7 March 2018

Gridlock in Italy is Bad News for Europe

By the end of last year, Europe was congratulating itself for avoiding being overtaken by the populist tidal wave that had been sweeping the West and had led to the British decision to withdraw from the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.  Even as populist leaders and parties continued to increase their share of the vote across Europe, they were prevented from taking power in anywhere west of Austria. 

However, European leaders always knew that there was one country whose election was almost certain to revive populist fortunes in the region, Italy.  In recent years, the populist Five Star Movement, which ominously had been founded by a comedian, emerged to become a major force in Italian politics.  Add to this the surge in support in recent months for a right-wing alliance that included a couple of far-right political parties as well as Italy’s disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and it was clear that Italy was where populism was going to be a major force once again in Europe.  Even as Italy’s center-left government under prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni managed to revive Italy’s sclerotic economy, it was hemorrhaging support in the months before these elections, adding to the level of worry in Europe as populism dominated the election campaign.

As it turned out, the populist wave in Italy proved to be higher and stronger than anyone had predicted prior to these national elections.  As had been expected, the Five Star Movement won the largest share of the vote of any single party in these elections, but its 32.7% of the vote easily exceeded their standing in all polls taken before the election.  Furthermore, the Five Star Movement dominated the election in southern Italy, winning almost every single region south of Rome.  Meanwhile, the right-wing alliance that had been formed by the Northern League, Forza Italy, the Brothers of Italy and the Us With Italy party won a combined 37.0% of the vote, allowing them to gain extra seats in the new first-past-the-post system that gave the alliance 263 of the 630 seats in the lower house of the parliament. 

However, while Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had been expected to win more votes than its alliance partners, it was the far-right Northern League that actually won more of the vote (17.4% to 14.0%) thanks to their surge in support across northern Italy.  In contrast, the governing Democratic Party and its smaller left-wing allies were crushed in these elections, winning just a combined 22.9% of the vote and 118 seats in the lower house of the parliament.  This was a disappointing result for a party that had enacted the reforms that enabled Italy’s economy to get back on its feet in recent years after a long period of stagnation and decline.

As no single party or alliance holds a majority of seats in the parliament, the formation of a new government in Italy is certain to prove difficult and could destabilize a country desperately in search of longer-term political and economic stability.  Both the Five Star Movement and the right-wing alliance have claimed the right to have the first crack at forming a new government given their victories in these elections. 

As it stands, the Five Star Movement, which despite its populist platform leans neither right nor left, probably will have to be included in any future coalition government.  One option is for the Five Star Movement to form a coalition with the Northern League based on their shared opposition to many of the policies coming from the European Union, a coalition that could see the Northern League abandon its right-wing allies.  Of course, both of these parties’ leaders wants to be prime minister, so a compromise may have to be reached.  Another option is for the Democratic Party to support a government led by the Five Star Movement, even though some Democratic Party leaders have called for the party to go into opposition. 

Regardless, any new government is likely to prove to be fragile, given the lack of governing experience found among the leaders of the Five Star Movement or the Northern League.  This is bad news for a country that has had 65 governments since the end of the Second World War and whose economic output is no larger than it was at the beginning of the 21st century.

For Europe, this result was a nightmare, as Italy is considered the third main pillar of a post-Brexit European Union.  Worse, opposition to the European Union and many of its policies was at the heart of the success of populist parties in this election.  For example, a large share of Italian voters blamed the euro and the fiscal policies pushed by Germany and other northern EU member states for Italy’s terrible economic performance over the past two decades.  Likewise, Italy has been on the front line of the European Union’s migration crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Italy in recent years.  In fact, many Italians accuse their EU partners of failing to support Italy’s efforts to reduce the flow of these migrants into Europe and of failing to do more to spread the burden of managing these migrants among other EU member states. 

With Britain preparing to leave the European Union, and with many Central European countries refusing to adhere to an increasing number of EU directives, Italian voters seemed emboldened to reject many of the policies that they feel are being imposed on their country by Brussels.  Now, the EU faces a future in which a dwindling number of countries, led by Germany and France, are willing to commit to further political and economic integration, while other larger members such as Italy, Spain and Poland are either distracted by internal divisions or are governed by parties that are outright hostile to the EU.  As Europe is learning, its battle against populism is far from over and should Europe’s economic fortunes turn downwards once again, or should the migration crisis worsen, populists may yet make even more gains in the coming years.  Simply put, Italy has shown that populism remains a very powerful force in European politics.