Dr. Federico Donelli
The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow of political science and international relations at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Genova, Italy. He is currently a visiting researcher at Istanbul Sehir University’s Center for Modern Turkish Studies.
GENOA (AA) - “This election has paved the way to a new era, to the third Republic.” With these words, 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, the leader and prime minister candidate of the Five Star Movement (M5S) concluded his first speech after the March 4 Italian general election. Twenty-four years after the “Mani pulite” (Clean Hands) scandal that subverted the political parties’ order -- which until that point had been led by the Christian Democracy (DC) -- Di Maio’s words seem to put a full stop to the Second Republic. The over 25 years that passed from 1992 have been marked, inside and outside the parliament, by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and ruled by a weak bipolarism with Berlusconi’s neoliberist center-right and the center-left Democratic Party (PD). The extremely confused and widely criticized electoral law that mixes proportional and majoritarian features, has driven to a complicated result with the M5S as the single biggest party in both parliament’s branches (31.3 percent), and a right-wing coalition (led by far-right party League (18.3 percent) under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, allied with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) (14.3 percent) and Giorgia Meloni’s Italian Brothers (4.3 percent)), with 37 percent, grabbing the highest number of seats in parliament though falling short of the numbers needed for an absolute majority.
Even though the upcoming political scenario remains unclear because the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, is to go through weeks of talks with the parties in order to form a new government, the political fact is undoubtable: the triumph of anti-establishment populism and the defeat of traditional parties.
The outcomes of the elections draw a clear map of Italy split in two: the North is a League fief while the South shows a clear result in favor of M5S (40-43 percent), and the center-left and the leftists look from a distance. This result represents the failure of the establishment that, in over 80 years from the foundation of the Republic, could not solve the biggest weakness in the Italian system: the duality between the North and the South. The North, traditionally the engine of the Italian economy, chooses a nationalist, xenophobic and protectionist party, while re-emerging from a long and devastating economic crisis. The South, always a step behind in terms of health, transportation and economic standards, kicks out the old establishment, found guilty of all the corruption and poverty that affects the area, in favor of a political party of which the brand is: “We are not politicians, we are the common [and, for some reason, this should be equivalent to honest] people”. Even though it was born in the wake of other international protest movements -- such as the American "Occupy" and the Spanish "Indignados" and anti-austerity parties like SYRIZA in Greece -- the M5S is more than a simple anti-parties party. Indeed, it has operated as a "2.0 catch-all party" exploiting the disillusionment of a wide electorate, mainly young. The M5S voters are, for a huge part, disenchanted and disappointed young people aged between 25 and 45, a "lost generation" that has paid with its own skin the dramatic consequences of the 2008 financial crisis. Their rhetoric uses both leftist and rightist discourses in an attempt to create a post-ideological movement. Though, their vague program, the non-professional staff that constitutes the executive of the Party (selected through the use of a web platform that is allegedly controlled and influenced by two controversial web companies Casaleggio Associati and Associazione Rousseau owned by the family of one of the movement’s funders), their alleged unclear bonds with Russia (former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin”, Foreign Policy, Dec. 5, 2017), their intrepid fiscal plans, give the idea of the M5S as an unreliable partner for investors and neighboring states.
“The third Republic is a citizens’ one,” the M5S leader declares. Though, the involvement of citizens in the campaign has been quite controversial. Indeed, this unprecedented result comes at the end of a very conflicted electoral campaign that was focused on critical and controversial issues. Over the three-month campaign, the tension has increased dramatically among the political actors and within the society. For decades North and South have held different interests, showing different needs. For the first time their unhappiness has melded around an issue felt like threatening to both sides: immigration. While the numbers of violent crimes perpetrated by immigrants are among the lowest in the EU, the large number of homeless migrants that can be observed on Italian streets and the clear incapability of former governments to find a way to create a positive integration, together with the perception of being abandoned and marginalized by the EU on this matter, created the perfect humus for xenophobia. Migrants have been the scapegoat for all Italians’ probems -- like mafia penetration, weak foreign policy, youth unemployment, high public debt. “Talking to the guts” of people, a slogan widely used by both M5S and the League to gain consensus, actually embittered the rifts in Italian society.
In the last months Italy witnessed a high number of episodes of hate against Africans and Muslims, most of which perpetrated by self-defined neo-facists. The most emblematic case is the one that took place in Macerata (Feb. 3, 2018) where a man ascribable to the new fascist political arena, and who had been a candidate for the League (Local municipality election 2017), shot six black men walking on the street, promising to “avenge all migrants’ violence against Italians”. Steve K. Bannon, former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, in an interview with the New York Times hailed Italy’s results as a validation of his ultranationalist agenda. “The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump,” he said while he was campaigning for Salvini.
The rise of the populist parties that were considered fringe only a decade ago and the fragmented result represent a real turning point for the Eurozone’s third largest economy, threatening the stability of the European Union as well as the hard recovery way of Italian economy.
While the EU Commission and Parliament gave recommendation before the E-day for the Italians to vote for the stability of the country, the anti-establishment parties that won the lead have shown an ambiguous euroskeptic approach, sometimes accusing the EU to be a failed project, sometimes threatening to exit the Eurozone, some other times -- and controversially -- looking at the EU institution to receive an endorsement. In general terms, the Italy that comes out from this election, seems to be closer to Putin’s Russia and Trump’s U.S., rather than to the Europist France-German axis.
The upcoming weeks will be crucial for Italy’s future because the election’s result leaves a wide range of potential alliances open. There are four possible scenarios. First, a M5S government in combination with the League. Despite the fact that this solution would be the least desirable one by the EU and the markets, it would also be the easier one in order to guarantee a government with high parliamentary majority in both chambers. There would be more than one reason for the two to come together, starting from the several overlaps in their manifestos, with both calling for tax cuts, greater spending on welfare, hard contrast to migration flow and a rejection of EU budget rules. The second possible scenario is a center-right coalition government with support of some PD lawmakers. However, following the election’s results, the League’s Salvini has claimed the leadership of the center-right bloc, which Berlusconi had steered since 1994. Such a condition might undermine the weak balance within the coalition and represents a consistent obstacle to any kind of support from the center-left party. Another scenario could be a marriage between M5S and some anti-Renzi members of PD. Although the PD's resigning leader Matteo Renzi ruled out the PD supporting M5S and said it would go into the opposition, there are some small factions within the party that have shown an openness to a M5S-PD government. This move would be harshly criticized by PD’s electorate which feels too far from M5S values and its political culture. A third potential scenario is a grand-coalition among all parties with sole aim to change the electoral law, driving the country to new elections as soon as possible. Fourth, seeing the impossibility of an agreement among the parties, President Mattarella could call for new elections by the end of 2018. Given the situation, a stable government is nowhere in sight. Italian politics are known to be chaotic and prime ministers have rarely stayed in office for their full five-year mandates. This time, though, the feeling that the old system is breaking down is tangible and forebodes some sort of domino effect in other countries in Europe.
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