European Union Policy Studies

Globalization and its discontents

Italy’s vote promotes anti-establishment parties and causes government deadlock.

Movimento 5 Stelle & Lega Nord Graffiti

Interview with Caterina Paolucci by Sara Leming

The National Italian elections took place on March 4, 2018.  Due to the recent unpredicted national European and American election results the spotlight was turned to Italy. As a founding member of the European Union, The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and one of the top seven most industrialized economies in the world Italy holds an important international position. Dr. Caterina Paolucci, EUPS Academic Coordinator and expert in Italian politics and parties, offers an analysis of the election aftermath in an interview with EUPS student Sara Leming shortly after election results came in.

S.L.: Did the Italian general election on March 4th turn out as you predicted? If not what surprised you?

C.P.: You may have seen this picture circulating on the internet and published by Italian newspapers days after the vote: it shows a mural by a well-known neo-pop Italian graffiti-artist portraying an ambiguous kiss between the leaders of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, and the League, Matteo Salvini. It appeared for a few hours on a wall in the centre of Rome, before being removed by local authorities. This image, inspired by a similar portrait of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev on the Berlin Wall that criticized the "mortal love" between East Germany and the Soviet Union, has become viral as a symbol of the March 4th  elections, as it hints to the inconsistencies and dangers posed by the victory of the two populist leaders. So, what happened last March? As widely anticipated by most opinion pollsters, the incumbent center-left parties were severely punished by voters: the camp led by pro-EU Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD) lost a few million votes, shrinking to below one-third of the electorate. This decline translated into a drastic reduction in parliamentary seats (from 340 to just 122 out of 630 in the lower chamber). A defeat could not have been more clear-cut! While incumbents were punished, their anti-establishment, anti-immigration and partly also Eurosceptic or EU-critical counterparts increased their votes significantly. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) became the largest party with 32,7% and almost 11 million votes and 227 seats, while the centre-right as a whole became the largest coalition, winning 37,1% of the vote and 265 seats. Among the centre-right components, the former Northern League, now simply the League (Eurosceptic and anti-immigration), made the biggest gains: it more than quadrupled its size, gaining 4 million additional ballots and 17,4% of the vote. By contrast, support for the (former) leading center-right pro-European party Come on Italy (Forza Italia, FI) dropped significantly. As a result, the League is now the largest party on the center-right. Also, the third ally of the coalition, the nationalist Italy’s Brothers (Fratelli d’Italia, FdI) made significant gains, another sign of the movement to the right of the electorate. I was surprised more by the League’s gains than by the gains of the M5S. I think that this will change the dynamics of the political system, since the entire centre-right will be pivoting towards a more right-wing and potentially Eurosceptic course.

S.L.: Why have the Five Star Movement and the League gained so many votes, and what are their platforms?

C.P.: The M5S is an anti-establishment movement that has been able to channel the disappointment and fears of a country hit by globalization and the economic crisis. In the last ten years, Italy has lost millions of jobs. The South has seen a desertification of opportunities, especially for the younger generations. It is no coincidence that the M5S has gained most of its votes in the South, where in many areas it received over 50% of votes (75% in some destitute neighborhoods of Naples). The League, by contrast, got most of its support in the wealthiest regions of Northern Italy, the Venetian region, but also Lombardy. Its platform reflects Northern middle classes’ desire for tax breaks. League supporters in the North want to stop paying for the South and want to limit the influx of migrants. Unsurprisingly, the M5S’s main campaign promise has been the elimination of the privileges of politicians and the so-called “citizenship income”, a universal unemployment subsidy that would largely favor the South. The League, by contrast, has promised a flat tax, which would reduce income taxation for the higher income brackets, pleasing the Northern electorate. Additionally, both have offered the tempting prospect of abolishing the current pension law, which links retirement age to life expectancy. All these promises, singularly or combined, are unsustainable from a public finance perspective.

S.L.: Do you think the turnout of this election was similar to those of other European countries, where populist movements made huge gains?

C.P.: Yes. I believe that the success of populist movements in Europe is the result of a general trend. The ‘end of ideologies’ is probably at the root of this phenomenon, with its corollaries of the crisis of traditional political parties and partisan allegiances. Globalization, demographic, economic and migration crises and their effects on identity and status, coupled with the difficulty of national governments and élites in dealing with global problems can lead to strong anti-establishment and anti-political sentiments. Most importantly, the transformation of the media landscape with internet and the social media has had a huge impact on political communication, and hence on parties and elections. Not so much because they can directly influence for whom we vote. But because they change the very nature of our relationship with politics. I don’t know if and how representative democracy as a form of government can survive these challenges. It will need to change and adapt. Populism is a first, visceral, irrational and imperfect response to this new reality.

S.L.: How do you think the outcome of this election will affect Italy’s position in the European Union?

C.P.: The victory of the anti-establishment parties will not easily translate into a viable government. None of them can govern on their own, as neither got enough votes to command an absolute majority in parliament. And yet, both parties want to be charged by President Sergio Mattarella with heading a new executive. Formal negotiations have started at the Quirinale Palace: can the two winners govern, successfully, together? Or is their embrace destined to be a deadly one, like that between Honecker and Brezhnev? And deadly for whom? Only for one another, or for the entire country? Each leader already demands the prime ministership for himself, defying the other. Will one of them give in, or will they choose a third, ‘compromise personality’, to be the prime minister backed by their coalition? Beyond the issue of leadership, the parties have diverse electorates, geographically distinctive and with opposite expectations, and they also diverge as far as the EU is concerned, with the M5S having recently made a U-turn away from the Euroscepticism of the first hour towards a milder EU-critical position, while the League is still strongly Eurosceptic. Given the competitiveness of the leaderships, incompatibility of the platforms, and differentiated positions towards the EU, the two winners can hardly build a lasting alliance. They will need to make alliances with the losers, FI and/or the PD (or splinters thereof), if they want to govern together. This will allow for a compromise between their programs, without anyone having to lose face. Such a solution, though, is not likely in the short term. It will take time and a lot of political maneuvering, negotiations, and headaches. No one can forecast if and when this kind of “coalition of the willing” will take shape. The position of Italy in the European Union is consequently going to be on standby for a while, weakening the country’s negotiating position on multiple fronts, above all those of migration policy and the definition of the new financial perspectives, which are entering the crucial negotiating phase. This lack of guidance will be partly counterbalanced by the continuity represented by the caretaker government of Paolo Gentiloni, who will keep the country on a path of Europhilia and fiscal responsibility until a new government takes office. If a government is finally formed, no matter how much Euroscepticism and anti-establishment sentiments have been heralded during the campaign, the fundamentals of the European pacts will not be questioned by a country whose economy is still not doing great, and whose public debt is the largest in Europe. Any new Italian government will have to make sure that Italy remains a reliable partner within the Union and follows its rules. Unless it yields to the “mortal embrace” of the populists.

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2018

Last Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2018

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