Italy: Big win for far right Salvini in European elections

May 31, 2019
Italy's far right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini addresses a rally on May 18.

In all likelihood, the next European Parliament will still be led by a pro-European Union (EU) coalition, including the European People’s Party (PPE) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), despite both parties experiencing a drop in votes.

To form a majority the PPE and S&D will need to expand their coalition to include the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which had their best result ever, winning 107 seats.

The right-wing nationalist Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENL), raised their vote to 8%, which translates to 57 seats.

The good news is that the Greens (Greens–European Free Alliance) won more than 9% of the votes and 70 seats, which will hopefully make for a stronger voice on climate change.

The bad news is that the radical left (European United Left–Nordic Green Left, GUE/NGL) decreased its vote to 5%, winning only 38 seats.

The far right has — alarmingly — grown across the continent and this was reflected in the European results.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won more than 50% of the vote and in France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National won 23% (one percentage point higher than Macron’s En Marche movement). Alternative for Germany (AfD) surpassed 10% and in Britain, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won 33% of the vote. Austria’s far right won 17.5% of the vote and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s right-wing moderates won 34%. In Sweden and Finland, the far right won respectively 17% and 14% of the vote. Finally, in Italy, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s Lega won 34%, doubling its vote from last year’s general election.

However, in Germany the Greens made a significant advance, winning more than 20% of the vote, while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union) (29%) and the Social democrats (16%) lost votes.

The Greens have been able to provide a credible alternative to the traditional parties and to the nationalist and xenophobic agenda of the far right.

In Spain the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) and Podemos won 33% and 10% respectively, while the conservative People’s Party (PP) won 20% and the far-right Vox remained at 6%. (See Dick Nichols' coverage of the Spanish results in this issue.)

The Italian case

The European electoral victory of Lega in Italy confirms the dominance of Salvini in the current government and reflects a clear shift to the right by the Italian electorate.

In little more than a year, Salvini has been able to monopolise the political debate and to double his party’s vote.

The Five Star Movement (M5S), Italy’s other governing party, has experienced the opposite tendency: dropping from 33% in last year’s election to 17% this round.

Such a tendency can be explained through the subaltern role of the M5S towards Salvini’s far-right agenda. For example, the M5S voted in favour of parliamentary immunity for Salvini — who was under investigation for the false imprisonment of hundreds of asylum seekers onboard Italian coastguard ship Ubaldo Diciotti. The M5S also approved a very controversial and discriminatory security decree and an amnesty on tax evasion, and gave up on its environmental agenda.

Despite adopting its Citizenship Income scheme (a form of universal basic income) and an anti-corruption bill to prevent offences against the public administration, the electorate has been disappointed with the M5S’s agenda.

Changes promised by M5S have only happened in part, and the party has been gradually engulfed by Salvini’s propaganda.

In the last few weeks of the election campaign, M5S frontman and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio tried to reclaim the M5S’s political identity, attacking Salvini on immigration and dusting off anti-poverty measures.

This time, however, the most conservative and right-wing of the M5S base gave their preference to Salvini. As a result, Salvini will now be able to pressure his government allies to approve crucial points of Lega’s agenda, including a flat tax and the Turin-Lyon high-speed rail (the so-called TAV), which the M5S opposes.

Despite allegedly having good intentions, the M5S must bear historical responsibility for delivering Italy into Salvini’s and the far right’s hands.

In recent years, the M5S has indulged anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments, as well as generally anti-progressive tendencies. Despite now seeming to be aware of its strategic errors, it is too late to effectively challenge Salvini’s hegemony.

Salvini has now legitimised and adopted fascist slogans, including “God, Country, Family” — indulging and reviving alarming neo-fascist sentiments that are spreading across Europe. Tapping into “the Christian roots of Europe” and “the invasion of African immigrants”, Salvini has set himself up as the “saviour of the land”. Moreover, not a day goes by when he is not attacking culture and journalism, threatening freedom of thought and speech.

More and more frequently, people who protest Salvini’s policies are arrested and put under investigation. Meanwhile, neo-fascist groups express their criminal ideas and disturb public order, while under police protection.

The real victory for Salvini is that his vision has been indirectly endorsed by his opponents: for instance, Salvini is criticised by them because he repatriated fewer immigrants than promised, rather than for perpetrating a reactionary and inhuman political agenda.

This is a symptom of the Italian left’s focus on opposing Salvini’s strong-man leadership, but its inability to build an alternative political vision and agenda — repeating the error it made with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who remained in power for 20 years.

However, 20 years of Salvini could literally mean a return to an authoritarian regime, rooted in neo-fascist ideas such as labour exploitation, political repression, xenophobia and homophobia.

To stop this tendency, the Italian left must overcome its internal divisions, go back to the suburbs and rebuild a genuine popular movement against the illusions of contemporary nationalism.

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