Populist wave: on the Italian elections

As Italians reject the mainstream parties, EU integration could take a hit

March 07, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 01:20 am IST

As the dust settles on the Italian parliamentary elections , it is unclear who the next Prime Minister will be. But two things are clear. First, the election was a strong rejection of the incumbent, centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which has managed just 19% of the vote. Second, there is a strong anti-establishment undercurrent , with the largest vote share (32%) to a single party going to the Five Star Movement (M5S). Given the recent changes in Italian electoral law, which now combines proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system, a party or coalition will need at least 40% of the vote to form the government. The centre-right coalition, which includes the scandal-ridden former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the anti-migrant and Eurosceptic Lega and the far right Brothers of Italy, has secured 36%. What’s more, Lega, led by the rabble-rouser Matteo Salvini, has won over 17% of the vote, elbowing Mr. Berlusconi out of the role of kingmaker and reinforcing Italy’s move away from the centre. It appears that a growing but troubled economy and the migrants crisis have left Italians disenchanted with business-as-usual politics as well as the European Union, a pattern that has become all too familiar across Europe over the last few years. Recovery from the 2008 financial crisis has been slow. Italy is growing at 1.5%, below the Eurozone average, and unemployment is close to 11%; some 18 million Italians are said to be at risk of poverty. A feeling that the rest of the EU has left Italy high and dry in tackling the migrants issue — over 600,000 have arrived in Italy since 2013 — has added to the sense of Euroscepticism.

Italy is going through a protracted period of political negotiations before a new government can start taking shape in Rome. The M5S, which had initially said it would hold a referendum on the euro, more recently toned down its stance but continues to seek greater economic freedom from Brussels. It has taken a strong stance against migration and says it wants to improve governance. Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old leader of the M5S, who for long had said the party would go it alone, is now seeking partners to form a government. This could, for instance, mean the M5S partnering with the PD or the Lega. Barring a shared Euroscepticism, the M5S and the Lega mostly differ in their values. In addition to its distrust of Europe, Lega has made no bones about its extreme and dangerous views, specifically its anti-migrant and anti-Muslim stance. Mr. Salvini has claimed the moral right to form a government given the centre-right coalition’s share of the vote. However, politics makes for strange bedfellows, and an M5S-Lega government cannot be ruled out. Such an outcome would, however, severely hamper French President Emmanuel Macron’s and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plans for greater integration across the EU.


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