Free Press Journal

Europe’s populist tide sweeps Italy


Luigi Di Maio, the candidate for prime minister of Italy's populist Five Star Movement

One of the reasons for decimation of centre-left and centre-right parties  is the resentment against the EU rule from Brussels, which makes it difficult for traditional parties to secure domestic support for policies that are generated within the context of the  EU and the euro single currency.

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 and after the December 2016 referendum on far-reaching constitutional and political reforms in Italy, which former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost, the future of Italy in European Union (EU) has been a subject of serious debate in political and economic circles in Europe. Now, the results of the Italian general elections last week have added even more uncertainty and hostility to the EU project, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

The outcome of the March 4 elections in Italy is not a pure domestic matter, but a part of the wider global trend emerging in the Western world. In Europe, anti-establishment, anti-globalisation and anti-immigrant sentiment is rising and anti-establishment parties and populist   demagogues are making significant electoral gains at the cost of traditional centre-left and centre-right parties. In Italy, two nationalist, anti-Europeanist and populist parties won over 50 per cent of the votes together, while the governing centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) led by Renzi suffered a huge setback. Seen in the European context, the results are certainly not reassuring. What Europe is witnessing is gradual spread of intolerant and nationalist political parties, both numerically and geographically. Over the last two years, this has been a larger trend in Europe, which poses a major challenge to deeper integration of the EU project, which is badly battered by the Brexit vote.

Already, Poland, Hungary and other East and Central European countries have drifted towards illiberal regimes. In 2016 in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ nationalist party won 13 per cent of the votes. A year later, far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen won 21 per cent of votes in France and in Austria, the conservative-populist party OVP formed an alliance with the far-right FPO. Last October in Germany, the far-right AfD won more than 12 per cent of the votes. While Le Pen’s rise to power was blocked by Macron’s spectacular victory in Germany, after several months of negotiations, Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU are now finally close to forming a grand coalition with Martin Schulz-led Social Democratic Party. However, in Italy, options to form a stable government are very limited, if not unattainable.

Macron’s victory in French elections was seen as an important milestone for Euro-zone’s stability. Merkel’s victory in German elections signalled stability of the political centre in the country and a sign of continuity in Europe. But Italian elections results are being seen both as a bother to Brussels and a wake-up call for the EU. Italy has not only voted for illiberal chaos but the thumping victories of one party in the northern region and another in the southern part has divided the country between two populist parties that are different in many ways but are united in their fervour against the euro (EU’s single currency) and the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have entered Italy since the refugee crisis in 2015.

Since its unification in 1861, geographical distribution of seats assigned to each region virtually divides Italy into two parts: the north, which is an industrious and rich region, and the less developed south, which is afflicted by unemployment, corruption and mafia. The rivalry between the two regions has existed for long: the north sees itself deprived of its riches which are passed on to its poor rival south by the government in Rome. The far-right League (formerly the Northern League), which won 17 per cent of the votes, was born as a regional movement for the separation of the northern regions of Italy from the southern regions. To broaden its appeal, the League, led by 44-year-old Matteo Salvini, not only turned anti-immigrant and anti-refugees but formed an alliance with centre-right Forza Italia and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia. The three-party alliance got 36 per cent of the votes, which is significant but not enough to reach the 40 per cent threshold required to govern.

The bigger winner in the Italian elections, the Five Star Movement, got 32 per cent of the votes all by itself. Founded less than a decade ago, the web-based grass-roots political movement is said to be a hodgepodge of libertarians, progressives, euro-sceptics and disenchanted voices united by anger against traditional parties, institutions and the existing system of governance. It is led by 31-year-old college dropout Luigi Di Maio, who described the movement as ‘neither right-wing, nor left-wing’. Despite its leaders’ lack of political experience, the Five Star Movement has been a strong political force in southern Italy. More than the League, Five Star Movement was feared as Democratic Party’s biggest rival in the March 4 elections. The fear turned out to be true as the movement not only bagged 32 per cent of the votes but reportedly got a big chunk of the left-wing votes as well.

Anti-establishment resentment is a common factor between the League and the Five Star Movement. What’s also common to both is their anti-immigration position. But despite these similarities, they are considered to be unlikely allies to govern Italy. Both have harvested anger against migrants and resentment against status quo represented by traditional parties. The election outcome shows a need for change, which arises from years of economic stagnation. Italy is Europe’s third largest economy, but it is just not living up to its past glory. While it’s been pulled out of recession over the past five years, Italy is still plagued with anaemic growth, unemployment, corruption and a major crisis in the banking industry. Poor economic growth, rising debt, unemployment and disenchantment with falling living standards have been exploited by populist forces like the Five Star Movement and the League.

Economic woes are not unique to Italy but are a common feature across the European continent where old politics has been shattered, social democrats have paid a heavy price and centre-right parties have lost considerable support. One of the reasons for decimation of centre-left and centre-right parties is the resentment against the EU rule from Brussels, which makes it difficult for traditional parties to secure domestic support for policies generated within the context of the EU and the euro single currency. ‘Taking back control’ (from EU) was the major theme of Brexit campaign two years ago. Since then, it’s been resonating in Italy, France and other EU nations.

The writer is an independent senior journalist.