05/03/2018 23:07 GMT | Updated 06/03/2018 19:03 GMT

Italy's Election Is A Blow To European Unity And A Boost For The Far Right

Anti-establishment and anti-immigrant parties made serious gains, throwing the country into political uncertainty.

Italy’s election on Sunday didn’t deliver a clear victory to any single party or alliance, yet there was an unmistakable winner: the populist and far-right parties that campaigned on anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-establishment views and an avowed dislike of the European Union.

The preliminary results of the vote show a fractured political landscape with no easy path for parties to negotiate a coalition government. Both established center-right and center-left parties lost support, while the populist and ideologically amorphous Five Star Movement gained the largest single share of the vote.

The far-right League party, which vowed to carry out a rapid mass expulsion of migrants, also made huge gains and became the third-largest party. It’s the extreme nationalist party’s best result ever, and the election outcome gives it a strong hand in talks to form a government.

Remo Casilli / Reuters
Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. His Forza Italia party lost support in the election, leaving him in a weakened political position.

The Five Star Movement Takes The Lead

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, formed only in 2009, emerged as the biggest winner in the election. It drew around 32 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results, and further solidified the shocking gains it made during its first election race in 2013.

The party continued to gain popularity through feeding off widespread discontent with the political status quo, laying on populist rhetoric and moderating its controversial calls to leave the Euro currency.

Five Star bills itself as neither left nor right, but routinely criticizes the European Union and supports increasing restrictions on immigration. The party’s popularity attracted the interest of President Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, who traveled to Rome for the vote and lauded the Italians for embracing populism.

If the party does manage to form a government, it would mean that 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, who is currently head of the Five Star Movement, could become the youngest world leader.

The Left And The Right Fall Apart

Italy’s election is emblematic of political ruptures across Europe, where once-powerful parties are losing their traditional voter bases to newly empowered radical parties that posture themselves as agents of change. These rising parties have capitalized on deep frustrations toward establishment politics and the EU, while often stoking anti-Islam, anti-immigrant sentiment in their calls to embrace national identity.

Traditional left-wing parties have suffered some of the worst losses in Europe’s recent political turmoil, and Italy’s election is no different. The center-left Democratic Party performed even worse than expected, and its only shot at joining a government would be to ally with the Five Star Movement or a combination of right-wing and far-right parties ― both of which are unlikely. Its leader, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, abruptly resigned after the vote.

Equally disturbing for establishment parties is what happened on the right. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia lost its role as the biggest conservative party, as the anti-immigrant League party surged in popularity and can now claim to be the Italian right’s standard bearer. The two parties have an alliance, but the result relegates 81-year-old Berlusconi to a supporting role when days before the vote he looked set to become kingmaker of a future government.

Tony Gentile / Reuters
League leader Matteo Salvini gives a speech during a rally in Milan.

The Far Right Grows In Power

The League, led by Matteo Salvini, went from 4 percent of the vote in the last election to what preliminary results predict is around 18 percent this time around. Formerly called the Northern League and focused on the secession of northern Italy, the updated party embraced a nationalist, anti-Islam and anti-immigrant message to broaden its support. Salvini vowed to deport 150,000 migrants in his first year in office if elected, has called for proposals such as racially segregating trains, and has blamed migrants for rape, drug-dealing and spreading diseases. 

Over 600,000 migrants arrived in Italy in the past four years, many fleeing violence and human rights abuses in their countries of origin. Migrant arrivals to Italy fell drastically last year, but the issue remained at the forefront of the campaign.

During the race, a former candidate for the League went on a drive-by shooting spree targeting African immigrants. The 28-year-old man shot and wounded six people before police arrested him. The shooting took place days after a high-profile murder in the same town, in which a Nigerian man was charged with killing and dismembering a teenage girl.

Salvini condemned the shootings, but his rhetoric has further enflamed bitter tensions in Italy over immigration. White nationalist and fascist groups rallied in the streets during the lead-up to the vote, clashing with anti-fascist protesters and stirring dark memories of past decades of political violence in Italy.

Ciro De Luca / Reuters
Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio would be the world's youngest leader.

What Happens Next?

Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella will now decide who gets the first shot at forming a government. This would normally be a basic process, but this time Mattarella will have to choose carefully between Five Star and the right-wing alliance between the League and Forza Italia.

Five Star and the right-wing bloc will both need a coalition partner, and could look to each other to form the next government. The League and Five Star alone would have enough seats between them for a majority in parliament. Five Star and the Democratic Party would also be able to form a coalition.

The unique problem for the Five Star Movement is that it has always been a staunchly anti-establishment party. Although it left the door open to coalitions as the election approached, joining up with another party is something of a betrayal of its core values.

Another potential coalition would sideline the Five Star Movement and involve the Democratic Party forming a grand coalition with the right-wing bloc, but while mathematically possible it makes little ideological sense.

Finally, it’s also possible that none of the parties in Italy’s notoriously dysfunctional political system will be able to agree to form a coalition. In that case, Italy will head for new elections and potentially even more instability.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the Five Star Movement’s first election race was in 2003. In fact, it was in 2013.