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Europe’s populist surge – Italy’s move to the right

March 4th, 2018 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria

The initial exit polls indicate what many commentators have predicted for the Italian elections: The country has moved to the right. The first predictions of the election results show a decisive loss for the currently ruling Democratic Party and substantial gains for the populist Five Star Movement, most likely the largest single party, as well as Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. Yet, it seems that none of the three blocs have a majority to govern the country. With a hung parliament likely, Italy will face difficult negotiations to form a viable government.

While the shape of Italy’s future government is uncertain, the electoral campaign and projected outcome highlight how significant nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiments have become in competitive party politics. Italy is still suffering from the fallout of the 2008 financial and economic crisis. The country’s economic output is still almost 6% under pre-crisis levels, the unemployment rate sits at about 11% (over 30% for youth) and 18 million people were faced with the risk of poverty last year.

It is in this climate that in particular the nationalist League has campaigned with an aggressive ‘Italy First’ slogan blaming the ills of society on the influx of immigrants in general and over 600.000 refugees over the past four years in particular. The League’s leader Matteo Salvini has vowed to deport more than half a million refugees and migrants; this party regularly depicts immigration in terms of an uncontrollable ‘invasion’. Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia similarly embarked on an anti-immigrant rhetoric in their political mobilization: After the shooting rampage of a neo-fascist targeting African migrants in the town of Macerata, Berlusconi warned of refugees as a ‘social time bomb’. Much of the political campaign of Berlusconi’s coalition was directed at immigrants as an alleged threat to the wellbeing and security of Italians (notwithstanding the fact that crime rates have dropped considerably over the past years and that most immigrants in Italy take care of those jobs in farming or the service industry that Italians no longer want to fill).

It might still be uncertain what kind of government might be formed over the next weeks and months. Yet one thing is certain: These elections have further marginalized immigrants in Italy and provided legitimacy to intolerance. In this respect, Italy seems to follow a trend in Europe’s liberal democracies that we have witnessed unfold most recently in Austria: The centre right has partly endorsed the rhetoric of populist nationalism and its anti-immigrant agenda. In almost all of Europe, the extreme right is still not in a position to win a majority. Yet, the likelihood of becoming part of a governing coalition and of shifting the overall political climate towards an exclusionary nationalism is increasingly acute. We still need to see the final results of the elections but it could very well be the case that a coalition government includes the staunchly anti-immigrant League and the neo-fascist party of the Brothers of Italy.

Five Star Movement poised to make huge electoral gains

March 4, 2018 - by Eugenio Pazzini, M.A. University of Victoria

On the eve of the national elections, uncertainty regarding the political future of Italy is at its highest. Polls give a considerable lead to Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, Renzi’s Democratic Party seems to lose by a wide margin, while the Five Star Movement (5SM) is poised to end up being the most voted single party in the country. Surprisingly, on the 2nd of March, the 31 years old leader Luigi di Maio of the 5SM, surprised many by holding an official ceremony to present the governing team of ministers, as if they already had won the elections. This move very much reflects this movement’s political style.

Even when the comedian Beppe Grillo created the 5SM online nine years ago, no one expected it to go that far. Instead, relying on the widespread discontent fueled by an intense economic crisis, the movement gained an incredible 25 % of the Italian electorate in 2013 without even an official appearance on national televisions. The result took the world by surprise.

While the Five Star Movement’s populist, anti-establishment and often euro-skeptic rhetoric is nothing new in Europe, the ‘post-ideological’ claim to go past right and left division, its use of new technologies and of discourses of direct democracy as well as the lack of a traditional party platform are surely something unusual. The 5SM sent a number of representatives with no previous political experience to serve in the national institutions, while critiquing these institutions as being inefficient and relying on corrupt practice. Its party platform grouped together a number of diverse issues ranging from corruption, environmental issues, technological development, and some welfare reforms without, however, developing an official stand on major issues such as migration, the economy, membership with the EU and the Euro.

The alleged lack of a substantial policy agenda, the inexperience of its candidates, and a number of contradictory statements by its members regarding migration and the membership in the European Union, have made many question the movement’s ability to govern, giving way to the idea that the secret of this populist actor’s ‘success’ is to remain in the opposition. This time, however, the strategy seems to be different: Without really changing its platform, the Five Star Movement pompously announced a team of ministers, reiterating their readiness to govern.

If, as it seems, no parties reach the 40 % required to govern, forming a government will be subject to a difficult process of coalition-forming. Rumours have it that in order to avoid the dangers of an anti-Eu agenda, a potential coalition could form between the centre-left Democratic Party (DP) and the right-wing coalition of Berlusconi, somewhat considered by many as ‘centrist’ despite the strong presence of Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic League. Of course, this option ultimately depends on the number of votes and seats, but even if their best expectations are met, the coalition could be very fragile, leaving many unhappy within both the right wing coalition and DP.

The uncertain climate is what has moved Beppe Grillo and Di Maio to announce the ministerial team and their plan for forming a government. The 5SM might end up being in a position to consider alliances with the parties of the ‘establishment’ only based on the specific issues that they want to address. If the movement reaches a substantial number of votes, this strategy would leave the door open to a number of coalition-forming options as the 5SM could work with any other parties centred on their issue-based platform.

In short, while it is impossible to predict the immediate political future of a very tense Italy, the 5SM might not be done surprising us quite yet. Surely, the stakes are high but Beppe Grillo knows it. Thus, he decided to step back leaving full leadership and responsibility to Di Maio. His new role he says, is to make sure the movement stays ‘biodegradable’.

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