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Opinion Italy’s love affair with populists continues. Uncertainty now prevails

Cecilia Emma Sottilotta is an assistant professor of international relations and global politics, The American University of Rome

On Monday, Rome woke up to the unpalatable prospect of a hung parliament. The incumbent Democratic Party (PD) suffered a devastating defeat, from 40.8 per cent in 2014 European elections to 18.7 per cent now, while populist forces made sweeping gains in the general election. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which had already affirmed itself in 2013 as Italy’s single-largest party, further strengthened its position, earning more than 32 per cent of the vote.

Within the centre-right coalition, anti-immigration Northern League outstripped Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, winning more than 17 per of the vote in an unprecedented feat for a party that earned little more than 4 per cent in the previous general election. And yet, neither M5S nor the centre-right coalition can form a government unless they strike a deal with other political forces.

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President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella must start consultations aimed at averting a political stalemate and facilitating the formation of a cross-party coalition. In his first public appearance after the election, M5S Leader Luigi Di Maio declared that the Movement is open to dialogue with all political forces, talking and acting already as the next prime minister. But the centre-right coalition appears to be holding together, with Northern League Leader Matteo Salvini saying that, “as prime minister,” he intends to work with the centre-right coalition and is not open to “bizarre alliances.” Therefore, political gridlock possibly followed by a new election cannot be excluded at this point.

This result comes at the end of a highly divisive and polarizing electoral campaign that hinged on national security and anti-immigration policies, rather than on Italy’s stagnating economy and worryingly high youth-unemployment rate. To make matters worse, the campaign was characterized by episodes of political violence, reminiscent of the wave of both left- and right-wing domestic terrorism the country experienced between the 1960s and the 1970s.

Italy is no stranger to populism – in fact, Italy has historically been a very strong and enduring market for populists, as epitomized by the Italian electorate’s long-lasting fascination with Mr. Berlusconi, who rose to the top of Italian politics almost a quarter of a century before a bombastic tycoon became the 45th President of the United States.

What is unparalleled in Monday’s electoral result is the extent of the centre-left coalition’s defeat, which signals that left-wing parties are set to lose ground across Europe. Such a remarkable defeat and the parallel success of populist forces are essentially linked to a widespread feeling that Italy’s “traditional” parties have failed their voters.

Considering Italy’s dysfunctional labour market that forces the young and ambitious to emigrate, the country’s aging population, a general perception of the European Union as the champion of austerity policies, the wave of over 600,000 immigrants that reached Italy in the last five years (while the EU failed to implement an asylum-seekers redistribution scheme proposed in 2015), the populist-xenophobic messages such as the Northern League’s “Italy first” rhetoric appeal to a disillusioned electorate.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, Italy’s populist parties will be forced to figure out how to deliver on their extremely ambitious electoral promises. Introducing a minimum income for all citizens as promised by the M5S, repatriating all illegal immigrants (even in the absence of co-operation agreements with their countries of origin) as promised by the Northern League, or scrapping the 2012 pension reform which raised the retirement age, as promised by both parties, will not be easy in a country where the public debt currently amounts to 131.5 per cent of the GDP (the second largest in the Euro zone after Greece), whose performance in terms of labour productivity growth is the weakest among G7 countries, and whose economic output is not yet back to pre-crisis level.

Italy was already steeped in crisis; this election only worsened our predicament.

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