Why the Italian Elections Matter


When Italians came to the polls on March 4th, 2018, they rejected the establishment that had governed Italy since the end of World War 2 and voted in a wave of populist outsiders on a level equal to the election of Donald Trump. The political establishment has been swept into obscurity, while relatively new parties and political organizations have risen to power. The Italian elections will not just impact the Italian political landscape, but is indicative of all Europe.

The center-left coalition that governed Italy took a huge hit. The ruling Democratic Party, the leader of the coalition, dropped from 26% to 19% of seats in the Italian Parliament, while the populist Five Star Movement rose to 32% of the seats. The anti-immigration League saw a 400% increase in its seats, having recently changed its name from the Northern League and abandoned its old message of secession from Italy to form an independent state in the Italian Alps. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forward Italy party lost seats, but faces the prospect of being part of the government. Forward Italy and the League have formed a coalition, but are still short of a parliamentary plurality (The Guardian). The Italian left has been decimated, and commentators have begun comparing the League’s charismatic leader, Matteo Salvini, to another outspoken Northern Italian, Benito Mussolini. Salvini, who has campaigned for Donald Trump and who is in the same camp as defeated French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, may become Italy’s next Prime Minister — a scary prospect for pan-Europeans.

Though there were many issues at play during the election, the dominant one was immigration. Large numbers of migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, but many from North Africa and the Middle East, pour into southern Italy, places such as Sicily and Calabria. From there, some settle in the south, while many move into the more prosperous, industrial north. Shortly before the election, a young Italian woman was brutally murdered by three migrants, and in retaliation, a League member shot at a group of migrants, who had no connection with the murder. Both sides of the political spectrum have latched onto the story and have used a tragic event as political posturing. The left used this as an example for why Italy needs more migrants, and the right used it as an example for why Italy needs fewer, if any, migrants. What makes the immigration debate even more heated is that the Italian people have very little say in how many migrants, immigrants, and refugees their nation takes in. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) frequently pick up people in boats heading to Europe. Then, instead of dropping them off at the nearest safe ports, which are usually in Tunisia, the NGOs break international maritime law and take the migrants to Italy, with no permission from the Italian government or people (Reuters). Thus, the Italian people voted to have a say in their own government.

On domestic issues, things are much different. Most of the political parties in Italy, including the Democratic Party, the Five Star Movement, and the League, are socially liberal. The Five Star Movement, for example, is pro-choice on abortion yet anti-European Union, and can hardly be defined as left-wing or right-wing. Instead, they are typically known for simply being populists (CNN). This explains how the League and the Five Star Movement were so successful: they attracted many social liberals, while holding their anti-immigration and anti-European Union base. Unless the mainstream left-wing parties such as the Democrats manage to regain the confidence of the liberal voters, shattered by years of mismanagement, they have very little hope regaining their political relevance. Similarly, the center-right Forward Italy has also lost much of its base, which defected primarily to the League and secondarily to the Five Star Movement. Forward Italy, too, must regain their mainstream voters, if they intend to be competitive. In this election, Forward Italy is in the same boat as the League, but they will sink come the next election if they do not get their voters back.

Looking at the platforms of the League and the Five Star Movement, one might think they are socialist (or at least social democratic) parties. Both parties support a universal basic income (UBI) for Italian citizens, which is one of the guiding tenets of the political left. Italian citizens who wanted the UBI and opposed illegal immigration thus voted for those parties.

Another important factor in the elections was technology. The Five Star Movement held many of its primaries online, and its founder, former comedian Beppe Grillo, has a blog which he used to attract voters, many of them young and new to the political process. On a more sinister side, fake news is said to have played a large role in influencing the voters (The New York Times). That claim is unverified, but if it is true, it will be yet another testament to the power of technology, for better or for worse.

Furthermore, Italy has never been known for its political stability. From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, Italy was rocked by what is known as the Years of Lead, which included a former Prime Minister being assassinated and a railway station being bombed (BBC News). The communist Red Brigades, supported by the Soviet Union, and the neo-fascist Italian Vanguard fought each other and the Italian government, for control. When the Soviet Union fell, so did the Red Brigades, and stability was restored. However, it was not to be for long. Starting in 1992, the Christian Democratic Party was torn apart by the Tangentopoli (Italian for Bribesville) scandal (The New York Times). In the 1994 elections, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy group won in a landslide. Berlusconi was the leader of the Italian right-wing for every election up until those held in 2018. Ultimately, though, his felony convictions scared away voters, and the League eclipsed him.

The conservative wing of Italian politics has been taken over by the nationalist right, similar to how Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, defeating the ossified establishment. It is no surprise, then, that the League’s leader Matteo Salvini flew to Philadelphia in April 2016 and endorsed Trump (The Local). In the recent Hungarian parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán kept his job and saw his party, the nationalist Fidesz, win a supermajority (The Guardian). Orbán is an ally of Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini, and he is beloved in right-wing circles for keeping migrants out of Hungary.

In the upcoming 2018 midterm elections in the United States, nationalists, usually Republicans, are poised to win great victories. In a special election in Pennsylvania, nationalist Democrat Conor Lamb defeated establishment Republican candidate Rick Saccone (CNBC). In the Republican primary for the US Senate election in West Virginia, businessman Don Blankenship, who has referred to Mitch McConnell, the epitome of the political establishment, as “Cocaine Mitch,” has been seeing favorable polling. However, Blankenship lost the primary to State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is himself associated with Donald Trump’s brand of nationalism (The New York Times). Thus, one nationalist defeated another.

After almost three months of political jockeying, Italy finally got a new prime minister. The position fell to Giuseppe Conte, a little-known lawyer and university professor from Apulia, which forms the heel in Italy’s geographic boot. After surviving a scandal regarding his academic credentials, Conte received the mandate to form a government from President Sergio Mattarella on June 1 (BBC News).

The European political landscape is rapidly shifting to nationalism and populism, as the elections in Italy have proven. Once a bastion of progressive policies, Italy is now a nation firmly committed to its sovereignty. This is a bad sign for the left, and just as much for the establishment right. The Italian elections were a large rock thrown into Europe’s political pond. Only time will tell how far the ripples will go.















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