Do Not Misunderstand The Significance Of The Five Star Movement's Electoral Victory

A sizeable percentage of Italians have put their weight behind ferociously divisive rhetoric
Ciro De Luca / Reuters

As predicted, Italy’s general election raised more questions than it settled. After years of caretaker governments and months of vicious campaigning, Italians went to the ballot box on Sunday to elect a new Parliament and recast the balance of forces in an increasingly fractured political system.

The biggest news is paradoxically also the least surprising – the populist, anti-establishment and post-ideological ‘Five Star Movement’ (Movimento 5 Stelle) has gained an impressive 32% of the electorate’s vote (at least in the Chamber of Deputies), up from 25% of the 2013 elections, to become the first party in the country.

The magnitude of this victory is paralleled only by the uncertainty surrounding this relatively new political formation. Luigi Di Maio’s attempts to pose as a credible Prime Minister and build a government team during the campaign were often met with incredulity and a lingering sense of artifice. Although evidently not deterring voters, this may well come to weigh on the decisions to be taken next, namely whether the Italian President will ask the Five Star Movement to form a new government, as one could reasonably expect to happen over the next few days.

Although the success of Di Maio’s formation had been largely predicted, the real shift in these elections came from the rise of the right-wing and Eurosceptic party ‘Lega Nord’. If the latest numbers are confirmed, its leader Matteo Salvini will have taken the party from a meagre 4% in the 2013 elections to an astonishing 17.4%. There can hardly be any misunderstanding regarding the significance of this outcome – a sizeable percentage of Italians have put their weight behind the ferociously divisive and openly racist rhetoric of a leader who, over the years, capitalised on popular discontent and perfected the art of appealing to the voters’ resentments while stoking their fears about migration, terrorism and the economy.

“In this profoundly altered political system, there is a gaping hole on the left. Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico has been pulverised”

Having presumably captured (some of) the vote which was expected to otherwise go to political formations further to the right, such as Forza Nuova or Casa Pound, the Lega Nord is now strong enough to significantly alter the political calculations regarding what the next government will be. They have become the first party of the centre-right coalition, to which they ostensibly belong. However, should they decide to form a coalition with the Five Star Movement, that would mean access to an absolute majority in Parliament – a rather unsettling scenario in many ways.

To complete the picture, there is one final and unmistakably good news to have come from yesterday’s vote – and one bad. The good news is the poor performance of Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘Forza Italia’, which was severely beaten by what it used to consider its junior partner in the coalition, Lega Nord. It is rather likely that this defeat will spell the end of Berlusconi’s political adventure, vindicating perhaps the bare-breasted Femen activist who this week shouted at the media tycoon: ‘Berlusconi, you’re past your sell-by date’.

The bad news, however, is that in this profoundly altered political system, there is a gaping hole on the left. Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico has been pulverised, having halved its percentage of votes since its glorious victory in the European elections only four years ago. At the same time, none of the left-wing splinter parties have managed to present a credible alternative and persuade the electorate (perhaps Renzi’s only consolation).

It is hard to say what will happen next. Given the uncertainty and ideological flexibility of some of the winning parties, all options are on the table – including a centre-right government, a coalition government by the Five Star Movement and Lega Nord, and a coalition government by the Five Star Movement and the centre-left (probably the least likely scenario). That is, unless Brussels decides to respond in its own way to Emma Bonino’s unlucky electoral slogan, and steps in once again to bring ‘stability’ and a bit ‘more Europe’ to bear on Italian politics; or, as others would say, to save Italy from itself.

Dr Elisabetta Brighi is a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Westminster

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