Italy hardly went into Sunday’s general election humming with positivity. The eurozone’s third-largest economy has the EU’s highest percentage of young people not in education, training, or work according to Eurostat; a national debt that currently stands at 132% of GDP; and is a nation whose politics is dominated by how best to deal with high levels of immigration both from within the EU and outside.
The results of the Italian election are still in the process of finalisation but the message is clear: Italians have had enough. Jericho reported back in September that Berlusconi could well have become the ‘kingmaker’ in the March elections. Instead, voters have emphatically rejected established parties such as the octogenarian’s Forza Italia and the previously governing Democratic Party, in favour of a radical rupture to the status quo.
The Five Star Movement, a party founded by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, with 32% of the popular vote, won the election on a eurosceptic, pro-Italy and pro-worker manifesto. Meanwhile La Lega (formerly Lega Nord, or Northern League) is another profoundly eurosceptic and anti-immigration party well placed to form a governing coalition.
Immigration dominates the campaign
The electoral campaign was dominated by the topic of immigration. During the run-up to Sunday’s vote, six migrants from Africa were shot by an Italian nationalist in response to another murder suspect to have been carried out by a migrant, just before voters went to the polls. La Lega‘s leader, Matteo Salvini, suggested the violence was caused by the migration crisis rupturing the heart of Italian society. The politicisation of the attack seemed to work, convincing 18% of the electorate to back La Lega. This represented a jump from the 4% share received in 2013 which Salvini has labelled as “an extraordinary victory”. By contrast, Forza Italia which was expected to edge ahead of La Lega took approximately 14% of the vote. Berlusconi, who has made no real secret over the years of his condescending view of Matteo Salvini, seems to have been overtaken by his less-elegant, more radical “friend.”
What does this mean for Italy?
The elections spell the end for the once promising Matteo Renzi. The prime minister tendered his resignation to the cameras on Monday evening, promising to retreat to a background role in his native Florence. It leaves Italy in complete electoral confusion. The election results were a manifestation of frustration at the familiar faces, parties and ideas.
Both the centre-right and centre-left parties have been displaced by the far right and the unmappable populist Five Star Movement. The latter’s poor handling of leading jobs in municipal governments in Rome and Turin does not bode well for an Italy in desperate need of clear leadership and economic reform.
Due to the historically complex nature of the Italian electoral system designed to prevent its fascist past from reemerging, Italy rarely ends up with a dominant party. This means that political stability was always unlikely.
What does it mean for Europe?
Brussels watched on Sunday with trepidation and did not try to hide its dismay at the results. Last week, the European Commission president warned that the EU should be prepared for the “worst scenario” of “no operational government” in Italy. The predicted outcome, a narrow majority for a right-wing coalition, has been avoided and the fallout from the election is even more confusing and unpredictable than anticipated.
The election results comes just at the wrong time for Italy argues Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome: “This is not just a step back. Italy will be shut out of the games. Finally the motor is starting up again, and Europe will take off without Italy.” Once one of Europe’s most ardent supporters, Italy has fast become its most eurosceptic country and the two largest parties have both flirted with referendums on EU membership in the recent past.
What happens now?
A long period of negotiations awaits the country before the president, Sergio Mattarella, will hold consultations with parties following the convening of the new parliament on 23 March. The key question will then be whether or not the Five Star Movement, which is by far the largest party, will soften its policy against forming a coalition. It’s 31-year-old leader Luigi di Maio has already said that the party felt “a responsibility to govern Italy” and was “open to speaking to all the political forces” in the country. Many, such as founder Beppe Grillo, remain sceptical.
Equally as important will be the position of Matteo Salvini, the leader of La Lega. He has stolen Berlusconi’s kingmaker mantle and must now choose between dominance of the centre-right and a role as Mr Di Maio’s junior coalition partner. The latter could see support for his party fall.
Sunday’s elections signified a clear rejection for the establishment. The vote has carved out a chaotic, unpredictable, but fundamentally fresh political landscape that will make Europe shudder with uncertainty.