Italy’s populist surge - Anthony Manduca

Five Star’s Luigi di Maio (left) and the League’s Matteo Salvini saw a surge in support for their parties.

Five Star’s Luigi di Maio (left) and the League’s Matteo Salvini saw a surge in support for their parties.

Italy’s election produced no outright winner, as the opinion polls had predicted, but the result was clearly a disappointing one for the mainstream parties of the centre-left and centre-right and a boost for the populist and the so-called ‘anti-establishment’ parties.

No party or coalition won a majority of seats but the left-leaning Five Star Movement headed by Luigi Di Maio received the most votes, 32.7 per cent, making it the largest single party in Italy’s new Parliament. However, the centre-right coalition, consisting of the right-wing anti-immigrant League led by Matteo Salvini, the centre-right Forza Italia led by Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni and the small Us With Italy (which got no seats) together won 37 per cent of the vote, which means it will be the largest bloc in Parliament.

A major surprise of the election was the fact that the right-wing League got the most votes within the centre-right coalition, 17.37 per cent, compared to 14.01 per cent for Forza Italia. This was a major humiliation for Berlusconi, who in a reversal of roles now becomes Salvini’s junior coalition partner. The other right-wing party, Brothers of Italy, got 4.35 per cent of the vote. The surge in support for the League could serve as a warning to other European centre-right mainstream parties to be careful about teaming up with right-wing populist parties, and thus giving them respectability.

The centre-left coalition, led by Matteo Renzi, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, saw its share of the vote decrease to 23 per cent from 29.5 per cent five years ago. Four years ago in the European elections the Democratic Party on its own received a massive 41 per cent of the vote. Sunday’s result was without doubt a bitter disappointment for Renzi, who announced his intention to resign as party leader.

The Democratic Party’s weak performance seems to fit into a pattern of centre-left parties in Europe doing badly at the polls (Malta and the UK being the exception for a variety of reasons) where social democratic parties lose votes to parties of both the right and the left. Clearly, Europe’s centre-left, which has been such an important political actor in the post-war period, needs to go through an intense period of soul searching and reconnecting with citizens.

None of the small centrist parties in the centre-left bloc reached the three per cent threshold for parliamentary representation (except the Tyrolean parties, which got two seats), but under the new electoral law their votes were not wasted but transfered to the Democratic Party. There was one small exception to the centrist parties poor performance: More Europe, a liberal and pro-European party within the centre-left coalition did manage to win one seat out of the 12 elected by Italians who live abroad.

In another blow to the centre-left, the left-wing Free and Equal Party, led by Pietro Grasso, which split off from the Democratic Party, and which no doubt contributed to its poor result, managed to get 3.38 per cent of the popular vote, narrowly surpassing the three per cent threshold, and will send 14 MPs to Parliament.

The election results changed the face of Italy’s electoral map. The League and Forza Italia took large parts of the country’s north while Five Star triumphed in most of the country’s southern regions. The centre-left was punished in its traditional strongholds, such as Emilia-Romagna and Umbria, and only won a majority in Tuscany and Trentino-Alto Adige. The realignment of Italy’s politics has also changed Parliament’s composition: from now on there will simply be three large blocs in the legislature, namely the centre-right coalition (if it remains together), Five Star and the Democratic Party, as well as the small Free and Equal Party.

Why did nearly 55 per cent of the electorate vote for Five Star, the League and Brothers of Italy, all of which (at least up until now) are considered to be populist fringe parties? The exceptional performance of Five Star in the south of the country is not particularly surprising and is a response to two decades of economic stagnation and high unemployment which has hit southern Italy particularly hard. I am sure that most of the people who voted for Five Star did so because they felt they had no alternative and felt abandoned by the mainstream parties. I do not think they voted for Five Star out of any ideological or anti-EU sentiment.

Too many Italians simply did not feel the benefits of the country’s fragile economic recovery, especially in the south

The surge in support for the right-wing League (which in 2013 only got 4.1 per cent of the vote) and Brothers of Italy are due to a number of factors, principally immigration. There is no doubt that Italy has borne the brunt of the huge wave of migrants pouring into Europe, and the lack of solida­rity with Rome on the part of a number of eastern European countries led many Ita­lians to feel they were abandoned by the EU. Unfortunately the anti-immigrant, sometimes even racist, rhetoric of the right-wing parties, particularly from the League’s Salvini, struck a chord with many voters who felt it was not right for Italy to deal with the immigration problem on its own.

It is important to keep in mind that a more hardline position on migration adopted by a new Italian government could have repercussions on Malta – as Rome may not be as willing to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean as it has been so far.

The emergence of the League as the main actor within the centre-right coalition, at the expense of Forza Italia, could also be due to the fact that Italians have finally had enough of Berlusconi, who is 81 and considered part of the status quo. He has also been charged in court for a number of alleged offences and is banned from holding public office until 2019 following a 2013 tax fraud conviction. Hopefully Berlusconi will soon step down as leader of Forza Italia, allowing his successor to turn over a new leaf for the party.

As for the Democratic Party, the outgoing centre-left government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (and Renzi and Enrico Letta before him) did preside over a modest economic recovery, limited job creation, better public finances and the stabilisation of banks, but too many Italians simply did not feel the benefits of the country’s fragile recovery, especially in the south. Most people probably felt the economic improvements were too little too late and chose to abandon the Democratic Party for parties that promised quicker solutions.

So what are the options for Italy? President Sergio Mattarella now has the difficult task of appointing somebody who he thinks will be able to command a parliamentary majority. Since the centre-right alliance won the most seats he will probably first approach Salvini, whose League is the largest party within the coalition, but we can expect weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations before any progress will be made. If nobody manages to form a government, new elections will be held. Here are some of the possible scenarios for the formation of a new government: a centre-right minority government headed by the League – not necessarily with Salvini as prime minister but perhaps somebody from the moderate wing of the League; a Five Star government led by Di Maio, either in a coalition with the Democratic Party or supported by it in a minority government; a populist coalition government between Five Star and the League, which is the worst possible option and which will almost certainly cause concern in Brussels.

Italy’s election result certainly creates a number of challenges but is not as damaging as Brexit or Donald Trump’s victory in the US, and should not be compared to either. There is no talk at all of Italy leaving the EU – Italians are largely pro-European – and neither Five Star nor the League want to leave the euro, even though they want to renegotiate the single currency’s fiscal pact. Italians simply wanted change and a faster economic recovery.

It is true that Salvini has praised Vladimir Putin and Trump; he is ideologically close to Marie Le Pen, he is a euro­sceptic and some of his comments have had racist undertones. His party, however, received 17.37 per cent of the popular vote, hardly a landslide (but nevertheless a good result), and is in a coalition with the pro-EU centre-right Forza Italia, and one hopes that if in government it will moderate both its rhetoric and its policies.

The Five Star Movement, on the other hand, is somewhat of an enigma. It does not fit easily in with the left-right divide, although it is more left-leaning, and it has watered-down its stance on the euro. I believe it has more in common with the Democratic Party than any other party, which is why I feel a deal between the two is possible – even though outgoing leader Renzi has forcefully ruled this out.

Whoever forms the next government, whether led by Five Star or the League (hopefully not the two together), it is important that the economic upturn presided over by the outgoing government – however mild – is not jeopardised by irresponsible fiscal measures. Hopefully common sense will prevail. I also augur that Italy will continue to play a major role in Europe and will adopt a pragmatic approach to immigration instead of resorting to knee-jerk policies.


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