foreign affairs

Italy’s Election Shows European Populism Isn’t Dead Yet

Luigi Di Maio, party leader of the Five Star Movement, celebrates in his hometown of Pomigliano on March 6, 2018, after Italy’s general elections. Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is often compared to Donald Trump: an audacious billionaire with an insatiable penchant for glitz, press coverage, and younger women, who rose to power through canny media manipulation and anti-politics politics. Like Trump, Berlusconi campaigned as a champion of the common man, pledging to overturn the entrenched political Establishment and Make Italy Great Again, as it were — but of course his tenure in office devolved into a veritable orgy of corruption and self-dealing.

Ironic, then, that in the national election Italy held on Sunday, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party was part of the Establishment against which a new generation of populists revolted.

The Five Star Movement (M5S), an anti-Establishment party founded in 2009 by the eccentric comedian Beppe Grillo, took a third of the vote, doing particularly well in the poorer southern provinces. M5S is an idiosyncratic party, not entirely identifiable with the right or the left but representing a coalition of environmentalists, libertarians, Euroskeptics, and angry, unemployed youth (which in Italy are legion). Their candidate for prime minister, Luigi di Maio, is only 31 years old: young enough to be a grandson to the 81-year-old Berlusconi.

Sunday’s other big winner was the League, a right-wing populist/nationalist party that ran almost exclusively on a promise to crack down on uncontrolled migration from across the Mediterranean. Originally known as the Northern League, the party recently rebranded to shed its well-earned image of contempt toward southerners. Reminiscent of the shock performance of the Alternative for Germany in the German elections last year, the League shot from 4 percent of the vote in the last election to nearly 18 percent this time around, outperforming Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia to become the leading party in the center-right coalition.

No party or coalition captured a majority, so now the jockeying begins to assemble a government. Both M5S and the League are claiming a mandate to govern, the former as the largest party and the latter as the head of the largest coalition. League leader Matteo Salvini said he would not take his party into “strange coalitions,” but the right does not have enough seats in parliament to govern on its own and will have to find outside partners to achieve a majority.

M5S is willing to talk to anyone, but di Maio may insist on the premiership as a condition of his party’s participation in government, which could complicate a coalition deal with the right. The ruling Democratic Party (PD) has said it will not go into coalition with either of the “anti-system” parties. President Sergio Mattarella will likely open formal talks in on forming a new government in April.

The center-left PD fell from 25 percent of the vote to 19 percent, prompting former prime minister Matteo Renzi to resign as party leader. The Democrats, in government since 2013, had done a respectable job rescuing Italy from the economic disasters of the Berlusconi administration, the financial crisis, and the punishing austerity measures imposed by the EU in its wake. Yet in a parallel to their American cousins in 2016, Italy’s Democrats failed to persuade voters to give them five more years.

The PD’s poor showing, politics professor James Newell writes in the Local, came down to two factors. For one, Renzi has proven a polarizing figure, and his role as the face of his party hindered it from capitalizing on the popularity of the current prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, who has been ranked as the country’s most-liked politician. “More generally,” Newell adds, “the PD, like parties of the centre-left elsewhere in Europe, has suffered from the loss of any kind of cultural ascendancy since the collapse of the Berlin Wall”:

It has incorporated the neo-liberal narratives of its adversaries on the right and in so doing failed to offer representation to a working class that now feels threatened by the effects of globalization, especially austerity and mass migration. The left’s natural constituency has been left prey to alternative appeals, and the inevitable consequence has been a dramatic advance for the populist right represented by the League.

Perhaps the key lesson in Italy’s election is that there, like nearly everywhere else in the Western world, voters are losing patience with a political class that they see as unable to deliver relief from the problems that ail them. Anger over the constant influx of migrants from North Africa and the lack of help from the EU was a big vote-getter for the League in particular, leading Berlusconi and other center-rightists to talk openly about once-unthinkable propositions like deporting the country’s 600,000 undocumented immigrants.

Anemic economic growth and still-staggering youth unemployment were other major contributors to Sunday’s discontented message from voters. Neither of the mainstream parties, right or left, has managed to solve these problems, while Brussels’ obsession with fiscal restraint has, if anything, exacerbated them.

That’s why former prime minister Mario Monti, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, describes Sunday’s outcome as a nightmare for the EU. If Brussels fails to deliver structural reforms that allow for greater investment in alleviating the malaise of the European periphery, Euroskeptics in Italy (the third-largest economy in the Eurozone) will have a stronger case for abandoning the currency union or the EU itself — though as the U.K. is discovering in the Brexit process, that’s easier said than done.

Monti cautions against reading Sunday’s election too simplistically as a sign that Italy is turning to the right. Even though former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has ecstatically described the emerging Italian politics as a “pure populism” that could serve as the vanguard of the new European nationalism, the former premier points out that M5S isn’t entirely Bannonite in its inclinations. Many of its supporters don’t identify with the right, much less the far-right. Italy’s overtly fascist parties, CasaPound and Forza Nuova, failed to crack one percent of the vote on Sunday. For all the League’s inflammatory anti-migrant rhetoric, meanwhile, it just elected Italy’s first black senator, Toni Iwobi, an immigrant from Nigeria.

It’s too early to say what Italy’s next government will look like or if either of Sunday’s victors will be up to the task of governing. Perhaps, like Berlusconi, today’s upstarts will fail to evolve and merely grow into tomorrow’s Establishment.

The message to mainstream technocrats in both Rome and Brussels, however, is crystal clear: Without real solutions to the migration crisis, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, and corruption, voters in Italy and elsewhere will continue to reject the political Establishment and flirt with populist novelties. Simply decrying the inexperience, bigotry, oddball theories, or politically incorrect rhetoric of these upstarts isn’t going to cut it.

On a more philosophical level, Europeanists need to both make a more forceful positive argument for European integration and build institutions that demonstrate its value to an increasingly skeptical public. Otherwise, the European project is destined to fail, and considering what happened the last time Europe fell apart, nobody wants to see what happens then.

Italy’s Election Shows European Populism Isn’t Dead Yet