Populists are the big winners in Italian elections

The only saving grace for immigrants and minorities may be that no government will come together with much ease.
Sunday 11/03/2018
Supporters of populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party wait for their leader Luigi Di Maio to arrive at a meeting in Acerra, on March 6.  (AFP)
Rightward surge. Supporters of populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party in Acerra, on March 6. (AFP)

No party or bloc came out as an outright victor in Italy’s elections but parties espousing populist rhetoric gained the most ground.

The Five Star Movement, a populist party founded in 2009 by a comedian and a web strategist, was the single largest vote-getter, winning 32% of the vote. The largest bloc, however, was the centre-right, including the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a few of his allies on the far right. That bloc won 37% of the vote.

The surprise was the success of the League, the far-right party of Matteo Salvini. Formerly known as the Northern League, Salvini’s party has been characterised by racist, anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic rhetoric throughout the campaign. Salvini’s campaign message — “Italians first” — echoed Donald Trump’s “America first” message that resonated with many white Americans in 2016.

Most polls and analysts had predicted Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party would win the most votes in the centre-right bloc with the League close behind but Salvini’s party pulled in 17.4% to Berlusconi’s 14%.

This means a couple of things. First, Berlusconi’s weak showing indicates the previously suspected prospect of a grand coalition between centre-left and centre-right is almost certainly off. It does not help that the centre-left’s leading party — the Democratic Party — had a poor showing, winning less than 20%.

Second, while Berlusconi was never going to be prime minister due to a court ban on him serving, he cannot even play kingmaker for a centre-right coalition. Should the centre-right somehow cobble together a government, Salvini would likely be prime minister.

“Matteo Salvini’s League has openly reinforced its anti-immigration stance, saying we need to stop an ‘invasion’ and put ‘Italians first’,” said Fabio Bordignon, a political science professor at Urbino University. “Fear is widespread in Italian society. More than 40% of people say that ‘strangers’ represent a threat to public order and people’s safety.”

The election results indicate that almost 50% of Italian voters supported parties espousing populist rhetoric. The Five Star Movement is a Eurosceptic party that has often provided simple answers to complex policy issues and made large promises it proved unable to keep when in office. The League, meanwhile, would be a nightmare ruling party for immigrants and people of colour.

“I really hope they don’t make it even more horrible to stay in this country,” Ibrahim, a 35-year-old Moroccan in Milan told Reuters.

Immigrants regularly complain of verbal attacks in Italy and the recent campaign was also marked by a serious racial issue in the central town of Macerata.

After the arrest of a Nigerian man suspected of killing an Italian girl, a former League candidate for local elections drove through town shooting at black people, wounding six. He draped an Italian flag over his shoulders and gave a fascist salute to a wartime statue.

Salvini and his colleagues in the centre-right used the incident to highlight Italians’ frustrations over immigration.

There have been rumours that the Five Star Movement and the League could form a coalition, although the two groups have little in common apart from wanting to promote “Made in Italy” products and berating establishment political parties. With immigration such a fiery issue, however, there is fear that a pair of reactionary parties may target society’s most vulnerable.

The Five Star Movement has flip-flopped on immigration. “The Italian ‘third pole,’ represented by the Five Star Movement, has always expressed a very ambiguous attitude regarding the migration issue,” Bordignon said. “It officially wants to revise the Dublin regulation that states migrants must stay in the country in which they first landed in Europe and have toned back any anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim policies but it’s also used dog whistles in the past that indicate where its true loyalties lie.”

Last summer, Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi, a Five Star Movement member, demanded “a halt” to immigrants arriving in Rome.

Should the Five Star Movement and the League unite, immigrants could face a serious opponent in the national government but the prospect might be moot given that the Five Star Movement has vowed not to join other parties in coalitions.

“There has been some speculation that the Five Star Movement could seek to form a radical, Eurosceptic government with the anti-immigrant League and the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia,” said Peter Ceretti, Italy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “This is ultimately unlikely, as there are vast ideological differences between these parties and it is unclear whether Five Star’s voters and its members of parliament would allow Luigi Di Maio, Five Star’s 31-year-old prime ministerial candidate, to do a deal with established parties.”

The only saving grace for immigrants and minorities in Italy may be that no government will come together with much ease. “Regardless of the majority that will govern Italy in the months to come, it will be very difficult to implement a coherent governing programme,” Bordignon said.