[ANALYSIS] Understanding Italy’s political earthquake

While one in every two Italian voters voted for two insurgent Eurosceptic parties, barely a third voted for the two mainstream parties represented in the two largest European political families; the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats.  What has led to this political earthquake?

Matteo Renzi, Silvio Berlusconi, Luigi Di Maio, Matteo Salvini
Matteo Renzi, Silvio Berlusconi, Luigi Di Maio, Matteo Salvini

For weeks opinion polls had clearly indicated that the centre-right coalition was on track to win most seats and votes but without the parliamentary majority required to form a government.

What polls had not foreseen was the shift in the balance of forces in the centre right; with the hard right taking the lead over Forza Italia – a member of the European People’s party along Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Nationalist Party in Malta.

Moreover the combined sum of the anti-immigrant Northern League (18%) and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (4%) totals 22% compared to just 15% who voted for EPP members Forza Italia (14%) and Noi con l’Italia (1%).

This result has reversed the traditional dominance of Forza Italia over its more right-wing allies. After giving legitimacy to the hard right by embracing it, the octogenarian Berlusconi has been reduced to becoming the Lega’s junior partner.

This could well be seen as a cautionary tale for moderate right-wing forces in other European countries like France who may be tempted to team up with the far right to have a chance to win. What the Italian result indicates is that the moderate centre is not automatically dominant in such coalitions especially when immigration eclipses all other issues.

Berlusconi’s gamble of proposing the moderate EU parliament president Antonio Tajani as his candidate for Prime Minister while embracing his right-wing allies has backfired. For voters may have seen through Berlusconi’s double insurance policy, that of allying himself with the far right while keeping a window open for a post-electoral deal with the centre left in case no clear winner emerged. Tajani may well have been the key to such an agreement.

Key demographic facts

  • 47% of voters in Lombardy voted for centre right
  • 48% of voters in Sicily voted for the 5-Star Movement
  • 32% of voters in Veneto voted Lega, 11% for Forza Italia
  • 5% of Sicilian voters voted Lega
  • Tuscany and Trentino are the only regions where centre left has a majority
  • 5-Star Movement dominates Italy from Abruzzo down
  • (Lazio excluded)
  • Centre right dominates Italy from Lazio to the north
  • (Tuscany and Trentino excluded)
  • 44% under 30-year-olds voted for the 5-Star Movement
  • 19% of over 64-year-olds voted for 5-Star Movement
  • At 26% PD remains strongest party among over 64-year-olds
  • 17% of PD voters in 2014 European elections defected to 5-Star Movement, 16% did not vote

But the result kills any prospect of a grand coalition of moderates in the German vein since the major casualties of the Italian election were the representatives of the two major European families: the European Popular Party and the Socialists and Democrats. They do not even have the numbers to form a government.

What distinguishes Italy from the rest of Europe is the emergence of the post ideological populist party; the 5-Star Movement which contains elements of both right-wing and left-wing populism, distinguished by its commitment for introducing a citizenship income while opposing citizenship for those born in Italy.

Twinkle-twinkle, bigger stars

While it was expected that the party would become the largest single party, by surpassing the 30% mark, the party has surpassed a symbolic threshold which turns the protest party in to a major player. The party has also won the entire first past the post seats in southern Italian regions including Sicily, Sardinia, Basilicata, and Puglia and a majority in Calabria and Campania.

This is clear indication that the lack of job prospects, corruption and stagnation in the southern regions have pushed voters to seek a radical break with the past.

Italy is now divided between a north dominated by the right and a south dominated by the 5-Star Movement.

While the centre right has won most of the north including the majority of seats in Emilia Romagna which used to be a communist stronghold, the centre left has only managed to win by a whisker in Tuscany and to win convincingly in Trentino Alto Adige thanks to its regional ally – the South Tyrolean People’s Party which forms part of the European People’s Party.

What are the President’s options?

The success of the two anti-establishment parties militates against any grand coalition between the two weakened centrist parties which command the support of only a third of Italians. But the result leaves a number of options open for the formation of the next Italian government. It is up to the President of the Republic, Sergio Matarella, to pave the way forward and find someone who can form a government. One of his first dilemmas would be whether to start by giving an exploratory mandate to Matteo Salvini as the new leader of the largest coalition in parliament or to Luigi Di Maio as the leader of the largest party in parliament. So what are Matarella’s options?

A Salvini-led minority government

Although not obliged to do so, Italian President Sergio Matarella may feel duty bound to give the leader of the center-right coalition the first chance to form a government. Since the Lega is now the largest party of the right, as agreed beforehand with Berlusconi, it falls on them to choose the coalition’s candidate for the premiership. But since the centre right lacks the numbers to form a government, it will need to find allies. Since all other MPs hail either from the Left or from the 5-Star Movement, this looks like an impossible task. One possibility would be to find common ground with the 5-Star Movement but this is unlikely for two reasons; the animosity of the 5-Star Movement towards Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia and the fact that the 5-Star Movement would only be asked to form a government if the centre right fails to do so.

A 5-Star-led minority government

If the centre right led by Salvini fails at forming a government, the President will have no choice but to ask the 5-Star Movement to form a government. One possibility is an agreement with the Democratic Party based on those areas where the parties converge. Yet this is unlikely simply because such an arrangement would be a double humiliation for the PD; having first lost the election only to end up serving as the junior partners of their populist adversaries. Still it is also clear that the 5-Star Movement has absorbed in itself a segment of left-wing voters. This suggests that convergence on some issues is not impossible. While any convergence with the 5-Star Movement was completely excluded by Matteo Renzi, his demise may lead to a change of mind in the party. Renzi’s decision to stay on as party leader until a new government is formed may be an attempt to stop an alliance with the 5-Star Movement from happening.

A Lega-5-Star Movement government

This may well be Vladimir Putin’s wet dream and the European Commission’s worst nightmare but the prospect remains very unlikely, for the simple reason that the Northern League would have to sacrifice its leadership of the centre right to become junior partners of an ideologically ambiguous party.

Yet the convergence between the anti-system parties, namely the Northern League and the 5-Star Movement, may be alluring for the more Eurosceptic and post-ideological elements in both parties.

The two parties enjoy the combined support of 50% of the Italian electorate compared to the 33% support enjoyed by the two moderate parties on the left and right.

But it is unlikely for the Lega to betray its allies simply to prop up a 5-Star government. Having achieved so much, it is unlikely for Salvini to throw away the goodwill invested in him by his centrist allies to elope with the Grillini, for the Lega owes its successful cooperation at regional and local level with more moderate forces.

Although the 5-Star Movement have allied themselves with Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the European parliament, they often vote along parties to the left of the spectrum on most issues. Yet the latent threat of such a government may give the two parties greater leverage in their dealings with the centrist parties.

A national government

One possible scenario is that of appointing a temporary government with one main task; an electoral law which includes a majority price for the coalition winning a relative majority of votes – a reform once supported by Renzi’s PD and which could make Matteo Salvini PM. But while the centre right may be eager for such a reform, the 5-Star Movement would see this as another attempt to keep them away from power. This may in turn strengthen their appeal as an anti-establishment party.

Yet another election

If no government is formed a new election would be inevitable but with the electoral system remaining the same, there is a great chance that a second election will not produce a clear winner.

What the election means for Malta

The demise of the centre left in Italy means that Muscat has been deprived of a key political ally in Europe. Matteo Renzi had even addressed a mass meeting at the granaries on the eve of Maltese general elections in 2017.

Moreover, after Salvini’s success in last Sunday’s elections, it will be more difficult for any Italian government to continue taking all migrants rescued in Malta’s search and rescue zone.

Neither will Muscat find an interlocutor like Antonio Tajani with whom he already has a good rapport. Instead Muscat will face the unknown.

The result also excludes a grand coalition in which the Maltese government may have PD interlocutors.

While an outright victory for a centre right led by Salvini may have been even more catastrophic for Malta than an election with no clear victors, Maltese diplomacy may have to start building bridges with the populist forces.

Any government with the involvement of the 5-Star Movement may take a more antagonistic approach towards the Maltese government.

The Senator of the 5-Star Movement, Mario Michele Giarruso, had asked for Joseph Muscat’s government’s resignation following the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The 5-Star Movement is also very critical of the Azeri TAP pipeline, which links the central Asian republic, Turkey and Greece to the Italian region of Puglia.

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