Italy: A Political Gridlock that Hurts Europe

Updated 10 March 

With the Italian elections, deglobalization has taken another step forward in Europe. The two winners – both populist, Euro-skeptic and anti-establishment – were a big surprise for all observers of the Italian political situation, even for the usually savvy financial markets.

Both the extreme right Lega headed by firebrand Salvini and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by young Di Maio won, and won big. Together, they reached 40 percent (rounding all the numbers). And if you add Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (14 percent), you get well over half: 54 percent.

What happened? 18 percent went to Salvini, the Lega boss, when everyone thought he’d only get around 14 percent – Berlusconi in particular, his ally and leader of the right coalition, thought so. For the Lega, that’s a big leap from ten years ago when it was navigating around 4%.  For Berlusconi (age 81) it’s a catastrophe and it marks the end of his long political career (he governed Italy from 1994 to 2011, with only one break). He’s out. For good.

The Five Star Movement, with the new face of Di Maio – for many a welcome change from party founder and comedian Beppe Grillo’s – got some 32 percent. That’s two percent more than expected, though considerably less than Di Maio had hoped for (he’d talked about winning an outright majority in a long interview to the Stampa two weeks earlier).

Still, this result made the Five Star Movement the first party in Italy with a strong show across the peninsula – especially in the South, marking a major shift in votes. Here, the Movement roundly beat everyone else, the PD and the Lega, largely because, unlike them, it was able to appeal to Southerners’ sense of identity. No doubt the  launch of a “Borbonic memory day” in the summer of 2017 awakened feelings of nostalgia for the past splendor of the Kingdom of Naples and Two Sicilies that ended with Italian unification in 1861.

Both the Five Star Movement and the Lega are bad news for Europe and Marine Le Pen was quick to congratulate herself with Salvini: “Europe is having a terrible evening” she tweeted with a smirk as the first poll results came in. Steve Bannon came to Rome a few days before the elections to enjoy the spectacle and you can bet Vladimir Putin was equally happy. He loves nothing better than a destabilized Europe, though he is probably sad to see Berlusconi’s defeat – after all, they were good friends.

Bottom line, the gridlock is easy to explain: Di Maio, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, his tie neatly knotted, declares he’s ready to govern. Bearded and somber, Salvini, standing strong on his “Italians First” Trumpian platform, claims that he has a “right and duty” to govern.

Everyone had expected (or hoped?) the current system would go on, unchanged. That required from Berlusconi (Forza Italia) and Renzi (Democratic Party – PD) to do well enough so that in the event of a gridlock, a way out could be found, with a government based on a PD alliance with Forza Italia (FI). After all, Renzi and Berlusconi were on talking terms, Berlusconi had even gone to Brussels a few days before the elections to re-assure everyone that he was pro-Europe and he’d named Tajani, the President of the European Parliament as his preferred premier.

Now, of course, that won’t happen. While the FI got stuck behind the Lega, the PD dropped calamitously below 19%. They just don’t have the numbers to pull it off.

The big problem is that neither the Lega or the Five Star Movement have the numbers to form a government and neither wants to work in an alliance with the other.

They can’t, they are too far apart. And they fight for the same electorate, people disgruntled with Brussels and the lack of cooperation from European Union partners in dealing with immigrants; people unhappy with the economic situation that has been bad since 2008; the young who suffer from unemployment at a dizzying 40% rate, one of the highest levels in Europe. Both parties pointed to the same causes for all the ills: the Euro and Europe, immigrants, a corrupt and incapable governing class.

But the solutions they offer are diametrically different. Salvini’s Lega wants to “reclaim sovereignty” on the Euro and distance Italy from Brussels, echoing Brexit, and talks of a flat tax to help business. In contrast, The Five Star Movement has deep roots on the left. As Luciano Fontana, the chief editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, pointed out on a TV talk show I watched, the Movement’s economic platform “is not only left-wing, it is almost far left”. They talk of providing every citizen with a minimum basic income.

Moreover, its anti-establishment policy means it won’t work with any other party, in the sense that it won’t give a seat in government to anyone else. If it did, it would be reneging on its founding principles, something its electorate won’t allow.  However, the Movement, unlike the Lega, has softened its views on Europe and is no longer talking of carrying out a referendum on the Euro.

Perhaps the most remarkable (and so far little noted) fact was the high affluence at the polls: 73%, higher than in any recent elections. This indicates that, for the first time, the “party of abstention” – those who are undecided and/or do not want to vote because they are too disgusted with the political class – set aside their doubts and actually voted.

An Anti-Establishment Vote

This is important, and the political class should take note. More than populism, nationalism, fear of immigrants or protest over economic conditions, the vote was really anti-establishment: All the parties in the opposition won, and the PD, the governing party for the last five years, lost. And lost big.

Like in America, where many people voted Trump because they couldn’t stomach Hilary Clinton and the old “establishment”, Italians are fed up with old faces. And they have been fed up with their politicians for a long time now, they disdainfully call them “the caste” (that was also the name of a 2007 bestseller).

Several iconic figures exited political life. Berlusconi, of course, but many others too, chief among them Massimo D’Alema who had tried yet another trick of his to split the PD (and presumably send Renzi, the PD Secretary home) by forming a new party of his own at the last minute. Launched last December, it was called Free and Equal (Liberi e Uguali – LeU). As luck would have it, LeU did very poorly, around 3%, far from the 7% D’Alema and his friend and LeU co-founder Pietro Grasso had hoped. Cherry on the cake, D’Alema was roundly defeated in his hometown (he got just 3%).

But the one who should have gone home didn’t: Matteo Renzi, the PD Secretary. Rumors have it that he could even work to form a government supporting the Five Star Movement. But that’s just a rumor, and unfounded too, though it has been picked up in the Italian press and even abroad.  French television, France 24, has called such an alliance “strange bedfellows”.  Strange indeed. The Movement has done nothing but “insult” the PD, or so Renzi reminded his audience in a television talk in which he announced his departure as secretary,  implying an alliance with the Movement is not in the works.

I would tend to believe him but with Italian politicians, you never know. The improbable can happen, with the PD supporting the Movement from the “outside” (and that means the PD would not be in government) but conditioning the Movement’s politics – especially towards Europe – through voting in Parliament.

Speaking of his television address, there was another notable point Renzi made: He did announce his departure as party secretary, but “only after the government is formed”.  And with no governing majority in sight, that could take many months.

After all, it took Germany five months to form a coalition government. The German political landscape, while also tri-polar like Italy’s, was less complicated, with the populist Alternative for Germany clearly in the minority. Here, in Italy, the situation is also tri-polar but far more complex, none of the three poles is clearly small and can be dismissed.

The smallest now is the PD, it has lost two-thirds of its seats in Parliament yet it can’t be dismissed.

What happens next?

In a sense, the PD is a kingmaker, and no doubt that is why Renzi wants to stay on. Even though the national vote went clearly against him and he is generally accused of having caused the party collapse, Renzi has a hard time giving up his grip on power – no question, his unexpected victory at the European elections four years ago, in 2014 (he got over 40%), went to his head. Even in his (bumbling) television talk following the election, he couldn’t help but crow over his personal victory in his home district (in Florence, he got over 40% – again).

The important point to remember is that both Renzi and other major exponents of the PD have said and repeated on television that the party plans to stay firmly in the opposition. Can they be an effective opposition with only some 112 lawmakers?

Maybe they can. After Parliament convenes on 23 March, the situation will be clearer. Many of the newly elected may not closely toe party lines. And this will become obvious when the Presidents and Vice-Presidents of both chambers of Parliament are elected – that’s the first political move and it can’t happen before the parliamentary seats are confirmed by a special commission that won’t start working before 9 April. 
Italian Election M5S Forza Italia PD Logo
Mattarella, the President of Italy, is sure to be closely watching the parliamentary games since he is the one constitutionally tasked with entrusting the formation of a government to the “winner” (whoever that might be). The roadmap is in his hands, and he is widely considered the right person for the job.

The unexpected could happen. For example, several – perhaps as many as 20 – Five Star Movement exponents are likely to join a “Gruppo Mixto” in Parliament, meaning they will not follow party lines in voting. Why so many? Because, just before the elections, the party was rocked by a series of scandals, and those that were publicly denounced and even ejected from the Movement are not likely to obey Di Maio now that they have been elected.


Likewise, life in the coalition on the right will not be easy for Salvini.  It is unlikely that Salvini can now count on the support of Forza Italia that, unlike him, is pro-Europe – and, standing alone with his 73 deputies and 37 senators, won’t get him far.

In short, anything can happen. Which means that Italy might go to new elections. A lot of people I meet think that will happen. Will it change anything? Maybe.

Will a demoted Forza Italia flow to the Lega? Some might even go to the PD. And if the PD can rid itself of old faces, it might regain some of the lost ground – though all the pundits predict that social democracy is dead for good, in Italy and more broadly in Europe. What is happening in the Visegrad group of countries is not reassuring: “illiberal democracy” is on the march, and it’s a direct threat to Europe and European democratic values.

Could it happen in Italy?

I don’t think so if the PD manages to get rid of Renzi and supports instead those PD exponents that did well. Take the example of Gentiloni, the Prime Minister, now heading a caretaker government. Gentiloni did very well (some 42% in Rome where he ran) and this means only one thing: people need to see new faces.

And not only new faces, but politicians with a real capacity to govern, as he has shown.

The PD should take note.

Editors note: The opinions expressed by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. Featured | Cover photo: DiMaio Facebook Page

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