The Local Elections

In spite of 40 years of intensive development of electoral studies in Italy, the local elections have remained, for a long time, almost neglected. The first work on the Italian local elections was from a Briton, Roy Price (1957). Only in the 1990s, as a consequence of the electoral system reform of 1993 for both municipalities and provinces, did scholars take a keen interest in this field of research.

Before 1993, articles or chapters in books about the “administrative elections,” as municipal and provincial elections are called in Italy, were very few. In a work dedicated to the electoral “earthquake” of 1975—with the crisis of the DC, the growth of the PCI, and the weight of the younger vote—the local elections had, however, occupied a large space, illustrated with general tables of the results in 4,800 municipalities out of over 8,000 (Ghini 1976). After this work, we can recall a book from 1981 on the administrative elections in Bologna and its suburbs or a reader on the municipal elections in 1985 in Perugia. In 1985, we had another reader on Milan and provincial elections, or once again, in 1990 on the provincial elections in Milan. Guido D’Agostino edited three readers on the elections in Naples and in the Campania Region (1980, 1990, and 1992), which examined municipal elections too. In the 1980s, the most interesting contribution was perhaps the theoretical work of Piergiorgio Corbetta and Arturo Parisi (1984) about the specificity of this kind of vote, with sharp observations on the quantification, the structure of the competition, and the relationship between parties and the electors.

At the end of that decade, in the first overview of Italian studies and research on electoral behavior, there was nothing about the local elections because of the scarcity of contributions (Mannheimer 1989). Nevertheless, in the same overview, it was indicated that there was a newfound interest in elections during the same decade: the birth of a specialized six-monthly review, the Quaderni dell’Osservatorio Elettorale, edited by the Regione Toscana, and the foundation of the Società Italiana di Studi Elettorali (SISE) attest to this fact. At that time, the Istituto Cattaneo of Bologna initiated two publications, the quarterly Polis on Italian politics and society and the yearbook Politica in Italia, regularly translated in an English edition. The basis for the future development of research was founded. In all these periodicals, there have been a good number of studies on local elections, making this sort of consultation more important and interesting.

While the contributions on the local elections before the fascist period remain very few, the first free administrative elections, which took place during the spring and autumn of 1946, have found many students, either historians or social scientists. Among the historians, we have to mention the article on the electoral ley (Ballini 2010) and the remarkable work on the municipal elections of 1946, 1951, and 1956 (Forlenza 2008). Historians and political scientists worked together in essays on the 1946 elections, edited by Guido d’Agostino (1989) or by Patrizia Dogliani and Maurizio Ridolfi (2007).

The reform of 1993 (introduced with legislation 81/1993), produced the most conspicuous change in the Italian local elections: the direct election of the mayor and of the president of the provincial government. After the application of the new systems—in some cases in 1993, and others in 1994—the large application happened in 1995. The reform, along with other reforms in the local system, sought to increase the efficiency of local governments through concentrating power in the hands of their chief executive, who would be able to appoint or dismiss the other members of the executive. The new logic of alliance building with the aim of “voting to elect a government” was a challenge for the political players and a satisfactory solution for the electorate. Local governments have changed, pitting the personalized leadership of these “new mayors,” elected by the people—“demo-elected,” as they are called—against the residual (or resurgent) veto power of the parties. The local elections represented a deep change in both the big turnover of the political class and the behavior of the citizens. Moreover, with the crisis of Tangentopoli, the traditional governing parties disappeared, the lists were differently named, and the class of municipal politicians was completely renewed.

When the local elections had always been considered in Italy as “political” because of the polarized struggle between the national parties and the subsequent influence of the national climate, being really “second-order elections,” after the 1993 reform, the elections in the municipalities have become more autonomous and the results are even able to change national political situations. All that can explain the growth of research and reflection, with a quantity of publications to match the interest.

The first monograph completely dedicated to the local elections came out in 2000, written by Gianfranco Baldini and Guido Legnante with a geography of the coalitions and in-depth analysis of the results. A year earlier, the reader edited by Stefania Operto (1999) had been published and included contributions by Aldo Di Virgilio (187 municipalities in the 1993 and 1997 elections), Andrea Mignone (129 municipalities in Piedmont), Daniele Comero (Province of Milan), Antonio Floridia (Province of Lucca), Flavio Spalla (provincial elections of Pavia), Baldini e Legnante (the influence of the incumbents), and Luca Formigli e Fulvio Venturino (the number of candidates and lists in nine great municipalities), with Stefania Operto (Genoa) as editor. Being the central question of the reader, the electoral systems were elaborated upon by the introductory contribution of Antonio Agosta, an expert on electoral systems, who explained the reasons for the reforms, the effects, and the mechanisms of transformation of the votes into seats. Surprising was the 1999 case of Bologna, where the Left was defeated after more than 40 years (Baldini, Corbetta, Vassallo 2000).

Some contributions on the electoral campaigns have been published, but the most important is a reader edited by Carlo Marletti (2007). The authors who analyzed the campaign in the municipal elections were Marco Mazzoni and Stefania Ester (Foligno), Rossana Sampugnaro and Vittoria Cuturi (Catania), Giorgio Grossi (comparing the mayor of Milan and the president of the Lombardia Region), Cristian Vaccari (Bologna), Marco Cilento (Naples), and Federica Boni (Milan). In the introduction, the editor interpreted the candidature of the leadership as consequence of the crisis of the party organizations, the changing relationship between electors and politics, and the growing importance of the territory.

Among the many authors who have worked extensively on local elections, I have to mention Fulvio Venturino for his works on candidates and primaries and Antonio Floridia for the research on local elections in Tuscany.

Having as editor a regional government, the Quaderni dell’Osservatorio elettorale is engaged to promote regional and local research. I enumerate 27 articles on local elections with attention to electoral systems, participation, campaigns, female vote, preference vote, and primaries. The Quaderni has promoted research on electoral history too, and therefore, on local election history. In the series of Politica in Italia, I enumerate nine articles by different scholars, the most by Guido Legnante. Polis has published articles on Italian elections, but very few on the local elections: I can recollect articles on administrative elections in Veneto’s municipalities (1992), in Milan and Bologna (1994), and on the primaries in Bologna and Florence (2010).

The main focus of almost all these works was inevitably on the direct election of the mayor with all the consequences, formal and informal.

Another innovation in the Italian elections are the primaries. They are not previewed or regulated by law: only the parties of the center-left have introduced this rule in all types of elections, including in the local too. The choice of candidates for mayor’s post through the primaries has become common practice in the center-left coalitions. Many contributions to research on the different municipalities took place frequently. To mention a noteworthy contribution, there is the reader edited by Gianfranco Pasquino and Fulvio Venturino (2009), concerning nine municipalities, analyzed by as many authors.

The only article, which the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, during the decades of its existence, has dedicated to the local elections was by Aldo Di Virgilio (1994). It concerned the Italian local elections in the autumn of 1993, the first after the introduction of the reform. The 57 pages of this article were seminal for both the future works of Di Virgilio and the entire research on the local elections in Italy. Nobody except Di Virgilio has studied so continually and exhaustively the Italian local elections in the 20 years since then. I can recollect the essay about the 1995 elections in Politica in Italia 1996 too.

In 2005, Di Virgilio drew a balance-sheet of more than 10 years of the tenure of the demo-elected mayors in a reader edited by himself (Di Virgilio 2005). The valuation was positive: the conquered specificity of the administrative vote, the influence of some results on national politics, the reinforcement of the mayor’s power, the achieved stability of the executives, and the possibility for the citizens to individualize the responsibilities were some of the topics covered. In the reader were also contributions by a congress of the SISE about local elections in Europe, held in Naples 2000. The SISE would have dedicated at the local elections many workshops and two of its three-year-congresses.

In the later SISE congress on local and regional governments, held in Turin in 2009, there were many contributions on different cities with local election history or comparisons between municipal, regional, and national elections. One of the introductory comparisons — a large, comparative analysis of the electoral systems and results in 27 European countries — was made by Di Virgilio (2010). The focus was on the dynamics of change in the last decades in Italy and Europe, the electoral systems, the electoral arenas, the relations between assemblies and mayors, and the importance of the local elections. The impressive work was the high point of years of the author’s empirical research and theoretical reflection, now in a comparative perspective.

The intensive reflection about the local elections in Italy was stimulated in Di Virgilio by the regular reports, “Elezioni in Italia,” published in the Quaderni dell’Osservatorio Elettorale. The author followed the long evolution of the Italian local elections over the years: the crisis of the national politics, the upheaval of the party system, the new bipolar structure of the competition, and the emergence of local personalities. The entire series of these articles is perhaps both the complete explanation of the local elections in Italy in the last quarter century and the masterpiece of Di Virgilio.

If, in the new century, the Italian electorate landscape is completely transformed compared to the years of the First Republic, it is at the local level much more than at any other. In place of the old system of municipal governments, based on unstable coalitions formed with complicated negotiations after the vote, sometimes against the voting choices of citizens, the changed electoral law might bring with it new local political systems providing stability, responsiveness, and popular accountability. In the past, the local elections have always had a “political” connotation: the issues of the campaign were the national and the international political problems imposed by the central parties. After the reform and general changes in the Italian political system, issues in the local elections are now related to traffic, schools and hospitals, and, indeed, the personalities of the candidates.

In the past, local elections in Italy have never been easy to understand. The reform has perhaps facilitated analysis and interpretation. The local elections have become autonomous and their own political relevance is indubitably augmented. All that has encouraged a number of studies, much more in comparison with the past, as we have seen.

We now have a good foundation. The quantity of elaborated data is significant. But many of these studies remain descriptive. The research is lacking in a theoretical approach, which is surely very difficult to formulate: the local elections are not simultaneous, the contests are different, and different are the arenas. The large majority of the municipal elections are, nevertheless, held in a single round: a general framework would be possible, and so, also, an overall work. What was possible for Ghini in 1975 could be made possible in 2014 or 2019.


  • Baldini, Gianfranco and Guido Legnante. 2000. Città al voto. I sindaci e le elezioni comunali. Bologna: Il Mulino.
  • Baldini, Gianfranco, Piergiorgio Corbetta, and Salvatore Vassallo. 2000. La sconfitta inattesa. Come e perché la sinistra ha perso a Bologna. Bologna: Il Mulino.
  • Ballini, Pier Luigi. 2010. “La rifondazione della democrazia nei Comuni: la legge elettorale amministrativa e le elezioni comunali del 1946”. In Le autonomie locali. Dalla Resistenza alla I legislatura della Repubblica, edited by Pier Luigi Ballini, 412-448, Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino.
  • Corbetta, Piergiorgio and Arturo Parisi. 1984. “La specificità del voto amministrativo”. In Luoghi e misure della politica, edited by Arturo Parisi, 21-68. Bologna: Il Mulino.
  • D’Agostino, Guido. 1989, ed. Il triplice voto del 1946. Napoli: Liguori.
  • Di Virgilio, Aldo. 1994. “Elezioni locali e destrutturazione partitica. La nuova legge alla prova”, 107–167. In Rivista italiana di scienza politica, 1, aprile.
  • Di Virgilio, Aldo 2005. “Il sindaco elettivo: un decennio di esperienze in Italia”. In Eleggere il sindaco. La nuova democrazia locale in Italia e in Europa, 5-22, edited by Mario Caciagli and Aldo Di Virgilio. Torino: Utet.
  • Di Virgilio, Aldo 2010. “Regole di voto ed elezioni nei comuni europei: una ricognizione comparata”. In Governi locali e regionali in Europa fra sistemi elettorali e scelte di voto, 47-80, edited by the SISE and the Consiglio Regionale del Piemonte. Torino.
  • Dogliani, Patrizia and Maurizio Ridolfi, eds. 2007, 1946. I comuni al voto. Imola: La Mandragora.
  • Forlenza, Rosario. 2008. Le elezioni amministrative della Prima Repubblica. Politica e propaganda elettorale locale in Italia nel secondo dopoguerra (1946-1956). Roma: Donzelli.
  • Ghini, Celso, 1976. Il terremoto del 15 giugno. Milano: Feltrinelli.
  • Mannheimer, Renato. 1989. “Elezioni e comportamento elettorale”. In Scienza Politica, edited by Leonardo Morlino, 145-179, Torino: Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli.
  • Marletti, Carlo. 2007, ed. Il leader postmoderno. Studi e ricerche sulla mediatizzazione delle campagna elettorali locali. Milano: Franco Angeli.
  • Operto, Stefania. 1999, ed. Votare in città. Riflessioni sulle elezioni amministrative in Italia. Milano: Franco Angeli.
  • Pasquino, Gianfranco and Fulvio Venturino. eds. 2009. Le primarie comunali in Italia. Bologna: Il Mulino.
  • Price, Roy. 1957. The Italian Local Elections 1956. London: Chatto & Windus.

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