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On Feb. 22, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker offered an anodyne statement about Italy’s elections: “Whatever the outcome, I am confident that we will have a government that makes sure that Italy remains a central player in Europe and in shaping its future,” he said.
But in private remarks he delivered at a think-tank in Brussels earlier the same day, Juncker took a much gloomier line. He fretted about how populist, anti-E.U. parties were likely to make gains, and he warned of the potential political chaos of a fragmented result. Europeans, he reportedly said, needed “to brace ourselves for the worst scenario, and the worst scenario could be no operational government.”
As votes were tallied in the early hours of Monday, it seemed Juncker’s worst-case scenario had arrived. About half the Italian electorate voted for populist parties once considered fringe, and a stable government is nowhere in sight.
There were two big winners: the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, founded less than a decade ago by a comedian, which won about 32 percent of the vote, and the League, a far-right, anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic party. The League likely surpassed its center-right ally, the Forza Italia party of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Meanwhile, the Five Star Movement — an anarchic faction encompassing Euroskeptics, libertarians, progressives and a strong core of disenchanted youth voters — became the single biggest party in Italy.
“In an extraordinary result, it appeared to have won nearly as many votes as the mainstream center-left and center-right parties combined,” my colleague Michael Birnbaum explained. “Italy’s complicated electoral system means that initial results could still shift slightly, but politicians of all stripes were treating the first projections as an earthquake.”
In the run-up to Italy’s elections, much of the international media fixated on the storm clouds on the horizon. Italian voters were disaffected and angry, fearful of hundreds of thousands of recently arrived migrants from the other side of the Mediterranean and fed up with a lack of opportunities, the perceived corruption of elites and the inefficacy of the ruling centrist government. The front-runners in the polls included neo-fascists, a party of unpredictable Euroskeptics and an aging former prime minister known for his infamous sex parties.
“Italian politics are famously chaotic, and prime ministers have rarely stayed in office for their full five-year mandates,” my colleagues noted. “But this year is notable for the palpable feeling that the old system is breaking down and that what is happening here could be echoed in other countries in Europe, as well.”
Some analysts framed the contest as a last-ditch battle between an advancing tide of illiberal populists and beleaguered, maligned defenders of the liberal European status quo. What would be the Italy to emerge after March 4, eminent French political scientist Dominique Moïsi asked? “Will it be one that joins with French President Emmanuel Macron in reinforcing the European project, or will it embrace the authoritarian populism now running rampant in Central Europe?” he wrote. “Whether or not they realize it, Italy’s voters are about to choose not just among political parties, but also – and more importantly – between political regimes.”
The contours of the new regime are still unclear, but an old one is certainly passing. Italian voters delivered an emphatic rejection to the preferred option of figures such as Moïsi: a loveless grand coalition between Berlusconi’s center-right faction and the Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi.
“Compromise and coalition, once the heart and soul of Continental politics, are losing their attraction,” Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote, pointing to the malaise surrounding Germany’s own, newly finalized grand coalition. “Besides, the public’s trust of everybody in government is at an all-time low — so much so that it seems better not to be in the government at all.”
A populist alliance between the Five Star Movement and the League, unthinkable just months ago, is now at least plausible. Another scenario — a coalition between the League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — could see League leader Matteo Salvini become the next prime minister. Even in politically febrile Italy, it would mark a remarkable turn of events.
In the weeks ahead, Italy’s populists and ultranationalists will have to reckon with the actual prospect of taking power. That may moderate their positions. “Italian politicians talk a better game than they actually play,” Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde wrote, pointing to the advances of Euroskeptics elsewhere. “For all the public flirting with Euroscepticism and populism, Italian governments have caused the E.U. fewer problems than France or the Netherlands, let alone the United Kingdom.”
Other European officials argue that Italy’s vast economic problems — including the largest public debt in the European Union and high youth unemployment — mean the country can’t afford prolonged political uncertainty. “I just don’t know how long the patience of financial markets will last,” a diplomat from Northern Europe told Politico EU. “In the Netherlands or in Germany [coalition] talks have lasted a long time, but they don’t have that debt.”
But problems of policy will have to wait. The key theme underlying the election was an anti-E.U, anti-immigrant backlash that echoed the angry tribalism of elections elsewhere in the West. Salvini, whose once-regional party has shifted its ire from southern Italians to foreigners, wants to carry out mass deportations while radically refashioning the Italian economy.
In an interview with the New York Times, Stephen K. Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump who is now exiled from the White House, gleefully hailed Italy’s politics as a validation of his own ultranationalist agenda. “The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump,” he said while in Italy last week, in clear support of Salvini. “Italy is the leader.”
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