Instability and turmoil are nothing new in Italian politics: they are the norm. Since 1980, the post of Prime Minister has changed hands twenty-two times, and eighteen different people—all men—have occupied the office. Sunday’s general election, in which the ruling Democratic Party (P.D.) suffered heavy losses, seems certain to herald yet another change of government.
The notable thing about Sunday’s result wasn’t the lack of support for the P.D.—whose vote share fell by 6.5 percentage points compared with its showings in the 2013 general election—and the current Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni. A poor outcome for the Party, which is center-left and pro-European, had been in the cards since December, 2016. That’s when the Italian public repudiated the P.D.’s ambitious young leader, Matteo Renzi, who was then the Prime Minister, in a constitutional referendum on proposals to strengthen the central government. After that vote ruptured the Party, and prompted Renzi to resign, Gentiloni, who had been serving as the foreign minister, took over running the government. By many accounts, he did a fair job in tough circumstances, but his administration, like many before it, succumbed to a dissatisfied electorate.
The real import of Sunday’s result was that more than half the electorate voted for Euroskeptic, anti-establishment parties of the left and right. The Five Star Movement, which the comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo started during the global financial crisis of 2009, won 32.7 per cent of the vote, making it the biggest party by far in the new parliament. The avowedly nationalist and anti-immigrant League, formerly the Northern League, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, adopted the Trumpian slogan “Italians First,” got 17.4 per cent of the vote—almost matching the P.D. and handily topping Forza Italia, the center-right party founded by Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced media baron who thrice served as Italy’s Prime Minister. Further emphasizing the flight from the center, the Brothers of Italy, another anti-immigrant party, which traces its roots to the post-Mussolini Italian Social Movement, almost doubled its vote share, to 4.4 per cent.
This rejection of the established parties reflects the public’s response to the country’s economic sclerosis, E.U.-imposed austerity policies, and mass immigration. Despite a resumption of (slow) growth in the past couple of years, Italian G.D.P. is still about five per cent below its 2008 level. The unemployment rate is still above ten per cent, and about one in three youths are out of work. For many Italians, particularly young Italians, recession or semi-recession seems like a permanent condition. According to one recent poll, only about a third of Italians believe that they will be better off than their parents. (In the United States, the proportion is two-thirds.)
Given this sorry record, it isn’t entirely surprising that many Italians have lost faith in the political class and embraced the anarchic Five Star Movement, which deplores professional politicians and embraces (at least in theory) the concept of direct, Internet-enabled democracy. The grouchy, sixty-nine-year-old Grillo has stuck by his refusal to stand for elected office. Luigi Di Maio, a thirty-one-year-old former student activist, now leads the Party. A few weeks ago, he signalled an apparent willingness to form a post-election pact with Salvini, the leader of the League.
Such a scenario would bring together two Euroskeptic parties, and it is not hard to explain why so many Italians are resentful of the E.U. leadership in Brussels. The E.U. is widely held responsible for the budget cuts that successive Italian governments have imposed on the country in a futile effort to reduce debts. As elsewhere on the Continent, the results of these austerity policies have been economic slump, lower tax revenues, higher public debts, and growing disillusionment with the entire European project.
The other big factor in the election result, it seems, was anti-immigrant feeling. It is estimated that roughly three quarters of a million refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy in the past seven years. Despite the fact that the number of newcomers fell sharply last year, after Gentiloni’s government made a deal with Libyan warlords, the League and other conservative parties ruthlessly exploited popular concerns, calling for the deportation of half a million of migrants. Once an avowedly regional party that derided Southern Italians as lazy, the League used immigration as a wedge issue to broaden its appeal. Sadly, but not entirely unpredictably, the strategy worked.
So what now? On Monday, Salvini, the leader of the League, expressed his intention to form a coalition with Forza Italia: between them, the three right-wing parties got more of the vote than the Five Star Movement. “The center right is the coalition that won,” he said. “It’s the coalition that can govern.” Mathematically, a coalition between the Five Star Movement and the P.D. would be stronger, but on Monday the P.D. ruled out such an option, saying that it would go into opposition.
So Italy seems likely to get another conservative government. But this one may well be more right-wing, more nationalistic, more anti-immigrant, and less committeed to modern European norms than anything the country has seen since the Second World War. Last March, Salvini went to Moscow and signed a deal to coöperate with United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party. During a recent campaign speech, according to the Times, Salvini said, “I admire Putin as a man of state, a man of government who defends the interests of his people and his businesses, who defends his values and borders, and I esteem him for free, not for money.” The crisis of European social democracy is deepening.