Italy: Alarming election leads to dangerous, uncertain future

March 8, 2018
Five Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo (left) and leader Luigi di Maio at a campaign rally before the elections, in Rome on March 2.

The results of Italy’s March 4 general elections paint an alarming picture. No one holds the numbers to form a new government alone and the situation is very puzzling and uncertain.

The centre-right coalition, led by Matteo Salvini’s right-wing North League, emerged as the main political force with more than 37% of the vote in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) emerged as the party with the largest single vote, winning more than 32% in both houses of parliament.

The outcome for the centre-left was disastrous: the Democratic Party (PD)-led coalition, which aimed to win the elections, only won slightly more than 22% in both houses. The PD specifically lost large numbers of votes, falling from 41% at the European elections in 2014 to a meagre 19% on March 4.

Even for Free and Equal, a progressive party founded and led by former PD members, the electoral outcome was disappointing. They barely went beyond the 3% quota needed to enter parliament.

For its part, the new radical-left movement Power to the People won only 1.2% of the votes, failing to enter parliament at its first attempt.

All up, this represents the worst defeat ever for the Italian moderate and radical left, which is now facing the biggest crisis in its history.

However, Power to the People’s result is a half-miracle. The movement was born only four months ago, had almost no visibility in the national media and ran an electoral campaign with very limited funds. With its next national assembly called for March 18, it has showed its political project has only just begun.

What comes next?

As no political party or coalition holds the numbers to form a new government, a new coalition or alliance of forces in parliament will be needed. President Sergio Mattarella has been called on to solve a very thorny issue: choosing Italy’s next prime minister.

Among the limited options, probably the most solid coalition could be formed between M5S and the North League, which is the biggest party within the centre-right coalition. Such an alliance would cover more than 50% of the seats.

Moreover, their agendas have some points in common, such as anti-immigration policies, strengthening the police and some anti-European Union stances.

Such a coalition would undoubtedly be appreciated by reactionaries and conservatives. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon said his dream was “a government alliance between the Five Star Movement and the League”.

However, the M5S and the League also have several points of disagreement. For instance, the M5S has proposed a “citizenship income” (a sort of alternative version of the Universal Basic Income) for unemployed people, while the League is more focused on nationalism and traditionalism.

Also, both the M5S’s Luigi Di Maio and the League’s Salvini have insisted that Mattarella grant them the task of forming a new government. In other words, neither Di Maio nor Salvini are willing to step aside and support a government they do not lead.

At the moment, Salvini seems to prefer focusing on consolidating his leading role within the Italian right over the risks that come with compromising with another political force.

Di Maio, however, seems quite receptive to new alliances, on the condition that his potential allies support the M5S’s agenda.

Meanwhile, PD secretary Matteo Renzi, rather than concede defeat and resign, said he would stay in charge until a new government is formed. This ensures his party will remain in opposition under any circumstances.

Renzi’s stubbornness comes across as childish, as the only reason he refuses to support the new government is it will be formed by his “sworn enemies”, namely Di Maio and Salvini. Renzi’s attitude is a serious threat to the PD, as it could strike the final blow to a party already in a deep crisis.

For all these reasons, the scenario is not well-defined, and Italians will have to wait a long time before they have a new government.

A new era?

These elections have a clear and unequivocal meaning: Italy is a nation with strong support for right-wing nationalism and xenophobia. Moreover, Italy is split, since the vast majority of northern electors voted for the centre-right, while the south voted overwhelmingly for the M5S.

This is not surprising. The northern industrialists are hoping that the next government will approve a “flat tax”, following Trump’s model, which will result in a significant tax cut for the rich.

Southern Italy, however, has one the highest unemployment rates in Europe. There, people hope the new government will create jobs, or at least make them eligible for the citizenship income.

Commenting on the results, Di Maio said: “This is the dawn of the Third Republic, where citizens will have a leading role.” It is true Italy is facing a real sea change.

The “First Republic” was born after fascism’s defeat in 1946 and the “Second Republic” came when media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi took power for the first time after a corruption scandal wiped out a great part of the then-ruling elite.

The solid defeat suffered by Berlusconi on March 4, with his party Forza Italia winning only 14% and no longer being the main party of the Italian right, confirms that this could well be a new era.

The almost complete annihilation of the centre-left is another element that explicitly points to the failure of the old political class and desire for change among Italian people.

Furthermore, the inexorable rise of populism, combined with conservatism and racism, reflects disillusionment with traditional politics. The growth in poverty and unemployment have undoubtedly facilitated right-wing populism.

Thus, if these three factors constitute proof, it must be said that Italy is entering a period of deep transformation, which will be led by a new and younger political class.

Lack of solutions

However, there is little reason to be optimistic. This new political class seems to be mostly made up of unscrupulous and unprincipled people. They prefer to indulge people’s lowest instincts rather than create better material conditions for the exploited masses.

Both Di Maio and Salvini are very good at riding the wave of popular discontent. Both M5S and the League are popular because they have fostered and captured people’s discontent, rather than proposed concrete, viable alternatives.

The perfect example is their attitude towards immigration. Salvini repeatedly says that African immigrants are criminals who are taking Italians’ jobs. Di Maio, for his part, has repeatedly attacked the NGOs who rescue immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea as “sea taxis founded by criminal organisations”.

Both M5S and the League reinforce the false perception that the cause of poverty and unemployment is immigration, rather than the actions of rich corporations and labour exploitation. This reinforces the climate of social and political hatred that has been poisoning Italy in recent months.

Under these circumstances, the “Third Republic” seems to be starting out on the wrong foot. The major political forces involved not only seem unable to prevent social hatreds and the war on the poor, but they draw new lifeblood from exactly these things.

The Italian example could help the rise of reactionaries, nationalists and right-wing populists, wiping away any remaining legacy of democracy and social justice in Europe.

The left’s future

After such a strong defeat for the centre-left, the left’s only chance of survival is to give up once and for all its hope in moderate agendas and return to radicalism.

As Power to the People leader Viola Carofalo put it: “Racism and anti-politics won these elections, and a crisis of this magnitude for the left is unprecedented in Italy.

“But Power to the People will continue to fight for social justice and the rights of the most vulnerable.”

If the left wants to return to playing a leading role in Italian politics, it must follow the example of Power to the People — and give voice and political spaces to the exploited and marginalised.

In a situation where we have huge inequality and social tensions, the left must be able to turn this into a revolutionary demand, thereby preventing the right from exploiting and worsening these phenomena.

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