Italy redraws its political landscape

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Features

Italians went to the polls on 4 March, after a heated election campaign.

In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius sits Pomigliano d’Arco, a tough industrial town best known for housing a large Fiat factory. About a half hour drive from central Naples, around 40,000 people live among Pomigliano’s narrow streets. Among those who consider it home is a man newly-minted as the most powerful figure in Italian politics.

Luigi di Maio, the fresh-faced 31-year-old leader of the insurgent Five Star Movement, was born in Avellino, a town some fifty kilometres inland from Pomigliano. Yet it was in Pomigliano, where he is affectionately known as Giggino, that di Maio began a political journey which last weekend saw Five Star grab 32% of the vote in one of the more fractious elections in memory. No party in Europe has ever won so many votes in only its second election.

It was fitting, therefore, that Giggino returned to Pomigliano to toast his success the day after the scale of Five Star’s electoral triumph became clear. ‘I felt the need to come to you and embrace you right away,’ di Maio told a crowd of supporters in Pomigliano’s main piazza, where Five Star won 65% of the vote. ‘We have made history here.’

Addio Renzi, so long Silvio

Commentators have been scrambling to make sense of the election in the days since. Speaking to EUI Times, a number of the EUI’s political scientists painted the election as a wholesale repudiation of Italy’s political establishment. Over half of those who voted stumped for so-called populist parties who, to varying degrees, vowed to shake up a status quo which many Italians feel has failed them.

‘These results tell us that there is a country of people that feel left behind,’ Fabio Bulfone, a research associate at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, told EUI Times. ‘Left behind by their own establishment, and left behind by Europe as well.’

‘You can not draw a picture of a Five Star voter,’ Fabio Bulfone (RSCAS) argues.

A decade after the onset of the eurozone crisis, Italy’s GDP is yet to return to its 2007 level. Unemployment is at 11%, and an astonishing 32% among young people. 620,000 migrants have arrived in the country in the past four years, with fingers pointed at Rome for its inability to assimilate those new arrivals into society, and also at Brussels for allegedly abandoning Italy to deal with the migrant crisis alone.

Italy’s political heavyweights are paying the price. On the left the Partito Democratico (PD), led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, suffered a chastening defeat. It mustered only 19% of the vote, the worst result in its history, and lost usually reliable voters in its central Italian heartland.

‘The shrinking of the ‘red belt’ of central Italy is the most striking aspect of this election for me,’ Bulfone said. ‘Regions like Emilia-Romagna turning to the right was unexpected. Italy’s ‘red belt’ has effectively been reduced to Tuscany.’ Renzi has announced his intention to resign, his time in the spotlight surely coming to an end.

On the right, many – especially among the international media – expected this election to be all about Silvio Berlusconi. The 81-year-old former prime minister, who is unable to hold elected office until 2019 after being convicted for fraud, was expected to act as kingmaker for a centre-right coalition dominated by Forza Italia, his party, and propped up by the (formerly Northern) League. Yet all was not as it seemed. Forza Italia were outpaced by Matteo Salvini’s League, taking 17.7% of the vote to Forza’s 14%.

‘Italians did not fall in love with Berlusconi again,’ Bulfone reasoned. ‘This time, finally, you really saw that he was an 81-year-old man. Berlusconi has also been a spectacular seller but this time he was outpaced by Salvini – who is forty years his junior, and better understood the importance of social media in getting your message across.’ Salvini, not Berlusconi, has positioned himself as the figurehead of the Italian right for the foreseeable future.

Five stars for effort

The success of Five Star and the League, combined with the capitulation of the centre-right and left, has redrawn Italy’s political landscape. ‘A new party system has consolidated,’ Lorenzo Cicchi, a research associate at the Schuman and coordinator of its European Governance and Politics Programme. ‘From the 1990s to the 2010s, centre-left and centre-right coalitions alternated in power. The 2018 election solidifies what started in 2013: a new tripolar system in which Five Star is a pivotal player.’

‘In terms of the geographical spread of the vote,’ Cicchi continued, ‘we are seeing a new north-south cleavage, with the centre-right coalition doing better in the more prosperous north, and Five Star taking almost all the single-member districts in the south.’ By this view, voters in the south were predominantly concerned with the economy, whereas northern voters were motivated by immigration.

The bigger picture may be more nuanced. While the success of Five Star in the south was comprehensive (practically every other voter stumped for di Maio), they also made remarkable gains in the north. ‘There are many regions in the north where Five Star hit 25% or 30%,’ Bulfone said. ‘It is too simplistic to say that Five Star is only the party of the south.’

Five Star’s success has solidifed a ‘new tripolar system’ in Italy, Lorenzo Cicchi (RCSAS) says.

The country-wide appeal of Five Star is underscored by the fate of Scelta Civica (SC), a party founded by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti in 2013, whose premiership was characterised by the implementation of firm austerity measures. SC won 10% of the vote in 2013, yet was effectively wiped out this time round, with half of those who voted SC five years ago plumping for Five Star in 2018.

‘One out of every two supporters of the most pro-austerity party in the last elections voted for Five Star [which counts among its manifesto pledges the introduction of a universal basic income],’ Bulfone explained. ‘This shows that you can not draw a picture of a Five Star voter.’

Populism is popular

‘It is hard to say what happens next,’ Cicchi admits. ‘Since 1948, the biggest party in a newly-elected parliament has never not been involved in the new government. Despite their previous pledges to the contrary, I doubt Five Star will be any exception.’

‘Two coalitions here seem reasonable and possible numbers-wise,’ Bulfone explained. ‘The first would be a coalition between Five Star and the League – a prospect likely to terrify Brussels. The other is a deal between Five Star and the PD.’

That last option appears to be gathering momentum, despite Renzi’s opposition. ‘We need to give our support to a government headed by Five Star, who after victory have the right to govern,’ said Michele Emiliano, the Governor of Puglia and a rival of Renzi in last year’s PD primaries. ‘And we need to exercise a controlling function on their platform – otherwise they’ll team up with the right.’

The PD however, as Bulfone points out, is packed with ‘Renzi loyalists’, who are unlikely to flout their leader’s position, while Renzi himself will stay on as party leader until a new government is formed. Likewise, he sees little reason why Salvini would want to enter a coalition with Five Star as a junior partner after the League’s strong electoral showing. ‘You don’t do a grand coalition between two winners,’ he suggests.

There is no real telling what the future holds. A clearer picture will undoubtedly emerge towards the end of March, when new parliamentary groups are formed. Until then, the old Italian political establishment sits on the outside, looking in.

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