti succeeded in calming the attacks of the financial
markets, the same attempt was not perceived by the voters as a final
loosening of the long-lasting conflict between the Pd and the Pdl. On the
contrary, the two-faced behaviour that the two parties adopted during
those months was perceived by many citizens as an attempt to fool the
electorate. It does not come as a surprise that the slogan «sono tutti
uguali» (all parties are the same), largely promoted by the leader of the
M5s Beppe Grillo, became very popular among so many citizens.
An Italian reader might comment that the Italian party system is
completely different from the German one, both in terms of type of
competition and the centrality of particular actors (we refer here to the
82 Federico Vegetti, Monica Poletti and Paolo Segatti
twenty-year protagonism of the Pdl leader, Silvio Berlusconi). We
agree: Italy is not Germany. Nonetheless, what we argue here is that
Italian voters, as citizens and individuals, are not different from German
ones. They both make up their mind when they have to vote on the basis
of similar types of calculations. We have already pointed out that the
electoral consequences of German grand coalitions looked similar to the
ones of the 2013 Italian election (i.e. negative for the coalition partners),
apart from the remarkably large magnitude of the latter. We claim that
this might be a reaction to the two-faced behaviour of the two main Ital-
ian parties. Thus, at the end, the decision made by Pdl and Pd to form
only a parliamentary coalition in November 2011 seems to have back-
fired among their voters.
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.
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... Month after month, Monti's executive had constantly to rely on confidence votes to have its reforms approved (Giannetti, 2013), while there was a growing number of abstentions and opposing votes, especially from rightist parties and MPs, which even managed to have some minor amendments passed (Pedrazzani and Pinto, 2013). Monti's austerity policies, aligned with those of the European Union, soon frustrated the positive public expectations, and they gave rise to growing discontent and public disengagement (Vegetti, Poletti and Segatti, 2014;Giannetti, 2013). At the end of November 2012, the government had once again to table three confidence motions on approval of the budgetary law in the Chamber of Deputies. ...
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