CefES Working Papers

Abstention and Populist Voting: Evidence from the Italian 2018 Election

by Lucia Dalla Pellegrina (University of Milano-Bicocca), Giorgio Di Maio (University of Insubria), Mario Gilli (University of Milano-Bicocca)


This study aims to investigate the demographic, social, and economic drivers of rising abstention and populist electoral success in Italy in 2018. The Italian case is unique in the euro area because, in the political elections of 4 March 2018, two parties usually identified as left-wing and right-wing populists (Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega) obtained an absolute majority of valid votes. In reverse, the main established parties, the center-left Partito Democratico and the center-right Forza Italia, which have alternated in government since 1994, reached their minimum electoral consent. We study the Italian case at the level of the 110 Italian provinces (NUTS 3) by using a data set containing a wide set of demographic and socio-economic indicators, in addition to the results of the political elections in 2008, 2013, and 2018. We regress the results of the political elections of 2018, i.e., abstention and votes obtained by the main parties expressed as a share of citizens entitled to vote, on nine factors obtained by applying an exploratory factor analysis on 41 demographic and socio-economic variables. Results suggest that abstention is associated with the State’s failure in providing socio-economic development and security and in repressing organized crime. Moreover, socio-economic well-being is the main driver of voting behavior. In particular, the left-wing populist Movimento 5 Stelle has been successful in the more backward Italian provinces and the right-wing populist Lega in the more developed ones. These results indicate that in 2018 mainstream parties have fallen out of favor with both the most backward and the most advanced provinces, suggesting that the notion of populism should be qualified for an understanding of the observed varieties of non-mainstream parties and voting or abstention behavior.