The Italian Elections: What has Happened?

Author: Leonardo Rivalenti

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Source: dw.com

Sunday 4th of March, the Parliamentary Elections in Italy had brought a wave of uncertainty over not only the country but the whole Europe. This came as a consequence of their mostly expected outcome: a further parliamentary fragmentation in which no one has the conditions to form a Government. In addition to it, another element that has terrified mostly some sector of the left has been the triumph of the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement (M5S), led by Luigi Di Maio, who took 32% of the votes and of the lepenist Matteo Salvini, whose party, the Lega, has obtained 17% of the votes, taking over the leadership of the right-wing coalition. With such a configuration, it might observed that other than this political uncertainty, certainly worth being commented, these elections have all the potential to bring some significant changes within the Italian political configuration.

To begin, it is important to note how once again, against some predictions, has been witnessed a failure of all the extremes, from both left and right: +Europa, Liberi e Uguali, Casapound Italia Forza Nuova and other minor forces. While all these parties, with their radical programs, had received a considerable coverage from the mainstream media and were able to create (most of them) some expectation to obtain at least few seats in the Parliament, all them failed in managing to do so, remaining excluded from the new Legislature.

Of these, the one with better chances was probably Liberi Uguali, whose leader, Pietro Grasso attempted to present himself as an Italian version of Jeremy Corbyn. Unfortunately for him his labourist program resulted incapable of attracting the attention of a sufficient part of the electorate, that clearly found the proposals of the Lega and the M5S more suitable. Possibly, also the candidature with them of the former President of the Camera dei Deputati, Laura Boldrini, whose immigrationist and cosmopolitan position have made highly impopular, must have played against them.

Even worst result that of Emma Bonino’s +Europa, party that also received support by the Hungarian billionaire George Soros. Emma Bonino, in the past already leader of the Radical Party, tried to run on a European Federalist and quasi libertarian platform, endorsing also proposals from the left like the (highly controversial) Jus Soli and advancing other proposals like the concession of citizenship to some 500,000 illegal immigrants already residing in Italy. Needless to ask how they managed to lose the election: in a moment in which there is an increased demand for security and the EU is becoming object of harsh criticism, to present themselves with a program calling for what can easily be translated as less security and control and dismissing all the criticism towards the European Union, thus essentially not listening to the voter, is a guarantee of political defeat. 

To obtain even worse results, however, were to be the neo-Fascist parties: Forza Nuova and Casapound Italia, that the Italian media presented to the public as some kind of boogeyman ready to make an historical entrance Parliament. While I was myself at first deceived to consider the possibility of seeing Casapound gaining one or two seats, I am the first now to say that both them were (and still are) rather hopeless causes. Forza Nuova on one hand, with a strongly traditionalist Catholic inclination and with its manifestation of solidarity to Luca Traini, – the Macerata shooter that attacked some immigrants – was looking hardly acceptable even for its tiny potential voters. Casapound, on the other hand, made attempts to become a more mainstream mo

vement, without however abandoning the legionary structure previously mentioned. Clearly however, the attempt was insufficient to bring even a minimal part of the electorate to accept creative proposals such as that of invading Libya or its excessive and uncompromising attachment to the clearly obsolete structure of the Nation-State.

Also similarly defeated was that large galaxy of political reminiscences of the Christian Democrats, Partito Repubblicano and others, who attempted to re-enter the political arena in spite of the completely changed political context, that clearly could not contemplate them anymore.

More significant and yet to some extent already expected was the fall of the political forces that since the 1990s had determined the course of Italian Politics: the Partito Democratico and Forza Italia. Interestingly, their respective falls might be found to share some common points, key element being their incapability to reform themselves and turn into constructive political force in the new reality that is taking form.

To begin, the left, with which I intend here mainly the Partito Democratico (PD), came from a troubled government experience, started with Matteo Renzi, whose initial popularity had quickly vanished thanks to certain measures that he attempted to adopt and concluded with Paolo Gentiloni, who entering in government in December 2017 made an attempt to bring some improvement. While Gentiloni, with his practical approach in Government and his respectful and opened behaviour as politician managed to obtain a certain popularity, his party resulted to be nonetheless unable to regain strength and the trust from the voters. Part of it might be associated to the continued leadership of Matteo Renzi, who was already clearly not wanted by a fair share of the Italian population. Another important element might have been the attempt by the PD to approve, while in Government, the Jus Soli, the passing of the Fiano Law the continued insistence on the anti-Fascist rhetoric and other similar decisions. While these were not necessarily self-harming decisions, they however provided a good ground to opposition parties to accuse the Government of ineffectiveness and of trying to hide it through the passing of laws and decrees that were not addressing the real needs of the country. To sum up with this receipt for a political disaster, Renzi’s attempt to give to the PD a more centrist rather than leftist appearance, to attract votes from the centre-right had probably been the final blow. In fact in this way, while the right-wing electorate either opted for the Five Stars or the Lega or still Forza Italia, the most leftist elements that supported the PD were often left with the sense that the PD was no more the party they used to support in the past. In this way, the Partito Democratico had prepared most of its political defeat.

On the other hand, Forza Italia, until then main voice of the Italian centre-right, committed mistakes that were not any better. First of all, the failure in finding an adequate political leadership and a figure that they could launch as future leader of the Italian Government. They instead ran most of the campaign centred in Berlusconi, despite his impossibility to run for Prime Minister or any other public function until 2019, due to the sentence he received in 2013. Only two days before the election they decided to launch Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament and someone that, if proposed earlier in the electoral campaign could have given them the chance to obtain some more votes. Other than the lack of renewal of leadership, Forza Italia resulted unable to look credible to the voters. While in theory the proposals it advanced were similar to those of the triumphant Lega, what seemed to doom them was exactly their inability to sell themselves as a new or at least innovative force.

Moreover, what can be further observed is that while both parties presented this inability to renew themselves, they also fell victims of the dichotomy raised by the populist movements of elite vs. people. This dichotomy might be seen to some extent to reflect the reality, where the upper and lower classes have been acquiring horizons increasingly discrepant, where middle and upper classes, in a globalised world, find themselves benefitting more and more from this cosmopolitan dimension, while lowe classes end up experiencing mostly the negative outcomes of this process. To sum up to this, as observed by the Director of New Direction Italia, Daniele Capezzone, despite not having faced a significant impoverishment, the middle class has become more and more fearful and less confident about its own future. As a result, since traditional parties did not seemed capable of offering them any comfort to their fears, they have turned to those populist parties, such as the Lega and the M5S.

This passage, is finally bringing us the analysis of the big winners of Sunday 4th of March: the Five Stars Movements and the Lega. These movements, while presenting some differences in both proposals and modus operandi share a common important point: their anti-establishment nature, with an inherent criticism to everything that can be associated, in the collective imagination, with the idea of a cosmopolitan elite. In it might be included the European Union, with its supranational institutions and organs, the process of delocalisation with the increased interdependence and the increasing migrant flow, that had become in the past years a serious issue that the governing centre-left addressed late and in a problematic way. Such elements were instrumentalised by both the Lega and M5S to canalise the popular resentment against the so called establishment and therefore in their favour.

These movements, however differ in their structure and modus operandi, previously mentioned. The Five Stars Movement, on one hand, presents itself as a party without a hierarchic structure, where everything is decided by direct vote of the members. Interesting to notice here that they possess an e-platform called Rousseau through which the members can express their preferences on party issues. It claims to be post-ideologic, thus rejecting alignment with both left or right-wing forces, which also leads it to accept proposals of any political character and partially explains the dominant unclarity and ambiguity that any lucid analyst would find at the moment of studying it. On the other hand, the Lega is a well structure right-wing party that, after a transition from a Northern-separatist movement to a nationalist party, has assumed a political line that is highly similar to that of Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale. The core idea of their political thought is the nation and the national interest, from which they develop their anti-EU discourse, their anti-immigration proposals and other similar electoral promises. Despite what is generally expected from this kind of party, their economic policy seems more inclined to a liberal one, with promises of generous tax cuts and even of the introduction of the flat tax (to levels that are not necessarily possible to realise). This while the M5S, with its promise (also hard to be realised) of citizen’s income, seems to lean more towards social democracy.

As repeated throughout this article, both parties resulted to be the two big winners of the elections. The Five Stars Movement, on one hand, with its 32%, resulted to become the strongest party in Parliament, meaning that it will be key in the formation of the new government and that the formation of a coalition will rotate around it. The Lega on the other hand, with its historical 17% of votes, resulted to be the strongest party of the centre-right coalition, making Matteo Salvini not only the leader of the Italian right, but also the current candidate presented by them for Prime Minister (Berlusconi has already acknowledged him).

Here it will be interesting to observe how this new centre-right under the leadership of Salvini will evolve. Certainly now a more openly nationalistic discourse will dominate, together with a more critical approach to the EU. Yet I do not expect the right to turn into a fully Eurosceptic political force, given that even Salvini has moderated his criticism on it, compared with some time ago. Possibly, similar to Kurz in Austria, they will still oppose what they regard as excessively internationalistic of the Union, nonetheless accepting to overall compromise on most or at least some key aspects of it. Berlusconi will also be likely to retain his influence, given his economic power and political influence, perhaps becoming some sort of eminence grise of the conservative front, without necessarily directly exposing himself. Yet for his party, Forza Italia, the time of hegemony seems to be over, being likely to remain the second main force within the coalition, gathering some more moderate elements, still being influential but not anymore the one  leading the group.

Regardless of this, so far it is almost impossible to tell who will or is more likely to form a government, as most of the parties seem to be unwilling to enter an agreement. Some speculations are nonetheless pointing at a possible coalition between the centre-left and the M5S, that would then have the majority to govern. However this might be a risky move for the M5S, that might see its electorate move then towards the Lega, as it would be perceived as having compromised with the establishment. In this way, the only conclusion that can be inferred from the new political configuration is that most likely we will have to wait until the election of the Presidents of the Lower House and of the Senate, as seems to be consensus among most political analysts, in order to see which government will be formed from the coalitions that will emerge there. Nonetheless, the government that will emerge will be a fairly weak and unstable one, meaning that new elections are likely to take place soon.

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